Designer, formerly at Facebook and WillCall
Sophie Xie is a designer of well-loved mobile products. Recently she spearheaded Stickers on Facebook Messenger and led design at WillCall, a live events app acquired by Ticketfly. Currently she works on independent projects in San Francisco.
Before coming to the Bay, she tinkered in prototyping Windows Phone at Microsoft Research. Sophie earned a B.S. in Cognitive Science & Computing from UCLA where she published research with UCLA Learning Technology.
What got you into tech?
I was an indoor kid who changed schools a lot and spent free time abusing the extreme liberties of 90’s web publishing. I loved skinning Geocities, Winamp, Livejournal, later OSX.
I formally learned to code in college during the heady (bubble-lettered?) beginning of Web 2.0. Of everything the consumer Internet made possible, software engineering never fascinated me the most. But with college tunnel-vision, being a code savant felt like table stakes.
On real product teams, people who exist at digital/humanist intersections affect wider impact than purer specializations.
I hope we’re always doing better at destroying stereotypes of what success could look like. Companies are better at communicating needs than coursework — I entered my first job as a front-end dev and immediately switched over to design.
Today I dabble in writing code for Framer and creative projects. Programming has become a fun and expressive activity, but I try to find ways to talk about tech that appeal to less represented skillsets.
Describe a time you’ve felt discomfort or discrimination in the workplace or classroom. How did you handle it?
After Ellen Pao, most discussions among friends have included one of us admitting that we saw ourselves in Pao. For me it was Nitasha Tiku’s examination of the defense’s play at erasing credibility — through soft character probes and likability — that jolted us.
The realization: how difficult it is for women to be given implicit trust.
The burden of proof to just be right. Self-responsible. Having appropriate feelings. Likable. These soft criteria can speak more to the locus of power and the dominant point-of-view, less to the women involved.
At a past company, during the quarter I spearheaded a top performing feature, my manager wrote in feedback that he sensed I was “cold.” He gave an example of a time I was heads down and failed to laugh at a joke he told. As part of a large team, he barely saw me and saw none of the rapport I shared with my engineers. In a 1:1, he said offhandedly that he “didn’t get what I was doing… but it didn’t feel like Product Design”.
I was sunk. It’d been the most ideal quarter I could’ve had there, yet I was ding’d for distrust over my... niceness. A distrust I doubt any of the 16 other men on my team experienced.
After that I let my project go and resigned. There’s little you can do to control or overcome the way people see you. You can only remove yourself from the monoculture, seek a winnable game.
Systems like sexism run on constant thought-patterns of blaming the victim. Biases within our internal narratives, unexamined, become accepted truth.
Correcting for our distrust of women requires active work to stop centralizing maleness at all times, to scrutinize and confront past errors.
What makes being a woman in tech worth it?
Being a woman in tech is thrilling because there’s real opportunity to build your community. This blog is an inspiring example. Day to day I learn from women, support women, listen to women and trust women above everything.
A while ago feeling uninspired about meeting mostly guys in tech, I experimented with only using Twitter (where I do most Internet socializing) to find cool women. Having that filter carved out a sense of community in the SF tech scene for me for the first time. It rekindled my beginner’s spirit.
I feel overwhelmingly grateful for my journey in feminism. Seeking equality has taught me how to be vocal about things that affect me personally.
As a woman with sound self- doubt, feminism has been very empowering because I have learned to not trivialize what I feel and what I have to say.
When constantly weighing tradeoffs, it has been gratifying to reckon with the fact that my personal truth matters. That I have a right to autonomy. That fair treatment must be sought.
I think we have the opportunity to create different kinds of futures (we are all unlearning ideas of the kind of person who belongs to the future). Alternate, inclusive futures are already here in pockets. Still we are beset by wicked problems and most of the work is undone. Technology is about tearing down the whole mess until improbable ideals become possible.
What advice do you have for any girls pursuing a future in tech?
I’ll talk about steps I’ve taken, as advice can so rarely be definitive. I’ve learned the only long-term success is to honor your true self.
tldr; I was successful in moments I quit being a nice girl and started becoming a monster.
I quit looking up to people who don’t look up to women.
I quit waiting to be perfect. Doing more, some of it flawed made me relentless and bigger.
I quit feeling guilt for knowing the worth of my time and always demanding it.
I quit equating strength and success with how others treat me and random extrinsic validation.
I quit being “the cool girl” as a crutch for not knowing what I want. I risk being disliked over chronically disregarding myself.
I quit asking for permission to fail. I avoid situations where I feel shame for risk-taking or vulnerability.
I quit telling myself it was something I did or didn’t do. And did the same for other women.
I haven’t learned any definitive secrets to success or survival. I know none of this was ever the default path or entitled to me. I have worked my ass off. I’ve been a weird alien as often as I’ve felt right. I’ve kept fighting because I love technology and the passionate people around me. I believe that my contribution, even if not grand, will be crucial to our lasting culture and history. I think that is true of every woman, and that’s why I’m here.