Techies: Lydia Fernandez

Original Interview: http://www.techiesproject.com/lydia-fernandez/

So tell me a bit about your early years and where you’ve come from.

So I was born and raised in Miami, Florida. At some point pretty early on someone identified that I wasn’t just good at math, I really liked it and so a few teachers over the years tried encouraging that, and then in a high school there was a teacher who picked up on it and said, “If you like math I’ve got something else you should start doing.” So he got me into programming because it was a lot of applied math. From there it took off like a rocket. I went to — a couple exceptional teachers notwithstanding — a really not-great public high school. I got into a top college for computer science. I spent five years working hard, not getting enough sleep, operating on probably unsafe amounts of caffeine, learning a lot, being around some really smart people, really intimidating people, learning how to socialize with people who were not just smart but interested in these things that I found interesting, which was new for me in my life.

“I was used to being on the outside. I was into math and computers and other people were into cars and sports.”

I was used to being on the outside. I was into math and computers and other people were into cars and sports. There’s nothing wrong with them having their interests but I didn’t have anyone else who shared mine. That changed when I got to college and it was amazing to have an environment that was basically built for doing that, for going and chasing something I’m interested in to the extreme. I didn’t do it perfect, right? I don’t think anyone does. I think a lot of people would go make some different decisions if they did college again, but that’s how it goes.

I had some summer internships out in California. My senior year I interviewed with Uber because — it’s funny because at the time one of the things that was intensely frustrating to me about my life was how difficult it was for me to get around Pittsburgh as a student. Just as someone who couldn’t afford to own a car in a place that needed one. Then I heard about Uber and thought, “that’s a path forward — that’s a way for people to not own cars.” So in 2013 I applied, 2014 I start my job after graduating. I’m actually working toward something I really do believe is good for the world. Working towards this future where individuals don’t have to own a car to survive and making things safer because people suck at driving, making driving a skill that people can get paid for rather than requiring everyone learn it.

“A couple close friends knew that I thought of myself as a woman, but that wasn’t a public-facing thing. It was actually a huge source of distress in my life. There was this thing that I feel about myself, that I just can’t tell the world in general.”

In parallel to the technical growth, I’d had struggles about my gender for a while. I presented as male basically until I graduated college. A couple close friends knew that I thought of myself as a woman, but that wasn’t a public-facing thing. It was actually a huge source of distress in my life. There was this thing that I feel about myself, that I just can’t tell the world in general. I felt really unsafe — I felt like I couldn’t come out in college, so moving across the country and starting my first job, coming from Pittsburgh to California felt like getting the chance to start my life with a clean slate. If there was anyone I knew in college who I didn’t want to talk to, who I thought wouldn’t like me, I didn’t have to deal with them. I was just in a different place, way bigger. I moved across the country, came out of the closet, and started a new job in the span of two weeks. Everyone tells me I’m crazy, but I think there’s no better way to do it. You want a clean break, everything’s new. I’ve been out and about and living as genuinely me as possible ever since starting this job, and I have never been happier. It’s been rad.

“I moved across the country, came out of the closet, and started a new job in the span of two weeks. Everyone tells me I’m crazy, but I think there’s no better way to do it. You want a clean break, everything’s new. I’ve been out and about and living as genuinely me as possible ever since starting this job, and I have never been happier. It’s been rad.”

What was college like for you, both academically and personally, as someone who didn’t totally feel like they could be yourself?

In a lot of ways, college was the first step in me feeling more comfortable being myself. In primary school — elementary, middle, and high school — being the smart person in the room, being the person who cared about school in the room, wasn’t taken well; that was something I learned to hide. And then going to college, and being able to chase that was awesome. There were some decisions I made that weren’t the best. I wish I’d had a better sense of how to manage my time before I got to college so I could’ve gotten more out of it, things like that. But being able to care about this and having that be okay and having no one judging me for that was great.

I feel like I got a lot out of college and I regret not learning more, but at the same time there is this thing that’s core to me. More than what I do, it’s how I relate to myself that I couldn’t share with the rest of the world — or at least I felt like I couldn’t share it to the rest of the world. It wasn’t pleasant. There were times where I felt totally miserable, that this is going to be bad forever, that I’m never going to be able to fix this, that I’m never going to feel comfortable coming out because I had really weird notions about what that would require, what that meant, or what the objective was, and was just confused. I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it because there weren’t that many other trans people at school. There was one who was in school at the same time as me, and we talked some, and she’s really cool, but still her experience was in a lot of ways very different. When I moved — When I eventually came out, and moved across the country, she did that before she got to college. She was four years ahead of me and that was part of what got me thinking about doing this. Well, maybe I could just be myself and be happy for that when I eventually moved away — moved to California. But it was hard. There were times when it seemed world-consuming, and I felt like my relationships with people were false because they were predicated on this presentation that was not true, wasn’t genuine. People who got along with me, I felt they got along with me because of a lie. That was awful.

So, you moved here with 100 bucks.

There’s this thing that a lot of companies do where you have some moving bonus, or some signing bonus but they’re done as reimbursement. So, I’m like I need to get out of here. I have enough to buy a plane ticket. A friend had been out here for awhile, and had savings before they even graduated college, gave me a very generous personal loan — they did me a huge personal favor, and covered the down payment on my apartment. “This is a no interest loan. Pay it back whenever you can.” That’s still — oh, my God. That’s so valuable to me. I could have crashed on someone’s couch for a while. That would have just been really, really bad for a bunch of reasons, and I would have gotten off to a horrible start while trying to balance all these other things with not having a private space.

“The first day I went out wearing a skirt and presenting as a girl I was instantly cat-called 50 feet from my front door.”

And finding a place is so hard in the first place.

That was huge for me. But I drained my bank account buying a plane ticket. There was $100 left and I didn’t have a wardrobe — at least I didn’t have the right wardrobe. I had to use some creativity and find some good finds at thrift shops and stuff. I start my job and — I remember my first paycheck was needed to buy basic things, and ensuring I have enough money to be able to feed myself. Thinking I could have fed myself cheaper after every meal was not a pleasant feeling. So being able to not have to worry about food was cool. I remember a second paycheck though. I thought, “I’m going to spend an irresponsible portion of my net worth on a mattress [chuckles].” It was my first adult purchase — a really, really nice mattress. I don’t regret it in the least.

For sure [laughter]. Tell me about coming out at the same time as starting Uber and what that process has been like for you.

The thing I really want to stress is I don’t want this to come off as me dishing on the company, or it’s so bad because this is all I’ve got. I just want to make that clear. I know I don’t have to say that, I just feel more comfortable saying it.

Absolutely.

The option was come out before I started my job or come out after. I decided to do it before. Basically, everything all at once is new. The first day I went out wearing a skirt and presenting as a girl I was instantly cat-called 50 feet from my front door. And that is the weirdest experience of my life, I still don’t know how to process that. You know? At the one time it’s really gross and disgusting and dangerous and I’m scared. And on the other hand it is upsettingly validating, especially for someone who is worried they won’t be read as female, right? For that to happen to you. It’s like, “well okay.” Oh God, that was weird.

Welcome. [chuckles]

Yea I know, right? That’s what everyone told me. It’s like, “Hi, yeah this is it.” I didn’t think women were making it up, and you can say you believe them and you know it happens to them but experiencing it is another thing entirely. So that was weird. But ignoring everything else — so like .3% of the US population is trans. Male or female, .3 right? So that’s about 1 in 300. That’s pretty small, right? So the odds of there being another trans person at any company I interviewed with was low and I was sure I was going to be the first wherever I ended up working. And a lot of people haven’t interacted with a trans person before. I’m six foot one, I had streaks of pink hair, because I don’t believe in half measures, if I’m going to stand out I’m going to stand out on my terms. [chuckle] I have a deeper voice than one would expect out of someone wearing a skirt. I stand out.

Some of it I think was imagined, just me being paranoid about it, and some of it was that definitely that I attract attention. Every time I would get up to go to the bathroom — by the end of the second week I’m sure it wasn’t actually happening anymore but for the first two months I felt like heads were turning every time I would get up to go do something. I was big and noticeable and habitually not wearing pants, I don’t even own jeans anymore, I only wear skirts, so there’s this skirt flapping behind me because I usually wear full length skirts. I drew attention, or felt like I did, and it didn’t feel like good attention, I was extremely self-conscious.

At this point I’m a lot more comfortable with it, but it was weird at the time. it happened to me everywhere. I couldn’t walk down the street without people — I could feel their eyes on me, I could see them staring at me. Now I’ve gotten into this habit — I used to avoid eye contact at all costs thinking “please don’t look at me, please don’t look at me.” Now if I catch people staring at me I take my sunglasses off and stare them down. I shouldn’t have to feel bad about being me. Nothing is wrong with me. There are things that are imperfect with me, but there’s nothing offensive about me walking down the street. I shouldn’t have to defend who I am to randoms on the street.

“I’m six foot one, I had streaks of pink hair, because I don’t believe in half measures, if I’m going to stand out I’m going to stand out on my terms. I have a deeper voice than one would expect out of someone wearing a skirt. I stand out.”

So at work you can imagine it being a technology company, have a company Q&A session in the style of Google. Every Tuesday we’d have a staff meeting plus Q&A session. I think my second month I had a question I wanted to ask. So I get up and I ask it at the microphone. There’s a ton of people in this room. When I ask the question these people can see me on the screen. They’re probably thinking okay there’s a girl coming to ask a question. They can see the skirt and long hair, I read as female. Then they hear my voice and every head spins to look at me. For all I know they were doing that for every question (and months later I pay attention and they are doing it for every question), but I’m recently out and self conscious, so I feel like it’s because my voice was so unexpected. No one made a big deal about my gender, but after that if I would be put on meetings for things related to what I was working on and I wouldn’t know any of the names on the meeting list, but I’d walk in and every single person would know me by name from asking that question. I can’t walk into a room and hide anymore. I don’t blend in.

It used to be the case that if I got attention I was asking for it. I didn’t get all the attention I was asking for, but I generally didn’t receive unwanted attention. Now whether or not I want it I’m getting it. I have difficulty with names so it’s double awkward and I feel mortified every time someone greets me by name and I don’t recognize them. I just feel bad about it. There was a lot of — at least in grade school — conditioning to be shy. I felt like I couldn’t really be good friends with people because I — not just like in grade school, but while growing up — I felt couldn’t be genuine because of this gender thing that I couldn’t tell anyone about. Plus, things I was interested in people around me didn’t care about. I was pretty shy and quiet. So for the shy person, the person who was quiet in the back of the room to get all this attention, all at once, was different. You can’t prepare for it.

“I used to avoid eye contact at all costs thinking, ‘Please don’t look at me, please don’t look at me.’ Now if I catch people staring at me I take my sunglasses off and stare them down. I shouldn’t have to feel bad about being me.”

You mentioned also that you are worried about calling yourself a woman in tech.

It’s not that I feel like I’m invading women’s spaces, but I’m afraid of being accused of that in women’s spaces, for the same reason that I’m a little scared of showing up to women in tech meetups or things in technology specifically for women because someone might try to throw it in my face and I just don’t want to have to deal with that. I get anxious in multiple-stall bathrooms. If there’s only gendered restrooms in a building and I might have to interact with someone while in there, it’s nerve wracking. I shouldn’t be worried about that and if someone makes that unpleasant for me it’s not my fault. But that doesn’t reduce the fear of it happening to me, that doesn’t make it any more pleasant. The fact that it’s not my fault is kind of irrelevant. I’m just scared of it. I have some friends who have been really good about bringing me to these things and trying to involve me more and the female coworkers I have have been nothing but welcoming and supportive.

[NOTE — this interview took place before the recent rash of states trying to pass legislation keeping transfolk out of restrooms of the appropriate gender.]

“It’s not that I feel like I’m invading women’s spaces, but I’m afraid of being accused of that in women’s spaces, for the same reason that I’m a little scared of showing up to women in tech meetups or things in technology specifically for women because someone might try to throw it in my face and I just don’t want to have to deal with that.”

Yeah, on the flip side you’re doing some really amazing work and working on really cool stuff — I don’t know how you can talk about that, but I’d like to hear what excites you about work and what are some of the rewarding things about your work.

This is going to be a little difficult to talk about. I work on map related technology at Uber. Things that attempt to model the physical world and how we interact with it, how cars interact with it, how cars move around in it, things that try make predictions about those interactions. Specifically our routing engine, trying to predict travel times and paths. These predictions are used to inform a lot of intelligent business decisions. So, when I improve the accuracy of some of these predictions, or make them slightly more hardware efficient it enables so much. If I can make this prediction faster and more efficient then people can do more and plan further out and make better decisions. We’re talking about internal consumers, people who are internally using this. If I make them more accurate than we can — we can make better decisions. We can make more informed decisions, we can ask more questions if we are able to go faster.

“I do work I know it’s reflected in the physical world. I know that something moved because of what I did, because of my ability to do my job well. That’s great. That’s awesome. That’s really satisfying.”

At the end of the day, the things that I work on have a direct bearing on physical world. Our ability to predict these things, or our software’s ability to predicts these things influences what Uber pool match you get or what driver get dispatched to you. It’s reflected in the physical world, right? I flick bits and atoms move. That’s huge. The impact of my work is tangible. When I do things that make improvements on a per trip basis, times the number of trips we’re doing… To be able to say that we made that point one percent improvement across all trips, that adds up fast. And it’s not some really large number of eyeballs on an ad, or displays on a webpage, or better search results, or something like that. Those are also — people care about those things too, obviously. But I do work I know it’s reflected in the physical world. I know that something moved because of what I did, because of my ability to do my job well. That’s great. That’s awesome. That’s really satisfying.

You haven’t been in Silicon Valley too long, but I’m curious to know if you still feel like you have to suppress feminine parts of yourself to fit in in tech? Does that make sense?

I guess this is a little bit difficult because how do you gender a behavior? It’s hard for me to identify individual behaviors that I have and say, “Oh, this is inherently feminine,” or, “Oh, this is inherently masculine.” The best I’ve got is I wear skirts every day. That’s probably feminine. We can safely say that’s pretty feminine, right?

That’s a great point.

I do that no matter what. If anyone’s uncomfortable with it, they can deal with it. My hair is dyed, my skirts are long… My femininity is about how I make sense to myself, I don’t feel like I suppress my femininity at work or in tech or like there’s a need to.

How has life changed for you positively now that you can be yourself?

I’m way happier. I was a pretty sad kid, even through college. I feel like my emotional state was generally not positive for various reasons. Coming out here and getting to be myself — not only to be myself but getting to live my own life — I got to choose my job. I get to choose what I do with my spare time. I don’t have these looming assignment deadlines left over from college. I feel like I — it’s not quite discovering myself, it’s more like building myself. I get to choose who I am, getting to pursue my own interests and do things that I want to do. Work or hobby or people I socialize with. That’s been incredibly rewarding. I’m happy with how my life is going. There are things I’d change, there are things I recognize about myself that I don’t fully like, that I would alter or improve in some way. That doesn’t mean I can’t like myself. I’m making progress in that direction. I’m getting to move there. I spend my time how I want. I’m learning to play piano. I love music, I’ve loved it as long as I can remember. I’ve never played it, but now I’ve found myself with discipline and personal time and resources to try to learn how to play instrument. I get to decide that’s something I want to do. If I want to spend my time making weird stuff like skirts that glow in the dark or feel like playing with LEDs or maybe some Thursday nights or Fridays night I just want to sit in my room and play games with friends, I don’t have to feel bad about that because I’m actually doing the things that I want to do. When I spend time idle, I don’t feel bad about what I’m not doing. Because most of what I want to do, I am doing. Some things are resource constrained. There’s some things I just straight up can’t afford to do, but I can work towards that.

“I get to choose who I am, getting to pursue my own interests and do things that I want to do. Work or hobby or people I socialize with. That’s been incredibly rewarding.”

What are your biggest motivators? What drives you?

I think, this is really, really trite and cliche. But, I really would like to contribute to making the world in some way, some tangible way a better place. And I do get to define like the ways in which I want to better it. Maybe that means, I don’t think any American should be required to own a car in order to live their lives. Which is not true for most Americans. You talk to people in L.A or Miami, you need a car in order to have a job, and it owns you. If I can make progress towards that I can say. If I can try to like give people the ability to move around more freely or encourage things to become dense and more friendly to people not owning these burdensome expensive things. It’s one example but if I can find a way to make progress towards that, that’s satisfying.

I know people who just have a job to pay bills. If I didn’t need money, I’d probably still be doing this job which is a great feeling. I don’t know a lot of people that could say that. It’s not just my job. I can improve the world in small ways too. Maybe I think that there should be more music in the world. Maybe I think people should be more expressive. I can be more expressive. I can try to put some emotion into sound and try to make that more true in the world. I can try to be kind to people, be friendly, try to be genuine, make people feel comfortable being genuine around me, try to carry this through more of my interactions with people. Professionally I try to think about this in terms of the world at large. How can I make progress towards things that I think are important on at scale?

In my personal life, a lot of it’s interacting with my immediate surroundings. I think people should feel comfortable being expressive, so I try to do that with myself. It would be nice if people could be genuine around each other and say what they mean. I try make friends who feel like they can do that, make me feel comfortable doing that, find small pieces of community that feel that way and feel like expressing yourself is not just powerful — it’s important. It’s not the best answer, but it is mine.

I think it’s great, and I think it’s so rad that you are able to be doing so much of that so early in your career

Yeah, both coworkers and friends outside of work who are a lot older than me will ask, “How old are you? You’re 24? What?!” People seem shocked.

I don’t have everything figured out, no 20-something has it all together — but I do think I’ve at least got a good sense of what is important to me. Maybe I don’t have the best sense of how to act on that and how to make progress on that, and those are definitely things that I struggle with and I’m learning about as I go, but I at least do have a sense of what’s important to me.

My last question for you would be: What advice would you give for folks going through similar struggles who are either in tech or hoping to get into tech?

This is really hard. It’s difficult to generalize from your own experience. Like, I’m an engineer. I believe in having a lot of data and making decisions based on that, and really I’ve only got my one story. But being the person who you feel like you are, the person who you want to be cannot be that bad. And the people who don’t want that person, you don’t always have to deal with.

I understand the parent thing. I’m not out to my parents. And if you’re dependent on your parents, and you feel like you can’t tell them, that’s hard. I think you should not be ashamed of who you are who you want to be. And if you don’t feel like you can act on that right now, then try to make progress towards it, work towards putting yourself in a position where you can act like that. What that means for different people in different situations, there’s a million different answers to. But I think — yeah, I mean, it’s hard — I have no idea.

I think it’s important to not be ashamed of who you want to be. And I think that’s the first step to caring for yourself. That’s also kind of cheesy, but it’s true, right? Like, if you care about yourself, you will put so much more effort into getting yourself into a better situation, getting yourself into a place where you can work on those things, where you can be the person you want to be. You shouldn’t be ashamed of feeling the way you feel and wanting to be who you want to be. I think that might really be the most important thing to recognize, that might be the thing that someone should’ve told me — I wish I’d heard that. Senior year of high school that would’ve been great to hear, just to know it, have it come from someone who really did know me and care for me. If you can put yourself in a position where you can care about yourself and you can like yourself it just changes the way you look at your situation. It’s no longer woe is me, and doom and gloom, and I deserve this, it becomes maybe I deserve better, maybe I can work towards that.

“If you care about yourself, you will put so much more effort into getting yourself into a better situation, getting yourself into a place where you can work on those things, where you can be the person you want to be. You shouldn’t be ashamed of feeling the way you feel and wanting to be who you want to be.”
Like what you read? Give Helena Price a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.