Techies: Mylene Hortaleza

Original Interview: http://www.techiesproject.com/mylene-hortaleza/

Why don’t we start at the beginning? Tell me a bit about your early years and where you come from.

I was born in Seattle, but my dad was in the navy so we moved around a bit. When I was 8, we moved to the Philippines where I lived for 15 years, so I pretty much grew up there.

What was it like growing up there? Especially as someone who had a taste of the States.

It was difficult at first because I didn’t speak Filipino, so I had a tutor to learn it. It was weird at first because obviously I look Filipino, but other kids treated me differently because I didn’t speak the language and I sounded different. But I was young so I adjusted quickly. I started college when I was 16 and majored in Computer Science. The plan was always to come back to U.S after we graduate, but I had a little detour.

In my senior year, I had an unplanned pregnancy. It was really difficult being in a Catholic university in a conservative and predominantly-Catholic country. I felt like I disappointed my parents and was a cause of embarrassment in the family. I was a good kid, I had good grades and a good life, I just made a bad decision. I was fortunate that my mom really pushed for me to finish college. A lot of other girls in the same situation would have dropped out of school because the family wouldn’t be able to face that embarrassment. I got married then a few months later I had my daughter.

“In my senior year, I had an unplanned pregnancy. It was really difficult being in a Catholic university in a conservative and predominantly-Catholic country. I felt like I disappointed my parents and was a cause of embarrassment in the family. I was a good kid, I had good grades and a good life, I just made a bad decision.”

I had to postpone a final project presentation because she arrived 2 weeks early. Because I was busy with my senior year, I didn’t have time to attend childbirth classes or read books. I didn’t even know an epidural existed until years later! A week after giving birth, I had to go back to school for final exams. I wasn’t planning on attending graduation but I found out that I graduated cum laude and actually 3rd in my class. My parents attended and they were happy and proud of me.

After graduation, my husband and I each moved back with our parents. My parents offered to look after my daughter so I could work. My mom was a stay-at-home mom and didn’t get to use her Engineering degree and she said “I want you to have a career.” But in the small hometown where we lived, there were no software jobs. This was back in 1999 and unless you lived in Manila, there wasn’t much to do with a CS degree.

Not that I had the time or energy to really think about my career. I was pretty much in survival mode and all I needed was a job so i can feed my baby. I got a job teaching at a small technical college and after a semester, I worked for another company but didn’t really use much related to CS. My husband and I split up in the meantime. It was a lot of stress for a young marriage.

What did you do to try to turn things around?

After my daughter turned 2, I decided it was time to come back to the US to find a better job. My sister was kind enough to lend me money for a one-way ticket to Texas where she and my other sister lived. The hardest part was leaving my daughter with my parents. But I had to until I could find a job and be able to afford to support the both of us. It was pretty scary. It was 2001 during a recession and it was hard to find a job. I had a few temp jobs doing random things, like sorting mail and data entry. Finally, a small software company hired me to do customer service. I was able to save some money, and after 7 months of being apart, my parents brought my daughter here. I stayed at that company for 7 years, and I went from customer service to QA. In the middle of this, I remarried then after 3 years got divorced to get out of an unhealthy relationship. On top of that I had $24,000 in debt. I really made all my stupid decisions in my 20s.

“After my daughter turned 2, I decided it was time to come back to the US to find a better job. My sister was kind enough to lend me money for a one-way ticket to Texas where she and my other sister lived. The hardest part was leaving my daughter with my parents. But I had to until I could find a job and be able to afford to support the both of us.”

I then moved to a big semiconductor company where I stayed for 4 years. My life started stabilizing in my 30s. It took me 2 years to get completely get out of debt. I was making better money. And I was in a healthy relationship. After Thanksgiving in 2012, most of our business unit got laid off. It was my first time to experience this. It was scary especially being in a single income household.

All these years I was in a career crisis. I didn’t really know what I wanted to be when I grow up [chuckle]. I always hear “follow your passion” but this was never clear to me. I have a lot of things I’m interested in but none that I’m both passionate about and am good enough at to make a living. If I had followed that advice, I’d probably be a failed travel blogger. So back to getting laid off. Part of our package was tuition reimbursement. The idea was for the company to pay for you to acquire some skill to get a new job. It wasn’t enough money to get a new degree and believe it or not, I used to dream up my ideal job and think, if only I studied to become a lawyer or an accountant! In the end, I thought, okay, practically speaking, with this amount, what can I do? Well, I have a CS degree and I haven’t written a single line of code since I graduated so maybe I should learn a new language. I searched for the top jobs in my field. I looked at jobs at Google, Amazon, and Apple, and I was just curious, what kind of skills are they looking for? Long story short, I signed up for an online Python class. It was difficult at first to get started, but I realized that the concepts that I knew were the same, just the syntax was different. It was like falling in love again! It was exciting solving each problem, the same feeling I had solving problems in BASIC when I was 9, and Pascal in college.

In the meantime, Amazon had contacted me and many of my co-workers through LinkedIn because a lot of the skills we had in embedded software were what they were looking for. I went for the interview thinking, “This is really going to be a practice interview. There’s no way I’m moving to California.” [chuckle]. I got a job offer, and it was compelling enough for me to consider it. It was a hard decision to leave my support system, and move to a place that I’ve never been to before where the cost of living is just so high.

The move turned out to be the best thing that happened to my career! I continued learning Python and applying it at work. I found that the better I got, the more I felt enjoyment and passion in my work. The move also turned out to be great for my daughter, being able to play in one of the top high school drum lines in the US. She cried at first because she would be leaving friends and going to a new high school. But she said, “If you think that’s what best for us, then I will support you.”

Like a little adult.

Yeah. I think because it’s just the two of us, I tend to talk with her about everything, including finances. So she understood why we made the move. Anyway, I feel like I have so much energy and desire to learn new things. Next year she’ll be off to college so I’ll even have more time to focus and go on to the next phase of my career.

What a story. What overall is the most exciting to you about working in tech? What things are you really proud of and what about the work really activates you?

What I love about working in tech is being able to work on products that change people’s lives. I read the reviews on Amazon Echo and it’s amazing to see how customers use device, especially disabled people. It’s pretty exciting and inspiring.

People are speculating that technology like the Echo is the future.

Yes it’s very exciting to be part of that!

I’m curious to know what it was like culturally going from the Philippines to Texas, then from Texas to Silicon Valley.

Culturally, going from the Philippines to Texas was a breath of fresh air for me. In the Philippines there was such a stigma of being a single parent. You and your child get either judged or pitied on. Hopefully things have changed there since then. Regarding moving from Dallas to the Bay Area, I love the culture of learning and trying to be the best at what you do. There are so many movements, organizations, meet ups in tech that it’s not hard for the enthusiasm to rub off on you. I’m not saying it didn’t exist in Dallas, but maybe I just was not in that environment.

What has your experience been work-wise as a single mother?

The biggest difference for me is not being able to travel for business. It has to be planned and I could only go if I had someone I trusted, like my parents, to look after my child. I think that being a parent is hard whether you’re a single parent or part of a two-parent household. As far as my daily work, when my daughter was younger, I had to force myself to be efficient because I didn’t have the luxury of staying extra hours if I didn’t manage my time well.

What’s it been like, leaving your support network in Texas, and then trying to find support networks here? Have you found them yet?

It was difficult leaving my family and friends. I’m a bit towards the introverted side, so it took effort and courage to put myself out there and make new friends. I mentioned that my daughter is in the drum line at her school’s marching band. Volunteering for that enabled me to meet other parents who were very welcoming. It definitely involved getting out of my comfort zone.

“I always come across difficult problems to solve at work. But they’re almost never as bad as the difficult problems I’ve had to face in life.”

Have you had any particular mentors in your career?

Yes, in Texas I had a good manager who mentored me when I was new to QA. I’ve also had several good managers since I moved here. One managed me remotely from Seattle and he always talked about improving my skills thinking not just about my current company but for my future career. I thought that was kind of refreshing. Maybe that was another one of those cultural differences back in Dallas where I didn’t feel like I could be that open with my managers about my career because if it may not line up with what is best for their team. You have this fear of being the first to go in a layoff if they knew you had any thoughts about leaving. Here, no one expects you to stay in one place for 10 years, or even 5 years, so you can be much more open.

It’s like to keep you, they have to nurture that.

Exactly. Having a good manager is important to me, so when I interview, I make sure it goes both ways.

What do you look for in a job now compared to earlier in your career?

I look for somewhere where I can add value to team or company, in an environment that supports autonomy and creativity. It would be great to work on something that customers love, and I can say, “I worked on that!”

How do your friends and family feel about how far you’ve come?

My parents were always supportive of me and cheered me on every step forward I made. Today, I feel that I’ve made my parents proud. My daughter always thanks me for being a great mom. That means a lot to me.

How do you think the combination of your background and all of your life experiences impact the way that you approach your work?

I always come across difficult problems to solve at work. But they’re almost never as bad as the difficult problems I’ve had to face in life. I also am not confused anymore about what I want to do with my career. Getting rid of that lingering doubt helps me focus better.

Let’s go macro for a second. How do you feel about the state of tech in 2016? Like what is exciting to you, what frustrates you?

I think the Connected Home and Internet-of-Things will be big this year. I’m excited to be part of that. But I think it will be important for people to distinguish between the ones that improve your quality of life and others that are just innovation for innovation’s sake.

Technology aside, I see a lot of exciting and frustrating moments about improving diversity in tech. Women in Tech in particular is close to my heart, having a daughter who is exploring careers and deciding what to major in. I see a lot of movement around this and I feel hopeful. She took Java programming this year at school to test the waters and see if she liked it enough to minor in Computer Science. She had a good experience and now she is thinking about majoring in it. She might still change mind of course, but my hope is for her to experience a more gender-diverse tech world than I did.

What are your goals for 2016? Either for work or for yourself.

I have a lot of goals. At the start of each year, I write my goals for the year and I like to revisit it throughout the year to see if I’m making progress. The career goal I set for myself this year was to switch roles from a QA Engineer to a Software Development Engineer in Test. I talked with my manager about it and I’m happy to say that I am working on that transition now. My personal goals involve getting better at programming, reading more, traveling more, living healthier, watching more concerts, getting back into playing the drums and maybe even playing in a band!

Where do you see yourself in five or ten years?

I would love to be a software developer and build something. In 10 years, I’d love to be able to at the top of my industry. I don’t know what that will look like yet. Maybe those jobs don’t even exist yet, just like many of the tech jobs now didn’t exist 10 years ago.

My last question for you would be, what advice would you have for folks that are going through some hardships, or had crazy life obstacles thrown at them and are trying to figure out their career?

Have a goal, make a plan and focus on the process of getting there. There are times when life is crazy that you don’t have the time or energy to even focus on your career. But it’s not always going to be a hardship. Set realistic expectations given the situation that you currently have. For example, when the kids are young and you don’t have help, maybe all you can focus on is raising them and doing “good enough” at your job. Accept that that’s where you are right now. They will get more independent as they grow, and you can execute on your plan one little step at a time. Manage your time well. We all only have 24 hours in a day. Figure out what’s important to you. For me, getting 8 hours of sleep is priority. If you feel like you never have the time or energy, try to identify and fix the unimportant things that suck up your time, or things that cause you stress. It might be debt, health, relationship stress. Read books and learn from other people on how to deal with these problems. There’s no need to learn all of life’s lessons the hard way. It makes it easier to work on your career when you can lessen or eliminate other stresses in your life. Lastly, for parents, don’t let your life revolve around your children. They will turn 18, graduate and be on their own. Don’t forget to treat yourself with love and kindness.

“Have a goal, make a plan and focus on the process of getting there. There are times when life is crazy that you don’t have the time or energy to even focus on your career. But it’s not always going to be a hardship.”