I’m a locally grown Silicon Valley software engineer and I like yoga, travel, and reading.
I’m a locally grown Silicon Valley software engineer and I like yoga, travel, and reading.
So, tell me about your early years and where you come from.
I grew up in the Bay Area. Both my parents were computer science PhDs and software engineers. As a kid I practically grew up in my parents’ office, surrounded by computers. It might seem like I was always destined to be in Silicon Valley and to be a software engineer. But actually, back then, tech wasn’t glamourous. And I didn’t actually know what my parents were up to. I didn’t think of tech as a dream career; I just knew it was one thing that I could do because both of my parents did it. Even though I eventually ended up in tech, it wasn’t because I had set my sights on it and headed directly there.
So you didn’t always know you would be an engineer. When was kind of the moment that you first became interested in a real way?
I can’t pinpoint a specific moment.
It was always a possibility because both my parents had been engineers, but even all through college I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I started thinking I might want to do linguistics. I also considered bioengineering, because biotech seemed like it might be hot. But I took a class or two in each of those fields and decided they weren’t for me. I ended up doing an electrical engineering major, mostly because of continuous iterations of sunk cost fallacy after I took a circuits class with some frosh dorm-mates. A year into that I decided I didn’t like EE, either. I finally landed in the master’s program for computer science, but still more to prove that I could do a master’s in something technical than anything else. A friend had dared me to do it. As I went through my degree programs, I started to become more okay with the idea of doing something on the engineering side. And so when I was graduating, I looked at data science or data analyst type roles—getting closer to engineering, but still not quite there; and somewhat reluctantly I also interviewed for software engineering roles, because every company was hiring engineers and there were more opportunities there.
In the end, I was convinced to join Quora as a software engineer. At that time, the company was only four people and they really just needed engineers to help build out the product. As for my inclinations towards data science or data analysis, there just wasn’t any data yet. Adam told me to try out the engineering side and we could re-adjust later if it wasn’t working. I figured I would give it a shot. So that’s when I actually started doing software engineering. That’s also when I actually started realizing how cool software was. Of course I’d taken computer science classes, I’d done internships, etc. but it wasn’t until I was on the ground floor of a really early stage startup that I understood that we were building a product from scratch and that I realized how powerful it was to be bringing things into existence. Somehow before that I didn’t get that engineering is about building things; a bit ironic, given that I already had two degrees in engineering by that point. But finally at Quora, I got it.
What are some of the things that you are proud of over the course of your career so far?
As an engineer, I’ve found the most exciting and rewarding experiences to be in the early stages of building products and getting them off the ground. I was at Quora early, as #5. I signed on with Pinterest when there were only 8 people on the team. With both companies, I joined before it was clear at all that the products would become big, whether anyone would be interested in using them, and it’s been amazing to be a part of both those early teams building out and scaling consumer web-scale products.
Aside from that, I’ve done some work supporting and advocating for diversity in tech and though I’m just a small part of the movement, I’m proud that the last few years have seen dramatic change in the industry’s awareness of the issues and commitment to fixing them. When I first started working, I felt overwhelmingly alone and frustrated, and I didn’t know whether it was just me, if I had anyone to turn to, and just generally what was even going on. We’re far from having fixed any of our diversity issues, but they’re at least out in the open and people are starting to talk about them now.
You are known as a major catalyst in getting tech companies in Silicon Valley to acknowledge their diversity issues. When were the seeds for that planted?
Early on, when I was at Quora, I was very plugged into the startup community and in the course of being on the site itself, going to events, all of that, I got to know people at lots of different companies. Not deliberately, but just offhand, I also came to know how many female engineers were at each of these companies. I had a rough mental catalog. Not perfect, but I had some sense of what companies were up to, and it was more than anyone else had, I think.
Then there was a specific moment, when I was at the Grace Hopper conference in 2013, at a group breakfast with Sheryl Sandberg, where she made a comment to the effect of how the numbers of women in tech were dropping precipitously and we needed to take action, that I had the gut response: “How do you know what the numbers are? How does anyone know what the numbers are?” And then I was struck by the irony that in an industry that was so data-driven, where we had metrics and dashboards for everything, where we studied conversion funnels from landing page to signup to activation so fastidiously, where we ran A/B tests for every new color and UI element much less new features; we had no data on diversity.
“I was at the Grace Hopper conference in 2013, at a group breakfast with Sheryl Sandberg, where she made a comment to the effect of how the numbers of women in tech were dropping precipitously and we needed to take action, that I had the gut response: ‘How do you know what the numbers are? How does anyone know what the numbers are?’ And then I was struck by the irony that in an industry that was so data-driven, where we had metrics and dashboards for everything, where we studied conversion funnels from landing page to signup to activation so fastidiously, where we ran A/B tests for every new color and UI element much less new features; we had no data on diversity.”
When I got home to San Francisco after the conference, with all these thoughts still swirling around in my head, I sat down and wrote a Medium post. It was framed as a call to action but in truth I didn’t expect anyone to take it on. I definitely wasn’t the first person to ask for numbers. Even in the process of writing my post, I went googling and found a CNN report from a few years prior that said that investigators had reached out to a bunch of tech companies to ask their numbers and all the companies said, “No. No thank you.”
I didn’t expect anything to change after I wrote my post. It was a big (and pleasant!) surprise to me when people started sharing their numbers with me over Twitter. But then I realized that my @mentions were not a good place for this data to live, and so I set up a GitHub repository to track it. Why GitHub? It was something that a lot of engineers are used to using. And it supported tracking the metadata: who was submitting the data, what their source was, the date of submission, any other relevant context, and also the history of updates. The project was meant to be crowdsourced, so it was important that we had that metadata.
I’m up to about 250 companies now that have submitted their data. It’s mostly the smaller companies, but that’s fine, actually. What’s more important is that there was an upswell in attention on the subject and the larger companies realized too that it was important to publish their data. In May of 2014, a few months after I wrote my Medium post and started my GitHub repository, Google was the first big tech company to release a holistic diversity data report. The story I’ve heard through back channels, though I haven’t been able to validate it, is that people in Google HR got wind of what I was doing, discussed, the question made its way all the way up to Larry, and he made the call to release their data despite objections from legal. And their report was more than just women in engineering; it also had race breakdowns, and it covered tech, business, leadership, etc. After Google, most of the other major tech companies followed suit. It’s become an industry-wide movement.
I’ve been hearing women recently who work at well-known companies here and talk about wanting to leave those companies for Pinterest, because they want to work with badass ladies and that’s like becoming more and more of a priority for more and more talented people that just want to be surrounded by with other really talented people.
Yes, I’ve heard that a lot amongst my friends too. They’ll say things like, “I don’t have to put up with BS anymore.” And I’ve felt similarly myself. Even within Pinterest, where I’ve changed teams a few times, when I’ve looked around, one of my top criteria has been whether there are women that I’d want to work with. Not to say that I’d necessarily rule out opportunities on teams that didn’t have women, but at this point I really prioritize being able to work with other talented women. I’ve worked on a few teams now that had 50/50 gender balance, and I can say that the dynamic is different, and so much better, when that’s the case. That’s not to fault men on more male-dominated teams, but the dynamic really is very different.
Absolutely. How have you seen tech’s attitude towards women changed since you’ve started in the industry?
There is substantially more awareness now of unconscious bias and the ways in which women (and underrepresented minorities) can be disadvantaged, even if unintentionally. I’ve also seen a lot more allies become a part of the conversation and the solution. But it’s a slow shift. We’re trying to engineer a really big cultural change, and that takes time.
And people have lived their whole lives under certain conceptions of how things work, their certain beliefs about the world. And it’s hard to dispel those in just a short period of time.
I get surprised that these people still exist, but explain to those who are in doubt about this why having a team with diverse perspectives is beneficial to a product.
First, there’s the research that shows that diversity makes teams more creative, more diligent and thoughtful. Intuitively that makes sense. People from different backgrounds and perspectives engage in different ways, and in more diverse team settings people are forced to confront the reality that other people may perceive and think about things differently, and therefore end up working a little bit harder to justify their thoughts, their opinions, whatever they’re proposing. And the research also shows that diversity drives better business outcomes. It’s smart business.
“People would make comments about Pinterest like, “Oh, that seems like a niche market.” They thought it was niche only because they weren’t women.”
As for the tech industry specifically, we’re building products and services for everyone. The quality, relevance, and impact of these products and services can only be improved by having the people who are building them be demographically representative of the people who are using them. Here’s an example of a very obvious oversight from lack of gender diversity: Apple launched HealthKit in iOS 8 as a comprehensive health and fitness portal app to track nearly everything you could think of tracking, things like blood alcohol content, inhaler usage, sodium intake , but somehow they missed period tracking. This is the one thing that almost all women track and have tracked probably for the entirety of human history, even in the absence of any fancy quantified self devices or apps. But you know, women’s health, no big deal. To be fair, I don’t know if there were women on the HealthKit team, and maybe there were and something just went awry, but it feels like if there had been more gender balance on that team they wouldn’t have missed something so obvious.
I remember when Pinterest first launched and there was so much hoopla over how this company catered to a population outside of Silicon Valley and grew so huge and it blew people’s minds. They couldn’t believe that by catering to the world outside of Silicon Valley that they had tapped into something lucrative.
People would make comments about Pinterest like, “Oh, that seems like a niche market.” They thought it was niche only because they weren’t women.
An interesting comparison point is other major Internet properties that skew male. They’re considered neutral. Think Wikipedia. Something like 90% of their top editors are male, but the Wikipedia is regarded as very neutral source of truth. Nobody ever talks about how masculine Wikipedia is, because in our society male is the default. Only when a site has a demographic that skews female does it have to be called out as “so feminine, so female”.
Personally, how do you think your background and life experiences have affected the way that you approach your work and your perspectives around the things that you build?
To be very honest, I’ve grown up very privileged and a lot of my life experience matches that of many other people in tech. Somehow the most unusual part of my background is that I’m a woman, which doesn’t seem like it should be that unusual.
One more thing to mention, maybe: I’m very American, but I’m also the child of immigrant parents. I still have a bit of the immigrant mentality. There are a lot of things that you don’t take for granted when you are not from the country you live in—you don’t have your support systems here, you’re much more focused on survival, as opposed to assuming that things will always be fine and there’ll be people to support you. There’s a certain risk aversion that comes from that, an unwillingness to “rock the boat,” so to speak.
“There are so many other people that have worked on diversity in tech, too. There are so many people that have been a part of this crowd agitating for change. It feels unfair to me that I get the attention that I do. But if I have the stage, I’m going to try to use it.”
There’s also that feeling of being an other. I grew up never seeing any images in media of people who looked like me, whether in entertainment, politics, business… I was just talking to some friends the other day about Disney movies and which ones we like the most. My favorite has always been Mulan, but it’s hard for me to know if I like Mulan the best because she’s the only one who looks anything like me, or if I would have liked it the same with a blonde blue-eyed princess.
On that dimension of being race and being Asian, though, one interesting thing about tech is that Asians are so overrepresented. Asians aren’t a minority in tech. When people talk about people of color in tech, they don’t include Asians even though Asians are people of color.
So obviously your diversity work has kind of thrust you into the public, and you’ve become a very public face of diversity. How has that affected your life? I’m sure it’s been positive and a little scary.
It’s been surprisingly positive.
I do find the attention a little strange because I don’t think my story is that special or that I’ve done that much. There are so many other people that have worked on diversity in tech, too. There are so many people that have been a part of this crowd agitating for change. It feels unfair to me that I get the attention that I do. But if I have the stage, I’m going to try to use it.
On the negative side—I’ve been pretty lucky to not have had any serious incidents of stalking or harassment, only a couple of cases. I don’t think they’re that bad, although I’ve had people tell me, “It’s not normal to have stalkers at all. The fact that you’ve had to go to the police before is not normal.” But it hasn’t been that bad.
Wow. It’s funny that we feel that it’s totally normal, because we have perspective from these other women in the industry who have gone through things a thousand times worse.
Oh, yeah. It’s like, “Oh, I’ve only had, like, two stalkers.”
Oh, man. Back to what you were just talking about earlier—you’ve written about being Asian in tech, and how sometimes the Asian population can be put in a bit of an awkward place in discussions around racism and discrimination. I’d love to hear more on that.
The topic has been wearing on me a bit as I’ve heard so much talk about issues of race and racial diversity in tech, people insisting that we need more people of color in tech—but Asians are so conveniently left out. There are plenty of Asians in tech, and we are people of color. Somehow in the tech context, though, we don’t count. It’s only Blacks or Latin@s. That’s such a strange oversight to me. Sure, Asians are overrepresented in tech, and yes, we complicate the conversation. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be a part of the conversation.
“I’ve been pretty lucky to not have had any serious incidents of stalking or harassment, only a couple of cases. I don’t think they’re that bad, although I’ve had people tell me, ‘It’s not normal to have stalkers at all. The fact that you’ve had to go to the police before is not normal.'”
If we back out to a larger conversation of Asians in America, perhaps the first thing to talk about is the model minority myth. We’re expected to be hardworking and good at science and nerdy things. In theory this sets us up for success in tech. But this model minority myth is dangerous. It was originally constructed as a tool of anti-Black racism in response to the civil rights movements of the 60s, setting apart Asians as a community of color that has succeeded due to our work ethic and good character (and thus implicating Blacks as responsible for their own inability to pull themselves out of poverty and crime). It cleaves apart communities of color in a way that props up white dominance and supremacy. And it’s also not actually that great for Asians. Part of the stereotype of Asians is that we’re good rank-and-file employees but not good leaders, and that’s borne out in the numbers. We’re overrepresented in the lower ranks and underrepresented in executive roles; there’s definitely a bamboo ceiling. And if we go back to intersectionality, the expectations on Asian women are even more constraining than those on Asian men.
As you can tell, I’m kind of all over the place on this subject as I’m still trying to feel out the relevant themes in the conversation.
I think that most people don’t even know the complexities whatsoever. I didn’t know the term “bamboo ceiling” until I did this project and saw the term in my submissions.
It’s also really important that Asians get involved in the conversations around having more Black and Latin@ people in tech instead of being complicit in racism against them.
Kind of in the same realm, do people make assumptions about you based on what you look like—being race, gender, fashion, demeanor?
Yeah. It was much more so the case earlier in my career. Maybe partly because I was younger and not as far along in my career and fewer people knew who I was.
I had the experience once of going to a conference (PyCon) and people not taking me seriously when I was wearing a dress and looked feminine—they assumed I worked in recruiting—but then engaging me in technical conversation when I showed up the next day in a t-shirt and jeans. Another time I went to a woman’s meetup and when I mentioned to someone I had worked at Quora and was then at Pinterest, her first response to that bit of information was to ask, “Are you the community manager?” Not to say that there’s anything wrong with recruiting or community management, but it’s frustrating for those of us in engineering to be always assumed to not be in engineering.
Each of these experiences isn’t so significant in of itself, but repeated over and over it’s that feeling of death by a thousand papercuts.
Yeah, I get it. Even in photography, I have people assume that I’m not the photographer.
That’s so frustrating.
Have you had mentors or people that you’ve looked up to for inspiration?
I don’t have mentors in the classical sense of the word, although there are people that I’ve found resonance with, in specific aspects of their identity and success. The closest I’ve had to a mentor is probably my mom: She was a software engineer, and so she just was an example of what I could become. And that was very powerful.
A few years ago people used to ask me this question a lot. “Do you have any mentors?” And it was usually a binary choice. “Sheryl or Marissa?” I never really identified with either of them very much. Sheryl’s not technical. Marissa was technical but never worked as an engineer either. And she has made statements to the effect of, “I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist,” and denied the role of gender in the modern world, which is very baffling to me.
One person that I really admire is Megan Smith. Not a mentor, but definitely someone I look to for inspiration. She’s a badass MIT-trained engineer and has held a number of important leadership roles; she’s very motivated by impact and has done a lot of great work with Google and now in the government. And she’s very compelling in calling people to action in a way that conveys urgency but not shame.
What are your biggest motivators?
My biggest motivation is a sense of moral responsibility in taking advantage of all the privilege and advantages I’ve had to make the world a better place. I know that’s very vague and not prescriptive at all, but I’m trying to turn that motivation into something real.
I was lucky to be born in America and to grow up here in the Bay Area, in a middle class family, with parents that valued education and let me focus on my education and not worry about anything else. I was lucky again in being able to attend Stanford and to have all the compounding privileges from that. Good internships, good career opportunities, the right networks. I didn’t deserve all of what I’ve been given but it’s not like I can give it back. All I can do is try to pay it forward.
Similarly, I feel like you do a lot to give back to the community, and when did that become particularly important to you?
It became most important to me after I’d had a series of not-great experiences, felt very alone and unsupported, and didn’t know where to turn. I was seriously considering quitting tech. And that’s despite the fact that I love software engineering. I love coding. I love building things. The job is a great match for my skill set, and there’s a lot of market demand for software engineers. Even so, I was really close to leaving. And I imagine there are a lot of others—actually, I know that there are a lot of others—who’ve had the same sort of frustrating experiences that I had. I just want to help make it so fewer people have to go through that.
How do you feel about the state of tech in 2016?
In terms of diversity in tech, we still have a long way to go. We’re trying to make that difficult transition from awareness of issues to commitment to action. Commitment is more than a blog post saying, “We care about diversity and here are our numbers.” But it’s hard to make diversity a priority because it’s a long-term strategy. It’s not something the companies see the benefits of immediately. Teams don’t suddenly more innovative as soon as a woman or black person is added to the mix. So in the face of short-term prioritization, companies are often unwilling to commit to diversity.
Where do you see yourself in five or ten years? Do you think you’ll still be here?
I hope so! I don’t know exactly what I’ll be doing, but I hope that I’ll be using the power of software to help alleviate issues of social injustice. Again, very non-prescriptive. But I think there’s a lot of opportunity to apply tech to these problems that haven’t traditionally been the focus of the tech industry.
There’s that criticism of Silicon Valley startups, that they’re focused solving one problem: “What is my mother no longer doing for me?” And they’re getting so much funding and attention! Some of the criticism is fair, I think.
Yeah. There are many many many people in the industry—a lot of which I’m interviewing for this—that know the potential that tech can make on real, significant problems outside of Silicon Valley.
We definitely are starting to see more of those companies. They’re not as flashy, not as sexy, but so important. Just for a few examples: There’s Honor, which is helping to provide elder care. And I was just talking to someone last weekend whose company is using data science to map out gas leaks from pipelines and to provide that information back to drilling companies. They’re addressing the problem of climate change through data science.
“Commitment is more than a blog post saying, ‘We care about diversity and here are our numbers.’ But it’s hard to make diversity a priority because it’s a long-term strategy. It’s not something the companies see the benefits of immediately. Teams don’t suddenly more innovative as soon as a woman or black person is added to the mix. So in the face of short-term prioritization, companies are often unwilling to commit to diversity.”
I feel like, keeping talent in tech is just as hard as recruiting it in the first place. So what do you think tech can do currently to prevent folks from leaving?
This is a hard problem since it’s not that there’s just one thing that’s wrong. It’s a whole culture that’s broken, we have to change the culture, and culture change is hard. Recently I’ve been trying to read up on different social movements, like the civil rights movement, to understand how those have played out and where they’ve seen success and failure. But even for the Black community, after decades of civil rights activism, there’s so much left to do. Just take a look at our system of mass incarceration that is essentially systemic racism.
But to get back to the specific question of tech, what companies can do to start addressing retention issues—going back to the metrics—is to measure everything and to understand where the problems lie. Google, for example, measures everything and they have a whole people analytics team that’s looking at this kind of data. They saw that there was an attrition problem with new moms and introduced a more generous maternity leave policy. When they did that, attrition dropped by 50 percent. The data is clearly going to be very useful in informing policy decisions within companies.
And lastly, what advice would you give to folks who may be able to relate to you in some ways that are hoping to get into tech?
The tech industry may be simultaneously easier and harder than you might expect to get into. On the one hand, something like software engineering is really just a trade skill, something you can pick up if you are interested and put in the time. On the other hand, the culture and values and processes that define the industry right now aren’t always very conducive to inclusivity and it can be difficult to navigate. But being in tech is about building the future of the world we live in, and it’s worth it.
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