Jessica currently works as a Platform Engineer at Wattpad. When I met her almost 2 months ago, I was instantly drawn by her open and friendly demeanor. Over time, I have come to know her as a smart and multi-talented individual, with an impressive drive to learn and seek challenges. I was excited to connect with her to learn more about her journey into software engineering, her experiences and learnings as a female engineer, and her thoughts on the ongoing fight for equality.
Tell me a bit about yourself and your journey so far.
My name is Jessica Leung, and I’m a Platform Engineer at Wattpad. This is my third job out of school, prior to working at Avanade and Kobo. I studied Electrical Engineering because I wanted to learn about hardware; but I realized later on, after an internship, that what I really wanted to do was software so I switched to that route. I’ve always enjoyed working with computers – even from a very young age, I’ve been comfortable with computers – and that’s kind of how I ended up here!
What are your values – the things that guide your decisions in your life or career?
It’s really important for me to be a productive member of society and actively try to be the change I want to see. One of the things I really like about Wattpad is the fact that we’re trying to disrupt the publishing and entertainment space. To me, that’s very interesting. Creator-driven distribution is the future – technology is enabling us to share and connect in ways that are more direct. The sharing economy, such as Airbnb and Car2go, also exemplifies that. I like the whole idea of not taking the world as it is, and shaping the future with your own vision.
One of my other greatest values is to always ensure that I’m continuously learning because, in my opinion, you need to work out the brain just like the rest of your body. I also highly value honesty and integrity and, above all, being a good friend, and trying to help everyone you can. People are very important to me; I value people and their time.
Who inspires you and why?
I had the pleasure of working with a very talented woman, named Inmar Givoni, whom I highly respect. She taught me a lot about what it means to be a woman, especially a woman in technology, and opened my eyes to a lot of feminist issues that I actually never really thought about. For example, as women, we tend not to be overly confident and avoid being too outspoken.
What is a saying that you live by, or that influences your daily life?
“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” – John Lennon
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?
Absolutely! My mother has always had very high expectations of her children and that kind of distorted my worldview, pushing me to become an over-achiever. But I’ve learned over time that that might not always be the best approach; it’s always good to set goals, but it’s also good to be forgiving of yourself. So in the morning, if I feel like sleeping in because my muscles hurt from working out the day before, that’s okay [laughs]!
Given that there is a deficit of women in engineering, I’m curious to know, what inspired your interest in the field?
Well, my father was an accountant and my mother is a business woman, so from a very young age, I saw both of them working with numbers. Given that perspective, I always understood that math is an important skill to have. I also enjoyed school because I’ve always enjoyed learning; I’ve always loved math, science, and even the humanities. I kind of lucked out because while there are situations where girls are generally discouraged to do math and sciences, my situation wasn’t like that. My parents were generally pretty supportive as long as I wasn’t gonna become an actor [laughs]!
But I actually got a lot of exposure to technology from my father, because I remember my father was always into computers. I remember setting up our first 56k modem, or getting AOL which was so exciting, or even lining up with him outside Future Shop to buy Windows 95 – that was a big deal back then! So when I discovered the internet, I was fixated on figuring out how to make web pages. When I told my dad that I wanted to learn, he went out and bought me a book; that’s how I learned about HTML markup. And ever since then I’ve continued to teach myself through books.
I noted that you are a person who thrives on learning as much as you can, e.g. learning programming languages as you go. How have you been able to accomplish that in you career, and what advice would you give to women who would want to grow in a similar way?
Never be afraid to get your hands dirty. I find that every language I pick up makes it easier to learn another one. Each language might have special features, but I would say that a lot of languages kind of repeat the same patterns. So similar to music, I recognize those patterns and learn how to use them effectively. In terms of actually picking languages up, it involves persistence and a thirst for knowledge.
The problem I have, and I guess most adults have, is actually finding time for things. One thing I’ve learned from my partner is that building good habits goes a long way – like going to bed early and waking up early. So I’ve also been trying to optimize my reading time – there’s a lot of great information on how to read non-fiction. One rule I made for myself is that every time I take on a new project, I’m gonna try something new that I’m unfamiliar with.
Over your career, how have you known when it’s time to make a change and move on to something new?
The people that I work with is very important; I need to believe in the goals of the team and that the team can work effectively together. I will push for a good team dynamic in any way possible to make sure we’re always progressing forward. It’s important for a team to put aside their egos and differences, and focus on the team goals; open communication and honesty go a long way.
The nature of the job is also important – I need to know that I will be able to learn, try new things, and that I will have enough autonomy to be able to steer the direction of things. I also want to know that I’ll be able to make an impact on my team.
Can you describe what your current role entails?
I work on the Platform team at Wattpad, which involves routing information from here to there. For example, we get a request, and my application needs to figure out what the answer to that request is. Our platform holds together logic between the underlying data, and the clients. I also need to ensure that my application is correct, simple, and performant. You know how there’s that classic internet graph of the world with things going around? I write the applications that facilitate that.
What is the most amazing thing about your career that makes you keep wanting to stay in this field?
I truly believe that technology plays a very important role in our society. Historically, technology has always been an enabler of change. Software speeds up the rate of decision making – it’s quite amazing! If you think of robotics, there’s of course all the hardware that performs actions, but there’s the software that tells it how. A very good example of that is self-driving cars; you’re taking all that sensory information and reducing it to decisions. I truly believe that soon we will have self-driving cars, and we’re only going to be able to do that because deep learning is taking us there.
Thinking back on your career so far and the roles you have held, what are some of the challenges/obstacles you have faced? Are there any challenges that pertain to being the only or one of few women on the team?
My old boss, who I mentioned earlier, opened my eyes up to a lot of issues. And now that I’m conscious of them, I observe them more. For example addressing a group as “guys” is something many might assume is okay. I’ve had this argument with an old co-worker who argued that saying “guys” was basically the same as saying “everyone”; but “guys” itself is actually a masculine term which means that in some cases you’re basically not addressing half the room.
There’s also cases where men won’t acknowledge women in the room; they’ll introduce themselves to all the men in the room but not women, and that’s definitely happened to me at technical conferences. Even when I look back at my past, when I graduated from engineering I was one of the four girls in my class. I didn’t realize that was actually a problem until now that I think through it – I just thought that there’s just not as many women in engineering and I kind of accepted that as a fact. And it’s really unfortunate because with a lot of machine learning these days, and the fact that we’re using more and more data to figure out answers, we should have a less biased system with input from everyone.
From the research I did before the interview, I found that you have come across as a strong supporter of equality in STEM. Can you speak on the importance of this movement to you?
It’s important to have equality on all levels, not just STEM. I’m a minority in many ways: I’m a woman in tech, I’m Chinese, and I’m a member of the LGBT community. That’s not to say that those are the only groups that are important to me. For instance, a lot of people think that feminism is just about women; but it’s not just about women – I think it’s about equal rights for all. There’s a better word for it – egalitarianism: fair treatment for everyone. As a society, there’s obviously a lot of issues we face partly due to socioeconomic problems that are very complex. We need to treat each other with equal respect and try to manage our biases.
One aha moment for me was when I was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, and that was the first time I heard of Harvard’s Implicit Association Test. At first, I was convinced that I didn’t have any biases; but when I took the test I was actually quite surprised with the outcome. I’ve been surrounded by many strong women, including my mum, who have careers, but I still very much associate certain attributes with women. Without truly acknowledging and understanding your own biases, it’s hard to be objective.
There are many studies that have shown that more women than men tend to quit tech. How can we encourage more women to stay in tech?
There’s many motivators for someone to change careers, and those are the things we would need to identify. Off the top of my head, maternity is a big thing. Since technology is always evolving, taking a year off can make a huge difference; unfortunately, your presence in the office, to a certain degree, still matters. I am very much against that stance – people are much more effective in a trusting office environment. However, it just takes a couple of people to infiltrate that culture and make working remotely something to be frowned upon – and I have been in situations where I’ve seen that happen. Going back to maternity, even if you’ve taken a year off after having a child, your child will still need you for the next 18 years, at least, and you might need to take time off to take care of them, take them to the doctors, and so on. So aside from making sure that new mothers can come back to the workplace, we need to continue to empower them throughout those years.
Gender bias is definitely another contributor. I know women who have left the field due to high levels of casual misogyny, and I’ve worked with people who, unfortunately, don’t value women’s work as much as men’s. Studies have shown that given identical résumés, with the only difference being the gender behind the name, female names are perceived poorly compared to male names. Going back to what I said earlier, equality would be nice! And this isn’t just applicable to tech – this is across all fields, and for all cross-sectional or minority groups.
Why do you think there’s such a gender disparity in the STEM fields, particularly in engineering?
Partly, I would say that it’s cultural. I’m not as familiar with cultures outside of our own, but some of my Indian friends, for example, would think it’s a really bizarre thing to say something like “girls are not as good at math as boys”. I believe their enrollment rates in tech schools is closer to 50/50 – at least better than 20%.
I also read about this theory that it partially might go hand-in-hand with video games. The first wave of video games were very gender agnostic; but over time we see games that are positioned as family-friendly or casual vs. hardcore, and we see harassment of female gamers. I played video games when I was a teenager, and I remember being harassed on the internet just for having a character that was female. There have also been examples of games that boys or men say they wouldn’t play because they can’t control the gender of their characters. And thinking about it, video games really got me into computers when i was younger. I learned a lot of skills because back then, you would have to download drivers – and before the internet, it was actually hard to find drivers; then you might need DirectX 9 and sometimes it’s not backward compatible. I remember spending weeks trying to fix a scratched CD, and that’s how I learned how CDs were made and how if they’re scratched you’re shit outta luck [laughs]! So you learn basic troubleshooting skills, and possibly develop an interest that way.
In your experience, what proactive considerations should be put in place to allow for women in tech/engineering to thrive and grow within their companies?
Awareness is a good start; some people think that quotas might change things, but I don’t think that’s the right attitude to take – it has to come organically from people. Companies need to create a culture where they identify and acknowledge that there is an issue, then really self-evaluate and try to find ways to make that situation better.
There’s other things that could help mitigate some of the biases against women; for example, there’s a Chrome extension that hides names and faces to reduce bias when recruiters are looking at potential employee profiles. Personally, after I learned that I’m less likely to get an interview because of my name – I mean, Jessica is pretty female – I’ve actually put in my name as “Leung J.”, which shouldn’t be something I have to do. So yes, knowing some of these things have changed my actions a little but hopefully we’ll change it for future generations so that it’s something they don’t even have to worry about.
One other thing that riles my nerves is how women are basically punished for being outspoken; for men, it’s kind of expected of them – they’re praised for it. Donald Trump is a very good example of that. Hillary had a very good interview with Humans of New York where she spoke about having to control her feelings – really watching what she says and how she’s perceived. It’s unfortunate, especially since she’s risen to the top of her field – she’s a presidential candidate, she’s been Secretary of State, she’s been a senator, and has a very impressive résumé – but she still has to navigate those lines so carefully. I wish we, as women, didn’t have to think about these things; it’s a sad reality we need to change.
What advice would you give girls/women looking to pursue a career path similar to yours?
Don’t be discouraged. I think people see me as a very strong character, but things get to me at times and I’ve had to persevere through those times. I really love what I’m doing, and I think if you are passionate about anything – not just STEM, you should definitely pursue those dreams. And it’s hard too, because before you even pursue your dream, you actually have to realize what your dream is. I got lucky because I fell into software kind of reluctantly but over time realized that based on my values, skills, and things I like to do, this is perfect for me.
Do you have any book, blog, video, etc. recommendations that have inspired you as a woman in tech?
One of my professors at Queen’s university actually organizes a Canada-wide celebration for women in computing, and I only found out about this last year when my old boss brought me to this celebration of women. It was so amazing because I’m always a minority when I go to all these tech conferences; but actually being in a room full of female technologists felt really great [laughs]! Historically, the event was the Ontario Celebration of Women in Computing and then last year it grew into the Canadian Celebration of Women in Computing. It’s a great event to meet both people currently in the field and a lot of undergrads who are about to join the workforce!