Vogue: Dogpatch Boulders a Home for Engineers

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Want to know when you’ve made it? When one of your amazing members is interviewed by Vogue Magazine at the gym. Yeah. No big deal. Check out the article on Pinterest Engineer Tracy Chou, and how she’s breaking barriers in a male dominated industry. Oh – and how ‘solving’ bouldering problems appeals to the engineer’s mind!

Tracy Chou at Dogpatch Boulders

Published in Vogue Magazine, November 21st

Written by Nathan Heller

Tracy Chou, a young engineer at Pinterest, is tackling tech’s women problem head-on.

“There are a lot of engineers here,” Tracy Chou, a programmer at Pinterest and one of the fastest-rising engineers in tech, tells me one evening at Dogpatch Boulders, a climbing gym named after the bayside San Francisco neighborhood now transformed into a playground for the start-up set. Climbers scale the walls around us like squirrels navigating the top branches of a maple tree. Chou, a stylish young woman with the soft, wry smile of a confident student and a scientist’s avidity for facts, started climbing about a year ago, at the suggestion of a Pinterest colleague. The sport appeals to many engineers, who often describe routes as “problems” and reaching the top as “solving a problem.” Rock climbing, like so many freshly popular pastimes, has become a marker of the national ascent of tech.

At only 27, Chou has emerged as a star problem-solver, a programmer who, having started out as an intern at Facebook and Google before taking on a foundational role at Quora, can now do with a line of code what a master brain surgeon can do with a rongeur. More recently, though, she’s led an effort to solve one of the tech industry’s most nagging problems: a striking dearth of women, especially within its engineering ranks. For years, she’d been acutely aware of complaints. Last fall, at an annual gathering of female technologists called the Grace Hopper Celebration, she decided to do something about it. “The general sense I was getting was ‘There aren’t enough women; the numbers are really bad,’ ” she says. But where was the proof?

Chou is a computer scientist. Truth, in her eyes, is a numbers game. “When we build consumer products at any of these companies—Pinterest, Google, Facebook—a ton of data is tracked. How many people show up on the landing page? How many hit the sign-in form?” she says. “It felt hypocritical that we were being so disciplined about using metrics in building our products, yet not at all with workforce demographics. If we didn’t even know what the baseline was, how could we know if some new strategy to improve diversity was helping or not?”

So Chou wrote a blog post on Medium.com. In it, she announced a call for data. “Every company has some way of hiding or muddling the data on women actually in engineering roles,” she wrote, referring to numbers padded with nontechnical roles. She defined exactly which jobs ought to be counted. At smaller companies, employees willingly submitted figures: Often, they just had to look around the room. At larger ones, the request went up the chain of command. As of this writing, 185 tech companies have submitted numbers to Chou’s database. Other firms, like Google and Facebook, subsequently released data on their own: giants of the field taking stock alongside a young woman just a few years into her job.

The numbers were bad. Mozilla’s engineers were less than 9 percent female. Women made up just 17 percent of the tech team at Google as of January. At Facebook and Yahoo, that number was 15 percent. Some companies employed no females on their tech teams at all. Even Chou’s own Pinterest, whose users are reportedly nearly three-quarters female, had only 12 percent. Yet the numbers did what nothing else had done: They set a ground from which upward motion could be tracked.

Part of the power of Chou’s call for information was its simplicity. Part of it came from her budding industry celebrity. Coding software is not unlike writing: It requires both a careful, fluent eye for small-bore syntax and imaginative attention to overarching form. By this standard, Chou, who was included in a recent “30 under 30” Forbes tech roster, stands as a sort of Dorothy Parker in the field. “I knew of her before I knew her,” one female programmer tells me. At the Grace Hopper conference last year, she was like a rock star: “All these girls wanted to take their photo with her,” a colleague recalls.

As Chou blends in with the climbing crowd this evening, though, she heads toward a medium-level course. The rocks studding the climbing walls have been fixed in constellation-like arrays, each route designated by a color. “Guys have more strength, so they can muscle through a lot of their routes,” Chou says. She offers the hint of a grin. “I have less strength, so I have to strategize.”

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