Why don’t we start at the beginning? Tell me about your early years and where you come from.
I grew up in the Midwest in a town called Waterloo, Iowa. I lived there my whole life and went to undergrad at The University of Iowa for Mechanical Engineering, then moved out to California to study Systems Engineering at UC Berkeley, where I literally knew one person (hi Scott!). I was only supposed to be here for 9 months—the length of the program—but so far I’ve been here for 9 years…whoops.
Funny how that happens.
I’m curious what it was like being a first generation American in Iowa being raised by immigrant parents.
My parents both left Vietnam in the 70s and started out with almost nothing. As immigrants, they were always kind to others because they were just grateful to be here.
As a native Iowan, I will vouch for the fact that Midwesterners are very nice people.
Naturally, when you combine that Midwestern niceness with being an immigrant, you get some extra nice folks.
So interesting. You’re first generation college too. Did you parents expect you to go to college?
Both of my parents sacrificed so much for my brother and I to go to college that it seemed like a shame not to go. Their expectations were pretty strict, both in and out of school, but any struggles I had always seemed to pale in comparison to to theirs. So what if I had homework? At least I was fortunate enough to go to school.
Walk me through your time at Berkeley, and then eventually getting into tech. Did you know you would end up in tech?
Spring of 2008 was a pretty shitty time to graduate, regardless of most degrees. The economy was so bad that 1 out of 4 of people my age was unemployed, and I was one of them.
Getting a job seemed like a bit of a pipe dream, so I moved in with my aunt in San Jose. There wasn’t any Wi-Fi at the house, so I would walk a mile every day to Barnes and Noble in the mall to look for and apply to jobs. I think I ate at every single place in the food court during that time, haha.
I applied to over 250 jobs, had a couple dozen interviews, and did a bunch of odd jobs like data entry, event promotion, and tutoring to get by. At the time, my monthly budget was $600 for rent, food, and everything else.
For a year and a half, even with two engineering degrees from well-regarded universities, I didn’t receive a single job offer.
My lucky break came when my friend’s mom wanted a new brand for her law firm. Her son connected us and I started by designing her a logo. She liked my work and we enjoyed working together so much that I ended up rebranding her website as well, based on the new logo. Her site was the first I had ever designed and built. On top of that, we developed a friendship that continues to this day.
Awesome. So walk me through the experience of getting into tech. What happened after that first website was built, and how was that experience for you?
While I was working on that first website, people I met at networking events or just any casual parties would ask what I was doing, so I would say “I’m working on building a website.” A lot of people responded with “Oh that’s cool, I know someone who needs a website” or wanted one for themselves, so I got more and more clients just by word of mouth.
Through a friend, I found a job with a web consulting firm in San Francisco, but around the same time I started working for them part time, I also received a full time job offer at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.
“I applied to over 250 jobs, had a couple dozen interviews, and did a bunch of odd jobs like data entry, event promotion, and tutoring to get by. At the time, my monthly budget was $600 for rent, food, and everything else. For a year and a half, even with two engineering degrees from well-regarded universities, I didn’t receive a single job offer.”
I worked the two jobs in parallel but my heart was really in web design and development, so I decided to quit the energy research job at Lawrence Berkeley and focus on what I loved doing. I remember thinking: “Am I crazy? It took me a year and a half to find a job, and now I’m leaving after five months?” Everything turned out great though, as I eventually became partner at the consulting firm and stayed for 4 years.
During that time, we built websites for governments in Indonesia, Angola and Mongolia and worked with a bunch of city planning and transit agencies all over the US, and traveled for two months out of every year for those 4 years. I would say my experience with that was really great.
Right now, I’m a product designer at a company called Plate IQ.
The product allows restaurants to dive into how much they’re spending on purchases, sort of like what mint.com lets you do for personal finances. We let you know that last month you spent 40% of produce purchases on fancy mushrooms, or that you currently owe half a million dollars in outstanding invoices.
We also can automatically calculate costs for every dish on a menu, letting chefs and owners understand how each ingredient contributes to their bottom line.
In an industry where the margins are already so small, this kind of data is really meaningful for our customers.
Very cool. What have been the most exciting things to you about working in product design and working in tech? What is it about the work that really excites you?
I love product design because I like to build bridges between what a person expects and what technology is able to offer.
I love that I can expect zero to 2 meetings in any given day, and how I can take an idea from concept to completion in sometimes just a few days. It’s a really powerful experience being able to iterate through ideas and develop them so quickly.
Has anything in tech been on the tough side?
Being the only woman on a team can be tough, especially if there are 9 other guys or something, and then there’s you. Even small talk can be awkward if a guy says “I’m working from home today, the wife is sick” and doesn’t think about how that might make you, as a female, feel objectified. “The wife,” like, “the car”? If you have a name for your car, you should definitely have a name for your wife.
One time my friend got reported to HR by someone at work because her “hair flips were too sexy.” Sometimes, I’m just like, are you fucking kidding me?
As someone who didn’t grow up with a ton of money, what is it like seeing Silicon Valley and being in it for so long?
It’s pretty crazy sometimes. I went through a phase where I enjoyed going to all these after parties, hackathons, and conferences. Every tech event had a t-shirt but none were ever made for women, so I collected a bajillion poorly fitting men’s T-shirts in the process, haha.
Sometimes I feel like everyone is patting each other on the back about how good they are at helping startups help startups help other startups, and no one is doing anything meaningful.
That’s me being super cynical, of course. I think there are a lot of companies out here doing great work, fueled by epic rockstar developers and Red Bull. Okay, that’s me being cynical again.
But seriously, startup culture can be amazing. Who honestly wants to work in a real life Office Space? If a startup can make money and provide free meals and unlimited time off and let their employees to go Vegas and Hawaii for team building, that’s awesome.
Yeah—I remember when I first worked in tech—I called it “the underbelly”—the scene of everybody who spent all of their time partying and congratulating each other, verses the ones that weren’t at the parties because they were working on things that really meant something to them. It’s just a funny correlation to me. Another thing that resonated with me in your pre-interview was that—being raised in Iowa—you were taught to be nice, and that you had to unlearn how to be nice when you moved here, which I also went through and it was really hard.
Are you from the Midwest as well?
I’m from North Carolina where it’s like—you’re a nice Southern girl and you say “hi, how are you” to everyone in the grocery stores. And I very quickly—I’m just a cold-hearted human compared to the way that I was when I first got here. I’m curious to hear how it changed for you for that process.
Sure, I actually had a friend tell me last year that I have become more condescending since he met me 9 years ago when I first moved here from Iowa, and that absolutely sucked to hear. And I could totally see how he would feel that way, and I was glad to hear it, and I really thought about it deeply because that’s not the kind of person I want to be.
You also mentioned in your pre-interview that going to Hacker School changed your views on feminism. I’m so curious about that.
Hacker School (now called Recurse Center) was one of the most inclusive working environments I have ever had the privilege of being a part of. The three months I spent in New York really changed how I felt about feminism because I had never before been part of an organization that openly said, “Sexism is not okay here.”
On top of that, the batch of Recurse Center I went to was 40% female, and it was the first time in 6 or 7 years that I was part of anything that was more than 1-5% female. If I had a question, I could ask a guy OR a girl! If I sucked at something, it wasn’t because I was a girl.
You mentioned another thing in your pre-interview about the concept of self selection, and how you’ve seen it influence hiring of people? I’m curious to hear more of your thoughts on that.
“Culture fit” is such a big thing here. It’s hard to even coach somebody that you think is qualified for a position at a startup on how to pass the culture fit part of an interview in the Bay Area. I would have to know what the culture was like at every single startup and have intimate knowledge of every team at that particular startup to tell you how you need to act if you want to get hired there [chuckles], which is crazy.
I still can’t believe “culture fit” is a term that companies are allowed to use. It seems so obvious that that’s just a bias that is not a positive thing anymore.
Yeah, the problem with using “culture fit” to hire is how easily it can be used to push discriminating practices under the rug. When people have these huge time and budget constraints it’s easier to go with their gut feeling instead of thinking about the real reasons they’re rejecting a candidate. I’ve seen people go the easy route and hire all their friends first, and then everyone else later. “Culture fit” makes it hard to get your foot in the door if you don’t know someone or have an extraordinary ability to market yourself.
It’s complicated because I can see myself hiring people just like me. But that’s what everybody else does too. But there aren’t many like me to start off with, so that’s a problem. Because now all the non-me’s are hiring people not like me.
“The problem with using “culture fit” to hire is how easily it can be used to push discriminating practices under the rug. When people have these huge time and budget constraints it’s easier to go with their gut feeling instead of thinking about the real reasons they’re rejecting a candidate. I’ve seen people go the easy route and hire all their friends first, and then everyone else later. ‘Culture fit’ makes it hard to get your foot in the door if you don’t know someone or have an extraordinary ability to market yourself.”
It’s so complicated. You mentioned also, the importance of finding a champion at work.
I forgot I wrote all these things! I was like, “Was there all that space?” [laughs]
You wrote a lot, but it was really good. You were throwing great stuff at me.
Yes. I was asking people for advice because I was having trouble at one of my jobs, because I felt like nobody that worked with me was my champion. That person doesn’t have to be trumpeting everything you do, but they should at least be willing to listen to you.
My friend suggested that no matter how good you are at something, if someone opposes you personally, you might as well leave unless you want to play office politics. Honestly if you’re talented, there isn’t any reason you should have to put up with that kind of bullshit. And I mean the passive aggressive, leaving you out of important conversations, denying opportunities kind of bullshit.
At one point in my career, I was told “everyone is a designer these days”, as if it were some trendy thing and I was just jumping on some bandwagon. As much as I respected this person for other reasons, he wasn’t qualified to be the gatekeeper of my career.
So after a bit of thought, I quit that job, became a designer, and haven’t regretted it since.
“My friend suggested that no matter how good you are at something, if someone opposes you personally, you might as well leave unless you want to play office politics. Honestly if you’re talented, there isn’t any reason you should have to put up with that kind of bullshit. And I mean the passive aggressive, leaving you out of important conversations, denying opportunities kind of bullshit.”
And undermines all of your talents and expertise. Yes, that’s frustrating. What do you look for in a job now versus when you started, what is really important to you now?
When I started, I was looking for anything because I was unemployed. So I took any opportunity I could get, whether that was designing a simple, static 5-page website or rolling on a Segway through an ice arena promoting HP photo printers.
Now that I can afford to be picky, I look for problems I think are interesting to solve, and for people who respect me. I think being respected at work is huge and sometimes feels like a luxury, even though it shouldn’t be.
I also look for good listeners. I used to have a manager who would always say “I understand,” but as a way of cutting you off instead of letting you know that he actually understood. I know others who say the same thing, but you can tell they actually listened because they follow up with a relevant comment or question.
I’m so curious, how do you think that your background and the culmination of your life experiences affect how you approach your work?
Hmm. In the beginning I was just grateful for everything that was offered. I never negotiated for more money whenever I had a job just because I was just thankful, but later on I was chatting with a friend and he said he struggled with the same thing because he grew up poor as well. And he said he came to this realization that it’s not wrong to want to grow in order to reach your potential. Why should anyone ever feel sorry about that?
I used to say I was interested in design, and I was interested in working as a designer, but most responses to that had an undertone of, “Oh that’s cute, you’re interested in design. Too bad you’re not a real designer.”
It took me a long time to realize that I wasn’t hurting anyone by being honest instead of modest.
So now I say: “I am good at what I do. I would love to work with you.”
“In the beginning I was just grateful for everything that was offered. I never negotiated for more money whenever I had a job just because I was just thankful, but later on I was chatting with a friend and he said he struggled with the same thing because he grew up poor as well.”
My last question for you would be, what are some of the biggest lessons that you’ve learned that you would give to folks that come from similar backgrounds? What advice would you give to folks that are hoping to get into tech but may not feel like they can?
If you’re still in school, you have SO much time to figure it all out. The technologies and tools will change by the time you graduate anyway, so just focus on learning the fundamentals and building friendships and relationships.
Be genuine, be generous, and tactful. I have never regretted being nice to someone. Rather, my most difficult friendships and relationships were often because I took someone’s generosity for granted or was nasty to the other person for no good reason.
Be thoughtful about your decisions so when there comes a point where you thought you had your dream job and then 6 months in, all you want to do is quit, it’s a decision rather than a reaction. And believe me, this will happen. Startups are crazy like that.
There’s not really one single thing that you can take to heart that will grant you success in every endeavor, but I do think it’s important to ask yourself what you want to achieve. And what is worth giving up to have that?