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Tracy Chou: Data-driven

Tracy Chou in front of a colourful wall
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Software engineer Tracy Chou talks about diversity in the tech industry, the importance of data, and how moving to New York City meant entering a new world.

Tracy Chou moves in a world that is dominated by data. Before moving to New York to join a startup, the 29-year-old software engineer worked at Google, Facebook and Pinterest – right in the heart of Silicon Valley. Whether she was writing a programme, improving an application or testing a product: sorting data, collecting figures and evaluating user metrics was always part of the process. That’s why she was puzzled when she realised that a certain data set was missing – the one dealing with the number of women in the tech industry.

Tracy Chou smiling

“It wasn’t even that the numbers were kept a secret – they didn’t exist at all,” Tracy says on a cold winter morning in a co-working space in New York. “It was an open secret that the tech industry wasn’t very diverse. But looking at how we do everything else in this industry – being so data-driven in every regard – it just felt wrong that around workforce, we wouldn’t even care to measure it.”

The missing data started to bother her. “If we don’t even know what our baseline is and we’re not measuring progress, firms have no incentive to improve.” So she set out to gather the data herself, and started by looking around her own office. That was in 2013, when Tracy was working as a software engineer at Pinterest. She was passionate about the job that enabled her to create things “that touch people all around the world”. The platform’s users – then, as they are now, were mostly women. The engineers developing the underlying software, however, were mostly men: 78 out of 89 – just short of 88 percent.

Software developer Tracy Chou working on her laptop in her office

Tracy wrote about these figures in a blog post on Medium. She asked others to do the same – and they did: “Surprisingly, a lot of people stepped up and started to offer their numbers around women in engineering.” The article started to pick up steam, which led more and more companies to release their data. All of a sudden, the entire country was talking about the lack of diversity in the tech industry.

She didn’t want to start a movement, Tracy says today, she just wanted to call out the hypocrisy. After all, she experienced firsthand the challenges of working her way up in a male-dominated industry, but not necessarily because she was outnumbered. Instead, she almost took a different career path. “Both of my parents are software engineers. I grew up in Silicon Valley and went to high school in Mountain View, which is home to tech companies like Google and Mozilla. I studied electrical engineering and computer science at Stanford, and still, I couldn’t see myself starting a technical career within the tech industry. Instead, I thought about going into marketing – even though I liked coding a lot better! That speaks a lot to some of the gender discrimination prevalent in Silicon Valley,” she says politely, yet resolutely.

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It starts with the educational system, Tracy claims, where girls and women are less likely to choose classes in science, technology, engineering and math – and aren’t encouraged to do so either. Firms don’t try to actively recruit female talent. And then there’s the work. “The industry doesn’t value women as much as it should. That pertains to the cultural environment, but also salaries and promotions. As a consequence, women are leaving at much higher rates. And no, they are not leaving just to start families. Women are leaving to be self-employed or go to other industries where they feel more valued.”

To change this, Tracy and seven fellow female engineers founded Project Include. The platform supports companies that are trying to diversify. “Instead of just talking about the problems, we wanted to actively push for change. So we ended up writing down recommendations for companies – particularly tech startups – to look at. And we were not just fixated on gender diversity but looked at questions of ethnicity and family status and all these other dimensions of diversity as well.”

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With Project Include, Tracy wants to push for more diversity both in the tech industry as a whole and in her own workplace. That’s why she traded the hills of San Francisco for New York’s urban canyons. “In Silicon Valley, everyone focuses on how technology can solve the world’s problems.” That singular focus helps some startups grow into massive companies but can also create a kind of tunnel vision when it comes to alternative approaches. “In New York, there are so many ways that people want to change the world. That was a big draw for me. In order to broaden my horizons, I wanted to be surrounded by people who spend their time thinking differently than I do.”