10 Questions with Catherina Xu
Associate Product Manager at Google | she/her
Catherina Xu is an Associate Product Manager at Google. Prior to Google, Cat coded for YouTube, co-led Stanford Women in Computer Science (WiCS), and invested in student founders with Dorm Room Fund. She cares deeply about empowering the next generation of women in tech, business, and entrepreneurship. A Bay Area native and a Shanghai transplant, Cat loves to travel — she enjoys running, hiking, and exploring the coffee scene in new cities.
- When did you know that you wanted to work in tech?
Like many other freshmen at Stanford, I decided to take the introductory Computer Science (CS) courses. Halfway through my first quarter, a few friends convinced me to go to a hackathon in San Francisco.
“I only know how to code in C++ and just learned about recursion last week,” I warned. “So I won’t be of much help.”
In 12 hours, my team built a Unity game from scratch. I was shocked at how quickly I could start applying my CS skills. I realized that CS was not only a new language, but a new way of thinking about organization, interaction, and efficiency. I was hooked. Over the next two years, I attended a hackathon every quarter. I co-directed HackOverflow in 2016, an on-campus hackathon focused on first-timers, women, and minorities.
Though I’ve stopped frequenting hackathons since starting at Google, I’m still constantly in awe of how tech enables ideas to move from conception to the end user, in a matter of hours (longer if it goes through code reviews!)
2. Who is a role model that you look up to?
I’ve always looked up to my dad. In 2001, he left Shanghai to pursue better work and opportunities for our family. He’s worked as an electrical engineer at many semiconductor companies since, but one thing has remained constant — he’s the hardest worker I know.
“Over the years, my dad has taught me a lot by example — work ethic, mastery, persistence, and how to build a life from scratch.”
Over the years, my dad has taught me a lot by example — work ethic, mastery, persistence, and how to build a life from scratch. He played no small part in inspiring my love of tinkering and the sciences, from helping me build the next-generation dollhouse (consisting of two circuits regulated by brass fasteners) to championing DIY furniture hacks for my first college dorm room.
3. Where is your hometown?
4. What is a struggle that you’ve faced and how did you handle it?
When I entered Stanford, it seemed like everyone around me had already been coding for the better part of their life. A close friend had finished the CS core in his free time in high school; several others had built games or launched chart-topping apps. When I decided to pursue tech with full force, I was starting at the bottom.
“I struggled with imposter syndrome in every class.”
I struggled with imposter syndrome in every class. I spent more time at office hours, rewatching lectures, and on problem sets than most of my peers did, for more or less the same result. Over time, I grew more confident about my CS ability. It’s the sum of all the times I worked hard, and got the results I wanted — nailing an interview because I’d studied, landing a customer deal for Google because I’d taken the time to research technical requirements. It’s about attributing success to ability and grit rather than luck, something I’m still working on every day.
5. What is something that you are immensely proud of?
One aspect of tech that’s often overlooked is how inherently collaborative it is. The stereotype is that computer scientists sit in basements alone and don’t come out until 3am. In my experience, that statement is mostly true, except for the “alone” part.
Power Networks, the first paper that I published, started as a final project for a natural language processing class with two friends. The paper used neural networks to predict power relations from an email thread in a corporate setting — for example, in a two-person email exchange, the classifier would identify Molly as the ‘superior’ and Matt as the ‘subordinate’ if Molly was higher on the corporate ladder.
“The stereotype is that computer scientists sit in basements alone and don’t come out until 3am. In my experience, that statement is mostly true, except for the ‘alone’ part.”
Between our class final paper and the paper we submitted to ACL, only about 10% of the content remained the same. Over the course of two weeks, we worked day and night (on top of classwork) to build a new LSTM-CNN model, training and testing repeatedly to (in)validate our hypotheses.
The constant re-evaluation of priorities gave me a taste of PM work, and what it takes to see a project from idea to fully-functioning classification system. Power Networks was a cool application of state-of-the-art deep learning tech — but ultimately, I was most proud of how we pulled it off as a team.
6. What’s something that’s been on your mind a lot lately?
I’ve been thinking a lot about how current incentive structures don’t do a good job of encouraging the best technical minds to optimize for social impact. If your startup idea doesn’t capture a billion dollar market, VCs won’t fund you. If you want to spend your time working at a non-profit, you’ll probably have to accept a big pay cut. Thus, many new grads choose not to (or can’t afford to) work in these spaces and take a more traditional path to tech. It makes sense — social impact can often be at odds with generating financial value. I’m not sure what a good solution to this looks like, but I’d like to see stronger collaborations between government, big tech, and philanthropic organizations to help align the incentives and move the needle.
7. Favorite food?
Creme Brulee of any form!
8. Favorite book?
Robert Sapolsky’s Behave. I missed out on his infamous class, so I picked up a copy for the summer after graduation. The book explains human behavior in the most scientifically rigorous way possible, and doesn’t lack in Sapolsky’s dry wit and humor.
9. If you could try another job for a day, what would it be?
Something in the performing arts, maybe as a member of a band or a touring Broadway show. I can’t think of anything else that would be as terrifying (and exciting).
10. If you could give your 18-year-old self a piece of advice, what would it be?
Don’t over-optimize because nothing is linear. No set of actions can be guaranteed to get you from A to B; on the other hand, trying out C isn’t necessarily a detour from B.
Take the time to explore in college, because you’ll have a lot of time to dive deep later.