Lisa Sy
  • Years in Tech


  • Current Role

    Product Designer

  • Place of Origin

    San Francisco

  • Interview Date

    March 5, 2016

I’m an artist and designer who was born and raised outside of a Los Angeles suburb (I believe the biggest Asian-American ethnoburb in the country), studied race and ethnic studies at a little liberal arts college in the east coast, and moved to the Bay Area in 2013, where I now work at Facebook.

So why don’t we start from the beginning? Tell me a bit about your early years and where you come from.

I grew up in Southern California to an ordinary household: with an older brother, my mom and my dad. I am the first person in my family to be born in America; my parents grew up in South Vietnam and immigrated to the U.S. in 1990, a year before I was born. When they recall their youth in Vietnam, they talk about their farming, their lack of modern technology such as advanced plumbing, and also the violence and political unrest they witnessed and experienced firsthand because of the Vietnam War.

And so a large group of my family — my parents and my brother, my grandparents, and other relatives flew into SFO wearing business attire. Mind you, they were dressing to the nines when they landed on American soil! They endured a 14+ flight wearing uncomfortable suits and dresses because they assumed that everybody in America wore business attire.

My family came here without a lot, like $200, so growing up, we were on the poorer end of things. However, we were a big family that supported each other. While my parents worked at the garment factory, my grandparents, uncles, and aunties watched over me and my brother.

When did you first become interested in design or creativity?

When I entered grade school, I went to Chinese school in addition to my normal elementary school. My Chinese school was an after-school program after my normal school day that doubly served as daycare while my parents were working. When I was there in the second grade, I met a teacher who was really adept at drawing Pokemons. During recess, crowds of kids would circle around him as he drew Charizards and Squirtles upon request. Watching him draw looked like magic to me. I decided that I wanted to be able to do that. Afterwards, I got really interested in drawing Pokemons as well as other things throughout grade school, and drawing became something that I really loved. I continued my love of drawing into middle school and high school.

In high school, I experienced the typical angst that all teenagers have with their parents during this age. What was really hard for me—and something I’m still figuring out today—is dealing with the language barrier between myself and my parents. Many first-generation kids grow up losing fluency of the mother tongue as they’re assimilating into American society, and I was no exception.

As a first gen college graduate, what kind of pressure did they put on you to go to college or what other kind of expectations did they have of you as immigrant parents?

This is an interesting question. I think because when I was growing up they were working so much, all they knew was that they wanted me to go to some abstracted reputable university and earn good grades, but they didn’t necessarily pressure me to go down a specific career path, like medicine, law, or business. Rather, I know now, looking back, that I had pressure myself to work hard so that they would be proud of me.

As I mentioned before, I had this really amazingly large family with a lot of support there. I had one auntie in particular who came to the U.S. when she was 16. Because she was a bit younger when she emigrated here, she got to attend an American high school, learn English, and expose herself to more opportunities for social mobility. Growing up, she would mentor me and make sure that I had the best access to the good education. Between middle school and highschool I moved school districts. The first school district was poorer-performing, and there were many disciplinary problems in the classroom. Students would come in and throw spitballs everywhere, and people would plant stink bombs. Later, I transferred into a high-performing public high school in the city that my auntie lived in; I used her address to attend that high school. All of the students were obedient and cared about their study. More impactful though, was the amount of support they had from the family to push forward and “succeed.” My school transition helped me understand how important education and your community is in shaping the outcomes in your life. By virtue of having simply gone to a school where students were listened to teachers instead of aim spitballs at them, I felt like I was better set up for success. Not only that, but I had teachers who saw promise in me and ensured I got extra attention and help in areas I fell behind in. I’ll never forget that transition because it had been so formative in helping me understand the importance of EMPOWERING others so that they can be their best self.

For college, you chose to study Race and Ethnic Studies. What prompted that?

Yeah. When I was entering to college, I was interested in Art given my past history and love of drawing. I was also interested in Sociology and understanding how people work and relate to one another. I considered double majoring in Art and Sociology, but decided to not pick art because I knew that it would be very expensive to be an Art major, what with having to purchase all of the materials. And instead of Sociology, I majored in American Studies with a concentration in Race and Ethnic Studies.

Like many people, it took me awhile to adjust to college when I was there. As a first-generation college student with little knowledge or guidance of how college works, period, I coasted in confusion in my first year. It was also weird to be at this elite liberal arts college on the East coast, far away from my family. I didn’t have any family on the East coast, so I was totally reliant on myself and my friends, but even with my friends sometimes, I felt guilt and shame over my background. I was really close with my friends, and we talked in depth about the details of our lives and upbringings. And what made me realize that I felt different, was when we talked about family upbringings and traditions. For example, I didn’t grow up reading a lot of children’s literature because that wasn’t something my parents encouraged me to do. And I didn’t grow up celebrating Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter in the ways that my friends did either. These small conversations I’d have with friends made me feel really alien.

I struggled with my courses in the first year of college. Even then, I felt uncomfortable with asking for help from my professors and T.A.s, despite all of their attempts at making themselves available during office hours (which, as I look back, is a really wonderful thing about attending a small liberal arts school). I was uncomfortable asking for help because it felt like a sign of weakness that I didn’t want to admit to. All my life, I was used to doing things on my own because I felt that that was a sign of my strength and independence. From getter my driver’s license, to leading the design of the literary arts magazine in high school, to studying for the SATs, to going through the entire process of applying for and getting into college — I felt like I had done all of those things pretty autonomously. Now, I understand the importance of asking for help and how it is not a sign of weakness, but rather, of humility and kindness to yourself.

Throughout all this, I made friends with people who were really interested in social justice and social activism. Through them, I developed the vocabulary for thinking talking about my experiences and how it fits into the bigger picture of structural privilege. Throughout this time, I developed a more critical understanding of myself as an Asian-American, and this was also the time when I began to question my sexual orientation. I chose to major in American Studies because I was appealed to its interdisciplinary, intersectional understanding of how colonialism and white patriarchy undergirds many aspects of social, cultural, and political life.

In my sophomore year of college, I recall having a hard time securing a paid summer internship with an American Studies degree. It’s hard to find a paid job with a social studies degree. I couldn’t afford to take on unpaid summer internships, so I decided to try the whole business route because I knew that was safe bet.

So, I applied for an internship for minority students to enter the business field, specifically for human resources because that was the least technical thing available. Part of this process involved doing a mock interview with a representation from the organization. I did my mock interview with someone named Jennyfer, who changed the course of my life.

During the interview for a human resources internship, I answered each of her questions with some reference to my passion for the arts. Clearly, I was not a fit for a human resources internship, and I knew that already, but I felt like I had to try this out anyway. Three minutes into the mock interview, and she stopped me and said, “I’m going to stop you right here because I can tell this is not a good fit. And I will tell you why.” She began to tell me what I knew in my heart already, and I cried.

She told me that, while there may be people in my life who pressure me to pursue something like business because it is a practical and safe choice, that I should follow my heart and do the thing I’m interested in. I bawled in front of a woman that I’d only known for no longer than ten minutes.

After that, I returned to school and thought about how I could pursue my interest in the arts, while finding some job security with that, if that were even possible. Organically, I discovered and created opportunities for myself to demonstrate my value as an artist to my peers and other campus organizations. I started learning Photoshop so that I can try graphic design, and began making simple posters, flyers, and logos for my friends’ shows and other clubs on campus. In my various part time jobs, I volunteered to make posters for them as well when they needed it. With time, I got better at graphic design, and even won a logo contest for the resident life organization and got a $100 gift card!

When I was procrastinating on my school work and had free time over the weekend, I spent it learning more about graphic design through internship tutorials and books from the library. I did a lot of this autonomously, and I reached a point where I wanted to find and establish a community of other peers who were interested in design as well. In my junior year, I created TypeClub with my friends, which was  a student-led design agency who worked with other classmates and campus organizations on their branding and publicity campaigns through the use of posters and logo identity design.

It was an empowering way for us to grow own design skills and develop our business senses in working with clients. I led our team for almost two years and developed a lot of leadership skills out of it. It was definitely a passion project of mine; rather than focus on writing a senior thesis, I managed TypeClub. We weren’t getting paid for all the work that we were doing. While doing this, I think I developed a reputation as someone on campus who did a lot of design work, and people knew to point to me when they need help in this general area.

In my last semester of college, I worked remotely with this start-up called, a textbook exchange company that was founded by a recent alum. The CEO found out about me through word-of-mouth as I was leading TypeClub, making websites for various other clubs, and developing a reputation all around that I could do design work. Working on was my first experience doing actual product design.l I had no idea what I was doing and made so many mistakes now that I look back. But that opportunity led me to my first internship at a tech company in the Bay area. And that led me to my first full-time job. And that has led me to where I am right now, which is Facebook. So it was really a luck of the draw.

That woman Jennyfer changed everything for me. She was the turning point of my career.

How do you feel like all of your background—your upbringing, your experiences in college, all of that—has affected how you approach your work and what’s important to you, and what your priorities are.

As someone striving to enter the technology industry, I had a lot of optimism for how tech can create this awesome change and impact society due to its far-reaching nature and scale. I was really excited to move to the Bay Area to start my career because that felt like the right place to be—I loved San Francisco for so many different reasons when I first visited here—the turning point was walking down Market Street and seeing queer couples hold hands in public without getting stared at.

After a few months of living here, and like many others I’ve talked to, I think that I became jaded about working in tech and living here. I had to negotiate feelings of guilt of my own privilege with working in tech. I thought critically about how my upward social mobility into a stable job also meant my complicity in a capitalistic system that disenfranchises the most vulnerable classes of society.

This understanding shaped, and has continued to shape my viewpoints, and has made me extremely picky about the type of jobs that I would go for. I think that’s why I really like working at Facebook, because even though it is this big technological company, it’s something that everybody uses and so I feel like in some ways I work for the public sector. It’s almost like this utility that so many people used for so many different reasons. I think that my various perspectives and experiences also help my work because designing products for over a billion people requires looking at problems from many perspectives.

I’m curious what it’s been like for you as someone who’s really active in the tech community but also presumably active in the art communities and queer communities in the bay.

It’s interesting because I feel that across those identities, you’d expect there to be some division. I have struggled to understand how these these different parts of my identities can interplay with one another, because I’ve felt at times that they oppose each other. However, now I see how it can be possible to blend my interest in the arts, my queerness, and my work in tech into one whole thing! Look at me!

I think when I first moved out in San Francisco, I felt like I could do pursue only one thing. If I worked in tech, I couldn’t be an artist. If I were an artist, I couldn’t be in tech. I thought about my decisions and viewpoints in terms of binary, but as I’ve matured a little bit, I’m beginning to see things more as dualities—coexistences and blending of seeming conflicting points.

Along the same journey in which I’ve developed a more expansive perspective on how to be a whole person, I’ve also gotten to be more comfortable with my queerness. When I first moved to San Francisco and started my first job, I was not out at all at my first workplace. I loved that job and everyone that I worked with, but I wasn’t my full self with them. I was single and personally not in a place to date, so I didn’t feel like there was any reason for me to talk about that aspect of my life. However, over the course of my time working there, there were small micro-aggressions here and there—automatic assumptions that I was straight, and that was what guided certain conversations—and I didn’t yet have the confidence to address them. It wasn’t that anyone demonstrated any homophobia or discomfort with queer people—there were other queer people at this company—and after a year and a half of working there, I felt like it was “too late” to start to come out, so I never did.

That’s why when I started my job at Facebook, I decided that from the beginning, I would try to be as out as a possibly can. At Facebook, we have this saying where we want everyone to be their true, authentic selves—and I truly feel like they encourage this. In the past year or so, I’ve learned how to better be my whole self—pursuing the arts, being out, working in tech, and also admitting to my privilege and channeling that guilt into productivity and healing, hopefully.

How do you think tech can do a better job of building a diverse team?

I think that we have to think about our traditional means of going after people who come from different backgrounds than we do now, in order to make tech an environment that people can not only enter into, but stay in. Earlier, we talked about the different distinctions we draw between tech, the arts, and queerness. The fact that we see these as divisions, instead of as simple differences, is one root of the problem and it’s one of perception. For example, a commonality between tech, the arts and queerness is a defiance against some pre-defined norm. That’s one way you can look at this.

This is why we have to think more broadly and inclusively about how we define our “diversity.” Yes, we definitely need to get more different types of people into this industry—and why? Because they have different perspectives that they can bring to the table.

I’m hopeful for how more industries will integrate the workflows and ethos that’s been well established in tech — I may be biased, but I think that the product design process is something that can be repeated with effectiveness in all sorts of teams and organizations.

What advice will you give to folks from similar backgrounds to you, and who have gone through similar life experiences who are hoping that they get into tech, but may feel like it’s impossible?

First of all, these people—I encourage them to understand that engineering is not the only route you have to take to get into technology—though it might be a the most well-defined path to take. There are a lot of different roles available—researchers, designers, writers, writers. If you are already following other paths, there could be opportunities for you to get into tech already, that might not be readily advertised to you.

That’s why I may encourage you to look at the job boards of companies you’re interested in, see what roles intrigue you, and see what other skills you need to develop to adapt to that particular role. For example, when I was a student, I was interested in graphic design and didn’t know what “UX design” was. But the more I scanned these job listings and gleaned the job responsibilities of a UX designer does, the better gauge I had on figuring out if I actually wanted to do it. Also, once I identified these job responsibilities, I worked backwards and developed those necessary skillsets (it was a lot of Googling things like “How to prototype in HTML?”).  

All in all, this is not to say that engineering is bad, but I feel like right now, the conversation around “diversity in tech” is to teach minorities how to code. Rather, I’d urge a more expansive approach to these initiatives, perhaps one that really empowers people to identify and use their strengths. So what I would say to these people is find ways to work with people who are interested in creating new projects or solving a problem and go through the design and development cycle that we go through in tech all the time—research, design, build, learn, and repeat. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a technological solution to a human problem. This is me speaking as a designer [chuckles]. Because I think that if you do that enough, you realize that the problems we’re trying to solve aren’t always technological problems; they’re merely problems that can be solved using technology.

Another thing I’d encourage these people to do is to use social media like Twitter and Facebook to find people whom you admire, follow them, and if you’re feeling a little bit bold (because why not), reach out and ask them what it took for them to get to where they are. When I was in college, I had a Twitter account that I used to follow a lot of designers who work in tech. Despite being in central Connecticut, I was able to tap into the bustling Bay Area tech scene from afar and stay up-to-date on trends. One day, I got a direct tweet from a designer from San Francisco that I was following. All it said was: “You’ve got more skills than a lot of professionally trained designers I run into. Keep it up!” A year later when I moved to San Francisco, I reached out to him to have coffee and learn about his career. By this time, he was working at Facebook. I wasn’t even trying to get a job; I wanted to meet him and thank him for that encouraging message… And then a year later, and somehow, we are now friends and colleagues working on the same team at Facebook. So it really goes to show that being open minded to meeting new people and to hearing their stories can go a long way, and it’s important to not have some secret agenda because I think that people can see through that.

I think that people who are not well represented in tech may also be the type of people who aren’t used to asking for help. Networking feels really intimidating. However, I think it’s possible to approach networking less as a definitive, all-or-nothing opportunity to secure a job, and more an opportunity to develop true relationships and friendships with people who can help guide you. What’s key is approaching these relationships with curiosity and open-ness. And I think that if you’re coming from a background where you may not know a lot of people who work in tech, you probably have a lot of curiosity and questions already!