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Profile: Yenny Cheung, Full-stack Software Engineer at ‎Yelp

“The tech industry can move even faster by increasing the diversity of talent”

Gabriela Motroc
diversity
© Shutterstock /Lamina2014

Women are underrepresented in the tech sector —myth or reality? In addition to the Women in Tech survey, we also launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Yenny Cheung, Full-stack Software Engineer at ‎Yelp.

Is tech a boys-only club? So it seems. But the light of smart and powerful women is finally shining bright. We root for excellence and justice and, above all, we want meritocracy to win. This is our way of giving women in tech a shout-out.

A research study by The National Center for Women & Information Technology showed that “gender diversity has specific benefits in technology settings,” which could explain why tech companies have started to invest in initiatives that aim to boost the number of female applicants, recruit them in a more effective way, retain them for longer, and give them the opportunity to advance. But is it enough?

Women in Tech — The Survey

We would like to get to the bottom of why gender diversity remains a challenge for the tech scene. Therefore, we invite you all to fill out our diversity survey. Share your experiences with us!

Your input will help us identify the diversity-related issues that prevent us from achieving gender equality in technology workplaces.

Without further ado, we would like to introduce Yenny Cheung, Full-stack Software Engineer at ‎Yelp.

Yenny Cheung, Full-stack Software Engineer at ‎Yelp

Originally from Hong Kong, Yenny moved to the US to study Computer Science at Swarthmore College. She was a KPCB engineering fellow during her college years. After graduation, Yenny moved to Hamburg and joined Yelp as a full-stack software engineer. Yenny is on the Biz National team, where she is scaling advertising tools and reporting for national businesses. She leads the Awesome Women in Engineering Group at Yelp in Germany. Outside of work, Yenny enjoys yelping for good food and painting.

What got you interested in technology?

I’ve liked computers since I was a little girl. My dad taught me how to operate a computer, how to connect to the internet via phone cable, and, most importantly, how to play games on them.

When I was in secondary school, I no longer had time to play games. Instead, I focused more on academics. I enjoyed problem-solving classes such as physics in high school, ultimately leading me to my decision to take engineering in university. One of the requirements of engineering was computer science. Upon learning about software engineering, I resolved to pursue computer science instead of engineering.

I grew up in Hong Kong and stayed there until university. In secondary school, when I was told by family and friends that girls don’t usually do as well in math and sciences as guys do, I unconsciously tried harder to prove to myself that this was not the case.

When it came to picking my profession, I took the path less travelled—tech.

Many of my peers that focused on math and science ended up choosing careers in either medicine, law, or finance—traditionally prestigious career paths in Hong Kong. I was accepted to medical school, but at the time I felt that I wasn’t ready to commit. So I chose to go to the US for school in order to postpone my choice of major.

When it came to picking my profession, I took the path less travelled—tech. Attending the Grace Hopper Conference accentuated my determination to continue on the tech path. At the conference, I saw people who were similar to me. They were successful in their careers and accomplishing their goals. Meeting so many role models helped me believe that I could achieve the same things that they were able to.

From this experience at Grace Hopper, I learned that having an inclusive workplace environment was one of the top priorities when picking my first job. Hence, Yelp quickly became one of my top choices. Yelp has always been involved in diversity efforts and had prominent, well-established women in the engineering group. Having quite a bit of luck, I was referred to Yelp by one of the accomplished women I met at Grace Hopper. She later became my mentor at Awesome Women in Engineering (AWE), the women in engineering support group at Yelp.

My career path has been pretty smooth so far, but there were some obstacles to overcome. Growing up in Hong Kong, I was taught to be humble, to listen to people before expressing my opinions (if at all), and to avoid conflict at all costs. In the professional world, sometimes these qualities can work to my disadvantage, especially in an industry where I am the minority. Because my views do not often represent the popular opinion, I have to be persistent and more articulate than others to get my points across. To this day, I still have to remind myself to be aware of my communication style, to be more open to expressing my views, and to push forward my agenda.

My friends’ understanding of the [tech] industry mostly came from movies and TV shows.

My family was very supportive of me working in tech. To them, it was most important that I picked a discipline that I like. However, my friends from Hong Kong were very surprised when I chose to study computer science, as this was not a discipline that they were familiar with (unlike medicine, law and finance.) I could understand their surprise, given that I felt the same before taking my first class in computing. Their understanding of the industry mostly came from movies and TV shows such as The Social Network, The Internship, or The Big Bang Theory, which portrayed certain stereotypes of software engineers.

Yelp’s Awesome Women in Engineering

Mentorship really helped me get to where I am today. At Yelp, we have a good mentorship program within AWE. Female engineers are paired with other women possessing complementary experience levels. Establishing a mentor relationship with someone who is similar to me in experience and circumstance was one of the best career decisions I have ever made.

My mentor gave me advice when I led my first project, mentored my first intern, conducted my first interview, and delivered my first talk at a conference. When I doubted that I was good enough to pick up such roles, she reassured me that sometimes she still felt that way, but that it got better the more she did it. It meant a lot to me to know that I was not alone.

Obstacles

There have been incidents that made me rethink my decision to become a software engineer. I believe microaggressions like these turn people away from a profession that should have equal gender representations.

Most of these microaggressions happened during my time as a student. When I was attending a programming meetup, attendees were talking about what they were working on. Most people were sharing the web applications they built. When I was talking about mine, I was immediately labeled as a designer by some attendees, insinuating that I didn’t have the same level of technical capabilities or understanding as my peers.

Another incident happened in my engineering class. We were assigned groups to complete the lab homework and was placed in a group with two guys and two girls. For some reason, one guy decided that he and the other guy should take up the programming portion while the other girl and I took up writing up the lab report. His reasoning was that he had the most experience in coding. At that time, I couldn’t really argue with him because it was true, I didn’t have as much experience as the others, but it didn’t mean that I wasn’t capable of participating in or contributing to that portion of the project. Moments like these were particularly discouraging for me.

I am quite sure these are not the first nor the last of such stories from women in tech. I believe it’s a systematic problem that we need to solve in order to bring more women into this industry.

A day in Yenny’s life

I work at Yelp in Hamburg as a full-stack software engineer. Yelp is an app and website that connects people with great local businesses — anything from restaurants, bars and spas to dog groomers, mechanics, and even dentists! We sell local advertising to help businesses get the word out about their products and services.

I am on the Biz National Team. Together with my teammates, I build advertising tools and reporting solutions for Yelp’s national clients. At Yelp, I lead high-impact projects on national reporting. I interview and mentor new-hires and interns on the team. I am the Hamburg chapter lead for AWE and give talks regularly at conferences, like PyCon.DE in Karlsruhe, the Global Career Summit in San Francisco, and the European Women in Tech Conference in Amsterdam.

What I do at work varies a lot day by day. Right now I could be leading project planning meetings, interviewing the next batch of interns, planning a summit about diversity and inclusion with my colleagues in London, preparing for my next Python talk, or working with my team to investigate hard bugs in some legacy code I have come to know.

I had my first experience mentoring an intern last summer. She was an active participant for our women in engineering group in Hamburg and she came in wanting to explore software engineering as a career path. Growing up in Turkey, she had to face a lot of obstacles and people challenged her for her decision to be in tech. I’m glad the mentorship experience and working at Yelp Hamburg gave her the courage to do so and helped her recognize that she is a good engineer and deserves to be where she is at today. I’m very happy and proud that she ended up accepting our return offer to come back to work at Yelp.

Why aren’t there more women in tech?

A few months ago, my little cousin was picking her major in university. She had taken a programming course in high school and she enjoyed it. Eventually, she picked economics. She told me doing computer science would be riskier and harder for her, because she felt like she would not have had as much experience as her peers starting off and there would be very few women. I believe these are two of the reasons that there aren’t more women joining the tech industry.

I believe we need to engage girls and boys early in programming so that the next generation will be more informed when it came to choosing their fields. At Yelp, we have hosted company tours for diverse students to meet our engineers and see how it is like working in this industry. Speaking from personal experience on how the Grace Hopper Conference led to my career decision, I believe this is one way to get more women in the pipeline.

The tech industry also has trouble retaining women in tech. I think the key to this is creating an inclusive environment. On a personal level, always call things out when you witness people being insensitive to minorities. And try not to stop at just correcting the behavior, make sure people understand what the implications of their actions are to the victim. On a company level, not only give enough resources to employee resource groups, but also address the whole company to strengthen minorities through allies.

At Yelp, one of our values is “play well with others”, which also accentuates our determination and clarifies our stance that inequality, racism and xenophobia will not be tolerated.

I believe the lack of diversity in tech is a systematic problem.

I would love to see greater numbers of people from underrepresented groups joining STEM fields. People from different backgrounds approach problems in different ways. This is important in STEM and fundamental to industries reliant on innovation. Only 25% of the tech workforce is female and only 5% of tech startups are owned by women. Imagine the variety of products we haven’t explored, the features that have not yet been built. Right now the tech industry is moving fast, but it can move even faster by increasing the diversity of talent. 

Successful products should serve every person across every lifestyle. Having representation of those different groups in the companies helps them develop new features and identify issues first before products are launched. Having a diverse workforce is a critical investment.

Socially, if there were more women working, it would relieve financial pressure for some families, opening options to their partners to take up more responsibilities in the family. Hence gender roles could be more equal within the family. It means giving both parents a choice.

The number of diverse candidates hired might go up in the short term, but it would take years for us to change the culture and the social norm.

I believe the lack of diversity in tech is a systematic problem. While the focus has been to get more women into the recruitment pipeline, it is also important to foster an inclusive environment in the workplace so these women will stay. At Yelp, we foster discussion on both diversity and inclusion across the company, not just among women employees. We try to show all employees how they can be good allies and encourage one another to speak up and point out things that are not fair to others.

A couple months ago, Yelp organized a talk by Valerie Aurora about “How to act as an ally in tech — in 2017”. She talked about how allies can leverage their own privilege to step in when other people are being insensitive to minorities. Our women in engineering group AWE is also planning an unconscious bias training session for all EU employees in March. Only with everyone on board can we make a change to having a more equal industry.

Challenges

It is always hard to be the minority in a group since we all tend to trust others that are similar to us. According to a study by Harvard Business Review, if there was only 1 out of 4 people in the applicant pool that is different in terms of race or gender, there will be 0 chances of them being hired. Getting your foot in the door is the first challenge.

Tips & tricks

I would suggest seeking mentorship early. If they are in school, join—or better yet—start a ‘women in engineering’ group. If they are looking for the first job, pick one that has a women in engineering employee resource group. I have had a great experience at AWE at Yelp.

I found my mentor through there and I made a lot of friends. They are the people I go talk to for professional or even personal advice. By bringing people closer to one another, we create a more inclusive environment for women, even if the industry is still not quite ready for it yet.

 

Don’t miss our Women in Tech profiles:

Author
Gabriela Motroc
Gabriela Motroc is editor of JAXenter.com and JAX Magazine. Before working at Software & Support Media Group, she studied International Communication Management at the Hague University of Applied Sciences.

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