Yes We Can
Yes We Can is a recurring series presented by Cloudflare Co-founder, President, and COO Michelle Zatlyn, featuring interviews with women entrepreneurs and tech leaders who clearly debunk the myth that there are no women in tech.
Jean Lee has been a Software Engineer and a Manager in Silicon Valley for 10+ years. Jean is also the Founder of Exaltitude, helping people unlock their full potentials & shape the future of technology. Prior to Exaltitude, she was the 19th engineer at WhatsApp and worked with Facebook for 5 years after the acquisition, where she built stellar products, engineering teams, and diverse communities as a Software Engineering Manager and a leader.
With the passion of growing and nurturing future leaders of Silicon Valley, she has served on the committee of Women@ Facebook, Girls Who Code, and Grace Hopper Celebration, and as a mentor with Codepath and Hackbright.
To watch more episodes of Yes We Can — and submit suggestions for future guests — visit cloudflare.com/yeswecan
Hi, everyone. Welcome back to this week's episode of Yes We Can. I'm just so honored to have Jean Lee here.
Hi, Jean. Welcome. Hi, thanks for having me. Well, it's going to be so fun.
We have so many things to cover. But before we dive in, just some housekeeping items.
If anyone has a question for Jean, you can submit it. Or if you have an idea of somebody you'd love to see on Yes We Can, you can email yeswecan at Cloudflare.tv.
And so let's dive in. So we have so many things to cover.
You're writing a book, you have a new venture, what I hear all about. But let's go back to your former day job when you joined WhatsApp, which has since been a huge success story as employee number 19.
And I mean, there's a lot of people who want to go find the next WhatsApp and be employee number 19.
So maybe you can start by telling us, what was that like?
Yeah, that was a really great experience. I've grown so much with the company.
And it's been a journey. I was with them for eight years.
And I happened to find them on LinkedIn, back in 2012. WhatsApp had a lot of users internationally, but in America was not as popular as in Europe and India.
And the guy that I was dating at the time preferred using WhatsApp over text messages.
So I've been using it for a while. So when I saw it on LinkedIn, I recognized it and applied.
I love that story. And so how did you, so you just, you saw it on LinkedIn and you said, I'm going to apply to work there.
Did you know that they were only like less than 20 people?
I had no clue. And I wasn't necessarily like hunting for the next big thing.
So my first job out of college after studying computer science was at IBM.
And it was the biggest company you can work for in America, which was great.
And I learned a lot, but I was looking for more of an intimate environment.
And I kind of craved a smaller office feel. So I was looking at startups in general.
And I didn't really know much about the company or the founders, but I went in to see everyone.
It was a small, intimate office. And it was one of those offices where you can like sit and like turn your head and you can see everybody.
I really liked that. And I got to sat right by the founders, you know, about to interact with them all the time and had a really great learning experience.
Oh my God. You just brought me back to nostalgia when I think about Cloudflare's early office, when I used to be able to swivel my head and see everyone all sitting together.
And now I wonder whether we're ever going to go back to that sort of environment because of everything that's happened since then.
But there is something really nostalgic about being in the same room altogether.
Yeah. There's something magical about it.
You can just like feel the vibe of the office and you can get so much work done quickly.
I really liked that environment. That's great.
That's excellent. Okay. So, you know, this 19 person company that you joined pretty early in your career ended up being a huge success story.
And so for those who aren't aware, Facebook ended up acquiring WhatsApp for a lot of money.
And by a lot of money, I mean like $16, $19 billion.
I don't know if it's ever been confirmed, but a lot, big numbers for an acquisition.
And you ended up staying at Facebook for a long time.
And so, and you also just mentioned that you were also at IBM.
So you've worked at this small, intimate, everyone knows each other in one room, getting a lot of work done.
And then a large, what is considered one of the, you know, large, famous tech companies, as well as IBM, iconic long-term company.
Just curious, like what's different and similar between that small stage and then the large stage?
Yeah, there's definitely a lot of differences. So there are pros and cons to both startups and large companies.
I think the three main differences are ownership, speed, and learning and development.
So when you're at a large company, there may be a team of eight or 10 working on a small feature.
And we joke, like, I worked on a button for a year, right?
But when you're at a smaller company, you might be in charge of the whole app or an entire project from beginning to end.
And also speed. Startups are so much faster. By design, you don't have to get buy-ins from all the different teams that are working on all the individual features.
You can just walk up to the founders or the decision maker, come up with a plan, and start executing.
You don't have to wait a week to schedule a meeting with five different teams, and you're just able to work so much faster.
So like, for example, my first day at WhatsApp, one of the co-founders, Brian, he personally handed me a new laptop and gave me an account, and I started working.
Whereas at IBM, I was in new hire training, and then new grads training, and then more trainings for the project that I was working on.
And I ended up being in trainings for three months, which could be good and bad, you know, pros and cons again, which also leads to my third point, learning and development.
So at Facebook, when you join as a new engineer, there are hundreds of other engineers that you can talk to, you can share tips about different, you know, teams, and different experience.
Whereas at a small company, maybe you're the only new hire of the month, or the whole year maybe.
And that, you know, large companies have the funds and the manpower to invest a lot in learning and development, and they often have whole teams dedicated for it.
And large companies also provide mentorship with people who are more experienced.
And all of these things, they add up, and they're kind of crucial to your growth as a leader.
And this is why, part of why I started Exaltitude, to support the engineers who want to really work on, you know, something they feel passionate about with a small intimate company, work fast and have ownership over the work that you're working on, while still getting the learning and development opportunities through our community.
I love that. And I want to hear a lot more about that.
But I, you know, as somebody who's kind of been through the, who's also worked at large companies, I've been at Google and Toshiba, and then also startups, including Cloudflare and others, and now seeing Cloudflare kind of grow into this bigger company, I think you did an excellent job describing some of the differences.
And like you said, there are pros and cons. And, but I do think being purposeful, especially someone's thinking about their next role, being purposeful, figuring out what you're looking for, is it more of that mentorship?
Or is it more of the ownership? Or do you need to be places that move fast?
Because you'll get frustrated in other places. And I think the happiest people who, where they line up their expectations in a way, and the most unhappy people are the ones where they have a mismatch of expectations.
They're like, why is this so slow?
It's like, well, the more checks and balances, because we're a bigger organization.
Or I don't want to work on a button with eight people for a year.
I just want to ship something next week. And so I think getting that aligned, you did a really good job describing that.
Thank you. Yeah, I totally agree with you.
You have to first understand what type of person you are and what type of work you're looking for, and then look for the companies that will support that.
Yeah, that's great. That's great. Okay, we're going to get to Exaltitude.
But before we do, last thing. So let's say someone's listening to me like, wow, Jean did it.
She found WhatsApp. And I want to go somewhere maybe earlier and be with that passionate group, something I really care about.
I want to be able to go walk up to the founder.
That sounds awesome. What advice do you have for those people looking for something more smaller with high impact, high ownership?
How should they go about finding that? Networking helps. Get to know people who work for small companies.
Find out more about these companies, what they're working on.
See what you feel passionate about. See if there's alignment in the mission.
This is what I care a lot about. And try to find companies who also care about what you care about.
And that would be my advice. I love that. I think that's really good.
And when you say networking, which is interesting, because obviously, there's the in-person networking.
You go to meetups. You could be dating somebody who's connected to the tech scene.
There's definitely lots of networking.
But there's also online. Do you feel like you also have online virtual networking avenues that have worked well for you?
Especially since COVID. I mean, everything's online nowadays.
There's so much you can do. I mean, there's a lot that you could only do in person in the past that's now brought to the Internet.
So yeah, totally, you can do a lot of networking online.
I love that. I think that's the great equalizer.
It's like, you don't need to actually know the person to network.
And that's, I feel like, the hidden secret. You really don't need to know the person to get to know them, which is kind of a meta meta.
But I find the same way, even following people on Twitter and just chiming in.
Or there's all these online communities.
And it is pretty powerful how you feel like, I can learn a lot or get to know people a lot without actually ever meeting them in person.
Yeah, that's good. That's great. OK, so you mentioned Exaltitude, this new venture you started.
So maybe you can share with the audience. Tell us more about Exaltitude.
Yeah, so when you mentioned the book, I finished my first draft of the book and I started thinking more about, OK, I want to go back to tech.
What do I want to do? And I thought maybe I want to join a startup. And I started thinking more about my passion, like I mentioned earlier, like when you're thinking about startups, think about what you care about and then try to find other companies who also care about what you care about.
And I realized my passion.
I've been working as an engineering manager for a while. And what I liked the most was really nurturing and growing engineers.
And I love finding learning opportunities, helping people find their strengths, define their goals.
And that gives me so much joy seeing other people grow.
And that's why I decided to start Exaltitude, a community for engineers.
Amazing. That's great. And so how's it going?
So you just started this year, right? This is a COVID, kind of a COVID initiative.
Like when you say you just started it, it's in the last six months?
It's only been two, three months. Yeah, it's brand new. OK, all right. So you are new.
You are shipping. You've got lots of ownership. How's it going so far? It's been going really well.
First, I started by talking to people in my network and they were naturally people who have been working in the industry for a while in similar stages as me, like 10 to 20 years of experience in tech.
And I learned that a lot of them told me they're not really looking for more learning and development because they're already accomplished leaders.
But they all told me that they're willing to give back to the community and they want to help the newer engineers.
And that's been part of a great experience starting a company. Now I have a network of advisors who are willing to pay it forward and give back to the community.
And I've been talking to more junior engineers, people who are getting started with their careers to really understand what are the types of support they're seeking for and doing some pilot programs to find the niche.
I love that. I think that there's so much, I mean, I think one of the greatest things about technology is that people do pay it forward and it's, you can reach out and people help you.
And there is that community of, I don't know, helping each other.
And so the fact that you're creating this community for engineers earlier in their career with folks who are a little bit later in the career, but they don't actually have to be in the same company seems like kind of a missing piece of a puzzle.
And I'm so excited that you kind of identified that and you're like, well, I'm going to go do something about it.
Yeah. Thank you. I'm really excited to work on this.
It's been really fun. That's great. And so, you know, some of those things when you engineers earlier in their career, and there's some that are tuning in here, what are some common?
And I think one of the things that I've, as I've done more of the interviews is just hearing these stories of what are some common things you hear from engineers early in their career that they're looking for more learning and development on that might be helpful to the audience to kind of have to contextualize it a little bit more.
Yeah. So I've been talking to a lot of people, mostly with people who work in smaller companies who don't have a lot of access to learning and development opportunities.
And I was surprised to hear they've been telling me that, you know, I've already met everybody in my company, more people who are not just people with more experience they can learn and get mentorship from, but also people who are going through similar experiences as them to really talk about, like, how do I promote myself?
How do I spot the right projects that are aligned with my career goals?
What are my career goals? How do I find my strengths, identify my, my dreams.
And these are things that people are seeking to learn about and also discuss with their peers.
Oh, I love that. I mean, I feel like that's so many people.
It's like, what do I want to be when I grow up? And it's okay.
You get asked, what do you want to be with your grow up? And I, and you're like, I don't know, what are my options?
Show me all my options. And it's easier to pick, but having to create all the options is hard work.
And I, you know, I, I, often with these careers, it's like you own your career and you have to kind of be in charge of it.
But if you don't know all the, all the possible outcomes, it's hard to make sure that you're on the right path.
So that's, that, that really resonates with me.
I think that this could extend beyond engineers, Jean. I agree with you.
I think it can apply to, you know, a lot of different fields, but like I understand engineers the most, I'm starting with engineers, but hopefully we can expand to other fields as well.
That's great. Okay. And then, so for the advisors and the mentors who get involved, how do they work with Exaltitude?
And if there's people listening that say, wow, I really want to give back and I want to help maybe go back and help provide input to these engineers earlier in their career, how can they get involved?
Yeah, there's a few ways you can get involved. One, I do newsletters.
I interview people who are accomplished in the field. People who want to give advice to other engineers, I interview them.
So you can get involved with that.
There is also opportunities for you to get involved as a mentor or host office hours with the community.
So if you want to learn more about the different opportunities, you can come to my website, it's exaltitude.io.
And I have all the different positions and ways for you to get involved with.
Amazing. That's great. Well, I love that.
And interviewing people is one of my favorite things to do. So I'm sure those are super interesting.
How'd you go with the name Exaltitude? Yeah, Exaltitude.
Initially, I talked to my lawyer and he told me that I need to come up with a unique name.
Because anything you can think of is already out there. So I've been brainstorming with my co-founder and the definition of Exalt is to raise in rank or power or elevate by praise.
And the definition of altitude is vertical elevation.
So we imagine this as a community where people in tech can get together and elevate each other.
Amazing to high altitudes. I love it. Exactly. That's good.
Well, you have to thank your lawyer for pushing you to find something unique.
I always think, I feel like, you know, whether it's Exaltitude or even when you were at what's happened with Facebook or IBM, I find that like the engineers I work really love naming their projects and initiatives.
Do you find a great joy in naming your projects and initiatives?
I do know what you're talking about. Like at Facebook, everything's named really like unique names.
Personally, that's not my favorite thing.
My favorite thing is growing and nurturing engineers. But I did get some help from other people who love naming things.
I love that. I love that. It's good.
It's good growing and nurturing. Fair enough. There you go. So you need all these things to make the world go around.
And that's good to have a good network to lean on to help you with the places where you need help.
Okay. So you mentioned in addition to starting Exaltitude, which is, I hope you reach all the heights that you're looking to because it sounds like such an amazing initiative and community.
And we'll check back in a year how it's going.
And then a couple years after that. But in addition, you're writing a book. And so you did this last year.
So you left Facebook and you decided to write a book. So why don't you tell the audience a little bit more about this fiction novel that you're writing?
Because I just think this is the coolest thing. Thank you. Well, yeah, the pseudonym for the book is Beauty Queen in Silicon Valley.
It's about a pageant queen, Emma, who is a celebrity in her small town.
But when she follows her ex to Silicon Valley, she kind of sticks out like a Barbie doll in a video game aisle.
This is a legally blonde meet social network story. So she was dumped on her birthday.
And Emma decides to show Nade, her boyfriend, that she is in his league by secretly applying for the same internship program at a tech giant named Helix.
So she gets in, thanks to her carefully concealed coding skills. She's also the hidden engineer behind a beauty app that she's been working on since she was 10.
And through this journey, she's able to discover her strengths, define her dreams.
And I'm also talking to a producer who's interested in making this book into a movie.
Amazing. OK, so legally blonde meet social network. So Beauty Queen in Silicon Valley.
I mean, there's so many parts of this that like a book like this doesn't exist.
So why was it important for you to write this novel? Yeah, I did look for a comps when I was getting started with the writing, and it was really difficult to find movies or books.
There really isn't a lot of stories out there about girls in STEM.
And I think Emma's story really reflects my personal story, as well as shared experiences of a lot of women working in STEM.
I feel passionate about empowering and educating women from diverse backgrounds.
So I did a lot of volunteering work around diversity and STEM.
And more specifically, I led the Girls Who Code Summer Program for two years.
And I learned that a lot of girls drop out of STEM in middle school and high school because of all the negative stereotypes of the field presented in media.
So if you think about characters in STEM and media, they are mostly white, stereotypically nerdy men with hoodies on, right?
And this alienating image makes women, it makes it difficult for women to envision themselves as scientists or engineers.
And these are stereotypes, right?
There are men in hoodies, yes, but there are also engineers who look like me. So I really wanted to create Emma, who is a kick-ass engineer, who is also unafraid to celebrate her beauty.
And in this story, I hope girls will find the strength and courage to express themselves and embrace their intelligence and beauty.
Good for you.
I mean, Jin, this is just so amazing. I mean, I love that you kind of were like, I don't like what I'm seeing, so I'm going to do about it.
So I'm going to write a book, by the way.
I mean, most people would say I'm going to write a blog post, but you're like, no, not a blog post.
This has to be a novel. I mean, did anyone tell you that you were a little crazy to do this?
And like, there's no way that you're ever going to get published?
Or when you told people you wanted to write a novel about a pretty girl who's an engineer, successful in the Valley, what was the reaction you got?
Well, maybe it's because of my network and the type of people I hang out with.
But everyone told me, we need this movie. Like, we need this book.
Please write it. This will be so cool. I love that. Well, that's a huge testament to you of having people around saying, this is so cool.
We need this. And so then, I mean, it's one thing to want to write a novel.
And you mentioned there's potentially a movie, you have an editor.
Like, did you go and find a book publisher to go publish this book?
It's been a learning journey. Yeah, I knew nothing about books or writing.
The only thing I've ever written as an engineer was like bullet points for maybe presentations or tech documents I've done.
So that was your only writing experience?
Since college? Not really.
Oh, okay. You said I'm going to write a book. Okay. All right. Yeah. Yeah.
I was like, how do I write one? I didn't really know how to do it. So I looked into workshops.
I enrolled in a free workshop, all day workshop, where you're just like writing on the sprint.
And I got a massive headache after a few hours.
Like, what am I going to do? But I found some help. I got coaching. And I got an editor.
I don't have a publisher yet, but I'm talking to potential agents and partners.
And it looks like they're interested in my book. So I'm very hopeful that I'm going to find a publisher and possibly a producer as well.
You know what I love about the story, Jean, in addition that I'm so excited to read it, is that, you know, you said that you love to mentor and learning development, and that's why you started Consultitude.
And so when you think, like, I did something I didn't really know a lot about.
So I got help. I got a coach. And I went to seminars, which is like another type of learning and development.
So it sounds like you're very well suited.
That clearly is your passion, to help grow people. And you're also very good at doing it for yourself.
I think that's not a skill that everybody has. So you should, just wanted to point that out.
It's clearly you're very good at that and one of your strengths.
Thank you. I do like learning. That's good. That's great. And so then, you know, as you've written this book, has there been anything that surprised you, like either positive or negatively?
Lots of surprises. You know, writing a book is hard work.
Yeah, I didn't know much about writing. So I did end up, I had a goal in 2020 to read 100 books.
That was my 2020 challenge. You know, I was COVID.
I was staying home a lot. And I was doing a lot of reading and writing.
I learned a lot through, you know, all the readings. And I've been trying to read a lot more from diverse authors.
It's been really fun learning from different perspectives.
That's great. What are some, I mean, so did you hit your goal to read 100 books?
Did you reach your goal? Yes, I did. I did read 101 last year.
I mean, virtual high five. You go. That's amazing. What were some of your, were they all fiction?
What were some of your favorites? I read a lot of fiction, young adult fiction, because that's the area that I was writing in.
And I also read a lot of nonfiction as well.
I mean, they were, they were so great. I can't list them all.
There's a lot of great books. I've been going through the bestseller list and just, you know, hitting all of them.
Oh, wow. Good for you.
That's, that's great. Well, if you think of one or two by the end that you can share with the audience, because now I'm, I mean, how can you, everyone's always looking for good books.
And so if there's something that comes to mind, please share it with us, because I would love to hear that.
But that's, that's incredible.
101 books in a year and wide variety and diverse authors. Good for you. That's good.
You can have the jeans book list. So it could be jeans. It could be your thing.
I love that. That's a great idea. I do have a personal spreadsheet. I should put that up on the blog.
You for sure should. You should tweet it and blog about it.
And it's good to build and build your audience and newsletter. It's good. You can even do your reviews, jeans reviews.
That's a great idea too. No, we're just brainstorming in real time.
All right. We have about four minutes left. And so, okay.
So you've, I'm really excited about this book. And so as it gets published and comes, becomes, if it does get into a movie, have you thought about who you would want to play Emma in the, in the movie?
If that comes to, if you had your choice, who would you want to, to cast as Emma in your movie?
That's tough. That's a tough question.
I can't answer that. I can't answer that yet. My producer told me not to share too much.
Fair enough. All right. Well, we'll just have to have you back because there's a lot of fun.
We'll brainstorm. I have some ideas for you.
We can talk about that off air. All right. So we have about three and a half minutes left.
And so one of the questions that there's two questions I want to go.
There's one that I ask everyone who comes on the show. And so as a woman in technology, which you are, you've had an amazing career as a developer and you've done so many things.
Where has the industry lived up to your expectations and where has it fallen short?
I think the industry has been evolving and growing a lot.
And what I really feel passionate about is having better representation in the tech world.
So we need more diversity. We need more gender balance in tech, especially in leadership.
And I think we've made a lot of progress since I first got started in the industry.
And I do a lot of volunteer work with nonprofits and boot camps.
And I see more and more women and people from diverse backgrounds joining the field.
So that makes me really hopeful. And I really dream for a more diverse tech industry in the future.
I love that. That's great. There is progress.
I agree that there's progress and we need more and we need more, which is one of the reasons why I started the show, because I hope women listen and they're like, wow, Jean seems so awesome.
I want to get involved. I want to do what she's doing.
I'm going to go look for my WhatsApp role. And I just think that getting more women to come into the industry, more diverse views and underrepresented minorities helps build better products, create better places to work.
And tech isn't going away. So we need more of these voices in the industry. The industry isn't going to go away.
So we just need to get more people to come in. So I love that.
So then if there's somebody listening and they say, wow, Jean is so cool.
I am one of those girls who is interested in science or STEM. But I also I'm like, well, maybe it's not for me.
What kind of advice would you have for them, for these young girls earlier in their career, thinking about whether they really want to pursue a career as an engineer or developer or tech in general?
I want girls to know that, you know, tech is a diverse place.
There's a lot of stereotype around tech, like you have to be X, Y, Z to be successful in tech.
But I don't necessarily agree with that.
I think no matter what your strengths are, you can find things you can drive in within tech because tech is such a big industry.
So if you're not sure, think more about what your strengths are.
And I bet you there's something in tech for you.
That's so good. That's such good, wise, sage advice, things that I wish I'd known 20 years ago.
So that's great. And when you ran the Girls Who Code summer program, and I know I said one more thing, but I'm just curious, what was that experience like?
Was that super empowering for you? Yeah, it was wonderful.
We did like an orientation for the first day before the summer program and we invited all the parents and I could see, you know, the googly eyes, like the parents were so proud of the students and the students were so excited to join the program.
And one of the girls that I work with, I stay in touch with her and she is now an engineer at Facebook.
Amazing. Well, I mean, these programs work.
I mean, I had a similar experience with a program of my small town and now I'm an entrepreneur because part of that program was a junior achievement program.
I think these programs work. And so having people show up and volunteer for make them work.
Jean, we are out of time. Thank you so much, everyone, for tuning into this week.
Jean Lee from Exaltitude. Thanks so much, Jean, for joining.
Thank you, Michelle, for having me.