Elizabeth Ford, a back-end engineer at Medium, admits to being “kind of secretly a crazy hippie.” A long-time vegetarian, she recently took a “vegan month” that expanded beyond avoiding the usual animal products: “I was reading a lot of stuff about not buying clothes made in sweatshops. Harming people isn’t very vegan. I’d like to be able to support a mix of Made in the USA and fair trade from other countries. That’s the kind of thing I’ve been stressing out about lately.”
Ford’s substantial analytical strengths as an engineer are counterbalanced by this empathic tendency. “I care about use cases because I care about other people,” she says. “I’m always looking out for performance issues, and I’m really interested in what makes software usable. I don’t want to build things that frustrate people. ”
Ford spearheads many of Medium’s efforts to stay on top of site performance issues and bugs. At the Friday afternoon meeting, she briefs everyone on Jank ‘n’ Drank, Medium’s weekly evening work session. These presentations have become a company institution, largely because of the playful Pokémon rating with which they close. Each Friday, Ford evaluates Jank ‘n’ Drank with a Pokémon character—recently, on a particularly lax week, the rating was Snorlax.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ford’s earliest internet exploit was a Pokémon GIF collection. Later, as a computer science student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she interned at HP, Microsoft, and Google, and then went directly from her undergraduate program to a job at LinkedIn. Ford is assertive and articulate, but she also claims to have been “in the right place at the right time”: “I grew up right next to UIUC, I went to the super-nerdy university high school where the teachers were really passionate and the classes were tiny. The first website I made was for a university contest aimed at high school girls, to build something for a local non-profit. I designed a site for an animal shelter.”
Ford thinks carefully and deliberately about issues surrounding women in the tech industry. She recalls,
It helped me that, when I was in elementary school, my best friend’s dad fixed computers, so they had them all over their house. We were always playing with them, downloading stuff on Napster. We weren’t afraid of technology. I feel like a lot of girls aren’t exposed to computers as much when they’re growing up. I didn’t have that problem, but it concerns me that kids are often initially attracted to computer science because of video games. Mainstream games are still really gendered.
At Medium, Ford spends a lot of time honing the homepage algorithm, which involves a seemingly endless problem set: “How often do we recompute? There are new posts being added all the time. What does it mean to be a good post? That other people like it, or that it’s similar to something you’ve already read? We’re seeing a lot of competing viewpoints on the platform. If two people with different perspectives are writing on the same topic, we might want to show you both of those perspectives.”
Ford sees these concerns and questions as key to facilitating a diversity of experience and expression on Medium. She explains, “We don’t want to build a platform that puts you in an echo chamber.”
Ford enjoys writing, but she has also written about her struggles with writer’s block and understands the anxieties that attend publishing. She has a history of casual blogging that goes back to Blogger days: “In high school, I blogged a lot—my friends had a blog ring—but it was about stupid stuff, like how I really love the Dave Matthews Band.”
Breathing a sigh of relief that the relics of her early blogging days are no longer searchable, Ford considers her previous online writing habits for a moment and then notes,
“Medium is about trying to get people to think about important stuff they have to say. Not what I ate for lunch, but the distinct knowledge you have within yourself that could be significant to others.”
She continues, “There are so many places concerned with click-throughs or having the most content. The vision here has always been about getting people to share things of value.”
Ford’s estimation of the significance of her engineering work is bound up with this (somewhat hippie-ish) desire to help people share writing that could be meaningful to others: “Sometimes back-end code seems so abstracted. People assume you don’t really get the benefit of feeling like you helped someone, but I totally do. If I write an algorithm that surfaces a great post for the user to read next, that’s awesome. That’s important.”