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Episode 37 | Block Party: Tracy Chou

Updated: Sep 5, 2021

It felt just so hypocritical to me that the tech industry is so data-driven about everything else but not around diversity.

Below is an abridged audio transcript of Episode 37 from Season 3 of Rock The Boat: Against All Odds, edited for clarity.

On this episode of Rock the Boat, we talk to startup founder and diversity advocate Tracy Chou. She's worked her way through internships and jobs at tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Pinterest. It's not at all been easy for her, having her own struggles with impostor syndrome and facing degrading comments from peers and coworkers.

She wrote a Medium post about diversity at tech companies that ended up going viral, and starting a movement to get companies to be more transparent about their numbers and what they are actually doing to improve those numbers.

In this episode, we hear about:

  • What it was like for Tracy to intern at big tech companies

  • Working at a place where she felt like she was viewed as a software engineer, not just a female software engineer

  • Getting pulled into diversity and inclusion activism

  • Starting a nonprofit and then a startup

The following is an abridged transcript of the episode. To listen to the full episode, find us on Anchor, iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts!

I. Tracy in the Tech World

Tracy: Hi, my name is Tracy Chou. I'm a software engineer diversity Advocate now a founder of a new startup working on combating online harassment.

Lucia: Tracy is a graduate of Stanford university from 2011 to 2016. Tracy was a software engineer and tech lead at Pinterest. Alongside her engineering career, Tracy is most well known for her tech diversity activism. In 2013 she helped to kick off the wave of tech company diversity data disclosures with a medium post titled, where are the numbers.

There have been times Tracy felt like she didn't belong in the world of tech either. She shares with us her experience working for the first time as an intern at Google.

Tracy: I would first started working as I thought I didn't belong I thought there was something wrong with me that I didn't fit Stuff felt wrong, but I didn't know what it was. So I assumed that it was my problem had a lot of the impostor syndrome of feeling like I just somehow slipped through the cracks and I shouldn't be here and they made a mistake on my application.

Some of my co-interns who are almost all male think there was a similar thinking that I was only there because. I was a girl or I didn't really deserve to be there but they were happy to be friends with me socially, but it really only came the next summer people are applying for internships.

I got a Facebook internship the next summer. Facebook is still very small back then. So in total that you're they were only like 17 and turns so I got an offer but none of the Google interns that I had worked with got offers from Facebook and people made these comments like, "Why did Tracy get an offer," like with this implication that I did not deserve it, I was nowhere near as qualified as anybody else. They all felt like I was stupid.

Lucia: Tracy had to constantly defend her credentials if she wanted to be taken seriously in tech.

So at this point in Tracy's career, she had worked at some of the best tech companies in Silicon Valley, and she was also noticing a pattern of getting overlooked as an engineer. It wasn't until the founders of a small social media company approached her to help them find product market fit that she discovered a different kind of tech company culture. That company was Pinterest. The first thing she noticed at Pinterest was their diversity of talent.

Tracy: At Quora, all of my co-workers were extremely pedigreed. So we had a lot of people from Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, who are former Facebook, Google, all very gold-plated resumes. There's a very particular style of smart that was rewarded.

And at Pinterest it was just a lot more balanced. So I had co-workers at Pinterest that had dropped out of school or home schools, some who went to prestigious universities and others went to ones that weren't.

But I felt like the Pinterest culture was better at making these different types of people successful and good to each other.

What was really nice when I started working at Pinterest was I realized it was the first place I felt I was treated as an engineer and not a female engineer, which is a subtle difference until you experience it and realize that it's actually pretty incredible to not have a gender modifier or some sort of modifier in front of everything you do like everywhere I've been before, in school, various internships, industry, anywhere I went. It always felt salient to mention that I was female.

II. The Diversity Numbers

Tracy: I wrote a medium post called, "Where are the numbers?" that called out the lack of transparency around diversity data, so. Not knowing at all what diversity looks like in terms of the numbers at these very different Tech. This is something that was very much an open secret. So anybody who have been on any of these like corporate campuses or been any of these sort of offices would know the lack of diversity. But without the quantification of it, it was very difficult to talk about or prioritize it. It felt just so hypocritical to me that the tech industry is so data-driven about everything else but not around diversity.

Lucia: So what are the numbers? According to pure research, women make up only 25% of the workforce in tech. That's down from 32% in 1990 we're going backwards. There's not only a hiring problem where few women are hired for these jobs, but also a retention problem. Women leave tech at more than twice the rate than men do, and there are some systematic reasons behind the attrition.

Tracy: It was intended to be much more than just like venting online, but it turned out that it was a very easy call to action that people could respond to individuals felt empowered to do swear.

They could just look around their teams and count up the numbers and submit those to me, which is much easier to do than many other things around diversity.

Lucia: That medium post started a movement for more companies to start posting about their numbers. And Tracy quickly became the face of the movement. Tracy leaned in.

Tracy: A couple years ago in 2016, I co-founded a nonprofit called Project Include which is actually trying to work on solutions.

We were seeing this trend in the industry of people talking about the problem and kind of like talking up what they were doing, but not making any progress. So we wanted to focus more the conversation on solutions and things that do work.

So we wrote down what we all need to be doing for best practice at least at that time and acknowledging that it might have to change or be updated.

III. Block Party

Lucia: After four years of working at Pinterest, Tracy wanted to do something new, so she followed her interests.

Tracy: I am working on now as a company called Block Party. We're building solutions for online abuse and harassment.

We're thinking very much from the end user perspective of somebody who has experienced abuse and harassment. Like what are the tools that would be helpful, which is quite different philosophically from building solutions for platforms, and you're trying to plug into their systems and build something that works across the entire ecosystem.

We're still working out the full like feature set of what we're building. So it is still very early but is thinking through how do we give people more control over what they see or not? See how do we tap into the community and other people who want to be helpful?

Another problem with the way a lot of anti-abuse features have been built on platform so far is that it puts the entire burden of handling the abuse on the person who's receiving.

Another thing I would keep in mind is there stuff that needs to happen to systemically and there are very broken systems that we are participating in, sometimes we have to be complicit in. I think it's good to remember that there are systemic issues and we should try to address them but also sometimes as an individual you have to do what's best for you. These things often are at odds with each other if you're trying to succeed in a broken system. Sometimes you have to pander to people who are in charge in that system or compromise parts of yourself or to fit in.


Show Notes

We admire Tracy's strength. She's been through a lot as a software engineer at tech companies. Her work as an advocate and nonprofit leader is inspirational and she keeps working towards big issues that shouldn't be ignored any longer like online harassment.

Her advice to women and minorities who are considering going into tech is to just do it. Give it your all and do it well.

Here are links to find out more about Tracy's projects:

Listen to Tracy's the full episode on Anchor, iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts!

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