Kacey Coughlin on Women in Tech and Her Journey to Silicon Valley

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Kacey Coughlin is a UI Engineer/Designer at LinkedIn in Mountain View, California. Kacey studied animation and worked in computer repair and web design before getting her shot in the “big leagues” at LinkedIn. She shares what it’s like to go through the interview process at a major tech company, her experiences as a woman in technology, and gives some valuable advice along the way.

 

When did you first become interested in programming? How did you learn your skills?

My love of programming I’d say came after I found my love of web design, which was after I was already in school for animation. I say web design because at first it wasn’t what we know as web development today; mostly HTML and either Flash, Actionscript, or straight up images in tables for buttons, etc. So yeah, I originally went into animation at the Art Institute after high school, because I was going to draw comic books for the rest of my life. Two years into that three year program, I became obsessed with making websites, using just HTML and Flash. Yea, giant Shockwave files embedded on a page; and I began making good money freelancing with this.

 

I decided to drop out of art school, change majors to something in media design or programming, and make websites for a living. After a long, meandering, and frustrating journey through junior college, I got accepted to UCSD as an Interdisciplinary Computing and the Arts major, and took my first course in Java immediately. I’d say it was in that class that I found my love of true programming. After writing my first ‘for’ loop to run through every pixel of an image and adjust its RGB levels by half, essentially putting an Instagram filter over it long before Instagram, I was hooked. All my life I had been creating art using the traditional mediums for art creation, and that all made sense: putting brush to canvas, of course that makes an image. But now, suddenly, I can type words and commands, and create an image?! That was MAGIC!

 

It was about that time that the iPhone came out, and anyone making, and commissioning, websites wanted them to work on this new “internet communication device.” That meant that your website could NOT be a giant Flash plugin, and Javascript started to make a comeback. I went from being a huge advocate for Flash, to advising clients against it. I taught myself Javascript and PHP to build webpages. Then I got deep into CSS. That all somehow led to teaching myself Python, building computers, Applescript, Mysql, hacking routers, and eventually some C++ to program Roombas.

 

kacey2

 

What was your first job in development? How did you get your foot in the door?

Again, I feel the need to separate development from web design work. My first office job doing web work was as a Webmaster (yup, you heard me) for Autograph Collector Magazine. I mostly wrote HTML and CSS, edited images, and designed banner ads.

 

My first real development job was as a Web Developer for Peregrine Semiconductor. There I allocated and set up web servers, set up Oracle databases and learned Oracle SQL on the fly, designed website mocks, wrote a whole new PHP company website from scratch, implemented Google Analytics, AND I upgraded and maintained the company’s internal Sharepoint server. That was nuts and I learned a lot; not just about programming, but rather working in tech and office politics.

 

From there, the dominoes started to fall: I won multiple scholarships, was accepted to present at Grace Hopper, was accepted into Square’s Code Camp, got a slightly better job at Mitchell1, and then finally my big break when Google and LinkedIn called that same year.

 

What was it like to interview at LinkedIn? How did it feel when you got the job?

Interviewing for tech companies in the Bay Area is very different from interviewing anywhere else, even other tech companies. In my last year at UCSD, I was the Professional Development Chair for the Women in Computing org on campus, and I helped conduct a lot of mock interviews for fellow students.

 

When I was interviewing with LinkedIn, I was working full time as a front end developer/designer/rapid prototyper, and going to school part time. I had essentially been working in the industry for a solid 6 years, and I STILL studied my ass off for those interviews. I went back and refreshed with basic tutorials in HTML and Javascript on Codecademy, read Cracking the Coding Interview twice, and could whiteboard a recursive Fibonacci function at the drop of a hat. Sadly, this is all needed and expected with tech interviews in the Bay Area, your years of experience and contributions means very little.

 

There were 3 technical phone screens, and then I was brought on campus to do a full day of 5 technical in­-person white-boarding interviews. At each stage of the interview process, the LinkedIn recruiter was ecstatic and congratulated me on making it through another level, as if I was powering through some role­playing game. It was really the onsite interviews that won me over; the whole day didn’t feel like an interview, it felt like I was just working side-­by-­side with LinkedIn employees. It was actually fun! I gave up on Google and waited 2 agonizing weeks to learn that I had gotten the offer from LinkedIn. I was beyond excited, over the moon! I was finally going to the big leagues; despite having worked as a developer for years, it felt like I was just NOW starting my career. I knew working for LinkedIn would be life­-changing, and so far I haven’t been wrong.

 

LinkedIn’s offices in Sunnyvale.

LinkedIn_office

 

What’s one thing about your job that is particularly awesome?

The best thing about my job now is getting to write code AND design. A lot of companies now, especially larger ones, want very specialized positions. You are hired as an engineer, and you only work on this one engineering task, writing very specific code; and for most people that’s perfect. I just happen to be a weirdo that really loves both design and coding, and am pretty decent at both if I do say so myself. So getting to do both in my job is rare and awesome and I love it.

 

Also, having InDays is pretty great: one day a month specifically dedicated to doing what you love, whatever that is.

 

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It’s widely known that women are underrepresented in tech. How is this addressed at Linkedin?

I feel like LinkedIn is doing better than most tech companies in this area, but that being said, we are still looking at less than a quarter technical women to men. When you drill down to teams, that number fluctuates as well. There’s more women on Product than there is in Internal Tools, where I am, for instance. But weirdly, on my individual Tools team, we actually have a woman majority! We definitely have work to do on that front, both as a company and as an industry; and that’s why LinkedIn made Women in Tech a core initiative, with a budget, roadmap, OKRs, etc. We have teams around key aspects, like conferences and outreach, dedicated to making sure actions are taken and moving in the right direction.

 

Last year was the first year we had a group of all-­girl high school interns over the summer, in addition to our usual lot of college interns; and we’re currently selecting another group of high school girls to join us again this summer. These girls are selected through a few partnering schools, and go through the full interview process like anyone else.

 

Have you experienced discomfort or been stereotyped as a woman who codes? If so, how did you deal with this?

Yes, but let’s back up, because coding is only part of it. Ok, disclaimer: I am white, female, from a very blue ­collar family, and am the first in my family to go to college. Note, I did not say “graduate.” While I was nervous coming to Silicon Valley sans ­bachelor degree, I was indeed more nervous coming to Silicon Valley as a woman. I have read all the same horror stories about how women have been treated at some tech companies, and how the culture of the valley was just not kind to women.

 

I have definitely gotten my share of grief, lowered expectations, pity, and even resentment for doing what I do as a woman. I cannot count the number of times I had to “put my balls on the table” and prove my technical knowledge to male, and even some female, coworkers when I worked in computer repair. When I had gotten a Macbook Pro and someone’s old iMac as the only Apple admin at another company, coworkers maintained a rumor that I was “clearly sleeping with the CFO.” I have been passed up for work as a freelancer, or worse, given limited or easier work, while the complex logic and backend portions were secretly farmed out to a male college student, who then got a big share of my paycheck. I have had coworkers withhold key information from me because they thought I would “get too emotional.” I have had bosses ask if I were pregnant anytime I called in sick.

 

So stereotyping or discomfort isn’t specific to being a woman who codes per se, but rather just being a woman in any job that is now deemed a “man’s job”. And that goes for anyone who doesn’t fit the socially­ accepted, Shutterstock picture of that thing. Programming was seen as a “woman’s job” a century ago, perhaps it will be again in the future. I deal with this in much the same way I suspect a lot of women do: I just keep going. You can’t take these comments seriously; trying to apply logic and draw conclusions will only drive you nuts. For some things, I will try to say something or call the person out if I can. Sometimes it’s just better to not confront the person; sometimes you just give them more fuel for the fire by engaging in crappy rumors. There’s no single prescribed method for dealing with sexism or stereotyping. The best thing you can do is prove them wrong by kicking ass and not stooping to their level.

 

Who are your role models? Who inspires you and why?

I was asked this a couple months ago, so I have given this some thought. I am inspired by real people I know and work with. Awesome technical people like Beau Smith, Jonathan Snook, Chris Eppstein, and Nathan Hammond have all inspired and/or helped me grow into a better web developer. April Reynald and Jessi Reel have helped me become a better designer. John Lewis, Gloria Kimbwala, Jack Danger, Daniel Hagman, Jamie Vorachack, and Dani Medina push me to be a better, more well-­rounded person; and do not hesitate to call me out on my s**t.

 

In my professional life now, I look up to Sarah Clatterbuck a great deal. She is at the forefront of so many great initiatives at LinkedIn and works hard to be a great technical leader to everyone. But let’s just keep that on the DL, she is my director after all.

 

There are so many more fantastic people in my life that help me everyday, I literally cannot name them all.

 

What’s your favorite song and album right now?

At the moment, I am obsessed with Big Data’s album 2.0. My favorite song on that album is Automatic, it’s spellbinding.

 

If you weren’t in technology, what would you be doing?

Oh, there were a few things I was absolutely certain I was going to do; tech came rather late in life for me. First, I was going to be an actress. Specifically, a cast member on SNL. I took Theater all 4 years in high school, was in Drama Club, and was taking Improv Comedy classes at the local junior college with monthly performances at the same time. I also took Art and Cartooning classes all through high school, so when the acting gig fell through in senior year, I applied and started going to The Art Institute of California for Animation. I was going to be a lead penciler for Marvel Comics. Two years into my 3 year program, that began to unravel as well, as I found a love in web design.

 

Today, I think if I wasn’t working in tech, I would be doing some sort of freelance design or craft. I have always enjoyed making things, designing something I have in my head and seeing it in real life. Whether that’s with pencil, paint, code, or circuitry; the medium is just a vehicle, and I enjoy all of them equally.

 

What advice would you give to your 16­-year-­old self?

 

  • It’s ok that you don’t have a car, seriously.
  • You’ll get a boyfriend soon enough, just be patient.
  • You should really dance at your senior prom, screw everyone and what they think.
  • Your boobs are fine; stop worrying about your body. Until about you’re about 27.
  • Your parents divorce will not define you; you are not a stereotype. Divorce is is just a thing that happens, kind of like being in a car crash. There’s a good chance you will go through it yourself, and that’s ok.
  • Everything you’re going through now is going to make you a better, stronger person. That person may be different, but you will be so much better off. You just need to be patient. Things will happen.

 

Tech Rocket’s new course, Ruby Basics, is coming May 27th. Learn the basics of Ruby with a fun animated course — featuring lots of cats

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