Starting my Career as a Woman in Engineering

Graduating from college, moving out, and starting my first job in the middle of a pandemic was challenging, but learning from my mistakes and maintaining a growth mindset pushed me to become a stronger engineer and a better advocate for women in engineering.

Starting my Career as a Woman in Engineering

By: Maggie Luo

I think we can all agree that 2020 was a year of many firsts.

Maybe for you, it was your first time spending most of your time at home with family in years. Or maybe it was your first time voting in the election, downloading TikTok, or making Dalgona coffee (we all remember that phase of quarantine, don’t we?)

For me, last year was filled with many milestones: graduating from UC Berkeley as a first-generation college student, moving into an apartment in San Francisco with my friends during a pandemic, and starting my career remotely as a Software Engineer on the Risk & Data Science Engineering team at Afterpay.

With these milestones came a lot of obstacles and challenges I had to overcome, especially in the workplace. Being the youngest person on my team and the first woman engineer in the entire U.S. Afterpay office, I initially had a lot of self-doubt. During my first few weeks, questions I often asked myself were: “How do I ask this question without sounding dumb?” “Am I saying ‘sorry’ too much?” “Was it somehow a mistake that they had hired me, and do they regret it?”

Starting my career fully remote didn’t help much either. For example, I spent way too much time analyzing the way I typed messages to my teammates on Slack. With my friends, I was so used to using lots of exclamation points, emojis, or LOL-ing when nothing was really that funny. However, I tried to muffle that side of me at work. I wanted to keep a balance between making sure I sounded serious and professional, while preventing myself from falling into the stereotype that women in power get for being too “firm” or too “bossy”. And when other teammates responded to me without any of the same exclamations or happy faces as I did, I thought to myself, “Am I being annoying or too much?” “Do they think I’m stupid and I’m bothering them?”

In retrospect, I definitely wasn’t. But still, the imposter syndrome was real.

You Learn the Most When You Make Mistakes

Fortunately, there was one experience in particular that really changed my perspective on myself, my team, and how I wanted to grow as an engineer.

I had been at Afterpay for about a month and a half and I was working on my first big project in the Data Science pod that required setting up multiple new endpoints and a MySQL database in our feature store, a service that provides the features used for determining whether or not a transaction is fraudulent. I had just received an approval on my pull request from my mentor, and I excitedly merged my code to master to prepare for deployment. I took a brief look at our staging environment, the logs, and decided things looked good to go.

In my head, I wholeheartedly believed there was no way my code could cause any problems or outages. Leading up to this point, I never really ran into any issues, so I recklessly decided to be more lenient on the deployment process. I over-confidently deployed my changes to all regions in production at once.

I thought, “Wahoo! My changes are out! The first part of my big project was done!”

But then, immediately, I started receiving notifications about multiple services in other domains erroring out. People on teams I had never worked with were trying to track down what had caused their services to fail, going further and further down the stack trace. Nervously, I finally took a look at the production logs and realized, “uh oh...”

The database was never provisioned in production!

Panic. I quickly reached out to my teammate, Xirui Wang, for help and luckily, we were able to immediately roll back my changes. I felt terrible about myself and even thought at one point, “This is it. This is the end. I’m going to get fired.” I had no idea exactly how impactful the feature store was to Afterpay’s core product until I realized I broke it, and despite being taught to be careful during deployment by releasing changes to each region one-by-one, I had not listened.

Soon after, my manager, Chao Zhang, set up a meeting with me and a few of my teammates to discuss the incident that occurred. I was scared and felt so bad about myself, but I went into that meeting honest about what had happened and explained that it was a mistake on my part.

Instead of yelling at me, Chao and my teammates laughed it off and said it happens to everyone at least once in their career. A few of my teammates even started telling their own stories about things they’ve broken. Rather than grilling me about why I didn’t deploy one region at a time like I was told, Chao suggested we brainstorm some ideas for how we can prevent this sort of incident from happening again in the future. He told me to use this as a learning experience and to not worry. And as you can see, I was definitely not fired.

I came out of that meeting so relieved, and a few days later, my mentor Lei Yan even told me I was doing a great job. I then realized this minor setback was not a setback at all; it was a learning opportunity. When I listened to my teammates’ stories, I realized that no matter how experienced, smart, or senior the other guys on my team seemed, everyone messes up sometimes. Making mistakes is just another way of growing as an engineer.

Making Diversity and Inclusion a Priority

Now that it’s been 6 months since I joined Afterpay, I’ve learned so much since my first day here. I’ve gained a lot more confidence, and have even contributed to an awesome project like Afterpaid 2020! The cool thing about working at Afterpay is that we’re big enough for most of my friends to know our product, but still small enough to feel like I can make a lot of impact.

One thing I would like to see happen in 2021 is more women in leadership positions or engineering roles in the tech industry. Coming straight out of college as the only woman on both my team and Afterpay’s U.S. engineering organization, I realized that my four years studying CS at UC Berkeley was a huge bubble. It used to be easy to surround myself with other women who studied CS or engineering. In fact, many of my closest girl friends held leadership positions in clubs, taught as undergraduate student instructors in difficult technical courses, and are some of the smartest people I know. Where did all these women go in the tech industry?

It turns out, women still only hold 14% of all software engineering jobs and 25% of all computer science-related jobs, according to the Pew Research Center. That percentage is ridiculously low, and although initiatives like Girls Who Code and the Grace Hopper Celebration have made great strides towards equality these past few years, a lot more work needs to be done to achieve a more equitable and inclusive workplace for people of all genders and backgrounds.

Looking towards my future at Afterpay and my career in software engineering in general, I want to contribute directly towards fostering this kind of community in the tech industry. As I keep moving forward in my career, I want to speak up more and eventually mentor other young women engineers as they navigate their entry into the tech workforce. I want to see more engineering managers and engineers that identify as women at Afterpay and the tech industry as a whole while keeping the intersectionality of gender with race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background a priority.

Luckily, I think we’re moving in the right direction. With more and more women starting to join the engineering workforce, the fight for gender equality is stronger than ever. In fact, Afterpay recently hired a new Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Bindy Edelman, in November to lead our global strategy to build a diverse and inclusive workplace, including our initiatives to drive gender equality.

The more women and folks from underrepresented backgrounds in tech there are, the more likely the next generation of engineers will be more innovative, encompassing, and impactful than ever before.

I still have a long way to go in my career and a lot of things to learn, but I’m excited to see what I do next!

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