How I Became an 'Accidental Activist' for Diversity and Inclusion in Tech
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.
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