Episode 37 – Jennifer Erin Wong

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Software Engineer at Eventbrite

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What made you decide to work in tech?

After several years of working as a structural engineer, I started to feel bored and unchallenged by the slow pace of construction projects. A project I might be working on would typically not finish for several years and most of my projects required the same types of calculations over and over. I wanted to work in an industry that was faster paced with more innovative technology and decided that that was the “tech” industry.

What was an obstacle you faced and how did you overcome that obstacle?

I’m a self-taught software engineer. To transition into the tech industry, I started working in customer support. Even though I’m an extrovert, it’s extremely challenging to be an outward-facing “frontline” employee for a company. While I was working a full-time customer support job, I spent nights and weekends learning to code, going to hack nights and hackathons, and working on my own side projects.

This was about a year in the making, from first learning HTML and CSS to starting my first developer job. I’m fairly privileged class-wise, but at the time, I didn’t have the luxury to stop working and learn full time or attend a (let’s face it–very expensive) bootcamp. I often tell people that it felt like I had two full-time jobs. Overcoming this obstacle was pushing straight through it; I was motivated by boredom with past jobs, a realization that I loved to code, and the excitement from dreaming of a potential future software engineering career.

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What is your experience being a POC in Tech?

I’ve experienced racism and microaggressions all my life–not just for being Asian, Cantonese Chinese, Chinese-American, but also for being a woman.

At the first company where I worked as a web developer, my (front end) team was made up entirely of straight, white men. The entire engineering team had just one Asian man. At the second company where I worked as a web developer, my team consisted of all white men except one man. I was the only woman and one of two Asians on both of those teams. However, both of those companies grew to be more diverse over time.

Since starting a career in tech about four years ago, I’ve had coworkers say behind my back that I only like to eat Asian food because I’m Chinese (they’re wrong–my favorite food is lasagna), coworkers who assume aloud to my face what I like based on what their Chinese wives like, coworkers who made uninterpretable noises and say they were “speaking Chinese”, coworkers who make jokes about selling their pet dogs to Asians to eat. The list goes on and on. Some were apologetic when I told them it bothered me…and some were self-righteous.

But there are so many subtle ways people in tech enjoy demonstrating their superiority complexes. For example, when you’re a front-end developer, lots of people write you off as “not an engineer.” A founder at a company where I once worked called the back end engineering section the “engineering den,” which excluded me. I will never understand this way of thinking because I was a structural engineer, I have two degrees in ENGINEERING, and I have engineered TANGIBLE THINGS like buildings.

On the flip side of all of this, I have also felt incredibly supported by many people in the Tech community. People who have experienced the same prejudices and people who haven’t, whom we call our allies. I have found support in person and online at AdaCamp; Double Union, a women-only hackerspace where I was once a member; Twitter; conference and event organizers, speakers, and participants; and Slack channels. I feel empowered by all these amazing people doing amazingly supportive and empathetic work, and I’m excited to support them too!

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At Eventbrite, my team’s engineers have gone from 60 to 80 to 100% women We’ve also had Hispanic, Asian, South Asian, and African- American engineers transition onto the team, then off to new teams within the Engineering org. This all happened during the less than six months I’ve worked at Eventbrite! This is the most diverse engineering team I’ve ever worked on (this includes my time as a civil engineer), and both it and my coworkers make me feel like I’m in the right place.

What was your perception about the tech industry before entering it? What is your perception now?

I thought the tech industry was full of innovative solutions to big problems, true meritocracy, and profitable (or non-profit) companies. I now look at the tech industry and realize that many startups are only attempting to solve the minute problems of well-off, technophile 20 and 30-something year olds, are often founded and staffed by those who come from upper-middle to upper class backgrounds, and run on the investment money of extremely wealthy venture capitalists.

What are three tips you can give to high school/college students who want to enter tech?

Know that there are all types of roles you can fill in tech! Talk to all types of people in all types of roles to gain a better sense of what you might feel most passionate about. Don’t just choose to be a Software Engineer because it (on average) pays the best. Salary isn’t everything–your happiness is!

Explore career options while you’re still in school! I thought I was absolutely sure I wanted to be a civil engineer, so I worked the same internship all of the summers I attended college. A better plan would’ve been to try other roles–maybe I would’ve stumbled onto software engineering sooner!

Be open to change. I’ve worked as a camp counselor, file clerk, patent law intern, and barista. I started my career as a civil engineer and worked in transportation, geotechnical, civil, and structural engineering. Then I jumped into tech by working as a customer support agent and customer engagement manager. I also transitioned from being a web developer to a front end developer to software engineer! Some people know exactly what they want to do, but these days there are so many opportunities and options
to explore!

Any projects/programs, etc. you are working on?

I’m currently working on a secret personal project somewhat related to (Human) Wasteland with my boyfriend Tim. I’m also working with the St. Francis Homelessness Challenge, which is a campaign for taking action to heal San Francisco’s homelessness crisis led by Amy Farah Weiss (SF mayoral
candidate 2015) and Ken Fisher (RouteHome).

Ruth Mesfun

Co-Founder and Blogger for POCiT. She is also piloting the first Computer Science curriculum as a teacher at Excellence Girls Middle Academy in Crown Heights. She was selected for the CS Educator Fellowship at the Flatiron School and is also a member of Teach For America-New York's Ambassadors Program.

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