photo by misty xicum

Jean Hsu Speaks Up

Engineer at Medium, a risk-taker who builds things

Jean Hsu, an Engineer at Medium, went straight from Princeton to Google—a safe career move—but she’s not afraid to go out on a limb: “I wanted something different in the ecosystem of startups. I wanted to exercise control and ownership. I like to be able to say, ‘I made that.’”

When the ex-Googler left her software engineering job in Mountain View a few years ago, she didn’t have another gig lined up. “A place like Google never gets bad enough that you actually need to leave,” she admits. “But I always felt very junior, and I wanted to be an expert in something. So I jumped into the deep end and just quit. I took six months, worked on some personal projects, taught myself Android development.”

Hsu recognized that Android “was going to take off. It was so new that I thought, if I invest some time in this, I could be on the leading edge of people who know Android really well.” She went on to work as an Android lead at Pulse, a mobile news reader. After the structure of a large company, startup life felt novel. “The culture is really scrappy,” she notes, “and you make a lot of mistakes.” Hsu might have made some mistakes, but she also helped grow Pulse’s Android userbase from 50,000 to over three million users.

Immersed in the tech industry since leaving her undergraduate CS department, Hsu somehow maintains a critical perspective: “Silicon Valley glamorizes this idea of young people straight out of school creating enormously successful companies. But the truth is that 99.9% of those companies don’t take off because they’re not set up to succeed. There’s something to be said for experience, for being thoughtful about the people you bring in and employee development.”

Such critiques characterize Hsu’s own writing on tech. Her blog posts, which have garnered a lot of “good and bad” attention, are notable for their discussions of women and tech:

A lot of readers are encouraging—‘Thanks for sharing your story’—but there are many who take the stance that women just aren’t interested in tech, so why we should we try to get them into it? People don’t quite understand the problem; it goes back to when you’re a child and you’re handed these stupid toys or dolls. Gender education like that is largely unintentional, but it’s ingrained in our society.
Photo by Misty Xicum

Hsu struggles with being viewed as “that woman who talks about gender.” That label, she contends, is one reason many accomplished females in the industry don’t address the issue publicly: “My posts that ended up on Hacker News or Reddit were always the gender ones. People would say, ‘If she were a good engineer, she would have a technical blog.’ And I did, but those posts didn’t make the front page of Hacker News.” It’s enlightening to scan comments on some of Hsu’s most popular blog posts. She notes,

“I only filtered comments that were outright obscene. There were plenty that said, ‘It would be nice if we had more women in tech, but they’re just not wired for it.’”

A year and a half ago, Hsu left Android development behind and joined Medium, working with a handful of other designers and engineers to build a prototype of the product. She had barely programmed in Javascript but, as CTO Don Neufeld notes, “We wanted an engineer with aptitude and trajectory, someone who was a risk-taker and a good problem-solver. Jean has all of those more important, amorphous qualities.” As Hsu puts it, “I’m happiest when I’m working on something that’s a new challenge.”

Medium is an interesting technical challenge, but Hsu says it’s also made her a better writer. An established blogger, Hsu observes that she’s more discriminating when writing for her current project because “it looks so good. If you put a post on your blog, it doesn’t need to be polished. On Medium, you want the post to feel right. There’s an element of personal transformation behind both the way the company is run and how the product works. I believe in our vision.”

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