By emyang

Dear Erin

This post is rough, so I apologize. I copied it straight out of an email I sent to a high school student who is considering studying Computer Science and asked me to answer a few questions. Hope someone else finds this helpful.

 

Why did you go into computer science? 

I initially signed up for a class because my dad urged me to – freshman year of high school. I found it interesting and pretty easy, but didn’t think much of it because I didn’t really see how it was useful (this was back before facebook, twitter, and the popularity of phone apps). Near the end of the school year, we had a woman come by and talk to us about the high school internship program at Microsoft. I ended up applying for that, and doing an internship after my sophomore year. That was a big turning point for me.
At my Microsoft internship I got to work on a real product team and feel what it was like to be able to use code to build things that real people would use. It was a big change from writing “for loops” and calling the silly classes for the AP tests. I was on a test team, so my project for the summer was to write a tool that would help test a new 3D renderer. It would take a file with descriptions of different types of triangles and it would render them on the screen. It sounds hard, but with the mentorship they provided me it was totally doable. At the end of the summer I had built an awesome tool that I could show off to people, and it was being (and would continue to be) used by engineers on the team to make sure that the Microsoft phones could display 3D images.
I went back and did another internship there the next summer and got to write a test game for the phone using the same 3D rendering technology. The culture was laid back and fun, the people were supportive, and it felt so amazing to be influencing a product that I knew could be used by millions of people.
I knew going in to college that I wanted to major in Computer Science because of those experiences. There are so many amazing things that being able to program enable you to do – computer science classes only scratch the surface.
Why do you think that more girls should go into computer science?
Studying Computer Science is like giving yourself a tool belt (or even a superpower!). You can have any number of other interests and aspirations – you could be interested in medicine, in community service and fundraising, in space travel, in cars –  Computer Science is a tool that you can use to have a huge impact in any field. 
 
Take medicine as an example- 
One of the teams I worked on, called Kinect for Windows, enabled people to build medical monitoring systems to be able to keep an eye on patients and alert nurses if they were having a problem. It also enabled surgeons to use computers without leaving their sanitation zone by controlling the computer using gesture. 
Software for tracking people’s health and making their information available to all of their doctors is currently revolutionizing the medical world. Before this, doctors used to write down everything that happened to you on paper. If you switched doctors, or if that doctor retired, your medical history was basically lost, or you’d have to go through some long process of getting it physically transferred. 
Wearables are big lately – people think about them as watches and glasses, but a huge area of development is for tiny stickers that people can wear that will send information to their smartphones and alert them of any small changes – this is huge – it could help catch a heart attack before it happens by detecting alarming changes in heart rate, it could lower health insurance by showing that someone has consistently healthy metrics, etc. 
 
These are just a few ways that CS can change the medical field. You can find examples like this for almost any field you can think of.
 
Women tend to pick areas to study that they’re passionate about or that they think they can use to make a difference. My argument is – there is no better major for making a difference in our current world than computer science (and engineering). We are the modern day inventors. We are the ones that any expert in any field needs to be able to actually move the needle.
 
You don’t need to be a “nerd” or a “geek” or someone who is glued to video games all day to be a computer scientist (not that there’s anything wrong with them!). You do have to work hard, but the payoff is that you have a skill that is in extremely high demand – because it is extremely empowering. 
 
As to the question of why women specifically – right now the field is about 20% women (at best). That means at least 80% of the people who have the ability to use technology to build things are men. As I mentioned above, women tend to want to work on things that they think will really make a difference. How awesome would it be if we had more people with this ability who wanted to build something that would make a difference? Obviously that’s a generalization - but the truth is there are fundamental differences between men and women and for any field to be balanced and to really realize its potential, there needs to be both. We are not truly realizing the power of what can be done until we have equal numbers of men and women. 
 
 So, in short: I think that girls should go in to computer science to discover what it will empower them to do and then use it to impact things in the world that they are passionate about. 
What would be your advice for anybody looking to go into computer science?
My advice would be:
1.) stick it out
2.) always have side projects that you love
Stick it out – because it’s hard. There is nothing easy about studying computer science. You’ll have to pull all-nighters when your friends are out partying, you’ll have to get a few Cs, a few Fs, (hopefully they’ll be curved up). You’ll have that moment where you fail a project that you worked for days on and have tons and tons of code for because it simply doesn’t work. For women, you’ll have to put up with being the only woman in the room – a lot. You’ll find you always have to prove yourself, even when the men in the room don’t have to. You’ll get hit on when you don’t want to be hit on. The reward is in what you use it for, not the actual process of studying it. It’s worth it, but there will be many times where you reflect on how much easier it would have been to do something else.
Have side projects you love – This is the reward. You can build amazing things. There’s no need to wait until you get a job. The great thing about CS is that you can use it right away. Studying it will make you better – it will make it so that you can get to the boundary of what’s possible and know how to approach pushing beyond it – but that doesn’t mean you have to wait. Most programming is fairly easy. Once you learn to be proficient at one language, the concepts are often the same across the others. Sure it’s tedious, and that first one takes a long time to learn, but before long you’ll have this moment where you got something done in one hour that would have taken you 3 days before. Then you’ll go to learn something new and intimidating and find out it’s basically the same as what you’ve been doing. Your side projects will be the things that get you the dream job, or enable you to start a company. Don’t wait to start them.

Acceleration

Ever since I’ve been interested in the startup world, I’ve thought it would be a great experience to join an accelerator. For those of you who haven’t heard of them, an accelerator is usually a program that you join for around three months to work intensively on your company with mentors, classes, speakers, networking and other resources that the accelerator group provides. At the end of the three months, the group puts together a day where you present to investors who they have connections with and who trust and respect their judgment. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get investment at the end, but you’re given a great shot at it with a group backing you that the investors trust.

The group that I’ve followed the most is called YCombinator, and was founded by two of my favorite speakers and writers, Paul Graham and Jessica Livingston. YCombinator is the most prestigious of the accelerator groups and has helped companies like Dropbox, Airbnb, Reddit, Stripe, Parse, and many more, become successful. Some other similar groups are 500Startups and Techstars. If you’re interested in someday founding a startup, I suggest that you read Jessica Livingston’s book, Founders at Work and follow Paul Graham’s essays.

 

Some companies that have gone through Y Combinator - from their website
Some companies that have gone through Y Combinator – from their website

I’m in an interesting place with my company, where I don’t have any real users yet, but I have a mostly built product and a lot of drive and OMG I’m so tired of working by myself :). Accelerators like YCombinator used to accept companies like mine, but now that they’re so big and prestigious, I’ve heard that you basically need to show that you already have lots of traction with users and have the potential to be a billion dollar business. I’ve been wanting to apply, but feeling hesitant and like it might be a waste of time because they will think I’m not ready.

As those of you who read my first blog post (In the beginning) might remember, in March I attended YCombinator’s Female Founders Conference. Since then, I’ve been following the Facebook group, where lots of the inspiring women who attended the conference have been posting interesting articles and resources. A couple weeks ago, one of them posted that she had recently participated in an accelerator called Women’s Startup Lab, and that they were now accepting applications for their fall class. I checked it out, and found that it’s very new (they’ve only had 2 classes go through) and built by a group that wants to build a strong community of women mentors and entrepreneurs. They are willing to accept super early stage startups because they have found that that is the time when many women give up. I thought it sounded interesting so I applied.

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Here’s my long story short moment – I got in! The program starts in late September so I’m moving down to Menlo Park in just a little over two weeks! It’s felt a little stressful to have all of this happen so quickly, but I am SO excited. I think that in the next three months I’ll learn a lot, figure out how to get things going with WriteBeta, and meet a bunch of really interesting and inspiring people. I’m excited to keep you all updated on the experience.

Also – WriteBeta is now LIVE and you can sign up! I’ve been running a Google ad campaign, which has been really interesting… but that’s for another post!

The Logo Hunt

Twitter Egg
Twitter Egg

Once I decided on WriteBeta as a name, I went on a spree of signing up for every social media that I possibly could with it. I set up a Facebook page and Twitter account and started following a bunch of interesting writers and editors. Then I looked back at the pages I had created and realized that the way I was represented visually on Twitter was a picture of an egg. In a frenzy to avoid having people I followed come back and wonder why an egg was following them, I tried to put a nice-looking logo together in Adobe Illustrator. After a few hours, I decided the egg was better than anything I had come up with. So much for being unblocked on having a social media presence. I realized that I needed a professional-looking logo, and pronto. Otherwise people would stop by and immediately dismiss me as some kind of spam or amateur. I also couldn’t correctly brand my site without one.

My sad attempts at logo design
My sad attempts at logo design

Having gone to school with a bunch of amazingly talented people, and also having worked with a lot at Microsoft, I first asked a few friends if they would be interested in helping me out. They seemed pretty excited, and I put together a mood board on pinterest in order to show the visual direction I was imagining. After a couple weeks of radio silence, I realized it was just too big of a task to ask someone to do on top of their job and their life, especially on a time crunch. I needed something NOW and wasn’t going to insist that someone use their free time to do this for me for free.

99Designs Contest
99designs Contest

Instead, I decided to check out a site that I had heard about a while back called 99designs. The basic idea is that you run a “contest” by picking a package size and price that you will pay (e.g.: $599 for a logo, cover photo, business cards, and stationery design), and fill out details about the design direction you want. Then the community of freelance artists who are on 99designs can submit ideas for 4 days. After 4 days, you narrow it down to a maximum of 6 designers and they have 3 more days to work with you until you decide on a winner. Aside from giving me access to a lot of designers who are motivated to work on my logo, I was also interested in using the site because it has a lot of similarities to the WriteBeta concept of connecting people with freelancers.

Some submissions from 99designs
Some submissions from 99designs

Once I started my contest, it became an obsession. It was fascinating to see the huge variation in what people submitted. It made me realize that I needed this amount of variation to even know what I really wanted. The artists were submitting from all over the world – Indonesia, Serbia, Malaysia. I spent 4 days constantly refreshing the page, writing feedback and rating designs. At the end of the 4 days I ran a poll (a super convenient and nicely done feature on 99designs) and posted it on Facebook with my top 8 favorite designs out of the 176 total that had been submitted. 49 people voted on them and left comments. The logo that was winning the entire time was one I had thrown in as an afterthought and hadn’t even really looked at very seriously. It was so interesting to see the strong reactions that people had to the different images.

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After that poll, I narrowed the contest down to 6 designers. I asked them to make one more big creative push on logos and to show me example business cards and coverphotos to demonstrate their design aesthetic in other ways. After another three days, I ran a final poll with 4 entries, 2 from one designer and 1 each from 2 others. This time 73 people voted. The results jumped around all day with some fiery comments coming in from people about things they loved and hated. Finally, the order started to stabilize, leaving my favorite design by my favorite designer at the first place position. (Sorry team 171 :) )

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After a week of perching on the edge of my seat in anticipation, I finally have a design that I think fits WriteBeta well and I know will resonate with users. It shows a pencil that has people in it, representing writing but also the community and collaborative aspect of the idea. I worked with the designer to get the files handed over, and – with much gusto – replaced the egg picture. Again, something that I thought would be trivial ended up being much harder and more important than I imagined, but having it done is so exciting. I can’t stop thinking about printing T-shirts and other SWAG to get people as excited about WriteBeta as I am.

Finalized design
Finalized design

 

My first intern

I participate in a mentoring activity at local high schools called “Hunt the Wumpus” every spring where we help students build a game that teaches them what it’s like to create a whole working program as a group. At the end of the semester, they come in to Microsoft for a big competition. Judges go around and look at games and code created by each high school group and awards are given to groups with the best implementations.

The original Wumpus
The original Wumpus

This year, as I was doing my typical grumbling about how unfair it is that Redmond students always seem to win with first-person shooter versions running on the Xbox, I ran into a former co-worker who was a judge. He asked me how my startup was coming, and told me that as soon as I wanted an intern, I could have his daughter. I laughed out loud at the idea and told him maybe in a few years, since right now my startup is just me sitting on my couch for hours typing on my laptop. “Why not this summer!” he urged enthusiastically. “You don’t have to pay her. And I’ll drive her anywhere.”  I assured him that he would be the first person I would contact when I was ready to have an intern.

After the event, I started thinking back to my first internship. It was when I was the same age as this coworker’s daughter – fifteen –  at Microsoft on the Windows CE Multimedia team. When people ask me how I ended up in software engineering, I always answer emphatically that it was because of that internship. I had taken AP Computer Science my freshman year of high school, but months of writing for loops that count backwards from 10, and even bumbling through the marine biology case study code on the AP test had really not been that interesting.

During my internship, I worked on a real product team and built a tool that people were going to use for testing. It was a program that displayed different types of triangles and would be used to test the new 3D renderer. There, I was able to write code and see the immediate benefit and usefulness of it. Could someone on that team have written it in a couple hours instead of waiting for me to build it over the summer? Absolutely. But they had me do it anyway, because they knew it would teach me what it was like to code something real and meaningful.

For many students, and especially for girls, computer science is sold as the most banal, pointless thing imaginable. Assignments rarely have students build something that can actually be used. App and web development are fairly easy these days, but still students are learning Java, usually without any user interface, and come out of a year of AP CS with nothing to run or put on the Internet that would be impressive to friends or university CS departments.

The truth is that computer science is not boring at all — it’s actually just about the coolest superpower that you can give yourself. Programs like Hunt the Wumpus and internships are currently some of the only ways to show students what real programming is like before they write it off as boring or some form of impossible voodoo.

So, now to step off my podium and get back to my story – I changed my mind and told my coworker that I would love to have his daughter as an intern. I can’t pay her, and I don’t have a fancy office or cool T-shirts or anything, but hopefully I can give her at least some fraction of the insight into what real tech jobs are like and the empowerment that I was given as a 15-year-old intern. We met for the first time last week, and I’m going to have her do a coding project, some testing, and write a user acquisition plan for high school students. We’ll see how it goes. Hopefully someday she’ll be proud to be WriteBeta’s first intern.

What’s in a name

So I disappeared from blogging for longer than I meant to because of a trip, but here’s to getting back into it -

One major thing that happened last week, is I actually thought of a name for my company that met all my requirements. That doesn’t sound like a huge deal, but I have been agonizing over this for MONTHS, so I am extremely relieved. Here’s the story:

At startup weekend, I called the idea RedPen. My group loved it, the judges loved it, and I thought, “wow that was easy.” We came up with a cool design and made a prototype that felt good with the brand. We got free .co domains as part of the startup weekend package, got RedPen.co and didn’t look back.

RedPen initial design
RedPen initial design

…until after the weekend ended and we thought about making it into a real company. Then we checked out RedPen.com and found that it was not only unavailable, but there was a static “coming soon” page that sounded scarily like what we wanted to build. We spent a few hours one day having a huge brainstorming session for a new name. I wanted something that sounded good/was easy to say and spell and that was related to the idea in some recognizable or smart way.

We started with obvious ones like “InkWell” and “FirstDraft” and found none of the .coms were available, and most of them were already editing related services. We tried the made-up-word route with ideas like “Crittalk” and “Quilly” but either didn’t like them or they were already taken. Finally, we landed on “EditVine,” which always made me feel uneasy because I thought it sounded like a Vine video editor. Still, we were able to get the .com, and decided to run with it for a while.

EditVine branding
EditVine branding

I didn’t feel comfortable with it and kept brainstorming. I got lots of friends and family thinking about it too. We came up with things like “Wevision,” “Scrivoner,” “FriendsWithPens,” “Critiqueable,” “Quilluminati,” “Draftree” and so many more variations of things with words like “edit,” “group,” “draft,” “pen,” “quill,” etc that I could hardly sleep without dreaming about it. Almost all the good ones did not have domains that were available.

One day my mom wrote an idea to me – “UpWrite.” I liked it a lot because it was related, kind of a pun, but also very positive. To my massive dismay, the .com wasn’t available, but the .co was. I bought the .co and rebranded the site because I liked it so much. The .com was owned by one of those groups that buys domains and tries to sell them for thousands of dollars.

UpWrite prototype
UpWrite prototype

A few weeks later, I met with a serial entrepreneur that a friend had introduced me to and was discussing some of the problems I was facing with him. When the issue of the name came up, he said “you definitely should get a .com domain. It will save you a ton of trouble later.” After looking into paying a ridiculous amount for upwrite.com, I realized that upwrite.org already has something that looks a little too similar. The search began again.

I was starting to feel really stuck – like I couldn’t start with social media, couldn’t incorporate, couldn’t develop a brand to rally behind. I didn’t even really know what to call my company to people when I was talking about it. It felt like this somewhat invalid thing that I had actually quit my job for. I always had to add a caveat  - “Oh, it’s called UpWrite right now, it was called RedPen in the article I wrote, but actually it’s going to be named something totally different.. eventually.”

Last week, I was walking down Valencia street in the Mission in San Francisco, and I passed the BetaBrand store. I thought: “huh.. beta is an interesting word. It’s kind of like a draft,” and started playing with it in my head. BetaPen, BetaQuill, BetaWrite… WriteBeta. I whipped out my phone, as I am used to doing now when I think of a name that sounds decent and searched the domain availability. The .com was available, for only $8.99. I bought it immediately, signed up for the twitter handle, set up the facebook page, and then ordered a stiff cocktail at dinner. Done, and done.

So RedPen/EditVine/UpWrite is now officially dubbed WriteBeta. A site where you post the beta versions of your writing, that will help you “write better” as you get edits from the community. Logo is still TBD but I will post it all over the internets as soon as I can.

We’re all frauds, until we’re not.

My first mediocre grade was when I was six; I got a mere “Satisfactory” because I didn’t speak up in class enough. Later, at Microsoft, many people take a personality test called “Insights Training” that is supposed to help you understand your work style and how to work with other people. I was overwhelmingly “Green” – the color that’s called “show me you care.” My personality description told me that I’d be a great follower and would do very well doing what I’m told. People in the company have even advised me to hide my colors because the “red” ultra-aggressive personality type is so strongly favored.

I’ve always been a shy person, which is difficult in a world that rewards confidence, sometimes even more highly than hard work and thoughtfulness. I get extremely intimidated in groups, always assuming that I shouldn’t be there, or I’m the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on and everyone will find out or I’ll do or say something stupid. It has been a deliberate effort for me throughout my life to push myself to sign up for things, throw myself into group situations, sit in the front of the room, and speak up, even when it makes me a bit squeamish.

I was extremely relieved to read Sheryl Sandberg say in her book, Lean In, that it’s a common trait among women to feel like they’re “frauds.” She claims even Tina Fey feels that way! It made me realize: most people are actually frauds, but that’s okay. If you don’t throw yourself in as a “fraud” with little or no knowledge, then you can’t ever get to a place where you’re an expert, where you’re a leader, or where you belong. And when you get there, you will most likely be happy to be surrounded by new “frauds” who can learn from you and share your knowledge. So now I’m trying to remind myself that it’s okay to not know everything, to ask a “stupid” question, or to show up somewhere I don’t quite fit in.

This week I owned being a “fraud” in a few new communities. I went to a meetup for Lean Startups, even though I haven’t read the five books that Lean enthusiasts have. I showed up at a meeting for the NW Editors Guild, even though I’m not a guild member or a professional editor. This morning, I even went to the swanky Columbia Tower Club for a meeting of CEOs looking for mentors (there’s an acronym that I haven’t typically associated with myself). It’s not to say that I didn’t go through a mental list of excuses to miss each one beforehand, but I got myself there and met a lot of interesting, supportive people whom I will try to leverage as connections in the future.

I will always struggle with shyness, but I think that there are ways to get out there, learn a lot, and be successful without trying to change my personality. I hope by reading this some of you will feel inspired to stay true to your “colors” and not try to fit in to the “loudest person in the room wins” pattern. I have found that people do appreciate humility, thoughtfulness, and a sincere effort to care about their opinion, even if it’s in a quiet way.  The real thing that makes a difference is signing up, showing up, taking action, and being okay with being a “fraud” until someday, you aren’t one anymore.

Scrum!

I find that it really helps to have everything written out, even when I’m the only person seeing it. I set up this scrum board in my new and improved home office. I’m not gonna lie, I kind of love moving the sticky notes around.

My very own scrum board
My very own scrum board

In the beginning

When I was registering for my first semester of high school I got to choose one elective. My typical tiger father insisted that it be Computer Science. When I asked what that was, he told me that all the people who studied it were getting free BMWs in California when they accepted jobs.

8 years later, I graduated from college with a Computer Science degree and started my full time job as a Program Manager at Microsoft. Sadly, no BMW was involved. I learned a lot of things about how to manage projects, how to practice user-centered design, and how to work with all kinds of people with all kinds of opinions. I also realized that my life plan had been to get to Microsoft and I hadn’t thought much beyond that. Did I actually want to be a lifer there? What could I work on that would make me feel like I had contributed something meaningful to the world? (Cue Avenue Q’s song about purpose)

I tried a few different teams within the company, and took a look at a few outside the company but I still had this nagging feeling that it wasn’t quite right. I wanted to be able to do more – design, project management, and coding. I wanted more influence and I wanted to be able to build the design that was right, not just the one that fit all the constraints. In the middle of a particularly grueling (but still awesome) project where the whole team worked nights and weekends for months, I really had to ask myself – “is this what I want to be spending all of my time doing?” I signed up for a Startup Weekend, hoping to meet some interesting people and learn a bit about startup culture.  I ended up not only doing that, but also growing confidence that I could be an entrepreneur. For the first time, the thought crossed my mind that maybe I should be working on it full time.

Over the next few months, I worked on my own project after work and on weekends. My brain felt stretched and engaged again and I got back the excitement of actually building something- from a simple idea, to actually working code. Still, the idea of quitting seemed almost impossible. How could I manage with no income? What was the right time to go in to it fulltime? Should I wait for my next stock vest? Review? Bonus? For the next feature I own to ship? What if my idea failed or if I didn’t have what it took to get all the work done?

I talked to lots of people, read a lot of books and articles, and thought about what I wanted and soon it turned from an “if” to a “when” question. One weekend I flew down to San Francisco for Y Combinator’s Female Founders conference. I heard a lot of really inspiring women tell their stories, of how they struggled and how long and hard it felt, but how they had eventually, slowly, become successful. Over and over it was stressed that there is no perfect time to quit, and that the only reason you fail is if you give up or run out of money. I realized that my situation, with no family depending on me, money saved up, and a working idea was actually about as good as it gets for anyone. I wrote my formal resignation letter at the airport on the way home.

I spent the first three weeks or so post Microsoft coding almost every day, seeing my idea come to life. I took some time to travel, to spend time with friends I hadn’t seen much for the last 4 years, and catch up with ones I had neglected during the hard push of the last project at Microsoft I worked on.  I felt productive. I reveled in the idea that the hardest part had been making the decision to quit and the rest would be easy because I was doing what I loved.

Once I got home from my trips and sat down to work again, and realized that there was not much work left to be done before opening up my project to real people and trying to get users, I started avoiding it at all costs. This is the part I don’t know how to do.

So, here goes my next adventure, where I will be accountable to you for pushing myself into what feels like the wildly uncomfortable unknown.  I need to go from 0 users (1 if you count me) to at least thousands, learn about business, marketing, user acquisition and all the tricks and terminology that go with them. I need to do a ton of networking and research and getting to know my user base better. I need to figure out how to get funding, hire employees, and start making money.  It all feels very overwhelming, especially after already having written so much code and having come so far from the original idea, but with a goal of building a product that people use and love, this is only the very beginning.