Emily currently works as an Associate Product Manager at Wattpad. I’ve worked with her over the past few months and I’m continually impressed by her passion for constant learning and discovery, and her innate drive to solve meaningful problems. She is a strong advocate for diversity in tech, and has been one of the driving forces behind this movement at Wattpad – be it through sharing her research, gathering internal sentiment insights, or pushing for important conversations around diversity. I’m excited to share my chat with her, where I learned more about how she landed in product, her learnings throughout this journey, and her views on diversity and equality.
Tell me a bit about yourself and your journey so far.
My name is Emily Nguyen and I’m an Associate Product Manager at Wattpad. I come from a business background, mostly in marketing and entrepreneurship. I’m an entrepreneur at heart – that’s where my link to the startup world and tech in general began – and have worked in tech for a few years now. I’m passionate about growing things and getting things moving. I’m also really passionate about diversity in tech, feminism, social entrepreneurship, and making an impact on the world.
Looking back at your life so far, are there any pivotal moments that helped shape your life or who you are today?
The first pivotal moment was when I worked in Oman – I worked as an Operations Consultant at a non-profit there. There was a moment where I asked myself whether I wanted to continue with the path of traditional business, and end up working for say P&G or Pepsi, or whether I wanted to take another path and do something more meaningful to me. When you’re a typical business major, your career path is kind of given to you; you either choose Marketing, Accounting, or Finance. So that’s when I made the choice to move away from that path.
The second one was when I took a job at a tech fundraising company, FlipGive, doing cold calling and customer service. I had other interviews lined up for brand management and other marketing opportunities, but I chose not to do those things and instead took a lower-paying job at a tech company I believed in. That choice landed me in the tech space, so it was a really pivotal moment for me. Of course, joining Wattpad was also great [laughs]!
Who inspires you and why?
When I was younger, I had more traditional role models; I would say things like – I want to be like this film director, because I want to tell stories. As I grow older, I’m inspired by a number of people: people who speak out, or are very honest and candid, and women who acknowledge who they are and are not afraid to be their true selves. I follow a lot of these people on Twitter – that’s where I get my feed of really inspiring women such as Erica Baker, and a few women in the product space who are very advocating of diversity in tech. I admire those people and wish I could be that candid and open about things.
What are your values – the things that guide your decisions in your life or career?
A combination of passion and knowing that I’m making an impact or a meaningful difference. I need to wake up and feel like I’m doing things that really mean something – whether that means choosing the right career path, or making friends who have a positive impact and add meaning to my life. I also have this innate curiosity – I love exploring and learning as much as I can about how to do certain things or why things work the way they do, which has really helped me in my career. So it’s a combination of these three things that help guide me – that’s how I make my decisions in life.
What is a saying that you live by, or that influences your daily life?
I’ve heard this quote a lot lately – it’s from Sarah Hagi: Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man. I think the intention behind it is emphasizing that people in a place of privilege probably wouldn’t second-guess themselves; they probably wouldn’t doubt themselves, or have that imposter syndrome. As a women of color in tech, those things get to me sometimes – feelings of doubt when making decisions, or moments where I question whether others are judging me because of my outward appearance or whether I’m imagining these microaggressions. So it’s a great reminder that if any other person can do this, and if any other person can have that confidence in themselves, why shouldn’t I?
In my About section, I spoke about the various barriers I put up for myself on a regular basis. Is that something you relate with? If so, what is the one thing you wish you could stop doing?
I totally relate to it. I think every person would, especially as you layer on the intersections of marginalized groups that you’re a part of. Day-to-day, you may try to ignore these feelings and convince yourself that if you try hard enough, you can be equal to everyone else. But sometimes you can’t help but experience this imposter syndrome, in which you feel like you’re not good enough to do a certain role, or this self-doubt that gets you down. I’ve been in that place many times after interviews because of not only being a women color, but being a young woman of color in tech. For certain underrepresented, marginalized groups, you just can’t get a break; you have to be your most perfect self and optimized self to get to the places you want to be – you don’t have the room to be human or just go through experiences and learn. A lot of it is systemic racism and inequality though. And once I acknowledged that those things exist, and that it’s the system working against me, not just me believing I’m not good at my job, I felt a lot better about myself.
Can you tell me a little bit about what your current role entails?
I’m an Associate Product Manager at Wattpad and I manage the Audience team, which focuses on our readers and our user base who are not writers. I basically help prioritize the problems that need to be solved for this user base, and I help make sure that the right ideas are being heard and that the right solutions are being built and shipped to them.
Product, as I understand it, deals with making the right decision to solve the right problems – a process that can sometimes be long and winding. How do you maintain you and your team’s motivation despite this?
I try to celebrate the small wins, and also acknowledge and celebrate failures as much as possible. Many people don’t do that enough – they always focus on how they increased something by X percent, or how what they did resolved a particular problem and how great that was. But it’s important for me to admit that we thought something, but it didn’t really work out because our users didn’t actually need that solution. I think that letting other people know about both your wins and your failures helps keep them motivated because you’re continuously learning – it becomes this interesting and exciting process for them.
In general, women have a tendency to promote themselves less than men. I would love to celebrate you and give you a chance to acknowledge your awesomeness. What’s the one thing you would say you kick ass at in your current position. Why?
Oh wow [laughs]! I think I’m pretty good at understanding users and their problems. I have a strong sense of empathy, and a really good grasp on getting to know what a user needs and how to prioritize those needs. There’s many other things that I can work on, but I feel like understanding the root cause of that problem is something that I’m good at. That’s why I’m in this role.
That was a very awkward exercise [laughs]!
[Laughs] I know, but embrace that – it’s awesome.
Can you tell me about a risk you’ve taken in your career? Something you were scared to do, but that paid off in the end?
As I’ve gotten older I feel more comfortable with myself and confident enough to speak up against things that I don’t believe in, or just push the envelope a little bit more in terms of diversity issues. It can be something really small like just replying to a comment posted by someone, or bigger things like publicly speaking out against people when it comes to things I don’t necessarily agree with. And I’m really proud of those risks because in the situation I’m in, past me would be less likely to speak up due to the implications that could have.
You recently shared some great resources on diversity in the workplace with me. One thing that stood out was this idea of meritocracy in tech. Can you speak on this myth and why it’s important to acknowledge it as such?
I think the intent of meritocracy is not a myth – the belief that anyone can move up if they work hard and try their best, or that you can achieve anything if you believe in yourself. You hear about it a lot in the tech world: anyone can make it, even a college dropout; anyone can create something and bring it to the world! Our narrative of the world is that we worked really hard to get where we are; no one wants to think they were privileged or that they had an upper-hand coming in – it’s a really hard and uncomfortable thing to deal with. But I think not acknowledging the systemic injustices in place is where the problem with meritocracy lies. There’s no way a person of color is going to have the same opportunities as someone who’s white, privileged, and went to a prestigious university. It’s a tough pill to swallow – it makes you uncomfortable; as a cisgendered person of color who grew up in a relatively upper-class environment, it makes me uncomfortable. It can make you feel like you don’t deserve to be where you are – that you didn’t work hard, and it was just the system. But that’s not what it’s saying – it’s just realizing this a system exists everywhere – not just in tech – and that we have to fight against it to make sure that there’s equality.
Have you faced any challenges in your career, particular to the intersectionalities that constitute your personal identity i.e being a young, colored woman in tech.
I went through a big chunk of my life where I tried to ignore those intersectionalities – before I became feminist or aware. That, in itself, was an inherent form of discrimination against myself where I didn’t believe that those systems were working against me. Once I was able to understand this, I started to recognize those challenges. So even though it has become normalized for me, I still, from day-to-day, come across microaggressions. There’s also moments where I’m constantly second-guessing myself, wondering whether I can be my authentic self at work – whether I can display certain emotions or characteristics without being grouped into a certain stereotype. So there’s always a lot of watching who you are and what you do; even when you are yourself and it feels freeing, you later question those moments.
There’s also the challenge of making sure you’re doing the best you can to communicate with people, and making sure that your voice is heard – especially as a woman of color in tech.
Given your experience, what would your advice be to women who encounter gender-related roadblocks in their careers?
One thing would be to recognize that these roadblocks will always exist, but more importantly understand that they’re outside your control and have nothing to do with who you are as a person and your capabilities.
The second thing would be to find similar women who are facing or have faced those challenges, and create a safe space or group where you can understand and empathize with each other, and also help each other through these challenges. Those two things have really helped me survive in the workplace in general.
Do you ever find yourself questioning your own decisions around taking vacations or breaks from work where the focus completely shifts to taking care of yourself?
Work/life balance is very up and down, especially when you’re really new to a role and you want to be constantly checking on things. I think it comes down to you fully feeling like you deserve it – that you’ve worked hard enough, and deserve to take the time off. And that you need to spend that time focusing on you and not checking up on work. It’s definitely an ongoing battle with me; it really depends on how much I feel like I’ve accomplished. I believe in the idea of a work/life balance, and that if you go on vacation you should fully rest, but I’m personally not good at that aspect. There’s always something subtle in me pulling me back to work. I think also being utterly passionate about what I do kind of drives that – I’m constantly stimulated and engaged, so why do I need to take a vacation? I also generally feel like it’s harder for women because you’re constantly second-guessing yourself, wanting to make sure you’re at your best performance, and there’s also this connotation that you may be perceived as lazy. In reality, vacations are not at all about that and you just need to give yourself that time to recharge.
I did some research and noted you described yourself as an intersectional feminist. What does this mean to you?
To me, intersectionality is recognizing that the underrepresented groups you are a part of have an impact and weight on the way you come across to, and interact with, the world. This aspect is sometimes lacking in some feminist groups that are very focused on gender or on white feminism; there’s not enough recognition that while there are certain problems experienced by white, female socioeconomic groups, there are different problems if you have different intersections. I’m very privileged to be an able-bodied, cisgendered person of color who is seen as a model minority in the workplace, and I acknowledge that.
I think people could benefit from understanding different intersectionalities and trying to make sure that everyone is included. For instance, when I go to women in tech talks, I don’t want to see all white women; I want to see black women, indigenous women – women of color. So those are some of the things I that are important and meaningful to me, and I that think need to be included in more diversity groups.
What do you think is the most significant barrier to female advancement/leadership?
I think that the lack of female individuals who actively choose to mentor and cultivate the careers of other women is probably a barrier. I’d like to say that there are a lot of individuals, both men and women, who mentor females, but I feel like that’s not always the case. And it’s usually people of color who don’t have that opportunity – that informal mentorship. So increasing informal mentorship would help with career advancement; having both men and women in leadership positions who are willing to reach out and mentor women, help ensure that their career needs are being met, and help them grow in those positions.
What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women after you?
Awareness and acknowledgment are all good things, however setting goals and getting things done in order to make that change happen is what I foresee being the biggest challenge. I agree that acknowledgement and awareness has to happen first; but the next step would be mobilizing people not just to tweet about these things, but also to enact real change, and empowering them to do so.
What advice would you give girls/women looking to pursue a career path similar to yours?
I strongly believe in having conversations like this and talking to as many women in product as possible. There’s definitely the piece where you work to become knowledgeable in the subject, but it’s just as important to find women who are in product who would be willing to speak with you about their passions, how they got where they are, their careers, and so on. I would also suggest following influential women in tech and product on social media and keep track of what they are doing, reading, or consuming, and so on. Following other women who are in a similar situation, or talking to other women in product roles, and getting to know their challenges and needs really helped me understand that this would be a role that I would fit in.
Any book/blog/videos recommendations that have inspired you as a woman in tech?
There are a couple of people I follow on Twitter for great information and inspiration such as Shanley, Julia Nguyen, Anne Thériault, Marco Rogers, Meri Williams, Kronda, and Amélie Lamont. However, if you would like to go into the old school teachings on feminism, bell hooks is good starter kit – any of her books would be a good place to start! She’s all about feminism being for everybody and acknowledging your true self.
When it comes to women in tech, there are people like Tracy Chou and Erica Baker, and a few other women who have done amazing work with Project Include,which has a lot of resources on diversity in tech. I also like to read personal stories so I read blogs like The Techies Project or this local blog called Women&&tech that’s also really good.
For general product, I really liked Inspired by Marty Cagan. That really helped me center myself around product. The book really helps you understand user problems and why things are being done the way they are. It’s definitely a must read for anyone who’s looking to get into product!