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.