System malfunction

A well-respected figure in tech recently asked me if I might like to co-author a piece with him on the subject of diversity. As we sat down to brainstorm, he joked, as an almost apologetic preface: “Just to be clear, I haven’t sexually harassed anyone, so I’m not doing this to cover up for anything.” The possibility hadn’t been on my mind, but as soon as he named it, I was saddened by how plausible it could be.

Time named its 2017 Person of the Year to be ‘The Silence Breakers’: the brave women and men who spoke up and unleashed that wave of reckoning. They were not the first to speak, but theirs were the voices that resonated and were able to break through, which is as much a statement about them as it is about the world that would finally hear them.

In the tech industry, the first big harassment story of 2017 was that of Susan Fowler, the former Uber engineer. Her self-penned account of her very “strange” year at Uber was measured and effective, her anecdotes specific and salacious, documenting systemic harassment and discrimination at the company. A few months later, in June 2017, six women went on record with The Information to name Justin Caldbeck, an investor at Binary Capital, for sexual harassment. Shortly after that, the New York Times went on to name several more prominent investors, including Dave McClure of 500 Startups, for their misconduct. There were ramifications: Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick was forced to step down, and Caldbeck and McClure as well, from the firms they had helped to start. All of this presaged the #MeToo stories and fallout soon to come in Hollywood, media and politics.

And yet, almost a year later, and on the other side of the Harvey Weinstein reports, which broke in October, it feels like the force of that reckoning in tech has already abated. #MeToo in tech is not a trending hashtag. In the tech world, today, in 2018, despite everything, conferences are still hosting events at strip clubs, known offenders are still going on speaking tours, and people who’ve been fired for sexual harassment simply pop up elsewhere to pick up new plum appointments.

The worst behaved in tech have largely come from the ranks of investing, the venture capitalists (VCs). They control access to capital. Some companies manage to get off the ground without the infusions of cash that VCs provide, but most need that money to even have a shot at trying to achieve their start-up dreams. The percentage of female investors at top venture firms currently stands at no more than eight per cent. A female founder trying to secure funding for her company has no choice but to pitch many male VCs, and in most cases the founder is vulnerable. Furthermore, the legal protections that are theoretically if not practically helpful within companies, among co-workers in the same corporate environment, do not exist at all in the hazy grey area of founder/potential investor relations. For all of that, female founders only get two per cent of all venture money. (Editor’s note: Since this piece went to print, Tracy helped to launch a project called #MovingForward, which encourages VC firms to codify and publish their inclusion and anti-harassment policies for external parties, alongside points of contact, so there is both guidance and recourse for founders.)

The follow-on effects for the rest of the tech industry are clear: men keep their stranglehold on leadership in the small tech start-ups of today, out of which come the big tech corporations of tomorrow. These men continue to hire and promote their mostly male friends, not necessarily nefariously or even consciously biased, but often simply out of convenience and comfort.

Just as male-written, -directed and -produced Hollywood means an untold loss of storytelling from women, male-designed, -engineered and -funded Silicon Valley misses out on critical ideas and perspectives even as it seeks to craft the future of the world we live in. To study the example of one hot-button subject of late, the role of tech platforms in proliferating hate and harassment: women were the proverbial canary in the coal mine for this, yet our experiences of being harassed, trolled, stalked and doxxed hardly informed better tools for managing public discourse and protecting individuals from abuse. There are belated efforts underway now, but being able to say “I told you so” is scarce comfort.

Some companies, undervalued and dismissed because they are built by and/or sell to women, struggle at the start yet manage to break through anyway: Pinterest, the visual-bookmarking site, and Stitch Fix, the personal shopping service, are good examples in recent history. But so many others are lost in that early struggle. Take the case of Naya Health, which makes a smart breast pump that is Food and Drug Administration-approved, loved by mums, and yet can’t win over the Silicon Valley gatekeepers of capital. The founders, a husband and wife team, has had to turn to crowdfunding and validation via Kickstarter instead.

In the era of #MeToo, why has it been so hard for change to come to the tech industry, an industry that itself wants to change the world? Far more dangerous and insidious than a few bad men are the systems and power structures that have enabled them. At its most fundamental, sexual harassment is not about sex, it is about power and being able to abuse it. In business, it is economic and financial power and the ability to make deals, projects, or even companies and careers, that men are abusing.

The #MeToo movement fights back with the power of public accountability, but it isn’t always there, and it isn’t always enough. In Hollywood, media and politics, the spectacle of celebrities and public figures sharing or figuring in #MeToo stories has been an incredible media draw. The testimony of women like Salma Hayek, Lupita Nyong’o and Uma Thurman, speaking to Harvey Weinstein’s monstrosity, has been some of the most devastating. For most people seeing actors, newscasters and elected officials being implicated in #MeToo accusations is far more arresting a sight than tech insider takedowns. At the same time, accusations and consequences do not unfold independently of the press coverage and public attention. Where legal recourse has repeatedly been unsuccessful, in some cases the court of public opinion can demand accountability – as long as the public cares to have an opinion.

In tech, we will have to go about fixing our broken operating systems in our own slow, boring and not particularly newsworthy ways. For those who are not activists or diversity practitioners, the litany of recommended changes is a list more likely to inspire eye glaze: more inclusive recruiting; fairer, more calibrated hiring and promotion processes; more evidence-based decision-making, less of the kind based on gut feel and pattern matching; more work schedule flexibility; more supportive family/caretaker leave policies and benefits; third-party ombuds programs and other non-conflicted reporting and accountability mechanisms; etc, etc.

The list doesn’t make for much of a hashtag – but hopefully it makes for lasting change.

This story originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Vogue Australia.

Kia ora

I just got home to NYC from a beautiful, heart- and mind-expanding 10 days in Aotearoa New Zealand as part of the Edmund Hillary Fellowship. Our cohort was 39 Fellows from 18 different countries and I loved hearing about all of their work and world perspectives: everything from cleaning plastic out of the oceans and making gourmet food out of insects, to using digital biomarkers for better clinical trials and decentralizing markets with blockchain. The idea of “country as a platform” is intriguing, progressive, and hopefully one that works! The world could certainly use some strong leadership around sustainable development and many other global issues.

On a cultural note: It is really remarkable how much New Zealand is working to elevate the Maori people and make reparations for the past (though there is absolutely still much work to be done — e.g., median European net wealth is 5x Maori net wealth).

Also: Proud to claim first EHF Cohort 2 collaboration (facilitated by EHF, not pre-existing) with fellow Fellow Andy Coravos! We originally met via a Facebook group last fall but were inspired to work together on #MovingForward after we saw the Cohort 2 list published and found each other on the list.

Sand graffiti tagging “EHF Cohort 2” on a Waiheke beach.
We stayed in a bell tent village on a farm in Aroha Valley, about 30 minutes outside Wellington.
Adjacent to our camping grounds. No filter for those cloud-streaked blue skies and brilliant green fields.
This is a cow that my tentmate and I befriended on a morning run.
Welcome Week closing reflections.

2017 Reading list

Books I read in 2017, with stars next to the ones I particularly appreciated. I clocked in at exactly 52 books completed, amazingly. I started but did not complete a large handful of books this year, mainly of the political variety (because, 2017), which were insightful and interesting but hard to finish. Cheers to another year of enriching reads.

The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls 🌟
Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed 🌟
Eat & Run, Scott Jurek
The Association of Small Bombs, Karan Mahajan
I Am Malala, Malala Yousafzai
Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil 🌟
A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles 🌟
The Refugees, Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Sellout, Paul Beatty
Gang Leader for a Day, Sudhir Venkatesh
The Dark Forest, Cixin Liu 🌟
Born a Crime, Trevor Noah 🌟
Who: The A Method for Hiring, Geoff Smart and Randy Street
Radical Focus, Christina Wodtke
Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun, Paul M. Barrett
White Teeth, Zadie Smith
Option B, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant
The Vegetarian, Han Kang
The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
The Leavers, Lisa Ko
Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein
Nonviolent Communication, Marshall B. Rosenberg
Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie
Digital Gold, Nathaniel Popper 🌟
The Art of Invisibility, Kevin D. Mitnick
In Defense of a Liberal Education, Fareed Zakaria
Shoe Dog, Phil Knight
Dubliners, James Joyce
Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton
Disgrace, J. M. Coetzee
Homegoing, Yaa Gyazi
A Writer’s Guide to Harry Potter, S.P. Sipal
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, Frans de Waal 🌟
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari 🌟
Giant of the Senate, Al Franken
Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, Mark Manson
Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang 🌟
My Absolute Darling, Gabriel Tallent
Reset, Ellen Pao 🌟
Sourdough, Robin Sloan
Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel
The Fifth Season, N. K. Jemisin 🌟
The Obelisk Gate, N. K. Jemisin
The Stone Sky, N. K. Jemisin
Rich People Problems, Kevin Kwan
What Happened, Hillary Clinton
The Good Immigrant, Nikesh Shukla
Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk
An Everlasting Meal, Tamar Adler 🌟
Political Order and Political Decay, Francis Fukuyama 🌟
Call Me By Your Name, André Aciman 🌟

A fine balancing act between being a software engineer, and talking about being a software engineer

If someone asks me what I do, my first and immediate response is always: “I’m a software engineer!” Sometimes I leave it at that, and other times, people don’t seem quite satisfied with that answer, so I add, “I also do some work around diversity and inclusion in tech.”

I never intended to be what some would call an activist, an agitator for change. Quite the opposite: I grew up with the very stereotypical Asian American immigrant attitude of never wanting to “rock the boat.” In fact, I had heard countless stories from my mother about her own disappointing and frustrating experiences in engineering school and in the tech industry, long before I had my own, but I shared her feeling of quiet resignation and preference to focus on work.

I only started writing about and giving voice to these concerns about being female in engineering as an unexpected addition to my first job. My first job out of school was at a small startup called Quora, and we were building a community-based question-and-answer site. To bootstrap content on the site, all of us early employees also tried to contribute as many questions and answers as we could. Among an initial user base of high profile tech founders, investors, and leaders that also happened to be overwhelmingly male, I found a comfortable niche in writing about my experiences as a woman in the industry.

But even as the topic of diversity in tech started to heat up, and my own engagement with it as well, I didn’t want to become that person  —  the one who is always talking about gender. I was an engineer! I wanted to talk about engineering. And even more than that, I wanted to do engineering work.

I tried to reconcile these tensions by setting a few ground rules for myself. First, and most importantly, I would treat diversity and inclusion work as “extracurricular,” to be done after-hours. To be sure, it was still a substantial commitment. I tried to take most meeting requests, and I made particular efforts to talk to any female engineer who reached out, especially because I had remembered wishing I had a female mentor early on in my career and wanted to pay it forward.

There was also a steady and growing stream of invitations to speak about diversity on panels, at conferences, and to press; I saw these as more broadly reaching versions of those 1:1 conversations. But I had another rule for myself there: to split my speaking engagements 50/50 between diversity and technical topics. At least, that was the goal. In practice, it was impossible to simultaneously achieve all these objectives and constraints. It still is.

As much as my primary self-identification is that of a software engineer, what most people know me for is being a spokesperson and advocate for diversity and inclusion in tech. The opportunities I get to speak, and to be heard, reflect that. And yet to be true to myself, and to do the kind of work I find most fulfilling, I want to be designing and building technology products. Of course, these two lines of work aren’t mutually exclusive, and I find my advocacy to be more effective and strengthened by staying technical and continuing to do technical work, but it is certainly a constant balancing act. It is also one that I’m grateful to have. I am lucky to love my work as an engineer and to be able to help more people like and unlike me to have the opportunity to do similar work.

This post originally appeared on Bustle.

A reformed techie (me) considers the value of a fuzzy education

In 2005, the late writer David Foster Wallace delivered a now-famous commencement address. It starts with the story of the fish in water, who spend their lives not even knowing what water is. They are naively unaware of the ocean that permits their existence, and the currents that carry them.

The most important education we can receive, Wallace goes on to explain, “isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.” He talks about finding appreciation for the richness of humanity and society. But it is the core concept of meta-cognition, of examining and editing what it is that we choose to contemplate, that has fixated me as someone who works in the tech industry.

As much as code and computation and data can feel as if they are mechanistically neutral, they are not. Technology products and services are built by humans who build their biases and flawed thinking right into those products and services—which in turn shapes human behavior and society, sometimes to a frightening degree. It’s arguable, for example, that online media’s reliance on clickbait journalism, and Facebook’s role in spreading “fake news” or otherwise sensationalized stories influenced the results of the 2016 US presidential election. This criticism is far from outward-facing; it comes from a place of self-reflection.

I studied engineering at Stanford University, and at the time I thought that was all I needed to study. I focused on problem-solving in the technical domain, and learned to see the world through the lens of equations, axioms, and lines of code. I found beauty and elegance in well-formulated optimization problems, tidy mathematical proofs, clever time- and space-efficient algorithms. Humanities classes, by contrast, I felt to be dreary, overwrought exercises in finding meaning where there was none. I dutifully completed my general education requirements in ethical reasoning and global community. But I was dismissive of the idea that there was any real value to be gleaned from the coursework.

Upon graduation, I went off to work as a software engineer at a small startup, Quora, then composed of only four people. Partly as a function of it being my first full-time job, and partly because the company and our product—a question and answer site—was so nascent, I found myself for the first time deeply considering what it was that I was working on, and to what end, and why.

As my teammates and I were building Quora, we were also simultaneously defining what it should be, whom it would serve, and what behaviors we wanted to incentivize amongst our users. I was no longer operating in a world circumscribed by lesson plans, problem sets and programming assignments, and intended course outcomes. I also wasn’t coding to specs, because there were no specs. As my teammates and I were building the product, we were also simultaneously defining what it should be, whom it would serve, what behaviors we wanted to incentivize amongst our users, what kind of community it would become, and what kind of value we hoped to create in the world.

I still loved immersing myself in code and falling into a state of flow—those hours-long intensive coding sessions where I could put everything else aside and focus solely on the engineering tasks at hand. But I also came to realize that such disengagement from reality and societal context could only be temporary.

The first feature I built when I worked at Quora was the block button. Even when the community numbered only in the thousands, there were already people who seemed to delight in being obnoxious and offensive. I was eager to work on the feature because I personally felt antagonized and abused on the site (gender isn’t an unlikely reason as to why). As such, I had an immediate desire to make use of a blocking function. But if I hadn’t had that personal perspective, it’s possible that the Quora team wouldn’t have prioritized building a block button so early in its existence.

Our thinking around anti-harassment design also intersected a great deal with our thinking on free speech and moderation. We pondered the philosophical question—also very relevant to our product—of whether people were by default good or bad. If people were mostly good, then we would design the product around the idea that we could trust users, with controls for rolling back the actions of bad actors in the exceptional cases. If they were by default bad, it would be better to put all user contributions and edits through approvals queues for moderator review.

 We pondered the philosophical question—also very relevant to our product—of whether people were by default good or bad. We debated the implications for open discourse: If we trusted users by default, and then we had an influx of “low quality” users (and how appropriate was it, even, to be labeling users in such a way?), what kind of deteriorative effect might that have on the community? But if we didn’t trust Quora members, and instead always gave preference to existing users that were known to be “high quality,” would we end up with an opinionated, ossified, old-guard, niche community that rejected newcomers and new thoughts?

In the end, we chose to bias ourselves toward an open and free platform, believing not only in people but also in positive community norms and our ability to shape those through engineering and design. Perhaps, and probably, that was the right call. But we’ve also seen how the same bias in the design of another, pithier public platform has empowered and elevated abusers, harassers, and trolls to levels of national and international concern.

At Quora, and later at Pinterest, I also worked on the algorithms powering their respective homefeeds: the streams of content presented to users upon initial login, the default views we pushed to users. It seems simple enough to want to show users “good” content when they open up an app. But what makes for good content? Is the goal to help users to discover new ideas and expand their intellectual and creative horizons? To show them exactly the sort of content that they know they already like? Or, most easily measurable, to show them the content they’re most likely to click on and share, and that will make them spend the most time on the service?

Ruefully—and with some embarrassment at my younger self’s condescending attitude toward the humanities—I now wish that I had strived for a proper liberal arts education. That I’d learned how to think critically about the world we live in and how to engage with it. That I’d absorbed lessons about how to identify and interrogate privilege, power structures, structural inequality, and injustice. That I’d had opportunities to debate my peers and develop informed opinions on philosophy and morality. And even more than all of that, I wish I’d even realized that these were worthwhile thoughts to fill my mind with—that all of my engineering work would be contextualized by such subjects.

It worries me that so many of the builders of technology today are people like me, people who haven’t spent anywhere near enough time thinking about these larger questions of what it is that we are building, and what the implications are for the world.

But it is never too late to be curious. Each of us can choose to learn, to read, to talk to people, to travel, and to engage intellectually and ethically. I hope that we all do so—so that we can come to acknowledge the full complexity and wonder of the world we live in, and be thoughtful in designing the future of it.

This post originally appeared on Quartz

Outdoor running

One of the things I miss most about San Francisco is its perpetually perfect outdoor running weather: all year round, consistently just a tad bit grayer, windier, and colder than you’d like it to be if you weren’t ambulating in an expedited fashion, but precisely right if so. The downside of seasons in New York City is that some seasons are decidedly unfriendly to outdoor running. Now that it’s springtime it’s been fun to rediscover the joy of exploring different run paths. Bonus: recent travel has taken me to such fun new places to explore!


New York City