Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Meet a Facebook Engineer: Jason Prado

In a male-dominated field like tech, it's nice having someone like Jason.

Jason Prado is a software engineer at Facebook, but he's above all a Silicon Valley veteran whose track record has run the gamut from Stanford CS section leading to start-ups to big companies. And ever since he volunteered to be a mentor for the Facebook University internship last year, I've had the good fortune of calling him my sensei.

 Just call me Lea-san

To be honest, when I first met Jason I had no clue just how accomplished he is. He was way too open to answering our questions and not nearly snooty enough about it to fit into that douchey, Evan-Spiegelian mold that Silicon Valley seems to have carved out for success. Matter of fact, he was the bees' knees. It wasn't until weeks later that I learned Jason has navigated a wonderful, adventurous life journey, punctuated with more career chances than many college students will even take in choosing their quarter courseload.

Although he'd never admit it, Jason is a pretty cool dude. Just how cool, you ask? He defies an unwashed monotony of League of Legends t-shirts in a stand of blazing, leather-jacket-clad glory. He's so cool sometimes not even his own hands can handle his coolness, and must be constrained to wrist braces or face the raging carpal tunnel of his righteous coding sessions. He's so cool he goes to Burning Man every year and doesn't die.

The only thing standing between Jason's hands and coding armageddon

Carpal tunnel aside, a big part of the reason Jason is so cool is he's insightful. He's insightful as a sort of entrepreneurial seismograph, carrying an impressive sense for what's important before it breaches public, even industrial, awareness. And he's insightful as a feminist, cognizant of the gaping gender gap in Computer Science and actively working to close that gap through his mentorship.

Like naps and coffee, Jason's mentorship is something I've grown to appreciate the deeper I sink into the real world. I've seen his encouragement almost comedically opposed by people in the industry who are not nearly as supportive or even respectful. And if it weren't hard enough that I've spent days building websites from the bottom up only to have a male coworker comment on how "fun ;)" my dress looked, it's even harder realizing Evan Spiegel is not as uncommon as I thought in this big, rowdy frat that is Silicon Valley.

Yet in an industry racked by a drought of women, Jason has been a refreshing little feminist raincloud. He's made mentoring women and other minorities integral to his career, participating in programs at both Facebook and Google that target the underrepresented in tech. More than that, he's displayed impressive insight into the hurdles women face, an experience completely outside his own, and that, my friends, is a feat more challenging than any coding problem. (Okay, maybe not P=NP challenging, but you catch my drift.) As Telle Whitney wrote for TechCrunch, it's essential that men get the ball rolling from the inside on making tech a better place for women, and Jason has done a fantastic job of it.

For lack of a better metaphor than the classic raisin cake of Probabilistic Theory texts yore, maybe Jason is just a slice with a disproportionate amount of raisins, an outlier skewing my estimation of the "average" engineer for the rosy. Maybe there are way more un-raisened, unsympathetic, asshole slices, entirely lacking in flavor or understanding of the female perspective. None the less, Jason is a slice, and his presence should give us women in tech hope for support from our fellow man.

So there you have it, Jason is a coding whiz, a feminist, and as I know him, a mentor who's made a path stocked with technical and emotional challenges that much easier. You have to wonder what brew of life experience and inspiration shaped all that he is. Well look no further. 

I present to you the exclusive Q&A with Jason Prado:

This is Jason as a sloth.

How did you get into Computer Science?

I moved around a lot the whole time I was growing up so I was never in one school or town for very long. This made it hard to make lasting friendships, which made it easy to spend a lot of time with computers. 

I got really into the satellite TV hacking scene, of all things. You could take a smartcard out of a DirecTV satellite receiver, plug it into some hardware connected to a computer, and re-program the card to give you all the channels for free. 

How exactly the hacking programs worked was beyond me, but I started to understand them little by little. The scene was based around IRC channels, so I also began writing how-to documents for newbies and teaching classes on IRC. That was the first time I noticed how much I like explaining technical things to people.

How was your experience at Stanford?

At Stanford, I would have declared Computer Science on my first day if they had let me. Instead I took CS106X. The CS106 program is just phenomenal. It's what an introduction to a technical topic should be like. The instructors do an amazing job of taking a scary topic and making it approachable. So I for sure loved CS after CS106X, and I wanted to be a section leader right away.  I tried out for the CS198 program and got accepted along with my good friend and fellow freshman Ryan Williams, who I later worked with at meebo.

Section leading was probably the best thing I did at Stanford. As a freshman, I was at least as young as everyone else in my section, so I never told them I'd just taken the class last quarter. I mentored CS106/CS107 for about nine quarters, pretty much the rest of my time at Stanford. It was great. I got to explain programming problems to students, I got to walk around debugging people's programs, and I got paid for it no less.

Debugging other people's code is such a good skill to have. It's not really clear until you enter the industry, but most of the life of a programmer is spent debugging code, and it barely matters if it's code you wrote a few weeks ago or a stranger's code. So getting really good at it is an important skill. I also made a lot of lifelong friends through the program and a lot of connections that have influenced my career.

Between section leading and staffing at Kairos, one thing I didn't have a lot of time for was the whole "class" thing. I enjoyed programming classes, but I struggled a lot in the more theoretical classes about math. I had entered Stanford believing that academia was a place I'd fit in, but by the time I took CS221 (Artificial Intelligence) my sophomore year and had done a summer internship with a research group, I realized the Academy was not for me. I was going to be a hacker.

How was your internship experience?

I interned at meebo the summer after my sophomore year, a cool company that initially produced a web-based AIM client. I couldn't believe what I was seeing--web pages could change without reloading the page. No one I knew had even heard of AJAX then, and I was pretty blown away that the Web had changed.

meebo's interview process was so cool. They gave me a book on networking and a computer running emacs and told me to write a web server. I had some passing familiarity with sockets but had never implemented a real protocol. It took a few hours but at the end, I had a working web server I had written in C. Apparently I was the first person to pass the simulation, and they gave me the job.

meebo had three founders. The two technical founders were female while the CEO was a man from the GSB. I'm not sure if I knew those stats were abnormal then or not, but I imagine working for talented female founders influenced my view of women in technology.

The next summer I worked at another Stanford startup, Apture. I wrote a lot of Python there and helped complete the first version of their backend. Funnily, meebo, Apture, and my own start-up were all acquired by Google.

What did you do after Stanford?

Senior year I wasn't having the most fun at Stanford. I'd really enjoyed working at companies and I was only doing so-so in my classes, so I decided to finish early and save a lot of money. I took my foreign language requirement at Foothill and didn't enroll in classes at Stanford winter or spring quarters. Hanging around Stanford while not taking classes is the way to do it. I highly recommend it.

But I was also anxious to get into the real world and out of town. I took an offer at Microsoft to work on Silverlight, the thing you use to watch Netflix. In retrospect, passing on my Google and Facebook offers for Microsoft was a pretty poor choice, but I was happy to move away from the Bay for a while.

Jason and Plannr Co-Founder Ben Eidelson

I moved to Seattle and spent ~18 months at Microsoft. I worked on side projects with my friend Ben Eidelson, a fellow '08er who also went to Microsoft, and eventually I saved enough that I could take a year off and work on starting a company. So we did that. I wasn't sure what we would build when I quit so we built a lot of crap. Eventually we settled on a problem we kept coming back to--helping friends meet up in the real world. It's a problem I think every twenty-something programmer tries to solve now.

We built an iOS app called Plannr. It was a social calendar / group chat app before the current messaging app trend really started. We got on TechCrunch a few times and accrued a couple ten thousand users over the course of the ~9 months we were focusing on it. 

How did you transition from your start-up back into the big company scene?

At the end of a year being independent, and out of money, we looked around to decide whether or not we should get funding and hire a team to continue Plannr. We were in San Francisco to visit friends, and we stopped by the Facebook office to talk to a guy we knew in biz dev about giving us some API access. He basically told us there was no way Facebook would give us special APIs, but if we wanted, they could just buy our company. I was confused. We hadn't built anything of significant value, but Facebook would buy it?

So we had an implicit offer from Facebook. We knew enough about economics to know that we should get other offers if we were seriously considering being acquired. I knew someone influential at Google, so I talked to him about our Facebook offer and arranged to come in and interview at Google. The interviews went well, and we learned a lot more about the negotiation process. 

Google was starting to work on Google+ then and was trying to hire anyone who knew anything about mobile or social--and trying to keep Facebook from doing the same. We underwent the same negotiation process at Facebook, but they showed the same hubris that made me turn them down in 2008. When we asked for an offer that was competitive with Google's, someone there actually said, "You should work here because you want to work here." That thinking is a pet peeve of mine. "Come work here so our founders and investors get rich while you squander your one and only youth." Don't fall for that crap.

Google's offer was really impressive, and we thought about it a lot. We decided that while we were proud of what we'd built with Plannr, it didn't have a promising future and we didn't have the dedication to see it through for years. So we took the offer from Google and joined the Google+ team working on communication products. Getting acquired was a stressful, hectic, awesome process. I was able to pay off my massive college loans all at once, and I received financial freedom for a long time.

Eventually we became a big part of the GChat team. I architected a lot of the transition from GChat to Hangouts and designed a protocol that made chat work better on mobile. Google is a fantastic place to work. Everyone there is brilliant, and they have great engineering processes. Seriously, Google is one of the best engineering organizations on the planet.

Jason talking about the engineering behind Paper
Watch Jason in "Building Paper"

What brought you to Facebook?

My girlfriend, Sophie, and I had been dating for a few months when she decided to leave a start-up and join Facebook. A few months later she was really liking it there and told me about how seriously they were taking mobile. At Google, I spent a lot of time trying to convince upper management that mobile was important, which is surprising given that Google owns Android. But Google+ was never even a little bit mobile-first; mobile was an afterthought. This was extremely frustrating, and I kept hearing that Facebook was betting the company on mobile. Which just makes sense. If Facebook had waited another year or two on their mobile transition they would be going out of business about now.

So I interviewed at Facebook and talked to them about where their thinking was. I kept getting the impression that they were frantically trying to win at mobile, as everyone seemed acutely aware of the danger the company was in. And in all my dealings with them this time, the arrogance that had turned me off before seemed to be gone. Facebook, the company, was way more mature. 

I decided to join Facebook and looked for a project in mobile. I found Paper, just a prototype then, but backed by incredible design talent. I worked on Paper for a year and half or so until it shipped. Now I'm working on general mobile infrastructure at Facebook, trying to make developing for mobile much faster and easier. Facebook is definitely my favorite place I've worked.

Jason and some interns who know how to have a good time

What has been your experience working in different environments with different attitudes toward diversity?

I've been lucky to work mostly in inclusive and positive environments. Google is a very respectful environment, as is Facebook. Both are being proactive in solving their diversity problems: they run mentoring programs, and they publish diversity statistics. They're looking to optimize their demographics just like they do anything else, by measuring it and then taking action.

But let's be real, the statistics are awful. Every tech company is failing here, and while the difference between 5% and 15% females in engineering might be significant, both numbers are shit.

I've also worked at one start-up that was much less than respectful of women in the workplace. The founder made lewd jokes and drove female employees out by creating a hostile environment. I don't think I understood how poisonous that was then, but I have a much better grasp of how unacceptable that was now.

Why do you feel the way you do about the gender gap and sexism in Silicon Valley?

A lot of reasons. At Stanford, there were plenty of women who were better than me at everything, including Computer Science, so the idea that women can't code could never have even occurred to me. I remember one time I got the second highest score on an exam in a class, and a woman beat me with a perfect score.

Working for a start-up founded by female engineers was a similar experience. It made it clear that if women are just as capable as men and are still underrepresented in the industry, there must be something else at work. The industry can't be as much of a "meritocracy"' as we often pretend it is.

My little sister also attended Stanford. She was also a CS106 section leader, and she also worked at a startup while in school. But at some point she realized how hostile the industry is to women, and she got out of it. A career path in the most important industry in the world was closed to her because of the bad behavior of men in it. That's bad for her, but it's also bad for the industry. It's alienating half of its potential talent. Things worked out for her, but it still bothers me.

Once you start looking for misogyny, you see it everywhere. Plenty of my female friends have been assaulted at tech conferences. I've seen male tech workers treat Sophie badly. I hear the way some men talk about women at work. I see idiotic start-up pitches with pictures of women in bikinis on their slide decks. Start-ups throw parties with themes that objectify women. Brogrammers do their stupid things.

This drives me crazy, but I see lots of people, both men and women, just not believe there's a sexism problem in tech until it affects them or someone close. It's like they think everyone is delusional until they experience it themselves. I think this is changing, but it's taking too long and we should have done better as an industry by now.

How do you strive to support women in tech?

Abstractly, I've helped some female friends get into Computer Science. Some friends of mine who didn't go to Stanford took the CS106 class online, and I would "grade" their assignments for them. One of them is now a professional programmer at a successful start-up even though she has no formal CS training.

More concretely, my contribution is being a mentor for programs like Facebook University (FBU) at Facebook and BOLD at Google. For FBU, I mentor a group of three interns every summer who come from backgrounds that are underrepresented in our industry. The idea is that we provide support and encouragement at a time when students might be dropping out of the Computer Science pipeline otherwise. It's a time-consuming but rewarding experience, and from what I can tell, it's made a real impact on the students' lives. 

From what I can say of my experience, Jason has made a great impact on my life. Because of him, my dad and the other supportive men in my life, I have hope for feminism even in a room devoid of women. And for that I am immensely grateful.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Cleaning Up the Way We Treat Our Custodial Staff

Mina is a Pilipina woman in her mid-sixties who every day wears a clean black bob and a heart-melting smile. In true pilipino fashion, she can't pronounce her f's and speaks pondly op her pamily in a boice that can only be described "peppy." Mina reminds me a bit of my own lola, or grandma. There was no helping I'd like her from the start.

Mina is a former custodian at Toyon Hall, an all-sophomore dorm of roughly 200 residents on east campus. On the 6th of June she retired, concluding many years of service to the Stanford community.

Toyon Hall

As a dorm custodian Mina had many responsibilities, including but not limited to maintaining the romanesque courtyard, vacuuming the halls, and cleaning the bathrooms 
speckless. She was always toiling down the halls with a smile on her face, and because of it we lived in our Spanish-roofed villa for eight happy, spotless months.

Mina is more than her responsibilities though. She is a woman who braved the challenges of immigration and assimilation into American culture. She is a tireless, gentle soul who mothered us here at Stanford all while providing financial security to her children back home in the Philippines. She's the lola away from home.

And while Mina may have been Toyon's caretaker, there are some things that should not have become her responsibility this past year.

Yes, I'm talking about that gut-churningly foul, vein-poppingly infuriating phenomenon that even some Stanford students--those chosen few whose abilities to found companies, break athletic records and exhale eloquence transcended the towering hurdle that is Admissions--cannot seem to trump: the absentee toilet flush.

Don't. Don't even get me started, man. It's such a crappy thing to do, literally. Just brace yourselves kids, your ears may pop at the speed my tone escalates from the sentimental for ire.

I have a dream someday this will be unnecessary

Who on this sacred earth after finishing their business in a restroom--a public one no less--just gets up and leaves? Whose ego is possibly huge enough to think their filth should be left behind for the next person to walk in on and ponder like abstract art? Like 8 AM classes or Furbies, why is this even a thing? Did you undergo amnesia for five seconds? When you were eight years old did a tornado ram your house right as you were flushing and now you can't turn the 180 degrees to face the metal pole without fear gripping your entire being? No? Then why, for the love of all that is sanitary, WHY.

There are deep questions of the Universe that will ceaselessly balk the human mind, and this one seems to be mine. Regardless of philosophy, one truth remains: it's not the custodial staff's responsibility to flush after you.

Neither is it the dining staff's responsibility to clean up the food-caked plates carelessly left on tables after lunchtime or the landscapers' responsibility to pick up the red solo cups carelessly strewn across lawns like casualties of rager. Carelessness is the motif here, and because of it responsibilities are all too often shirked to R&DE staff, including Mina. 

If my anger of a thousand white hot suns wasn't loud enough, it really grinds my gears. More than that, it gets me wondering: are some of us so careless because we are comfortable in the fact that someone will take care of us? Do some of us actually believe it's someone else's responsibility to take care of us?

Tell it, Tyra

At Stanford we are cared for nearly completely. We have custodians to clean up after us, we have dining halls to prepare great food for us, and we even have landscapers to prune our palm trees every month. Lest eking out existence in the godforsaken land that is Rains, we are basically children suckling at R&DE's teat. I'm sorry for the metaphor, as I'm sorry for disregarding the fact these services come at a high price, but I hold unapologetically that with these services comes some carelessness, even condescension, for the people who perform them.

A student who worked in the dining hall for a day wrote an excellent post expressing his disappointment in his classmates for treating the staff as invisible, even garbage. And ashamed to say, I've witnessed firsthand some classmates treat staff members rather curtly. 

But I'm no innocent either. I've walked past plates left on tables, past trash on the lawns, and instead of picking it up thought, "Well...it's the janitor's job." I'd deemed it was someone else's responsibility to pay for our carelessness. Even worse, I'd dehumanized a feeling, breathing custodian into a service.

It doesn't even make sense that I'd think this way, especially since I was raised with a bloodline to and respect for the disadvantaged. My mother came to America as a refugee when she was 12 with not a lick of English and faced discrimination as she juggled raising her five siblings, working, and going to school for the rest of her childhood. Sometimes I can't even open a jar of marinara.

Aww yiss (Wilbur dining)

I've grown to care a lot more this past year, and it's because of Mina, my mom and dad, and the other hard workers in my life. Visibility and open dialog with the people who provide us our charmed life is absolutely crucial for humanizing their services, for appreciating the journeys they've led, and for preventing the carelessness that often declines into condescension.

Moral of the story? Remember that behind the clean dorms, the hot food and the manicured lawns are human beings who are trying to improve their life in the same way we are by attending Stanford. 

And flush the damn toilet.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

4 Reasons Why You Should Apply to FBU, Especially If You're a Woman

If you've felt even the slightest inkling of interest in Computer Science, you should apply to the Facebook University (FBU) internship, an all-freshmen program Facebook began offering the summer of 2013. If you're a woman, you should REALLY apply.

Why am I going all Billy Mays for FBU? For one, Mark Zuckerberg and his adorable sweatjackets can do no wrong and I totally buy Facebook's sugar-coated mission of "making the world more open and connected." Secondly, and slightly more important, I was lucky to be part of the guinea pig class of FBU, an experience that has only made me more optimistic about the future of Computer Science and women's role in it as a whole.

The FBU interns of 2013

To be sure, when I began FBU I was not so optimistic. I had two years of high school experience being the only girl in an AP Computer Science class of twenty dudes, and I entered college with no intention of prolonging the sausage fest. 

To top it off the introductory CS courses I took at Stanford, although very well-staffed and much more promising in gender ratio, felt much too academic and not nearly enough applicable for my taste. I wanted the comfort of other women in my major, I wanted to code something big, and I had no idea how to compromise the two.

Luckily, FBU swept the past summer like Sheryl Sandberg did my heart and salvaged me from academic/existential crisis. So what's so great about Facebook? Why the possessed look in my eyes? 

Allow me to present the definitive list of FBU game-changers:

1) The people
Cliché, I know, but the best thing about Facebook really is its people. My mentor Jason is an outstanding engineer with exceptional design sense and ample brain folds to spare, yet for all his accomplishments he treated the interns like equals. Even if not all people at Facebook are so cool, those who do volunteer to be intern mentors for FBU tend to be grade-A awesome sauce.

And for those who are only interested in *cough* the possibilities *cough* Facebook is quite the impressive dating gene pool. My first day I literally thought Zuck was commissioning Urban Outfitters to dress the employees. Maybe Stanford's sweatpants couture has lowered my standards for dress, but along with fashion sense Facebook's employees are pre-selected for intelligence and ability to work on a team. Apparently something magical happens to programmers as they transcend from college to the industry, a second puberty so to speak, and for once in your CS life ladies the gender ratio is ever in your favor. So own it.

The typical Facebook engineer

2) Sheryl Sandberg

If there are two women in this world who I had to be conjoined twins with for the rest of my life, they are Shakira and Sheryl Sandberg. Why? Because Sheryl is awesome. Rumor is she smells like roses. I ran into her in the bathroom once. Rumor is true.

Did you know "Sheryl" is Spanish for "unapologetic awesomeness"

In all seriousness though, one of the proudest reasons I have for working at Facebook is Sheryl. She is an inspiration for what it means to be a strong woman in the tech industry, and as a woman in the tech industry, inspiration is what we need. 

Cold feet are inevitable if you're a woman in CS. And there's no shame in that. Every woman in tech has at some point in her career gotten cold feet because the industry is a scary place. It's scary for a number of reasons: we are not surrounded by a majority of other people like us; the media has confined our career to geeky Sheldon Cooper-types;
blatant sexism in the workplace; and so on. It's scary, but Sheryl's message to recognize and stand against society's discrepancies in expected career path, income, and general success of men and women is strong at Facebook.

Sandberg has done an amazing job of personally taking care of female interns at Facebook, giving each woman a free signed copy of Lean In, hosting Lean In Foundation meetings and Q&As with all the women, even inviting all female interns to her own backyard for a barbecue and some community. She's a feminist not just in print but also in action, and her activism has given Facebook's reputation a human touch. So if you too want to smell the roses, apply to FBU. 

3) The work
Facebook gave me a wonderful opportunity that I was craving in school: real-world experience. For academic assignments, I was usually working completely on my own save for bits and pieces of help from friends or TAs at office hours. But at Facebook projects are completely interdependent, and as such people must learn to work on a team. 

A fear many women have of Computer Science is that it is a lonely road, one usually led by the acne-ridden, Cheeto-munching World of Warcrafter in a dark basement that reeks of stale tears and celibacy. The reality is that companies, Facebook especially, rely on collaboration to create seamless, driven products, and my intern group really benefitted from this aspect. I was constantly communicating with my teammates whether it be in delegating work, critiquing each other's code, or talking design details, and I learned invaluable lessons about managing relationships.

The typical coder in the media

At the end of day, we had a tangible, functioning product, an iPhone app leveraging nifty, then-beta iOS 7 features. And what a feeling it is to see the very code you wrote come alive on an iPhone screen. At FBU, you can build an app or project that you too can call your own by virtue of the code. And although FBU is just one way to kickstart your production, it'll provide you the excellent guidance, work environment, and other real-world resources academia usually cannot.

4) The perks
Halfway through my internship I caught myself whining, "Oh my god, the café is serving duck confit again?" And then I slapped myself. Because Facebook food is the BEST. THING. IN EXISTENCE. And to not appreciate it is deeper sacrilege than burning a signed copy of Lean In. Your inculcation into the world of palatable pleasure at Facebook shall proceed in three stages:

1) "Oh my god, they have an espresso machine?! And it's free?"

2) "Oh my god, gourmet lamb tacos? Gourmet duck? Gourmet corn flakes? And it's free?"
3) "Oh my god, it's free?"

They don't call it Cafe Epic for nothin'

Facebook makes sure its employees are caffeinated with cappuccinos to make a grown Italian man cry and fills its employees with food that manifests itself in the "Facebook 15." And poor me, barely escaping the claws of the Freshman 15, had no chance. 

Other food may hold no meaning after tasting Facebook's, but if that were not enough the intern coordinators plan weekly events to expose interns to all the fun the Bay Area has to offer, including but not limited to a trip to Yosemite, a scavenger hunt across San Francisco, and an intern carnival at Facebook's Disneyland-meet-urbania campus, complete with bounce house, zipline, and free food trucks. Just savor the feel of the words on your lips: "free food trucks."

Did I mention luxurious corporate housing? No? Well, there's that too.

In conclusion

Can there be any question now that you should apply? If you're a woman in CS, FBU will give you the optimism it gave me to carry through the unique challenges you'll face in a male-dominated field. Heck, if you're a goat this internship will make your life better because it's awesome.

To be sure, FBU is just one way to get comfortable with your womanhood in the industry, to get real-world experience, and to build a functional product with your creative stamp on it. Any internship you take or project you begin can only increase your confidence in your ability to code. Just seize these opportunities to grow and take comfort in the presence of other women who've faced the same challenges. It may only be summer, but recruiting season is just around the corner.