By Clara Wu
Edited by Jane Chung
Above all else, Tracy Chou is an engineer. She's been that way her entire life. You may know her for her famous diversity initiative - a crowdsourced list of companies and how many women each have in their engineering organizations - that gained so much traction that Google, Apple and Facebook (among other companies) released their diversity statistics publicly shortly after. Or you may be one of her 26,400 followers on Twitter, where she tweets about all things diversity in tech and occasionally, also, which apps she likes. But let's not forget that that is not what Tracy is here for.
If you were to google “Tracy Chou”, you would not be remiss for assuming that she was always a writer and an activist. But, in fact, before any of that, Tracy is and always has been - first and foremost - an engineer. She tells a story about how her 5th grade teacher once suggested she could become a journalist someday. Her response? "Why would I do that? I’d rather just do math.” She may laugh about that now but she is absolutely not ashamed of being a nerd. As she was deciding what to do post-graduation (with a BS and a Masters from Stanford, no less), she applied to three programs at MIT for her PhD: in computer science and artificial intelligence, in operations research, and in quantitative marketing. She was accepted to all three. Ultimately, she decided not to pursue any of those degrees. She discovered she was more passionate about “building software that people will use.” But while Tracy hasn't been getting her PhD, she also hasn't spared any time in getting her hands dirty. Tracy has an incredible track record of choosing risky early-stage startups that end up being winners. She joined Quora as an engineer directly out of college, when the company was only four employees. Later, she went on to join Pinterest as one of their first engineers, where she currently works. Both Quora and Pinterest have gone on to become household names,valued at $900 million and $11 billion, respectively.
Sometimes Tracy talks so passionately and easily about engineering that it is easy to forget just how immense her impact on diversity in tech has been. We speak about diversity for a while; we exchange stories, equal parts horrifying, depressing and humorous. She shares her own personal experiences being a woman in tech. But even though Tracy is, by nearly all definitions, "famous" for her extensive work in diversifying the technology world, while we speak, it is clear that she is still a little incredulous about how all of this turned out. She expresses to me her own surprise that people still defer to her opinion on issues of diversity and inclusion. From where she stands, "this is just random press talking about something I did two and half years ago." There are times talking to her where it sounds like the world decided for her, long before she made a deliberate choice, that she was the right person for the job. She describes being invited to events alongside multi-millionaire and billionaire CEOs and investors and feeling out of place, “imposter syndrome like nothing else.” (Imposter syndrome can best be described as a "deep insecurity around belonging and deservingness.") It should come as no surprise then, that Tracy carries an incredible amount of humility. For her, the work she has done does not carry the same weight or merit as building her own multi-billion-dollar company or being an industry-changing engineer. She often, even casually, references the press as the only reason she has been successful.
But regardless of how she got there, make no mistake, Tracy has taken on the helm of diversity advocacy in technology.
While many activists like her see themselves as a kind of communication portal between the voiceless and the powerful, Tracy claims she was never a writer. She credits Quora, the question-and-answer startup where she started her career, as having pushed her to write. Practically speaking, she tells us, Quora was only a few thousand users when she joined the company and for the early employees it just felt like part of the job to help generate content for the site by writing answers. In fact, Tracy describes her initial reaction to blogging as "unnatural" - she liked that Quora offered a prompt to write about. In a world where social media and activism are so closely tied - Tracy's approach to the diversity problem feels distinctly untraditional. Indeed, she can’t point to a specific time and place where she decided "this was it" and that she was going to do something. Instead, she describes piecing together experience after experience until there were enough data points that she could take a step back and look at them more broadly. She considered the differential treatment she received and methodically ruled out potentially confounding factors until she was down to one explanation: her gender - the social activist equivalent of drawing a scientific conclusion. In many ways, this makes her stance on diversity in tech feel all the more compelling. Tracy doesn’t inherit the cause of women in tech; she tells us that at Stanford she didn’t take part in student groups like the Society of Women Engineers or Women in CS, because simply being a woman in engineering wasn’t a compelling enough reason for her to surround herself with other women in engineering. Instead, her conclusions on the current state of diversity and her decision to start speaking up on the issue come from her own qualitative research of sorts. It becomes just one of the set of problems to be solved in the course of a work day: building a great product, scaling it up, oh and solving this diversity thing. We trust her with the former two - why wouldn't we trust her with the latter?
When we ask her if she thinks we will still be talking about diversity in 10 years, she pauses and admits, “Probably.” It is curious that the way that we talk about diversity feels different than the way we talk about the future; somehow the future of self-driving cars feels closer than a world where the tech industry is diverse. I ask her about her fears and she replies quickly, as if she's thought about this for a while: “I worry sometimes that I’ve already peaked, that everything goes downhill from here.” On paper, the notion that Tracy could have peaked seems almost comical; she is not even 30 years old and has accomplished more than most in their entire career. I tell her this. She waves me away, shaking her head. She holds herself as accountable to this problem as she might to a project she’s tech leading. No data means nothing. With a sigh of frustration, she says, "It would be meaningful if I were actually helping to increase the number of women in engineering; sure, there’s awareness about the problem but I don’t know if anyone’s actually changed their mind about whether to do engineering, or stay in it.”
We talk a bit about her roots, the things that she grew up with, her own beginnings. She mentions her avid reading habit: "As a kid, I read so much that my mom had to institute a limit of 2 books a day. And then because I starting picking up really long books, the 500 pagers, she had to institute a page limit.” We talk to her about her tastes - she liked Nancy Drew (“a strong female heroine”, she notes). Tenacious, clever and feminist - she hasn’t changed much.
Tracy has spent virtually her entire life in the Bay Area. She grew up in Los Altos and went to high school in Mountain View. She attended college at Stanford and then went on to work at Quora and Pinterest in Palo Alto. Despite these roots, the practicality of her outlook outweighs any emotional attachment she has to the area. In many ways, she views the Bay Area as a training ground for what is ahead: "This is a really great place to be learning the craft from world-class engineers and operators, and just generally connecting with other people who are so passionate about building software." But for Tracy it's not the end all be all. She tells us that while it's a great place to start a career in tech, "the problems we’re solving here are not necessarily the most pressing."
Indeed, Tracy's sights are already above and beyond diversity. We ask her about where she sees herself in 10 years. For her, diversity in tech is just the tip of the iceberg - she has much bigger plans for herself. She mentions an interest in the broader issues of gender equality and women in the workplace. She also points to global climate change as something else she'd like to be part of fixing: "I think technology has a huge role to play in this." She doesn’t know yet what her role in solving those issues is - but we think - just like her diversity in tech initiatives - she’ll figure it out.
Sometimes the most profound thing about Tracy is that she is not what you might expect from someone like her - she is smart, successful, ambitious - but not invulnerable or inaccessible. She may tweet often, but she is grounded, thoughtful and self-possessed. She leans in when I talk and listens carefully when I ask her questions. In the age of Instagram likes, Snapchat, the Kardashians and everything "slacktivism", the work Tracy does is refreshingly tangible and real. She is out there, pushing for the things that she wants and believes the world needs. And regardless of what the future holds, Tracy will be there - a force to be reckoned with.
Tracy Chou is a software engineer at Pinterest, most recently on the home feed and recommendations team. She has previously been a tech lead on the ads and web teams at Pinterest, and worked on infrastructure, API, email, and growth as well. Before Pinterest, she worked at Quora, also as an early engineer there.
In 2013, Tracy helped to kick off the wave of tech company diversity data disclosures with a Github repository collecting numbers on women in engineering, and she has become an accidental activist of sorts on the issue of diversity in tech. She was named Forbes Tech 30 under 30 in 2014 and has been profiled in Vogue and WIRED for her work.
Tracy graduated from Stanford with an M.S. in Computer Science and a B.S. in Electrical Engineering, where she was a Terman Scholar and Mayfield Fellow and elected to Phi Beta Kappa and Tau Beta Pi.