Published inWomen of Silicon Valley

Women of Silicon Valley

Jackie Luo is a software engineer at Nylas, a startup in San Francisco working on building the future of email. She’s on leave from Columbia University, where she studies philosophy. Earlier this year Jackie authored the immensely popular article “A Year of Code,” in which she chronicles her journey over a 388-day Github streak. Tweet her at @jackiehluo or follow her on Medium at Jackie Luo.

  1. When did you know you wanted to be in tech?

I’ve wanted to be in tech as long as I can remember. I have this distinct memory of being in fourth grade when a nineteen-year-old Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook and thinking that tech meant that anyone could create pretty much anything they wanted.

What I didn’t have any interest in doing was writing code. I think I had a lot of preconceived notions around what it was to be an engineer, and it really didn’t feel like a role that fit me.

That changed in my first year of college, when I joined a student group at Columbia that organized events around startups and often brought founders in to speak. I met lots of women who had started tech companies but weren’t technical and heard how difficult it was, so I decided to try my first CS class my sophomore year.

2. Who’s been a role model you look up to?

There are a lot of people I admire for different reasons. My friends and the people at Nylas are brilliant and happen to be really funny, thoughtful, and humble too. And then, of course, there are people I respect like Sheryl Sandberg for her strength, Patrick Collison for his ongoing curiosity about the world, and Elon Musk for his ability to think big and make his insane ideas reality.

3. What excites you about tech right now?

I’m super excited about augmented reality. It represents a major shift in how we think about computers and how we use and interact with devices — and it just feels inevitable to me that it’s going to be huge. I don’t think we’ve really even begun to explore everything that will be possible with AR in the next few decades.

4. What’s a challenge you’ve faced in your career journey?

I’ve been lucky enough to be in pretty inclusive environments, but it was difficult to get people to take me seriously when I was just starting to write code. I was all about fashion for several years, when I started shooting photography and launched an online magazine. When I got to college, that’s what defined me, and a lot of people, including friends and family, were surprised when I started taking computer science classes. I think a combination of my gender and the way I dressed confused a lot of people because, again, there is that idea around what an engineer is supposed to be or look like — I had recruiters tell me that I was in the wrong place at a coding competition or other students assume that I was a designer at a hackathon. At this point, I don’t mind because I’m not interested in matching any stereotype to a tee, and every time it happens it’s a chance to (maybe) shift the way someone thinks about women in tech.

5. Describe a time you were proud of yourself.

I’ve been proud of how I’ve learned to prioritize my happiness and my ambitions more. Some of that has meant making difficult choices about my career.

I moved to San Francisco in January planning to intern with this startup, Nylas, then intern with Apple in machine learning over the summer, and then return to school. But toward the end of my internship, Nylas offered me a full-time job. That was complicated because I had already committed to Apple and only finished two and a half years of college.

The decision eventually came down to the question of where I wanted to be in the next few years, since what I would be learning in each role was so different. I decided to stay at Nylas and return to school for a semester (next spring) to graduate. And it’s probably too soon to say that I’m proud of that decision, but I’m glad that I chose what I wanted over what I thought I was supposed to do.

6. What’s something you want to get better at?

Wine tasting!

7. Comfort food of choice?

Fries. Tater tots. Potatoes in any form, really.

8. Favorite book?

East of Eden.

9. If you could try any other job for the day, what would it be?

Sous chef at a restaurant like Atelier Crenn.

10. If you could give your 18-year-old self a piece of advice, what would it be?

Just learn as much as you can and don’t focus on what other people think or do. Forget about tracks and set paths — all you need to know, at any given moment, is whether what you’re doing is getting you closer to what you want.

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