The second Tuesday of October marks Ada Lovelace Day, which celebrates women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Ada Lovelace, a British mathematician born in 1815, is considered one of the first computer programmers. Today, U.S. women make up only 28 percent of the science and engineering workforce, according to the National Science Foundation.
We asked Xian Gu, 31, to write about her experience switching careers from publishing to tech. After working for four years in textbook publishing, Gu rediscovered her love for STEM through classes and coding boot camps. A year ago, she made the move from New York City to Seattle, where she now works at Microsoft as a UX researcher.
Read her story below.
My childhood was filled with stories — Chinese ones from my family, American ones from friends and classmates, myriad others from the Internet. They told of Confucius and Disney, filial piety and third-wave feminism, the role of women, and Asian people. They set expectations large and small.
Growing up has been a process of figuring out which stories hold me, which don’t and, ultimately, taking control of my own. One of my hardest turning points was two years ago, when I switched from being an editor in an academic publishing house to a user experience specialist in tech. In the process, I came out as a scientist after a decade in the arts.
When I was young, I loved the practices of the sciences; I had been an enthusiastic mathlete in middle school and a near-resident of the mechanical engineering cave in high school. But the environment of the arts felt more “right.” To my young self, the arts were like a glittering expanse of imagination and potential. There was something egalitarian in the way it was possible for anyone, even me, to create something new with words and images and ideas; I dabbled in artistic outlets from creative writing to visual art to music. Most importantly, art was free of right or wrong, and in that way, had a value outside judgment.
Science, meanwhile, had an element of the abstruse, the mechanical. In chemistry experiments in class, we didn’t do novel work, but canned work. What’s more, with any wrong answer, I felt judged. It felt inaccessible to me, its power circumscribed by limits beyond my reach.
My own expectations of myself, in conjunction with the fear of failure, led me to turn away from the STEM fields — in part against my nature.
In truth, the arts-sciences divide I saw early in life wasn’t really there — a false dichotomy, an unnecessary partisanship. I think now with sadness at the point in adolescence I stopped giving leeway to explore outside my lane. A part of me wanted to be like my all-American peers, who followed their hearts with such breeziness and lack of inhibition.
Turning back has meant seeing that science holds as much wonder as the arts.
It’s not something coldly technical — faceless algorithms and code. The oft unromantic stories we tell about tech are a disservice to its creative heart, its affinity for makers and doers, its interest in the human condition.
The moment I realized I wanted to change careers felt like a breakthrough. But the whole truth involves ruminating on those feelings for the better part of a year before acting on them. What I remember most is the vulnerability I felt at the time: fear that I wouldn’t be technical enough, that I wouldn’t be seen as technical enough, that changing my career would be an indulgence. That I wouldn’t find the stability I’d worked so hard to get.
When it came time to tell my parents, their fear amplified my own. Their initial skepticism of my career in the arts had turned to acceptance, and yet another upheaval seemed riskier than settling. With every ounce of their love, my family reminded me about values of steadfastness and sacrifice.
The change itself was far simpler than the lead-up to the decision. Rather than starting with the new skills I’d need, I began by recognizing how I could repurpose my experiences in publishing in a tech career. At the same time, I started allowing latent interests to redevelop, adding skills with part-time classes and reading industry books and blogs. I spent six months learning about the many sub-fields and roles in tech. It took that much exploration to trust my instincts that, despite looking on the outside like a match, my career in publishing had run its course.
At that point, I quit my job and leaped into a full-time boot camp. My first year in the industry was a mix of freelance project work for start-ups and nonprofits, and a storm of networking and hackathons. I got my first taste of stability at a midsize company. A year later, I took a second leap to big tech after a cross-country move, where I’m now part of an in-house community.
I started this new career two years ago with trepidation, and now that I’ve made the transition, it’s not all ease and comfort. Tech is not without its discontents. The same impulses that drive quick innovation also bring about discrimination and exclusion. In my time in the industry, I’ve struggled against training bias in machine learning; I’ve contested ivory tower products that ought to be made accessible to underserved populations.
I’ve come a ways and learned a lot, which is always my goal. But do I feel arrived? Am I legitimate? I still hesitate, as if my two years of hustle isn’t sufficient. In truth, I feel a little surprised and a touch guilty that I’ve been received with more acceptance than I expected from an industry with uninspiring track records in gender parity and diversity. On rare days when the trappings of metamorphosis still feel a bit like a disguise, I have to tamp down impostor syndrome — work that feels distinctly feminine. Helpful are the common souls I’ve befriended who are also expatriated from other industries, who also wield multiple professional fluencies.
Although not smooth exactly, the transition has been edifying. I’m shoring up my skills with mentoring from senior practitioners in the industry and pursuing a graduate degree. But I hope I’ll never feel arrived. I hope I’ll always feel the yearning for more.
In my quiet way, I’m happy. I give voice to my users, enable them, empower them. I turn research insight into product action. I work in a culture that doesn’t wait for permission to solve problems, that doesn’t stand by when it could create and iterate.
It’s a blessing to love this new field. But love is a practice, a long cultivation of sustenance and growth, not a momentary welling up of fervor. Every day I must make a practice of showing up for this work, and not take for granted its pleasures and lessons. This is my challenge now.