The Scrimba Podcast

Meet Jean Lee! She was the nineteenth engineer at WhatsApp (that was even before it got acquired by Facebook!) and then worked at Meta as an engineering manager for six years after the acquisition. She helped set up WhatsApp's London office and also worked on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Her coding journey didn't start there - she discovered tech almost by chance after her family moved to California. She wanted to study art - but after taking art courses at her university, she realized that coding was her thing. She worked at a tiny startup competing with YouTube and a huge corporation, IBM, before she realized which company size suited her best. She became an engineering manager at Meta without ever planning to become one - but when an opportunity arose, she took it. Because how are you ever going to know what you like doing or not if you don't try things? Today, Jean is a cofounder of Exaltitude, providing resources and coaching to software engineers navigating the ever-changing tech landscape and cultivating a community where everyone can grow together.

In this episode, Jean shares her best career advice. You'll also find out what it was like to work at WhatsApp during the expansion, why company culture always changes when a company is scaling up, why inclusive hiring practices are important, and what is one thing that juniors never remember they need to do.

🔗 Connect with Jean
⏰ Timestamps 
  • "I had never really met adults who were so into their work before" (01:08)
  • How Jean decided to learn to code (02:50)
  • Should you go to university to become a developer (03:52)
  • Jean's first role: internship at a Youtube competitor (05:14)
  • Jean's second role was at IBM! (05:41)
  • Are bigger companies better? Was WhatsApp a happy medium? (06:49)
  • Is there a difference in how startups and big companies hire? (08:21)
  • The startup scene then vs. now (09:40)
  • Should you follow trends and disruptors? (12:20)
  • Community Break with Jan the Producer (14:50)
  • The challenges of joining WhatsApp early on (16:57)
  • How Jean progressed into a management role (19:19)
  • Give it a go! (21:32)
  • Alex's personality type, and how personality types relate to work (22:21)
  • What was it like to set up the WhatsApp London office? (24:28)
  • "Whenever there's growth, you have to shift the culture" (27:57)
  • Why we need diversity, equity, and inclusion (28:52)
  • "Siri would not understand me, and I was offended" (31:04)
  • How can we support the professional growth of underrepresented people in tech?  (32:23)
  • What is Exaltitude (34:05)
  • The number one thing developers struggle with (36:02)
  • Make a brag journal! (39:38)
  • Next week on the podcast: Ian Douglas! (41:44)
🧰 Resources Mentioned
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Creators & Guests

Alex Booker
Host of The Scrimba Podcast
Jan Gregory Arsenovic
Producer of the Scrimba Podcast

What is The Scrimba Podcast?

Learn from inspiring developers about how they found meaningful and fulfilling work that that also pays them well. On The Scrimba Podcast, you'll hear motivational advice and job-hunting strategies from developers who've been exactly where you are now. We talk to developers about their challenges, learnings, and switching industries in the hopes of inspiring YOU. This is the podcast that provides the inspiration, tools, and roadmaps to move from where you are to work that matters to you and uniquely fits your strengths and talents.

[00:00:00] Jean Lee: When a product is experiencing constant growth, there's influx of users while you're trying to also keep up with the app running smoothly and growing the team. At the time, it was hard and it was very stressful. But in retrospect, I do see that it gave me a lot of opportunities to grow with the company and to try out new things.

[00:00:25] Alex Booker: That was Jean Lee. She was the 19th engineer at WhatsApp and worked with Meta as an engineering manager for six years after the acquisition. Today, Jean is the founder of Exaltitude, where her and her team offer programs, handbooks, and coaching services to enable and empower ambitious software engineers.

[00:00:44] In this episode, we're going to learn more about Jean's impressive career, how she navigated it, and what she learned from it. And the best career advice she's learned along the way. I'm your host, Alex Booker, and you are listening to the Scrimber podcast, a weekly show where I interview recently hired developers, as well as career experts like Jean to help you learn to code and land your dream role in tech.

[00:01:04] Jean, welcome to the show.

[00:01:08] Jean Lee: I grew up in the Midwest, in the countryside, and tech wasn't really part of my life or conversation in my family. So my parents weren't very tech savvy. And I didn't realize computer science was even a thing that you can do. I did always find myself tinkering with computers and I was always into math and science.

[00:01:27] And I guess looking back, it was kind of like coding, but my parents always thought I was just messing around with my computer and they told me I should do my homework. And it wasn't until I moved to the Bay Area in my teens, and I was really exposed to the tech world and computer science. I met naturally a lot of software engineers and computer scientists who were really passionate about what they were doing.

[00:01:51] And before that, I have never really met adults who were so into their work. They love their job so much. And they always talked about the endless opportunities and the future. And that got me really interested.

[00:02:03] Alex Booker: Did you move to the Bay Area for technology or you moved there for another reason and then you realize that this is like the hub of some of the biggest tech companies in the world.

[00:02:13] Jean Lee: I got really lucky. We moved here when I was 14. My family moved here. So I luckily got exposed to tech.

[00:02:22] Alex Booker: The energy in a place like that. It's almost contagious. Like you go to a coffee shop and. I'm not exactly sure what it would have been like back when you first moved, but I assume there were beginnings of this at least, just people always talking about coding or wearing like a GLA with a tech logo on it, you know, different meetups and things like that.

[00:02:40] Super passionate about technology.

[00:02:43] Jean Lee: That's exactly it. Back then it was companies like Oracle, so slightly different companies, but Yes, the vibe is the same.

[00:02:50] Alex Booker: What made you want to focus on learning to code specifically?

[00:02:54] Jean Lee: I didn't always know. So when I was actually applying for universities, I looked at all the admission process and applying for art school was a whole process.

[00:03:04] You need to do a portfolio, whereas computer science was a lot more simpler. So I did get into school for computer science, but Even after I got into school, I decided to try out different classes and see what I'm more into. And when I started taking art classes and computer science classes in college, I realized I do like being creative, but I was more drawn to logic and problem solving.

[00:03:31] And it almost felt kind of powerful seeing lines of code come to life. So that's what really got me into it after trying it out.

[00:03:39] Alex Booker: Some people say that coding is like both logical and creative.

[00:03:44] Jean Lee: Yeah, I totally agree. It's a different type of creativity. But I find coding process to be very creative.

[00:03:52] Alex Booker: What was your experience like overall at university, by the way?

[00:03:55] I know these days a lot of developers wonder if they have to go to uni to get a job as a developer. And even if they don't, they wonder like, what could they be missing out on?

[00:04:05] Jean Lee: Yeah, I was actually talking to a machine learning engineer and I was asking her. Do you think it's important to go to a PhD program?

[00:04:12] I think we both agreed it's a privilege to be able to go to university and focus only on study. Well, what a privilege it is to be just studying and crafting your skills, right? So if you are able to do it, it is a great time spent on learning new things. You can discover yourself. You can try out new things.

[00:04:33] You can meet new people, build relationships. And all of that is really nice to have, but if you're not able to do that, there are lots of many other ways to learn the skills and do the same thing, build relationships. You cannot do all of it. outside of school as well.

[00:04:48] Alex Booker: You also pay for the privilege. Yeah.

[00:04:51] Do you think that is worth it?

[00:04:53] Jean Lee: That would be a personal question that you would have to ask based on your personal situation, I think. Luckily, I, I got scholarships and grants, so I didn't have to pay a whole lot.

[00:05:06] Alex Booker: That's awesome.

[00:05:07] Jean Lee: Again, that, that was a privilege and I really enjoyed my time. So it would depend on everyone's situation.

[00:05:14] Alex Booker: Talk to me a little bit about how you got your first role in tech after university.

[00:05:18] Jean Lee: So when I was in school, I was doing some summer internships. My first internship, was with a web company. We were sort of like a YouTube competitor. Video sharing was really hot at the time.

[00:05:30] Alex Booker: That's cool.

[00:05:30] Jean Lee: Yeah. It was a three person startup and I learned a ton, but I also felt like we didn't quite know what we were doing because we were all very, very new.

[00:05:41] And I felt like I needed a little bit more mentorship and maybe some training from people who have more experience. And that's how I ended up at IBM.

[00:05:51] Alex Booker: That's a huge corporation, very different from like the tiny kind of startup situation you were describing before. How did they compare in your mind?

[00:05:59] Jean Lee: Oh, yeah, they were very different.

[00:06:01] I guess I went from like extreme to extreme, right?

[00:06:05] Alex Booker: That's a good way of passing it.

[00:06:07] Jean Lee: A three person company to, I think at the time it was like quarter million people at IBM. And also around the time that I graduated, the economy was not very good. And everyone said, you know, startups are suffering and it's not going anywhere.

[00:06:22] Look for stability. Big corporations are good. That was sort of the common advice that I was getting when I was graduating from university.

[00:06:30] Alex Booker: Do you mind if I ask what year was that?

[00:06:32] Jean Lee: This was 2007 08 with the housing market crash.

[00:06:37] Alex Booker: It's interesting you draw on that because we're in a similar time, you could say, regarding tech jobs in particular.

[00:06:43] Jean Lee: Yeah, the vibe is pretty similar to what we are experiencing right now.

[00:06:49] Alex Booker: What was the kind of conclusion there? Like, did you prefer working at the small company or the big company? I know that for new developers, they kind of have both options when they're looking for their first job. And I wonder if you had any advice about how to pick the right option for you.

[00:07:03] Jean Lee: Yeah, that's a great question. After experiencing both extremes, I did feel like I was looking for more of a balance. When I joined WhatsApp, I was looking for the startup vibe. I liked the ownership and the speed. Speed and being able to see the impact of my work directly, but I was also looking for a little bit more mentorship and, um, to be able to learn a little bit more.

[00:07:28] So I felt like WhatsApp was a good balance in a way that the founders had a lot of experience from Yahoo and this team was still small. I joined as the 19th engineer and it was sort of the right balance that I was looking for at the time.

[00:07:41] Alex Booker: Yeah, I like that. It doesn't have to be one extreme, which is like a tiny scrappy startup.

[00:07:46] All this like conglomerate frankly with enough employees to fill a small town, you can maybe find a situation that's somewhere in the middle. So you feel like you're not just a small cog in a big machine, like you can make an impact, but you're not totally lost either. Like you get to learn from people who have done or are doing the things you want to be doing as far as programming and management and building a startup is concerned.

[00:08:10] Jean Lee: Yeah, exactly. There is a lot of, um, training and support and structure that you do. Get from working at a large company, which can be nice if you're especially if you're starting out.

[00:08:21] Alex Booker: Is there a difference in how startups and big companies hire? I get the impression that big companies pretty much always have quite rigid hiring processes with like very clearly defined requirements.

[00:08:35] Maybe for example, they really want you to have a degree and they won't budge on it as well as like steps in the interview process. Whereas maybe with a startup, you can kind of stand out in a different way.

[00:08:44] Jean Lee: I can see that. Yeah. Large companies do often have more formalized structures, and it's often not up to one person to make the hiring decision.

[00:08:54] There's a committee and a process that everyone has to go through. It's sort of also to protect people, right? They want to be fair and make sure they're hiring the right people. Not just one person gets to decide it all, but the double edge is that there is a form of structure that everyone has to follow.

[00:09:12] Whereas a startup it's different in a way that maybe the founders can set the tone or decide what type of people they want to hire. Maybe they can change their mind tomorrow and decide to change their hiring process completely, depending on where the company is or what stage the company is, depending on how much funds they have, depending on how many people are already working there.

[00:09:35] It can be very, very different with all kinds of different interview process.

[00:09:40] Alex Booker: Yeah, that makes total sense. I'm so impressed you joined WhatsApp as the 19th employee. It must have been such like, uh, exciting opportunity. And I know you've had a long story at WhatsApp, which we'll talk about in a little bit as well.

[00:09:54] But the thing that's interesting is you hear about someone joining WhatsApp back when you did, and we don't necessarily appreciate that it was a much different company. back then than it is today. Like, I don't imagine it was obvious it would be a runaway success or go on to be acquired by Facebook and things like that.

[00:10:11] It was very much like an exciting startup that you joined. And I really am excited to learn a bit more about it. But before we do, I just wondered, how do you think the startup scene compares?

[00:10:23] Jean Lee: So I guess back then when WhatsApp came out, everyone was excited about mobile technology. It's kind of similar to how everyone's excited about AI right now.

[00:10:35] Alex Booker: That's an interesting comparison.

[00:10:37] Jean Lee: Also we talked about the recession from 2008, the economy was a little bit slower, similar to also now since all the layoffs and the inflation. I guess the similarity is that despite the tough times, startup world always has opportunities and creativity, the exact problems that we were facing back then with mobile is slightly different from what we're facing today with AI, but hopefully In a sense, we're both experiencing disruption, which means there's a lot of opportunities for new ideas and new companies to be successful and individuals to also be successful as part of the wave.

[00:11:14] Alex Booker: I think something interesting about that time is that mobile phones are becoming a lot more prevalent. More advanced and then more accessible just as the cost has reduced over the years. And therefore it's not just people in America having them, for example, like around the world, more and more people have phones, younger people have phones.

[00:11:33] And then there's also like the idea of the app store where that was a great distribution channel for apps, and it represented a lot of opportunity, I think, for startups to build great mobile experiences. And then, of course, they'll do some marketing, but if they can really cater to a particular need of a user.

[00:11:50] Um, they might get promoted in the app store and, you know, rank well and get lots of downloads and be successful and stuff like that. I guess I'm talking to like the trend a little bit and I can totally see where WhatsApp would have fit within that to like cause disruption in a way. I love that comparison you draw with like AI, because when I look at companies getting funded lately and also companies whose revenue is like skyrocketing, it's all kind of like AI companies and they're usually based on like these APIs, like open AIs, APIs and various foundation models and things like that.

[00:12:20] But it was only about a year or two previously that we were all talking about Web3 and NFTs and they didn't turn out to be so valuable in the end. I don't know, like, uh, these days people are a bit more cynical about them to say the least. And I'm just wondering, like, how do you balance that excitement to do with all these new things and these opportunities for disruption with like vigilance in the age of these trends like AI and Web3?

[00:12:45] Jean Lee: Whenever I see YouTube videos about top five trends to follow in 20 whatever year, it drives me crazy a little bit. I am not a fan of following trends. I have been living in Silicon Valley since the 90s, so I have seen these trends come and go. They're tempting. It sounds really exciting. It sounds really fun, but I do believe when you're thinking about what types of technology to learn or what types of career to pursue, it's easy to get distracted by trends.

[00:13:17] Oh, so and so says this is hot, so I should go learn it or I should do it. I think it's good to try things out. I think it's good to learn new skills, try out new tools. I think that's all great. But I think, um, we should think about trying out new things because maybe I'm interested in or I love doing it.

[00:13:37] Like, for example, I talked about how when I was in college, I wanted to try out art classes as well as computer science classes because I was interested in those things, not because our classes were trendy.

[00:13:51] Alex Booker: How did you think about

[00:13:52] mobile as a trend back then?

[00:13:54] Jean Lee: So because I interned for the tiny little startup YouTube competitor around that time, everyone was saying that videos are the next thing.

[00:14:04] I know it is the next thing now, but back then we didn't know video was so new. Everyone started getting these cameras. Um, and video sharing was a hot topic and I don't know if you're aware, but there were so many video sharing platforms, really, really funny names, but they kind of all went away because YouTube won.

[00:14:24] Right. So I had seen that trend and I kind of had an understanding, okay, when there is this trend and competition, There's a lot of companies, they all come, fight for the piece of the pie and there will be a winner at the end. So I sort of had that experience again with WhatsApp, I guess.

[00:14:43] Alex Booker: I can imagine there was probably a lot of chat apps with funny names equally.

[00:14:47] It's like the same pattern, right?

[00:14:50] Jan Arsenovic: Coming up, the number one struggle for juniors and what to do about it.

[00:14:55] Jean Lee: Oftentimes, people don't track their projects or impact until it's performance review time once a

[00:15:01] Jan Arsenovic: year. But first, let's take a look at our socials. Hi, I'm Jan, the producer, and this is the segment of the show where I go through your LinkedIn and Twitter posts, mentioning us your reviews from various broadcasting platforms and your YouTube comments.

[00:15:16] Did you know we were also on YouTube? If you're only listening to this show, you can also watch it. We started doing video in December. Here's a YouTube comment from our Neurodiversity in Tech episode with Parul Singh saying, I appreciate this episode so much. I always knew something was wrong or off with me.

[00:15:34] Um, nothing is wrong with you per se. You've heard that Parul is not a fan of the deficit model. But anyway, I hope this episode helped. We were really passionate about making it and putting it out there. As someone who also needs to cast spells on his prefrontal cortex, I relate it to most things, even though I don't work in tech.

[00:15:55] And over on Twitter, Niko, at NikoLearnsToCode, I love the handle, tweeted about his progress through 100 days of code. Day 25! Today I started with a second FreeCodeCamp JavaScript project. calorie counter. And in order to keep funding the stream, I started doing some delivery hours, so I also finally have time to listen to the Scrimba podcast.

[00:16:17] That sounds great. Doing delivery can be very boring and a complete opposite of motivating, but if you know how to maintain the motivation, you're on the right track and we're really happy. If you like our show, if you like what we're doing and you want to help us make more of it, the best thing you can do is to tell somebody about it, and you can do it on social media, you can do it on Discord, or you can do it in person.

[00:16:41] But if you do it online, as long as your Twitter or LinkedIn posts contain the words Scrimba and Podcast, we will find them, and you might get a shoutout. Also, if you're watching this on YouTube, please leave us comments, we do read them. And now, we're going back to the interview with Gene.

[00:16:57] Alex Booker: What were some of the challenges you faced when you first joined WhatsApp?

[00:17:00] Jean Lee: When a product is experiencing constant growth, you see constant changes and challenges. There's influx of users while you're trying to also keep up with the app running smoothly and growing the team, growing the number of engineers. So it's a lot of different moving parts all happening at the same time.

[00:17:21] We had to work really hard to make sure Everything was working well while we're onboarding people, onboarding users and growing the engineering team. So there's a lot of moving pieces and a lot of challenges, but in retrospect, at the time it was hard and it was very stressful, but in retrospect, I do see that it gave me a lot of opportunities to grow with the company.

[00:17:45] And it really gave me opportunities to try out new things and gain more experience and have more confidence in myself. Um in a way that it really helped me grow as an engineer and an engineering leader So it was a really fruitful time.

[00:18:01] Alex Booker: I love that idea that like it's not just about the company growing But you also grew with it.

[00:18:06] Was that like just your coding and engineering skills? Or was it also to do with like leadership and diversity and inclusion and stuff like that as well?

[00:18:15] Jean Lee: Yeah, definitely. I think in the early years of most people's careers as a software engineer, the earlier years are more focused on gaining technical skills, um, to be able to work with other engineers and learning new tech stuff.

[00:18:30] But the more senior you get, It becomes more and more about how can you work with more engineers? How can you work with other teams? How do you communicate your work? How do you communicate tech specs? The soft skills become increasingly more important as your career grows.

[00:18:46] Alex Booker: Do you mind if I ask out of curiosity, when you first got to WhatsApp, what kind of like code Were you writing and what kind of features were you working on?

[00:18:54] Jean Lee: I was working on the back end. So I was working with Python. I was building internal tooling. AI wasn't really a thing back then, but essentially I ended up automating a lot of the work that engineers were doing. Which is sort of what's hot right now. A lot of the automation tools replacing software engineers.

[00:19:14] That's sort of what I used to work on.

[00:19:16] Alex Booker: You were doing it before it was cool, basically.

[00:19:18] Jean Lee: Yeah.

[00:19:19] Alex Booker: And then as I understood it, you did progress into sort of like more of a management type of role. Was that a easy decision for you? I know that in most coding careers, we kind of have two options. Basically, we can go Deeper down that individual contributor routes, or we can kind of go towards like the management routes, which is a bit more like people focused, I guess.

[00:19:39] Jean Lee: Yeah, we talk extensively about this in our coaching program. Once you start working in the industry for a few years, you have this fork, you have to make a choice, you can stay an individual software engineer, or you can switch to being a people manager. In most Silicon Valley tech companies, it's not necessarily a promotion and you don't have to switch to a people management track.

[00:20:06] It is not a requirement. It is not a step towards promotion. You can stay an individual software engineer and keep getting promoted and keep getting pay increases if that is what you want. Which is slightly different from maybe some more traditionally structured companies, but that's the new trend in the Silicon Valley tech companies nowadays.

[00:20:28] Alex Booker: But you, you didn't want to go down that IC route. You wanted to go into more of like the management routes. Why was that?

[00:20:34] Jean Lee: For me, what ended up happening was I naturally became a tech lead for my project. And someone on my team actually went to the leadership and begged them, can I please report to Jean?

[00:20:47] Um, I want to be on Jean's team.

[00:20:49] Alex Booker: That should be like your LinkedIn, uh, heading or something. That's a great testimony.

[00:20:57] Jean Lee: Yeah. So they were like, okay, well, Jean, like, do you want a report? And I was like, okay, I'll do it. So I started with one person and I really enjoyed it. I found it really meaningful because people often struggle with bad managers.

[00:21:13] There are good managers, neutral managers and bad managers. And I felt like as a manager of a small group of people, I can really make a difference in their lives and really support them and help them grow. Cultivate a happy working environment for people. And I found that to be really meaningful.

[00:21:31] Alex Booker: For sure.

[00:21:32] I like that you gave it a go. It's a little bit that same philosophy when you went to school and like, yeah, she went down the CS route, but you did try things and the same with your career, right? Like you tried different things. You tried a small company, a big company, a middle company. Is that something that you would say is like a core philosophy of yours?

[00:21:51] Like to just try stuff and see how you like it before making a decision?

[00:21:54] Jean Lee: I would definitely think so. I think it comes from, maybe it comes from me moving around a lot. Growing up, I moved around to seven different cities before I hit college. I lived in seven different cities and three different countries.

[00:22:09] So I think I was always very open to trying out new things because everything was always new.

[00:22:15] Alex Booker: Yeah. It makes you very open to change, which is exactly what you need in a startup, by the way. Because I think my problem is that even if I know I should make a change, sometimes I resist that change for a little bit.

[00:22:26] And then I think a lot, I'm like, okay, I'm going to plan something out perfectly and make the right move. Then you end up in this kind of like analysis paralysis type of situation. Sometimes does that sound familiar at all?

[00:22:37] Jean Lee: Yeah. Um, in one of our curriculums is also personality types. We talk about this a lot.

[00:22:42] There are definitely people who are more comfortable with stability and planning, which has its perks. Um, you're more methodical, you maybe make less mistakes. People like that are usually more like relationship oriented. Are you like that?

[00:23:01] Alex Booker: Yes. No, it's a good question. I'm not sure. That's the thing.

[00:23:04] Friendly enough. Like I'm still kind of learning that about myself. And I think maybe it's like a risk aversion as well, because whenever you make a change, you often ask yourself, what could go wrong? You know, I could lose my stability. Maybe I join a new company. They don't like me. Maybe I don't vibe as well there as I do the current one.

[00:23:22] And like, this pattern of thinking is cautious and it is methodical. If you're not careful, you might forget to ask what could go well, like what could happen if this change was a great, even though it's risky in a way, what is the upside of this? And anyway, that's a pattern of thinking I'm trying to like get more into.

[00:23:39] Jean Lee: I mean, I think that totally makes sense. There are these personality types. Even though I do like taking risks, I am also analytical. So part of our curriculum, we teach, I love spreadsheets too. So I have a spreadsheet where you can like chart out all of your options and then give it a score and you'll see like ranking based on the numbers that you put in.

[00:24:01] I do love doing data analysis.

[00:24:03] Alex Booker: Oh my gosh, that's so cool. It's like balancing both like you're taking a calculated approach to risk. Yeah, which makes total sense when you say it, like every risk is a calculated risk, but I think maybe it's about having the right tool to do something like that. I know that you had like quite a lot of success as an engineering manager as well, and you're even responsible for setting up the WhatsApp London office.

[00:24:26] I live in London, so I'm just curious, whereabouts in London were the offices at the time?

[00:24:30] Jean Lee: I was in Tottenham Court.

[00:24:32] Alex Booker: Tottenham Court Road?

[00:24:34] Jean Lee: Yes, that's where I live. That's where the office was.

[00:24:37] Alex Booker: That's very central location. That's awesome. I'm so curious if you could take us back to that time. Must have been both exciting and daunting.

[00:24:44] Must have been a little bit of a risk if you were, you know, changing, uh, as I understood it, you're in SF previously, you're moving to London. What were some of the key challenges setting up the WhatsApp London office and Helping build out would seem that I

[00:24:56] Jean Lee: guess I wasn't necessarily looking to move anywhere, but when the leadership asked me, we're opening a new office in London and we need managers to go there to kickstart the engineering office.

[00:25:08] I thought I'll try it out. Here's here's the pattern, right? I said, sure, I'll try it out for 1 year. And I guess initially in the beginning stages, the challenge was that first people didn't know we were hiring there. So we worked a lot on spreading the word and building our presence in London. Did

[00:25:29] Alex Booker: people, did engineers know WhatsApp is like a logo and a company at that point?

[00:25:34] Jean Lee: I mean, WhatsApp is so popular in Europe. I think everyone knew and used WhatsApp and would have loved to come to work at WhatsApp. They just didn't know that was an option. So, We were trying to let people know we're here if you're interested.

[00:25:48] Alex Booker: That's an interesting approach. Maybe somebody would just like put a bunch of job ads out, but I sense there's more to the story.

[00:25:54] Jean Lee: I collaborated with our recruiting team and the events team and the leadership team to host engineering talks, talk about how we build our app. Engineers are interested in learning more about the behind the scenes of the product that they use. And then also to let them know that we're hiring.

[00:26:11] Alex Booker: That's really awesome.

[00:26:12] How fast, because I understand the startups often start, they grow quite slowly at first in terms of headcount. It's a bit cautious, but oftentimes it's that inflection point where things just go crazy. And I'm wondering where your journey fell on that inflection curve.

[00:26:28] Jean Lee: Yeah, that's exactly it. When I first joined WhatsApp in 2012, we were only hiring like a handful of people every year.

[00:26:35] So you would see like one person every few months or so join. Whereas in London, we, our goal was to hire a hundred, but every time you're starting something new, there's a little bit of investment time. So in the beginning, we were hiring pretty slowly, even in London. But then by the time I was leaving in a couple of years, we, we hit 100 engineers.

[00:26:57] Sounds like a lot of engineers. It was. But if you think about Facebook, they hire a lot faster. So everything's relative.

[00:27:04] Alex Booker: I don't know like what the number is today since the kind of layoffs and stuff in various companies. But I had some start, which is that like, I won't say Facebook, it was some big tech company.

[00:27:14] And the start was like, one new person joins every day, or like two people join a day or something, which is just mind boggling from like, imagine you're an engineering team. You couldn't even possibly, like, get to know everybody at that point. That's wild.

[00:27:26] Jean Lee: Yeah, that's exactly it. It is indeed mind boggling.

[00:27:29] Yeah, towards the end of my time in London, I did feel like I couldn't remember everyone's name, and for me, that meant, okay, time for me to go.

[00:27:39] Alex Booker: Yeah, no, that's interesting, because, you know, we started with this two extremes, right? And even though WhatsApp fell, I'm thinking of, like, Goldilocks and the porridges, and it's, like, too hot, too cold, just right.

[00:27:50] But obviously as it grew, I'm sure the culture must have changed with the growth, right? Inevitably.

[00:27:56] Jean Lee: Yeah. Whenever there's growth, you kind of have to shift the culture. There's a reason why culture is different for a small company versus big company. It just works much better for the size. So changes are inevitable.

[00:28:10] It's more about like my preferences. I just really personally like smaller, more intimate setting. Not everyone's like that. So I think it's important to. Think about what your preferences are and understand what kind of environment you thrive in, and then find the right setting for you to thrive in.

[00:28:29] Alex Booker: I have to say, I really like the way you share advice.

[00:28:31] You're not saying do this, do that. It's not like a binary thought leader y type of big opinion. You're really guiding people and saying like, well, it kind of depends on your circuit. It's how you answered my question about university, remember? It's like, Well, I can't say, but it depends on your circumstance, which says companies, right?

[00:28:45] It depends on your circumstance. I really like that kind of, um, empathetic approach to advice. I know as well that while you were at Facebook, you worked on things like diversity, equity, and inclusion. Can you talk a bit more about those projects and like, Just touch on like the humanity part of tech.

[00:29:03] Jean Lee: Yeah, I find it really gratifying because I come from a background that is atypical for the tech industry.

[00:29:10] My parents were not software engineers, and I visually look very different from a typical software engineer that I would run into in Silicon Valley. So I find it personally really meaningful when I'm able to also support other people who are sort of like me but not like me.

[00:29:28] Alex Booker: Sure, sure.

[00:29:29] Jean Lee: Because we're all very different and we're all very diverse and for me that's personally really meaningful.

[00:29:34] Alex Booker: So you're not, you're not setting out to help people with your exact same profile. But their profile is somewhat of a minority. And that's the kind of challenge you resonate with.

[00:29:43] Jean Lee: Yeah, I believe as a society, we can benefit from having voices from different people. And I think it will benefit the tech industry too, if we get input from diverse people who represent the world making decisions for the rest of the world.

[00:29:58] Because if you think about technology, like AI, it is impacting. Probably every single person in this whole planet, and I think it only makes sense if more diverse people also get to have a voice in making those decisions.

[00:30:13] Alex Booker: I think there's like two really big examples that come to mind for me. You know how like Siri has like voice recognition, and if you speak in my accent or like a very typical American accent, it's going to understand you.

[00:30:24] But if you have like a lesser known accent, it might not recognize your accent because it's not like designed with that in mind. I don't know. What if, over generations, that accent, that dialect, those colloquialisms, they disappear because people are adapting to, like, communicative technology? I think the other one that we see sometimes is things like Snapchat filters and, like, camera technologies.

[00:30:46] If you have darker skin, for example, the camera might perform really poorly because it was tested on people with white skin and stuff like that. Tell me if I'm right, but the sounds along the lines about which you're talking, if there was a more diverse range of inputs of the design phase, These things couldn't necessarily happen.

[00:31:01] Jean Lee: You're spot on. That's exactly it. When the voice technology first came out, I actually got a chance to talk to some engineers who worked on this. And at the time, maybe 10 years ago, Siri could not understand me. That really bothered me. And I asked them, why is that? And they told me that it's because of their data set, they have American voice data set, which includes American accent.

[00:31:28] They have a lot of Spanish speaking American accents in the data set.

[00:31:32] Alex Booker: Makes sense.

[00:31:33] Jean Lee: And then next would be European accent, which they have a lot of data on. But they didn't have any data on Asian American accents. So Siri would not understand me and I was offended. Initially,

[00:31:46] Alex Booker: I think I would be too,

[00:31:46] Jean Lee: but they did fix it.

[00:31:48] Eventually, you see similar things happening with AI too. People say AI is kind of sexist because we train AI. on data that's readily available online. And sometimes online writing is a little sexist. So whatever we train our software and AI with the input dictates the output.

[00:32:08] Alex Booker: And the output, the whole point of AI is this exponential idea where like it's amplified almost.

[00:32:14] It's this other idea that once it starts, you can't really wind it back. Maybe like highlighting the importance of getting it right in the first place.

[00:32:22] Jean Lee: Exactly. Right on.

[00:32:23] Alex Booker: Jean, what can we do to make sure we support the professional growth of underrepresented people in tech?

[00:32:31] Jean Lee: Yeah, there's a lot of things that we could be doing at both company level and individual level.

[00:32:36] So, um, For example, um, implementing inclusive hiring practices, companies can look at actively working on eliminating biases in the hiring process, seeking for diverse interview panels, things like that. Another thing is fostering inclusive workplace once they're hired. So having regular trainings on diversity and inclusion, establishing employee resource groups to create more community for underrepresented.

[00:33:08] Another thing could be mentorships offered at company more specifically for underrepresented people to navigate their challenges. Again, the statistics show that underrepresented people usually get promoted slower, so they can benefit from a lot of different types of mentoring offered at the company level, but also at an individual level.

[00:33:30] Just being mindful and asking these questions like this, like you're doing, I think that's a really great step because whoever you're working with, if you can just acknowledge that and be mindful of it, I think that's a really great way to support someone.

[00:33:46] Alex Booker: No, absolutely. I think unless we talk about it, we can't improve upon it basically.

[00:33:50] And I appreciate you giving us some ideas and like, reinforcing some of the language we should be using around these things, like employee resource groups and DEI and stuff like that. Yeah. I want to segue the conversation into Exaltitude. Am I pronouncing that correctly, first of all?

[00:34:04] Jean Lee: You got it.

[00:34:05] Alex Booker: What is Exaltitude?

[00:34:07] Who is it for? And how does it work?

[00:34:09] Jean Lee: Exaltitude is a platform that I founded with my co founder, Soyom Lee. We have a mission to really support software engineers and especially people from diverse backgrounds like us, because navigating challenges earlier in my career was not easy, and I wanted to create a space that offers guidance and empowerment to other people who are also facing similar challenges.

[00:34:34] We have a wide variety of resources. For example, we have a YouTube channel where I share a lot of free videos on topics like AI and career development and resume writing. On top of the free resources on YouTube, I also host free monthly talks on LinkedIn. So anyone can join and ask us questions directly.

[00:34:55] We answer all questions about your career. Um, maybe you saw one of my videos and you have questions that you want to ask or you have something happening in your life You want to ask us about? We'll answer all of those questions. And for people who are looking to dive a little deeper into their career exploration, we also offer a cohort based live training course about twice a year.

[00:35:18] So we have one coming up April 20th, and then we'll probably do another one later in October. And this course is more for engineers who are eager to look into designing their roadmap for their career. looking at intentional goal setting and growth for the long term.

[00:35:36] Alex Booker: That sounds awesome. And we will link to both Exaltitude and the Exaltitude YouTube channel as well in the show notes so people can check it out if they want to.

[00:35:44] I'd love to like end the podcast on like some actionable advice, I guess. Maybe we can talk about what are the most common roadblocks for developers in your community encounter when advancing their careers and how would you typically advise them, even though every situation is going to be a little bit different, of course,

[00:36:02] Jean Lee: yeah, the number one that comes to my mind is visibility.

[00:36:06] I think a lot of software engineers tend to think: if I'm a good software engineer, people will see my work and I never have to tell them anything about it. My work should speak for itself. So that's a common misconception. And the question I ask is, if you think about all of your coworkers, can you tell me exactly what every single person works on?

[00:36:27] Probably can't do that unless you work for a three person startup like I did. And that's why it's so important to be able to communicate what you have done and why it matters to other people.

[00:36:39] Alex Booker: What you've done and why it matters.

[00:36:42] Jean Lee: Yeah, you wrote some lines of code, you pushed some features. Why was that important?

[00:36:47] Alex Booker: It's not enough just to like, write the code. You're answering, why did you write the code? The output is a line of code. Great. But what was the outcome of that?

[00:36:56] Jean Lee: Exactly. And a lot of people tend to struggle with thinking about the impact. They're like, I don't know. I did it because I did it. Um, but it's like a muscle that you need to train.

[00:37:07] So I give people a list of different sets of questions that you could be asking about. It's usually one of the categories, like, is it financial impact? Did you have more users? Yeah. Reducing costs or efficiency. You know, there's buckets of categories that you can think about, and it's all about just knowing it's like a checklist.

[00:37:27] Once you know it, you know it.

[00:37:28] Alex Booker: Yeah. You kind of learn to think in those terms and it is helpful to have some language to reference. Right. I can't think of a good one right now, but sometimes I come across someone's resume or LinkedIn. And they've just like got the format down to a T and like, it's really nice.

[00:37:42] I think it's based on some existing frameworks and stuff. And this sounds like a great resource as well. If you're working in an existing team and you're a little bit more mid, you probably are starting to think a little bit about the commercial objectives, or maybe because you're part of a team already.

[00:37:57] you kind of learn what your value is based on feedback or something. I don't know. You kind of just figure it out, I suppose. But when you're new and you're working on like a project to learn or something like that, it can feel, I see this challenge a lot. Like people get this advice that they should put numbers to their contributions, but then they're like, well, I don't think there really is one.

[00:38:18] So if they write it, it sounds a bit fake or like inflated or something like that. And that might not be something they're comfortable with. What would you recommend to someone who's like working on a personal project or a side project or they're coding to learn or they're building projects for their portfolio?

[00:38:34] Is there a way of thinking about that so that we can highlight the outcomes in a way that an employer can connect what you've done to what you can do for them and why they should hire you?

[00:38:43] Jean Lee: I do think it is a mental block. People almost inhibit themselves from talking about their work because they feel maybe they're not entitled to it.

[00:38:53] I don't know. It can be a mental block thinking about sharing your work, but sharing your work is just basically stating the facts. Okay. And these numbers that you're sharing, they're not made up. They're facts. And it's your job to look up the facts and show them. That's it.

[00:39:10] Alex Booker: My problem when I've left companies, I probably could have figured out the facts, but like, I didn't look it up and then I left the company and then I like lost access to like the code base or something, or if it's analytics, analytic software and stuff.

[00:39:22] So yeah, get in this habit early and take notes. I like this idea of a sort of learning log. Which is like where you have a separate document and you write what you're doing and why you're doing it. Maybe that's then something you can go back and reference to like discern the facts as you put it.

[00:39:35] Jean Lee: Yeah, that's, that's a part of our curriculum too.

[00:39:38] We call it the brag journal,

[00:39:39] Alex Booker: like the bragging journal. Oh, that's a great name.

[00:39:41] Jean Lee: So my tip is to put a calendar reminder for yourself of recurring calendar events. Because oftentimes people don't track their projects or what impact Until it's performance review time once a year and you can't remember anything you did

[00:39:58] Alex Booker: sounds about right

[00:40:00] Jean Lee: If you're junior, maybe if you work on smaller tasks, maybe it's a weekly reminder If you're more senior you work on really complex tasks.

[00:40:07] Maybe it's a quarterly reminder But put a calendar reminder for yourself Maybe 30 minutes, one hour to really write down and document what things you have worked on, why you worked on them, and what the metrics are around them. And also, I liked what you said about people don't necessarily know where to get the numbers.

[00:40:28] Well, the good thing is that we're engineers. So if you don't have a way to find the numbers, Build it into your code early on from the beginning, build a way to pull these number yourself. You can do that. You're an engineer, so put the data measuring system into your code. You do it from the beginning.

[00:40:46] Alex Booker: What does that look like? Is it like performance numbers and stuff like that?

[00:40:50] Jean Lee: Yeah, there's a whole list of things that you can think about. I have it in my book, but you can think about like. Did I save time? You can measure how many times did this thing execute and you can measure the number or you can measure How the duration of the time how long did it take and did my code make it faster?

[00:41:09] You can measure the minutes or the seconds or the hours You can also measure, um, if it's not code related, if it's not performance related, you can also see how many people are using it.

[00:41:20] Alex Booker: I like that.

[00:41:21] Jean Lee: Or you can also try just asking people like, did you like it? Or do a survey, right? And see. Yeah.

[00:41:27] Alex Booker: Qualitative feedback. Exactly.

[00:41:29] Jean Lee: Yeah. There was a percentage increase in satisfaction of the users. You can do those numbers.

[00:41:34] Alex Booker: I like that a lot. That's a great idea. Gene, Thank you so much for joining me on the podcast. It's been a pleasure.

[00:41:40] Jean Lee: Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed our conversation.

[00:41:44] Jan Arsenovic: Next week on the show, you probably know him so he doesn't need an introduction.

[00:41:48] Ian Douglas.

[00:41:49] Ian Douglas: If you don't take a job where you're not at least a little bit scared about what you're jumping into, I think you're maybe taking the wrong role because I think that that sort of fear can sometimes drive, you know, your motivation, like your intrinsic motivation of like Alright, I gotta hustle, I gotta, like, work hard, I gotta, like, do what I need to impress these folks, cause, you know, I don't know if I can do this.

[00:42:10] It's like, well, they believe you can, that's why they made you the offer.

[00:42:14] Jan Arsenovic: That's next week on the Scrimba Podcast. If you made it this far, please subscribe, that way you can make sure you don't miss it. Also, check out the show notes for all the ways to connect with Gene. The show is hosted by Alex Booker, I've been Jan, the producer.

[00:42:26] You can also find our Twitter handles in the show notes. Keep coding, and we'll see you next time.