Originally aired on July 17, 2020 @ 11:00 AM - 11:30 AM EDT
A recurring series presented by Cloudflare co-founder and COO Michelle Zatlyn, featuring interviews with women entrepreneurs and tech leaders who clearly debunk the myth that there are no women in tech.
This week's guest: Amy Truong
Amy is an engineering leader with 15+ years of industry experience. At Planet, Amy leads the organization that builds the Planet Platform: the APIs and GUIs that allow customers to explore and analyze satellite imagery.
Women in Tech
All right. Good morning, everyone. Hi, I'm Michelle Zatlyn. Welcome to this week's installment of Yes We Can, and I'm so excited to have Amy Truong here today. Well, good morning, Amy. Hello. Thanks so much for getting up early and being part of this today. Yeah, thanks for having me. I'm really excited. I mean, you've had just this amazing career as an engineer first and now an engineering leader here in the technology world for the last 15 years, and I'm really excited to hear more about that today and share it with the world with everyone on Yes We Can. So a couple housekeeping items. If anyone has any questions, you're welcome to send it in to yeswecan at Cloudflare.tv, and we're happy to answer them, and otherwise, we're going to dive right in. All right. Well, Amy, it's Friday morning, 8 a.m., and I was reflecting on your career. You've worked in all these engineering roles at amazing companies, IBM, Twitter, Planet Lab, which sends satellites into space, Rackspace, and now Patreon. That's quite the collection of companies, different populations on an amazing, amazing career, and I thought you could probably start by sharing with some of the viewers, like, what's your perspective? Like, what is engineering, and what do engineers do all day? Yeah, you want to demystify engineering? A little bit. Yeah, and I think in the day, I think engineers are problem solvers, and the tools that we use are code. We write code from scratch, and or we use other software to stitch something together to solve a problem. Sometimes an engineer can sit at their computer for hours at a day or at night because they're deep into a problem, or sometimes they're in front of a whiteboard with the other teammates, other engineers, other designers, a product manager just brainstorming on how to approach a problem. I've also used another, if that still seems foreign to folks, another analogy that, another way that you can think of it is, I think of engineering as kind of like writing a book, you know, you can spend some, you spend some time collaborating with an editor, maybe with other co-authors to form the outline, and then you get to writing, and then sometimes you just get inspired in the middle of the night, or in the morning, or during the day, regular daytime hours, and you just get into your zone, and you write stuff, you get your colleagues review that, review that piece, and then you repeat until you get your masterpiece. That's, that's one way to think about, about it. That's great. I love it. I love this problem solver, creating a book. You're building a lot of things, you're creating it, but instead of words, you're using code, which is pretty amazing, and so maybe you could bring a couple, if you think back to one or two projects or products that you're really proud of over the course of your career that maybe you could, can you share a little bit more? Maybe you could bring it to, yeah, of course, I think that's a great analogy, and then now, you know, maybe tell us a couple things that you've built and shipped that you're really proud of. Yeah, so I really love what I'm doing at Patreon right now, so Patreon, our mission is to fund the creative class. Artists are actually getting screwed by the system, and they're forced to rely on advertisers and sponsors, and what my team is doing is building this platform that, that removes that, that big middleman, and we give artists independence, so what we do is we, we connect creators directly with their fans who pay them directly for their art, and we've had a lot of creators on our platform who just have been able to quit their day jobs to pursue their life, like full-time careers as artists, have even, even been able to employ a whole staff on their own to support their, their full -time career as an artist, so that's, like, really exciting that I'm working on. Planet Labs is also a really sweet gig. Its mission is to make satellite imagery cheap and accessible and, and at a regular cadence, so what I mean is we have literally hundreds of satellites orbiting the Earth, capturing daily image of the Earth, and you can see what's happening any place on Earth every day, and this is low-res imagery, so, you know, from a security standpoint, you know, you can, you can see, like, large objects, like a tree, a big truck, you don't see faces, you don't see license plates, you don't see addresses, but there are some really cool applications with that where you can, where you can observe, let's say, a legal deforestation in the Amazon, and you can see that happening, and then you can take action versus in the traditional satellite, you would get, like, one expensive imagery per year, but you've missed that time window to actually do something about it. Yeah, no, that's, that's amazing. I love that, from space to artists, creators, so if there's someone, if there's, so when you say artists, and you're empowering them to connect them to their fans, is it musicians? Yeah. What, what kind of artists? Yeah, that's a, that's a really great question. I mean, before I came to Patreon, I didn't, I think I had a very narrow view of what an artist is, and, but then as I learned more about Patreon, it's, it's not just musicians, it's, like, podcast creators, there's, like, journalists, there's webcomics, and I think there's, like, a lot of really creative applications, other creative applications I didn't think about, so right now, there is a, there's a group of, of folks who are translating news articles into Vietnamese, so I'm Vietnamese, and, and so it's, there's not, you know, there's, there's not a lot of news that's, a lot of the news in Vietnamese is kind of leaning towards a certain direction, I don't want to get too political, but, but we've had, like, some folks who are on Patreon to, to translate news for our older Vietnamese generation. Oh, wow. A lot of really cool stuff. It's amazing that, like, the technology you're building at Patreon is empowering all this creativity around the world, and it, you know, it's, it's everywhere, and so if there's some creators listening to this, and you're like, wow, that's a good idea, you can go check Patreon and check out the amazing service Amy and her team are building, so it's super inspiring. All right, so, you know, you started your career, so you're from Texas, you went to, you went to U of T in University of Texas in Austin, you started your career working at IBM in Texas, right, and then eventually you moved to the Silicon Valley later in your career, kind of where you are today, and so what's it like working at technology companies in large technology companies that are outside of the Silicon Valley, and then some of the ones that are in the Silicon Valley, like Twitter and Planet and Patreon, are there, are they the same, or are there differences? There are a lot of similarities and differences. I think, so thanks for calling out that I'm from Austin. Texas is very big. Austin is, is, is unique, but anyway, so I think what's similar between Austin and Silicon Valley is that I've, I think both have very, have thriving technical communities. I definitely experienced this when I worked at Rackspace back in 2012. This is when there was a lot of, there's a lot of work in OpenStack. OpenStack is an open source project. It's a, it's a cloud computing open source project, and during that time the community was really like taking off, and there was just a lot of folks coming together to share ideas and collaborate on architecture and code, and it was just like, like I said, it was just a really thriving technical community for one experience when I was in Austin. Silicon Valley, I find the same way, but a little different. It's a thriving startup community, and there's like meetups everywhere for any type of technical interest group. What's different is, oh gosh, the demographic is really different. I think there are a lot more young people in Silicon Valley. I think there are a lot more men in Silicon Valley. I think everyone's working in almost, it feels like almost everyone's working in tech. I mean, I'm a, I'm a parent, and you know, even like a, you know, PTA meeting, like I'm, you know, everyone's, everyone's, so I'm wondering, okay, is this parent also a future co-worker of mine or a future boss? Are they going to like, you know, acquire my company one day? I don't, you know, it's just, it's just interesting, whereas like, you know, in Texas, I don't think people ever thought about that, but, but I do find that, so in Silicon Valley, you know, given the kind of lack of diversity, particularly we went back to like the, the, the bit about men versus women, I found that in Silicon Valley, it's, it's, it's, it's kind of, I see some unconscious bias baking into our career advancement processes. So, for example, in Silicon Valley, I find that it's more common for employees to have to self-nominate themselves for promotion, which I think incorrectly assumes that if you, if you only think, only if you think you're good enough, would you nominate yourself? And I think we all know that, you know, studies show that women are less likely to self -promote. Then, then when you see, then what happens when you see few women in senior roles, the incorrect assumption is like, well, we just didn't have enough women because they didn't think they were good enough, and it was just wrong. So, so I thought that was really interesting to see in Silicon Valley, and it just, it was just a big contrast to what I'd experienced in the past, where the promotion process is usually more of a partnership with the manager, employee, and the managers driving the, the process, but, but with that partnership too. Oh, that's, yeah, I've actually never heard anyone say that, so thanks for sharing that insight, and, and you would know because you are, again, a great leader in engineering and a woman, so I love, thanks for sharing that with us. You know, as you think, now today you're running a team, right? You, you started as an individual engineer, and now you're managing a team. That's right. Yeah, what, how, what's that like? What's it like managing? What's it like going from an engineer to managing a team of engineers, and kind of maybe what are the things that you've learned along the way? Yeah, I think it's about, like, you're still all working on the same problem, so going back to, like, problem solving, you're still working on the same problem, but the resolution is a little different, so when I was an engineer, and even when I'm managing a smaller team versus a larger organization, I think the, the resolution is different, so on, as an IC or, or managing a smaller team, I'm zooming in on the precision of the details, and then on a larger organization, I'm having to zoom out and see how all the pieces connect, so, you know, it's the same problem, but just, just looking at it from, like, those different, like, levels of resolution, if that makes sense. Yeah, that does make sense. Has any, is that something that you've learned, like, that you, that you've learned to get better at, or are there other things that you've gotten better at? Because that seems like, how did you learn that skill? That's, I get that you're looking at the same problem, but it isn't. Yeah. How do you practice that? Well, it takes a lot of, take, I guess, you know, it takes a lot of practice and trust with your team. I remember the first time I stepped into a management role, this was many years ago at IBM, I was actually managing the team that was on it, so I was, I then became, I was managing my former peers, and I knew all the work that was involved, and so I was, I was, like, you know, stepping in and, and trying to do the work to help the team out, because I already knew, I mean, I just, you know, I, it's not like you just forget to code, you know, when you transition into management that day. So, I remember my team telling me, there was someone came to say, you know, Amy, I've, I really, I really, you know, I know that you're trying to help, but I really need you to, like, step out of this, and we just let us do the job, and it was, and, you know, we'd established that trust, where this person could tell me that, and said, all right, thank you, thank you for giving me this feedback, and then I, and then I just had to learn to just, like, just know that the team's got it, you know, and then instead, like, focus on backfilling my old role instead of trying to do my old job and my new job. Got it. I mean, by, like, the trust part, like, you know, you, you try some things and not, you know, we make mistakes, and then we just, like, you know, you know, we fail forward, and, and, you know, learn from, you know, those mistakes. Of course, yeah, that's great. You know, you mentioned that now as a manager, you know, you're less shipping the code because you're managing a team, but how do you stay current on technology? It's changing so much. Like, how do you stay current on your technical skills, or do you? Yeah, it's really hard. This is something I talk about with a lot of other leaders, and there's, I don't know if there's, a perfect silver bullet. It's just you have to make the time for it. You, I think there's some people who will just, like, carve out time at night or on weekends to just, like, you know, do some personal projects. I actually have a list of personal projects that I'm trying to get to. It's just been, it's, you know, just, just takes time to, like, get to it, and I think, I think, but it's also about, like, the resolution again. Like, so in the past, I'd be like, oh, you know, I feel like an imposter because I'm not as good at Python as I was in Java or whatever, and now it's more like, let's take a step back and look at kind of these trends that we're seeing, and, and, you know, what's actually, you know, what, what other people are talking about, and, and, you know, just, like, I guess, you know, just talking to your peers, like, your other colleagues at other companies about, you know, what are they, what are they thinking about, and so it's just, like, I think that goes, it's a little bit of a, it's similar to the, the resolution of things. Like, do we get into, like, all the nitty-gritty, or do we, like, you know, kind of step back and look at, you know, just what, you know, just the overall trends. Trends, yeah, no, well, speaking of trends, let's say there's some people on the call who are saying, oh, wow, I really want to, I love problem solving, I love technical skills, I like collaborating, so that's a word that has come up many times. I'm going to explore engineering, computer science, like, what are some trends? Like, if someone wants to start coding, like, what are languages or places that you kind of direct people, beginners to go check out? Yeah, that's a great question. So, first, I'm going to say that for the, for the imposters in the room, for the people with, sorry, the people with imposter syndrome in the room, I'm, like, speaking to the, to the, to the women, the, the girls and the women out there who may feel intimidated about getting into tech, because they're like, oh, you know, I'm starting later, the, the, my, my, my male classmates, colleagues, like, they've done this longer. I think, you know, tech changes all the time. I think, I think learning about tech is becoming more accessible. You don't need to go to a traditional classroom or, you know, know the right people. I think there's a lot of, like, meetups that you can join. I remember when I first, I was moving from the Java world to the Python world. I, I, I joined a meetup called PyLadies, and we did a Coursera class. It was a, a six-week Coursera Python class, and, you know, you had homework that was due every, every week, and what we did was, like, create a, kind of a study group where, you know, every Wednesday, we would meet at a coffee shop and just, like, do our assignments together, independently, but just in case we had, like, questions that were just sort of there for moral support, and then we would just, like, you know, you know, be there for each other if there's, like, questions, like, you know, after that Wednesday session. So, yeah, so I would, I would, my advice is to reach out and check out other, like, meetups, other communities that are, because I think there are, there are, there are definitely a lot of people who are interested in getting into tech, and they're just looking for a little bit of support. I love this. PyLadies, was that back in Austin? Yeah, it was in Austin. Yeah. That sounds fun. I mean, especially during this pandemic, the idea of getting together at a coffee shop every Wednesday to work on problems on my homework, that sounds like a real luxury right now, I'll say. Yeah, yeah. That's nice. You know, you, I wanted to go back to something you said a couple of questions ago around open source, and I know that's a word that gets thrown around a lot in technology, but I would love for you to demystify that, too. Like, what does that mean? What does open source mean? Okay, okay, getting to the basics, or at least I thought it was basics. Okay, so open source is about, so, you know, you look at, like, a lot of these, like, traditional corporations that write software, and it becomes, like, it's their intellectual property, and, like, no one can, you know, this is, this is, like, their secret sauce. They're, they're, no one, no one can see the secret sauce. The open source community is about, let's just, we can be better, the philosophy is that we can do better by learning from each other and contributing to the same, it's the same code base. And so, in the, you know, OpenStack community, it was just about, like, you know, how do we get people together and share ideas? How do we set some best practices? And I think in that process, especially during that time, we were also changing the way people were working, too. I think that the, I don't know if this is getting, like, too technical for this audience or too much into the weeds, but. Well, I think, I feel like the, the DevOps movement really took off during this time. And what this means is, like, you know, you know, there are some, you know, back in the day, there were very, you know, when you, a company would, like, set up, you know, you would sell this shrink wrap software, and someone would set it up, and there were someone who would, would, would, like, manually operate it. And now, with, with Open, when you share the code, and people can see, like, you know, what's actually, like, powering this software, you have ops people who are working very closely with development. And it's not just, like, you know, developers throwing things over the fence, like, all right, operator, you just figure it out on your own. Now, it's a much more collaborative working space. And I think there has created a lot more jobs, like, more roles. I know that working at, back in the day, working at IBM, when we were in that, you know, traditional model of, like, you know, there's, like, there were, like, some ops people who were very, like, nervous about cloud computing, because it meant that they would be out of a job. But I think it's more about where we're kind of, like, transitioning, where we're changing the way we work. And there's, like, this opportunity for people to learn new skills. And so now we have, I think it's more common now to hear of, you know, ops people who can actually code and review designs with developers. And I think that's really exciting. You know, I mean, we've been chatting for about 20 minutes. And, you know, this overarching theme of collaboration and sharing, where it's you're coming together, working either within your company, or within a community of programmers who are trying to get better together, or in the case of open source, programmers around the world who are collaborating on solving a problem, there is something really special about that. I don't that I feel like that's many ways, that's kind of like the magic of tech. I don't know many other industries where it has that same sort of or that same sort of practice where it's the same sort of idea. Like, it is pretty amazing. Yeah. The other thing about like, it being so open, it's around the world. And everyone, I think that also, I felt in the open source community, it was it was way more diverse. And, you know, there is, like, going back to saying in Silicon Valley, there's a lot of young people, there's a lot of people who, it's just, you know, San Francisco, and can be really, you know, challenging to live in, it's very expensive. And if you have a family, it can be really challenging. You know, if you're like, you know, if you're, you know, if you have other responsibilities outside of work, like whether it's taking care of children or aging parents, I found that there are folks who are, I don't know, like, in OpenStack, there's maybe someone in, I don't know, just in the middle of America, you know, somewhere else, like, Minnesota, I don't know, like, just, you know, able to, like, contribute with other people in the Valley and, you know, other places. Yeah, I love that. Connecting people around the world, no matter where you are, democratizing that, you know, we've talked a little bit about, I just want to take this and carry it forward a little bit where, you know, again, you've spent your career in technology last five, 15 years, at big companies like IBM and smaller companies like Patreon that one day want to become a big company. And of course, it's amazing all the work you're doing empowering creators. When you think about the impact you have had in your role or before you join a company, how do you think about that? Like, how do you think about the impact of what the, what you're building, what you're shipping is having on the world? Like, how important is that to you? Oh, it's really important. I think, I guess, like, over the years, I've realized that having an impact on people in any shape or form, some more direct than others is really important, because it gives me, it helps me understand why I'm doing that. It motivates me, like, if I have, like, a good answer to, like, why am I doing this? And it's very motivating for me. And I think I've always carried that with me. Like, even when I was working on, you know, the more enterprise software, that may not seem like you're making a direct impact. But in a way, it was because I was actually building a software that powered other businesses. And, but there's a human behind that business, too. And then going into OpenStack, and, you know, democratizing cloud computing standards, and so that everyone across tech could have, you know, access to this and, and shape the way, like, we work as, as people in tech. And, and then, so I don't know, I just, I think that's still, like, that's still like a type of direct impact to me. Then, you know, Planet Labs was about making the world a better place by letting us see the whole world and taking action. And then Patreon, then becomes, like, more narrow into, like, funding, empowering the creative class and changing the way society views and treats artists. So I think, like, over time, it maybe it was, like, it was very broad. And then as I realized, like, that understanding the why is really important to me, then I could narrow more, I could zoom in into, like, you know, what was the thing that made me really excited? And I realized that, you know, making more of a direct human impact for how humans live is becomes really important to me. Yeah. Well, we're all at the end of the day, humans. And, you know, back to this whole pandemic, it's just a reminder of how important that is. So thank you for that. I love, I love, again, you've worked at amazing companies in lots of different realms that aren't making huge impacts on humans. Thanks for that. You know, you talked a little bit about being a woman in technology, and I want to tease that out a little bit more. Where, where has your career kind of have exceeded your expectations? And where has being a woman in technology kind of fallen short? Oh, wow. I think my experience may be a little different from others, but here goes. I think, well, the funny thing is, I went into tech way back in the late 90s, because I felt it was a very inclusive culture. At the time, I mean, my, my computer science teacher was a woman, my first team lead at my first job was a woman who actually studied zoology, but transitioned into computer science. I think I remember one computer science teacher telling me that there was a shortage in coders. And so he was training some assembly workers to code. And I just, I don't know, it just felt like it was more about learning. And it just was, it was just much more diverse and inclusive. And I think it was, and I guess like, in some ways, it felt like more academic, not in the snobby way, but just more about like, you know, the learning aspect of it. I just really love that, that vibe. I also love that. Problems, it was like learning how to solve a problem. Yeah, right. Yeah, exactly. I mean, I just, I just loved it didn't matter like what you looked like, or who you knew, it was just, it was just like, hey, let's solve this problem. And let's look at, let's look at how the different, all the different ways that you can solve a problem. And then, and then now there's, you know, a lot of, I feel like a lot of people go into tech because it's, I think some people find it's a way to get rich quick. And I think, I think this is where things get a little rowy. I remember in college, the moment I realized things were changing was I was in the computer science lab and I was, you know, finishing a project and someone, there was this, this kid, this boy, I'll say call him a boy. He came up to me and he's like, oh, you finished your, your project early. Oh, you, you, you're so, you're so lucky that you're a girl. You must've gotten help. And I was just like, I was just, I was shocked. Yeah. I was just shocked. I didn't know, I didn't know what to think. I was just so shocked and I kind of just froze. And I mean, now I'm, I was angry. I'm, I'm over it now, but I was, I mean, I've learned, you know, I am over it, but it just, but you know, I've, I've kind of moved on. But it was just really interesting that the community, you know, the tech culture has changed. But that said, if you can, I've learned like, you know, if you can navigate past those bros, you still get really cool problems to solve. There are actually still a lot of really awesome collaborative people out there who just want to work on great teams and change the world. And, and the thing that I've learned is that a lot of those people are actually pretty quiet and they're, and they're hidden and you just have to like seek them out and you have to partner with them. You learn from them. And and in some cases, if you have the experience that they could also benefit from, then you, you know, you offer to mentor them too, if that, if that makes sense. But there's, but I guess like, I'm not sure if I'm, I'm answering your questions. It's sort of like been a really interesting relationship with tech and, you know, how I went into it. And I think most people have heard more of like the stories of like, oh, this is very bro. I don't feel like I belong. And I actually got into it because it was very inclusive. And I think there are still, it's still inclusive, like deep in its core. But you have to like, find a way to navigate through the like toxic elements to find that, that good core. But it's there. No, you know, as someone who also has spent the last, you know, 12 years in technology, it's, I agree. It's like, if you seek it out, you could really surround yourself with great collaborative, all, all working together. The, the, which, which is wonderful. And on a daily basis, it's wonderful. But then sometimes you got to go outside of what you've seeked out to and you end up using your technology, terminology, encountering a bro. And I'm like, what's going on? Because it's an ecosystem, it's connected, there's so many connections. And so I thought, so it is this little bit of juxtaposition where you can seek it out. And there are so many wonderful people. I feel like I'm the luckiest person at Cloudflare. I work with so many of them and it's amazing. And we're there about doing the work and whatnot, but it's not, you know, Cloudflare works with other people and sometimes it's just kind of, it's hits you in the face. And so there's still a lot of work to be done, I think. Yeah. Yeah, for sure. Good. Okay. So let's say there's someone who's called, I was like, wow, Amy is awesome. I want to grow up to be like Amy, which is great. You know, back in the nineties, we had be like Mike, Michael Jordan. Now it's be like Amy, I want to be like Amy. And they're like, wow, I want to pursue a career in engineering. Maybe like they're a college student who's like, I'm switching majors. Or maybe it's somebody who's a zoologist who wants to switch into, who's inspired by your story. He's like, I love solving problems. I love being collaborative. I want to work on interesting things and at scale around the world. I want to have an impact in through what we're building. What advice do you have for them? And what would you like kind of last words of wisdom about what you love about engineering? I think I touched on this earlier. I think, you know, because tech always changes. I think for the folks who feel that, oh, I'm, you know, dealing with imposter syndrome and folks who are intimidated and joining, it may feel like you're, you have to start over. And I think that it's because things are always changing. We're always learning. I mean, if it makes you feel better, we're all, it's, you know, we're square one. We're all, there's always something new to learn. And, you know, and I think that is, I find that to be very helpful for me. Like sometimes, like, you know, when things are changing too fast, I'm like, ah, you know, but it's like, everyone is, everyone's learning. Everyone is, and it's totally fine. And so I say, you know, come right on in, you know, you know, I think let's, let's do this. Let's, let's, let's figure this out together. Amazing. All right. Well, Amy, that's great. It's like, yes, come on in. Let's do it. Yes, we can. Yes, exactly. Well, thank you so much for sharing all of your, your career with us today. This was wonderful. And I know I leave inspired. Thanks so much for your time. Congratulations. And can't wait to see what you build and ship next. Thank you. Thanks for having me.