The moment Tracy Chou (@triketora) realized it wasn’t just her
The Project Include co-founder had a stellar Silicon Valley resume. So why did she still feel like an outsider?
Early in Tracy Chou’s career, she was faced with a question that many people will recognize: Is this my fault? What am I doing wrong?
When she first started out as an engineer in Silicon Valley, Chou enjoyed her job, enjoyed building new systems and new companies. But the way she felt about work changed as time went on, until she found herself questioning her abilities and future.
“I remember one experience where I’d done a technical interview for a candidate, and it was red flags the entire way. He was really condescending, put me down, tried to bullshit me on things. At the very end of the interview, I asked if he had any questions for me, and as I was responding to him, he got bored with my answer, stood up while I was talking, went to the whiteboard and started drawing a penguin. I was appalled at his behavior. In the interview debrief, I said: This person is very, very rude. We ended up not making him an offer — but a week later one of the co-founders said, ‘We really should have made an offer to that guy. I think they made the wrong decision.’”
The startling nature of the interview was compounded by the fact that her bosses didn’t seem to notice what was wrong, or believe that her opinion counted.
The lack of support began to affect her day-to-day experiences — even if she didn’t know how to understand what was happening.
All she knew was that things she found difficult — relationships with co-workers and her co-founders — seemed easy for other people. Maybe, she began to wonder if she wasn’t suited to startup life.
“For a good stretch of time, I actually considered whether or not I should quit the tech industry. I didn’t really know what was wrong. Things were a little bit off, I felt like I might be being treated differently, or not being respected. I wasn’t sure if I was just in my head too much, or if it was something about me personally that meant I wasn’t cut out for software.”
“It was only later, after I started talking to more people across industry, and also not just female engineers, but also Black engineers who are marginalized in a different way, that I started to realize that the problem might not be me, and it might be something more systemic.”
Those experiences had left her questioning her own credentials — even though she was extremely qualified for a career in technology. The Project Include co-founder grew up in Silicon Valley, with parents who worked as software engineers; tech was always a big part of her family life. When she attended Stanford, she excelled in electrical engineering and computer science, and then went on to intern at Google and Facebook.
Her self-doubt and perspective changed radically, though, when she switched jobs and joined Pinterest. As one of its earliest engineers, she found out how different her work experience could be within an organization that carefully and deliberately built itself around an inclusive culture.
“It was the first time I felt like I was treated as an engineer and not a female engineer,” she says. “I felt like every other environment I had been in there was some level of curiosity around being female, and some discount factor applied to my abilities because of that. In the classroom it was always, ‘There’s so few women. It’s so unusual that you’re here.’ At Google and Facebook it was very similar: ‘There’s so few women. You’re one of the few.’ There’s that strange treatment, and when I joined Pinterest it felt like, ‘Great. You’re an engineer. We need good engineers, so please get to work’.”
This culture was carefully cultivated‚ and the company’s leadership had carefully planned Pinterest’s hiring process. In interviews, for example, the “cultural screen” came first. The CEO would screen engineering candidates, and “if they didn’t seem like they would be a good fit for the culture, they wouldn’t even go to the technical screens,” she says. The culture screen was aimed at making sure potential employees were open-minded and aligned with what the company wanted to do, not simply able to deliver on a narrow set of tasks.
“It’s the opposite of what I would see elsewhere,” says Chou. “To talk to Ben Silbermann at Pinterest and hear him say, ‘if they don’t seem like they’re going to be good people to work with, they’re out. We don’t care how good they are technically.’ Well, it’s kind of mind-blowing. I didn’t realize people could do things that way.”
There’s a lot of evidence that underrepresented groups are more likely to churn out of the technology industry — for example, 50 percent of women in STEM jobs end up quitting the field entirely, compared to 20 percent in other professional fields. This failure not only costs businesses time and money because they cannot retain workers — $16 billion a year according to a recent study — but also loses the industry valuable talent and perspectives.
She points out that de-prioritizing cultural decisions is a consequence of how many startups approach business, but it has far greater costs than many founders realize.
“I know startups are really hard,” she says. “There’s so many things going on all the time, and there’s other choices that get made. There’s always these very pressing tasks around engineering and design and growth, and other things that always feel very urgent, and it felt like culture was a wishy-washy thing that wasn’t worth spending time on.”
“I think there is a bit of this fallacy among some leaders that culture takes care of itself, so we don’t need to be deliberate about designing the culture of the organization,” she says. “There’s always these very pressing tasks around engineering and design and growth, things that always feel very urgent, and it can feel like culture is a wishy-washy thing that isn’t worth spending time on. But if you leave it unchecked, it doesn’t always go the way you want it to.”
“It’s hard to retrofit a broken culture once you have many thousands of employees.”
From her experiences, Chou believes that there are techniques to recognize systemic bias and eliminate it going forward. And that’s exactly what she believes Project Include can do for other organizations and people: encourage businesses to turn their gaze inwards and improve their culture, before women and people from other underrepresented groups leave the sector.
Even with her tech success and acclaim, she finds it easy to invest her time this cause.
“I’ve been so lucky to have had all the opportunities, mentorships, experiences and support which has allowed me to accrue almost every possible credential that a venture capitalist could want for investing in a potential funding round,” she says. “But I still get frustrated by blatant systemic bias.”
“It is kind of mind-boggling to me how people from underrepresented groups who haven’t had the support or opportunities I have had must feel.”