The Impact of Diversity on Everything
I’m a Vietnamese American woman in technology. That is not synonymous with being an Asian American in technology. Here’s the shortest summary of my background I can give: My parents escaped Vietnam on a boat and moved to the United States in 1990 with barely any understanding of the English language. We grew up poor and I pulled myself through high school and university with little guidance from others. I worked after school until 10–11pm several nights a week throughout high school for my family. My high school nearly lost accreditation while I was there, which would have made my diploma useless. There’s so much more to my upbringing than that, but I’ll save it for another time.
Tracy Chou published a post describing some of the issues that Asian Americans face. We are the model minority because people make so many assumptions about us: we probably came from a family of engineers/other professionals, we had few financial barriers to academic success, and we must have some kind of genetic predisposition towards the STEM fields. See also: bamboo ceiling, Asian masculinity, colonialism, and on and on and on.
Sometimes, people are afraid of taking away from the progress we’ve made for (white) women in technology by pointing out how little progress we’ve made for other groups. Sometimes, people find it hard to see why any of this actually matters and how this is more than a bunch of social justice warriors whining about nothing.
Well, diversity matters to me because diverse people have different perspectives on the products we make and because we are best equipped to help elevate others of our background — whether that’s in socioeconomics, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, or any of the other ways that the tech industry is homogeneous. I’m going to illustrate my point with three short stories.
In my sophomore year of college, I went to a career fair and saw Square. I immediately started spluttering my love for the company to the recruiter, surprising her with my enthusiasm. You see, I worked in a liquor store for most of high school and we used to only accept cash. Then Square came along and we were able to finally start accepting credit cards, which helped us financially and also helped our customers. I had so many ideas about the app because we used it regularly, in real life situations. I wanted to tell Square about our customers who didn’t trust it because it was a little gadget attached to an iPhone, about the people who lacked the dexterity and/or technical comfort to handle the signing process, and about how big of a deal it was to my family and to other small business owners.
How many engineers can say they understand what it’s like for everyday people to use their product? How many everyday people can build the tools they wish they had?
During college, I participated in StreetCode Academy as a mentor. StreetCode Academy is an after school program that teaches programming to underprivileged students in East Palo Alto. One day, another mentor (incidentally, a high school student who lived down the street from Mark Zuckerberg in Palo Alto and had already been programming for quite some time) gave an impromptu speech to our students. In order to become a programmer, he explained, you have to dedicate hours upon hours of your free time to doing side projects. A true programmer lives and breathes code — they become successful only through their own passion and dedication.
The staff applauded his motivational speech to our students. It was only later, when I explained why I was uncomfortable with his words, that we started to talk as a staff about the message we send our students. Here’s a snippet from the email I wrote back then:
Most of our students do not have computers at home. Most of our students do not have a lot of free time outside of school to work on extracurricular activities. (Family life is a lot different for students from low income backgrounds — kids might have to help with family, work, etc., on top of doing homework without much academic support. […])
I knew this because I lived this. I worked over 20 hours per week at our liquor store and I was always scrambling to get my schoolwork done on time. I tutored so many students at my school who told me they hadn’t done their work because of a variety of difficulties in their home situation. I’ve heard it all, and I knew how unrealistic that motivational speech sounded to these students.
We communicate differently with our students now because I pointed out the impracticality of passion as a sole driver in their situations. It’s not that the advice was absolutely wrong — it’s just that there are so many different paths to success and we needed to show our students that success doesn’t have to look like the path a privileged person took. Diverse people lift each other up in ways that outsiders don’t always see.
One night, I had dinner with a friend (also a white guy from a privileged background who had been programming since childhood) and mentioned that my dad (an elementary school dropout and boat refugee) always talked about how he wished he had gone to college and wanted to build a robot dog. My friend said he could suggest some kits and guides for my dad to read and I responded that my dad didn’t know English!
I didn’t expect this to elicit a rant from my friend about how if he had been in my dad’s situation, he would have taught himself English and became an engineer anyway and became successful in American society. I was near tears as I tried to explain that there was no time for self-actualization when trying to provide for a family of six children on a below-poverty-level income in addition to taking care of our extended family (both those in Vietnam and those who had also escaped).
Meritocracy is bullshit. People will always look down on my parents for not having “done more” with their lives. My dad got my family out of Vietnam because he was a skilled mechanic and was the only one who could fix the boat in an emergency. He and my mom risked their lives to give me and my siblings a better future in the United States, but all people see is a poor Asian man who doesn’t speak English and doesn’t have a respectable career. My parents are the ones who taught me the value of hard work and perseverance and sacrifice for your loved ones. They’ve worked hard for their whole lives, but they’ve also faced so many barriers. If meritocracy existed, my dad could have become an engineer here. The fact of the matter is that few people manage to escape a life of poverty no matter how hard they work. Success stories are exceptional, not normal, and it’s hard to understand that when you don’t know people who are living examples of failed meritocracy.
People must be exasperated by the ever-changing conversation surrounding diversity in technology. One second, we’re feeling good about small gains in gender diversity, the next we’re talking about the lack of discussion surrounding ethnic/socioeconomic/“everything else” diversity. It’s hard to keep up, but it’s so, so important that we keep thinking critically. Diverse people add so much nuance to our products, our workforces, and to our ideas about society. We all have stories. We have to keep reminding ourselves and other people why we’re doing this by telling these stories.