Tracy Chou joined Pinterest when it was still a small startup, building the pinboards that would come to be a standard of the Visual Web.
At Pinterest, she built an early codebase refactor in fall 2011 that enabled the growing Pinterest engineering team to collaborate on the same codebase. She also played a big role engineering a rewrite of Pinterest’s website and its move to the mobile Web, as well as building the site’s advertising front end.
Chou is one of the most visible women in the tech community—not just because of her talent as a software engineer, but also because she’s an outspoken critic on the subject of tech’s terrible lack of diversity.
Chou’s own background is a case in point. Her road to Pinterest was filled with detours, including the fact that she decided to be an engineer only after years thinking she would do anything but. Now, she advocates for other women to do the same.
The Winding Path To Computer Science
Chou didn’t always want to be a software engineer. In fact, when she took her first introduction to computer science course as an undergrad at Stanford University, she said she was intimidated by the class, and chose instead to pursue electrical engineering.
Students in computer science already had years of experience—some had even done internships while in high school. By contrast, EE students were mostly all on the same playing field.
Though it might be surprising, considering her successful career, the feeling of intimidation is not unique—many women tend to shy away from computer science courses at the university level, and though the ratio is improving, there are significantly more men who enroll in those courses.
To help combat the gender imbalance, some universities are taking extra steps to ensure students from diverse backgrounds that might not include programming courses, feel welcome in the classroom, and companies including Pinterest, are working to improve gender and racial diversity, especially in technical roles. (Each year Pinterest sends representatives to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing—and Chou goes every time.)
After Chou’s college internship with Google, she decided to focus on the business side of the technology industry, like finance or marketing—just not at Google.
“Being on the business side was kind of weird at Google,” Chou said in an interview with ReadWrite. “I had someone pull me aside and say, ‘If you’re good at the technical stuff, just do the technical stuff here…. If you’re going to do business stuff, you should go to Goldman.’”
Chou then enrolled in a fifth-year master’s program at Stanford—and ended up applying to the computer science program after a friend encouraged her to pursue it. But her goal was still a career in finance or consulting. She viewed the computer-science degree as more of a credential than a springboard into a job; resistant to specialization, she wanted to study as broadly as possible in order to avoid being pigeonholed as expert in one particular area.
Until, that is, she happened on Facebook at a career fair.
“They were giving out some free gifts, and I gave them my resume—back in 2007, it seemed cool,” she said. Facebook was recruiting computer science interns, and Chou ended up interning at Facebook as a software engineer. But even after her time at Facebook, she still wasn’t considering engineering as a career. She hoped to get her doctorate and do quantitative marketing research.
A little while later, the small startup Quora tried to recruit her as a software engineer. Chou was skeptical—but also willing to listen.
“Quora convinced me to join as a software engineer and at least give it a shot, and if I didn’t like it, I could switch into more of a data role,” she said. “I started as a software engineer, and discovered it was pretty fun.”
Why She Chose Startups
When Chou started at the question-and-answer social startup, it had only four employees compared to almost 1,500 at Facebook. But the decision to join a small team was an easy one for her.
“The thing it came down to for me was trying to understand my personal learning style and what I wanted to learn,” Chou said. “I felt my learning style was more suited to a startup where I would be jumping around learning a lot of different things all over the place and trying to understand systems and how they all fit together, as opposed to going really deep in one area.”
Chou then hopped to Pinterest in November 2011, back when it was also a relatively small startup. She already used Pinterest and knew Ben Silbermann socially, and was recruited to join the small team. Chou became one of the first female engineers at the growing company.
Now, Pinterest has grown into one of the most popular social networks, valued at $5 billion. It might be different than small startup she joined, but Chou remains at Pinterest, and has become a mentor to many women who find themselves entering the engineering field still dominated by men.
The Importance Of Mentorships
Fewer women are studying computer science than men, and that gap has continued to widen since 1985. In the 1980s, stereotypes began to form—programmers or technical roles were played by men in the media, and commercials for products like video games were targeted towards young boys, not girls.
And in the history of computing, women are largely forgotten. Women were partly responsible for the creation of the first all-electronic programmable computer, and yet men were the ones who received all the credit.
As a vocal advocate for workplace diversity, Chou hears these stories all too often—even in her role at Pinterest.
One of the engineering interns at Pinterest told Chou she wasn’t interested in pursuing engineering, rather a position in tech like product management. Instead of letting the young woman dismiss engineering as a career path, she encouraged her to purse it, despite what people had told her.
As Chou described it to me:
I asked her if she had considered being an engineer, and she said, “People have told me I should be a product manager, and people have told me I should start my own company, but no one’s ever told me I should be an engineer.”
Chou believes that if no one directly suggests engineering as a career to female students, they’re much less likely to consider it a real option. By making that overture as an engineer herself, Chou extended new possibilities for the student—who, by the way, now works as a software engineer at Pinterest.
Many women aren’t as lucky.
“Within companies the networking opportunities can be limited,” Chou said. “Because of the gender and race imbalances in the industry right now, it’s harder to find people similar to you if you’re a woman or person of color.”
Mentors can be crucial to technology careers. Though the industry claims to be a “meritocracy,” people hire others they have things in common with, and implicit bias can prevent managers from hiring someone who doesn’t fit a particular stereotype.
Chou provides mentoring to diverse groups of programmers through the Hackbright Academy and Code 2040. Through her guidance, students can ask questions about what it’s like in a particular field, get advice on how to navigate the industry, and build up contacts that can eventually help them further careers.
“The mentoring relationship is a lot more meaningful when it’s about specifics,” she said.
At a women in tech panel in October, Chou said she doesn’t know if she’ll make it a full decade as an engineer. “Sometimes it is just very painful, there is a lot of frustration around being undervalued or not treated the same in different situations, like at tech conferences,” she said.
If she does decide to leave, she’d be among the 41% of women who leave careers in technology, compared to just 17% of men.
Though there is hope—people are finally openly discussing the exclusion and frustration many women and people of color face in the workplace. Companies are disclosing diversity data and promising to change, while universities are experimenting with different ways to diversify computer science programs.
Much of that transparency is thanks to Chou herself. Shortly after she attended the Grace Hopper Celebration in 2013, she wrote the post, “Where are the numbers?” asking companies to divulge their diversity data. After Google disclosed its workforce data, the dominoes fell, and big companies and tech startups alike published similar information. And all of them have promised to change.
Whether or not Chou makes it a decade as an engineer, the tech workforce of the future will likely look a lot more welcoming than it does now, thanks, in large part, to the work women like Chou are doing to ensure equality for women and people of color in the technical workforce.
Update: This story has been corrected to clarify Chou’s status as one of the first female engineers hired at Pinterest.
Lead photo by TechCrunch; other photos courtesy of Pinterest