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My Career Path and the Case for Girls and Women to Go into STEM

This is the closing ceremony speech I gave at Superposition II — a hackathon for young women to gain more experience in computer science and to encourage them to choose a career in STEM. I was asked to share my career path in tech, and here’s my story. If you’re short on time skip down to the “Making the Leap to Engineering” and read from there.

Hi, my name is Peipei, and I’m really excited to be here. I got the honor of judging your projects and, as a part of that, hearing about some of your experiences during hackathon. I think what you experienced this past weekend is a microcosm of life. You’re faced with open-ended problems, and you have to find a team of people to solve those problems together.

When I think about my life journey, I definitely see this theme as well. Let me start by telling you a little bit about myself before leaving you with some advice.

As you listen to my story you’ll see that I’m actually a cat with 9 lives, and I use my skills and knowledge in one life to be the foundation of starting a new one.

I’ve been in tech now for 12 years. I’m currently Director of Engineering Strategy and Operations at Box. I work with our Engineering leadership team to drive strategy and execution toward our company’s goals. It’s a unique role that requires me to have breadth across different disciplines, such as engineering, business strategy, operations management, legal compliance, and people leadership.

Now I’m going to tell you a story about how I got here and how every step along the way — no matter how disjointed it might have felt at the time — actually led me to where I needed to be.

Starting out in Public Service

I’m going to rewind all the way back to my childhood. For most of my life, I wanted to be in public service. I was and still am motivated to do good in the world. That is what I find fulfilling and what drives me.

This drive comes from my mom. My mom, sister, brother, and I immigrated to the United States when I was 6 in order to escape domestic violence. Back in the day, divorced women didn’t have many legal protections. So for my mom, she felt that her only choice was to leave the country to keep us safe.

Like many immigrants, we had a hard time when we first got here. We didn’t speak English, and my mom certainly didn’t have a fancy American degree to get a professional job with a corner office. My mom at one point started her own business because, I imagine, no one would hire her. I recall she once did try to work in an office, but she quit because she said the managers kept telling her what to do. She said she found a better way to do something, but they kept telling her to do their way. She was like, “Nah. I’m doing my own thing.” She decided that being her own boss was way better.

When you run your own business you work around the clock. She worked Monday to Saturday, and then on Sunday she would go to church and cook food for people like the elderly or sick. We had so little, but she always found a way to give to others. I sometimes thought she was too generous, given our condition, but I remember she corrected me with one observation: “We have a lot more than many others.” Seeing her be so service-oriented made me want to focus on serving others too.

She instilled in me a strong streak of independence, rebelliousness, and fierce determination, along with a heart of service. Nowadays, this packaged together would be called grit. Well, I like to tell people that my mom had grit before it was cool! These skills turned out to be foundational, and I relied on them to help me navigate life.

When I went to college, I got my degree in architecture because it was a challenging interdisciplinary field that could do a lot of good in the world. I’ve always been concerned about homelessness and affordable housing, and these were important problems I wanted to solve. I used my architecture degree to work in government and nonprofits to advocate for affordable housing and social justice more generally.

But, what I found was that I was deeply unfulfilled and unhappy. Public policy and government seemed to me really slow. Debates went around and around in circles but nothing happened. I didn’t like politics, I didn’t like fundraising, and I didn’t like schmoozing. I wanted to feel like I was making a more direct difference everyday, and I wanted to challenge myself to build more skills.

I was saddened and distraught to find that, after all my hard work to do what I thought I wanted to do, I didn’t actually want to do what I set out to do. At times, I felt that my life would be meaningless. I didn’t know where to go, but I certainly didn’t want to keep doing what I was doing.

I had a quarter-life crisis. Oh my gosh, I’m accomplished, I’m driven, so why am I so lost?!

Then through one of my volunteer activities, I met a Googler who asked me if I’d ever consider working at Google. I was a huge fan of tech products, and I actually did code in high school. But, in my mind, I had some skepticism about working in corporate America. I imagined corporate America to be morally vapid, greedy, and unfulfilling.

But, hey, so is the government — so things can’t get worse right? (That’s a joke, by the way.) I decided to take a risk and just try something new.

Transitioning into Tech

I went in to Google for what I felt like was a dozen interviews, and they grilled me for hours on really hard questions, and I was certain that I completely bombed all the interviews. Clearly I was not the smartest person in the room, and my high school coding skills in Pascal definitely didn’t make me an expert in tech by any stretch of the imagination.

Shockingly, Google gave me an offer to join their User Policy team, which basically wrote the rules for what was allowed and not allowed on the Internet. It was a very interdisciplinary role that required me to understand the law, ethics, technology, and operations management. I didn’t know much in this space, and everyone I worked with was, hands down, more experienced, knowledgeable, and smarter than me in probably every dimension.

Being the least experienced person in a group is the best place to be: It’s a growth opportunity. And, I embraced it.

I also took on all the projects that no one wanted to do, even the ones that people called “career killers.” There were some really bad things happening on the Internet those days, and I thought that if they were so bad that no one wanted to work on them, then I should definitely volunteer. It means I’ll make the most impact on the world.

And, for these hard problems, I couldn’t solve them by myself. I had to find a tribe of people who could help me. One way I did this was to sit at an engineer’s desk, waiting for him/her to come back to it, so I could ask a question about how something worked and if an idea I had was good. I truly didn’t know much, and I wasn’t ashamed to ask for help, even if it meant sitting on the floor waiting to get a scrap of someone’s time and knowledge. This strategy of working on really hard problems and asking for help from others really worked for me.

By the end of my time at Google, I used the business and technical skills I learned in that first job and the success of really hard projects to demonstrate that I was capable of more: I ended up managing a large legal operations team in 4 different countries, which was a huge achievement for a former tech newbie like myself!

But, then, I was at a juncture again: After spending a decade growing my expertise in legal operations, I found that I wanted a change! I was good at what I was doing, but I was bored. I found that I loved the legal aspects of my job less than the engineering, operations, and business side. I loved working with engineers, and I wanted to be closer to the business side of tech. Most importantly, I hate the feeling of being good at something; I like not knowing anything and being uncomfortable in my ignorance because it means I’m about to start learning a lot. I was on the hunt for discomfort.

So, one night, and I kid you not, I just went online and sent out my resume to a bunch of different companies that I thought had interesting technical challenges, a business model I wasn’t familiar with but wanted to learn more about, and a good culture. Even if they didn’t have roles that applied to me, I just sent in my resume. I thought that a recruiter would find my resume and route it to the right place.

I also asked my friends whether they liked their companies and got the inside scoop on what it was really like to work there. For instance, I really cared about being in a culture that aligned with my personal values. A friend once told me that you’re the average of the 5 people you spend most of your time with. I wanted to make sure that my 5 people were people of high character, intelligence, and learning capabilities.

I talked to one of my friends, whose company was bought by Box, and he said it’s a company with not only smart people but the most upstanding, kind people he’s ever worked with. So, I thought why not? I sent in my resume.

Making a Leap into Engineering

Then Box called and, by great luck, said that they’ve put together a new role that works on business strategy and operations in engineering. This brilliant recruiter saw that I had a lot of transferable skills and asked if I’d be interested in talking to them about this new role. Jackpot! This is quite literally what I dreamed of.

Now that I’ve been in this role for 2 years, I’ve learned so much and challenged myself to learn a new function at a new company. Most importantly, through this experience, I discovered that — quite by accident — I was living my purpose.

Looking back, I realized I was never lost. Even if I wasn’t sure where each step would take me, my journey made sense many years later, and it brought me closer to my north star of helping others and making the world better. Although I never cared about being a tech executive, I had the great fortune of landing here, and I have used my role to help other women and under-represented groups.

It’s well publicized that tech has disproportionately fewer women and even fewer at higher levels. I’ve used my role to be an executive sponsor for our Women in Tech group at Box, I’ve been able to represent the needs of working parents, particularly new mothers, help mentor women through their challenges, and find opportunities to showcase the amazing female talent at our company.

And, I get to do awesome events like this one, where I share my story and encourage others to find their own purpose in their own way.

Knowing Your Purpose

Now, for the big question: How are you going to find your purpose?

What I learned from my non-traditional path is that you don’t find your purpose. You create your purpose wherever you are.

Especially early on in your career, it’s not always clear what your purpose is. But you need to continue to take steps forward, learn new skills, take risks, and try different things even if they are unfamiliar and hard. Sometimes, things don’t work out, so you try something else. It’s not the perfect career or job that is going to show you your purpose.

It is in the act of doing something challenging, that you learn more about yourself. When you learn more about yourself, then your purpose will emerge and become clearer.

In short, there is no right or wrong career choice. Whatever path you take will get you where you want to go eventually because you’re going to learn about yourself.

Making the Case for STEM

Now if you assume you can find your purpose no matter what you do, then I want to make the case for staying in STEM.

We have fewer women in tech today than we did a few decades ago. Silicon Valley pumps millions upon millions of dollars into diversity programs, but they aren’t working. Now I find this troubling, and I find this troubling mostly for the future.

If we want a better future for women and a more just, healthy society in general, then I believe that we need more women in technology.

Why? Because technology is the future. Our world is already run by tech, and will be even more so every year. We’re at the beginning of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and our world is being transformed by the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, robotics, biotech, and quantum computing at an exponential pace.

The First Industrial Revolution brought us the steam engine and urbanism, the Second electric power and mass production, the Third digital technology and the Internet. The Fourth will merge our bodies and minds with technology.

Think about what this means in historical context. Women’s fight for equity has always been intertwined with agency over our bodies and freedom of thought and expression.

Now, imagine this new world where mind, body, and tech are one. Imagine it were designed and built without women’s input, contribution, or leadership. This is not the world I want, and I don’t believe this a world that is good for humanity as a whole.

How much innovation do you think we would have in labor and delivery and menopause and breast cancer research if there were no women in STEM? Looking forward, what would artificial intelligence look like if it were designed without women? We will have nanotech implanted in our bodies; what will it do and not do, if it were made without women contributing to their science and development?

The revolution is here, and there aren’t enough of us on the front lines.

So, I leave you with this ask: Stay in STEM. Learn the technical skills needed to get into the industry, and join me. I believe you can find a meaningful, fulfilling path in tech.

I believe that, at the very core of Silicon Valley, is an authentic idealism that we can make the world better through technology, and I believe in this wholeheartedly.

But we need you to join us to make this happen. I invite you to be a part of my mission and the mission of the women already here.

We’re all waiting for you.