Software Engineer | 22 Aug 17

In school I studied Computer Science. It’s sad because when I first joined the class there were quite a few girls - I mean more than five, but less than eight. My graduating class, other than me, there was just one more.

What do you do?

I’m a Senior Software Engineer for the Walt Disney Company, in what they call Attractions Technology.

I’ve been there for almost seven years now. I first was hired in what they call Agency Services, which is a smaller team for rolling out smaller sites that have no e-commerce feature of any kind. It was fine, but it got a little boring for me, just because there’s not a lot of new challenges to do. So I moved on to an internal DevOps role. I really liked that better. There were a lot of things to solve, and also we had to be customer-aware for the teams and engineers we had to support internally. Later when they disbanded that team, I transferred to what is called the Tickets team. While I was there we worked on things like the Disney Cruise line checkout flow, before that the revamping of tickets portion, then last year, Shanghai Disney Resort. We had to take into account real time availability and real time pricing updates from the backend. So I say that I like challenges. Every couple of years, I look around and say, “Okay, what’s new?” I have to keep moving.

How did you get into your current role?

Prior to Disney I worked for IMDb, which is a subsidiary of Amazon. It was interesting; I definitely learned a lot. Amazon is the kind of place where you sink or swim. You have a lot of freedom to decide what the timelines would be like, but there’s also a lot of rope to hang yourself. If you’re self-motivated, it’s a great place to be, but the pressure and the hours can be a little overwhelming.

Before that, I was at the LA Times. I was doing Ruby on Rails there. And prior to that, I came from Earthlink in Pasadena. I was there for four years. Before that I was at a small technology company called ITG… So, I can go on and on. Before that I was with e-Toys, a toy start up company in Santa Monica. A long series of jobs.

In school I studied Computer Science. It’s sad because when I first joined the class there were quite a few girls - I mean more than five, but less than eight. My graduating class, other than me, there was just one more. And it’s sad to see my female friends slowly drop out through the school years.

What did you want to be growing up?

When I was very very little, I wanted to be a policewoman. I think I saw them and I thought that well, you know, this is a very noble profession. And when I got a little older, 6 or 7, I realized that it’s a really tough job and very difficult on your body. I wasn’t sure, but I knew I wanted to do something in math or science.

In high school I wanted to major in chemistry. I like it, it makes sense to me, and I actually think chemistry is my major when I first got to college, but I didn’t like the labs. I didn’t like that I had to spend six hours sitting in chemistry labs. I thought how boring a chemist’s life would be.

My dad majored in both physics and chemistry in college, so from very early on he instilled a sense of curiosity in science in us. I have three sisters and no brothers. Growing up I’ve always thought that I want to understand more of this because I want to understand why my dad is so fascinated by chemistry and physics. My dad didn’t end up being a scientist. He ended up working in the department of education in Hong Kong. He eventually became a principal in schools in Hong Kong and I think it was good that he understood why students need to learn science. I learned that from him.

Did you feel encouraged or discouraged about going into technology?

It’s funny you say that. I grew up in Hong Kong and my family didn’t immigrate to the US until I was 13. And in Hong Kong we were in the private girls’ school. I definitely didn’t feel any of the stigma that I’ve read about that girls growing up in the U.S. can experience. None of that at all.

When I came to junior high and high school in the U.S., I guess we were fairly sheltered in the sense that my parents picked a good school district. All the students expected to do well in school. For high school my parents made us enroll in gifted schools. So personally I didn’t feel the stigma of “girls aren’t supposed to do well in math and science.” But I can see how a lot of other people who had education here had that experience.

What is your first memory of being intrigued by technology?

My dad brought home - I don’t even remember what kind of computer it was. I remember thinking “okay, let me try to do this.” I somehow got my hands on a magazine, and it had simple Basic instructions, and I was like, oh, let me try this. I tried a few lines and I’m like, oh wow, this does what I think it should do. Okay. And then I got a little more into it and I showed all my sisters. And they were like “okay, this is kinda cool.”

Have you had any mentors or champions along the way?

My dad, definitely. I like the way he taught us and encouraged us. When we came across a problem that we couldn’t figure out, we’d ask him. He’d first pull out a fresh page of paper, and then he’d state the problem in our words, and now work from there. When you do that instead of reading the problem in someone else’s language, it helps to rephrase it in your own language. And then you read it a couple times, and then you understand what the question is and you start to formulate a plan.

Also, the department head of computer science at my school. When I first went to college I was a chemistry major. I didn’t really like it, and I dropped out of school and worked for a couple of years. I realized all the internal job postings that I wanted required a bachelor’s degree. And I thought, okay, should I go back to school. I thought about it - but do I really want to be in the financial field? I know they have a sales quota they need to meet, like every month, every quarter, every year, and it doesn’t matter how well you did month before, the week before.

I thought about it some more, and I thought, well you know, I think I’m going to go back to school to become a geologist. I quit my job, which at the time, was a big deal because I went from full income to no income. I moved in with my sister. When I was picking the classes for my geology major, I thought to myself, I’m not 18 years old, I’m starting this a little late, I need to have an edge; why don’t I take a CS 101 class?

The department head at the time happened to be the professor of the CS 101 class. I didn’t know why, but he would always pick on me. I think I cut a couple of classes, and he would always call me out in the next session. A couple of times he caught me smoking in the corridor and he gave me a verbal lecture for twenty minutes. More than a couple of times he asked to see me in his office, and I always thought that I did something wrong, I was going to fail. He would sit me down and ask me, “what do you want to do?” And I was like, we’ve had this conversation before. I’m going to become a geologist.

He told me he’s been a department head at the school for a while and he hasn’t seen someone who can do the coursework so well and so easily. He told me that, I know you think you want to be a geologist, but please think about what I’m saying. When I went home, I looked at my schedule again and I changed a couple things, and I thought maybe I’ll take CS 102 and see how things go. And looking back, that’s the beginning of everything.

What do you want to learn next?

I’m starting to learn about assistants - like Google Home or something like that. Let’s just say that buying a home has wiped me out financially, so I don’t want to pay money for it. So I’m like, you know what, there’s a lot of SDKs out there. I bet I could learn it and figure out what I want to do. That seems kind of fun. We have an old Raspberry Pi lying around in our home that I haven’t been doing anything with.

Do you have any hobbies that are unrelated to your field?

Yes - travel. I’m from Hong Kong, and when my parents first moved to the US, we moved to New York. That’s where my little sister still lives, so I feel really close to New York even though every time I go it changes a lot. My husband is from Argentina, and his sister lives in Spain. My goal is to visit all the national parks in the U.S.

For a while, I was really into Muay Tai. We would have friendly spars with friends who are also into that, but I injured my shoulder while trying to train to be more fit. So recently I’m just starting to get into what they call bouldering, like indoor rock climbing. You go really high. Bouldering is a problem set. You see a wall and you have different levels, let’s say yellow is the easiest level and red is hardest, and even though there are different rocks, you can only stick to one color. You can do whatever you want, no one is judging, but you get fit very fast. I’m sore all the time.

I also play the piano. I’m not very good. When I’m stuck with a problem, I find that it helps to loosen my brain a little bit to do something different. Then when I revisit the problem, it doesn’t seem as overwhelming to me. It’s a good way to exercise a different muscle.

What motivates you?

I think I always need to be challenged. When I overcome a challenge, I’m happy about it and I rest for a little bit, and then I start thinking, okay, what’s next?

What advice do you have?

Don’t be afraid of hard work. It’s easier to work hard when you’re younger and your mind is more moldable. Think about what it is that you want to do, but also be pragmatic. Think about what will be good for you to ensure security in your life. And it’s possible to blend too; you don’t have to sacrifice passion [for] job stability or financial stability. You do have to work hard to give yourself that edge. No matter what field you’re in, science or not, that’s something you should always think about.

Don’t be afraid to get into something that you don’t know anything about. There’s a lot of resources out there, a lot of support you can find online, a lot of support you can find in person. If you ask for help, I find that very few people will say no.