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Celebrating the Women of Cape Privacy: Meet Annie Tan

by Annie Tan, Shweta Sah
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As an innovative tech company, Cape Privacy relies on a diverse and skilled team of professionals who bring their talents to a highly collaborative environment. Through that collaboration we are building a platform that protects security by default with a novel combination of secret sharing and secure multiparty computation.

For women’s history month, a number of our strong women talk about what inspires them about working in tech, how they overcame challenges in their careers, and their visions for what the future of engineering should look like. These fascinating conversations demonstrate the power of what’s possible when you build a diverse workforce that values the contributions of people with different perspectives.

This women in tech dialogue is between software engineers Shweta Sah and Annie Tan. 

Shweta Sah: Okay, first question: where are you from and where do you live now? 

Annie Tan: I’m from Brooklyn, New York City, and now I live in Queens.

Shweta: How did you get into this career path? Were you always interested in a career in tech? 

Annie: It's a pretty long journey to where I am now – I studied chemistry in high school, chemical engineering in college, and then I worked at a hedge fund after graduation. It was because of my exposure to tech at the hedge fund that I decided I wanted to pursue software engineering. I joined a bootcamp called Fullstack Academy that focused on web development to kickstart that transition to software engineering.

Shweta: What inspires you about engineering? 

Annie:  I've always enjoyed solving problems, and that's very indicative of what I've studied in school. The challenge is fun, and it makes me excited to learn something new every day because there's always something different that I encounter at work daily. 

Shweta: And what was it about Cape Privacy that you found compelling; that gave you a desire to join the team? 

Annie: At my previous job, data science and machine learning were both crucial to the success of the company, so there is an interesting overlap between hedge funds and the mission at Cape Privacy where we allow machine learners and data scientists to make predictions on encrypted data. It was because of the overlap that I thought, “This would be interesting to learn more about.”

That's how I started talking to Cape Privacy, but what made me decide to join Cape was the people. The engineers here are both smart and genuinely kind and awesome people to work with. I value that greatly.

Shweta: That's nice. How important is it for you to judge a company based on the people that are there? 

Annie: It's definitely a huge factor in my decision, but it's also about the product. I've interviewed with other companies where their product was interesting, but I didn’t necessarily gel or vibe as well with the people there. But there's also the case where the product is not as interesting, but the people are really cool. At Cape, I had the best of both worlds so it was an easy decision.

Shweta: That leads us to the next question. What's the most exciting thing about your job here? 

Annie: I like that it's very dynamic. What I work on today is not what I’ll be working on at the end of the week, so I can work on different things throughout the week, month, year. As such, I'm not working on one project for an entire year, which I’ve experienced before. I like that things are constantly changing, I'm learning new things every day, and I get to pick the brains of others at Cape.

Shweta: Yeah, there's always something new that we're trying to do, even when you're trying to troubleshoot something. I feel like we always come out learning something from it. Every day brings something new and that is exciting. So, what kind of impact would bring you great satisfaction in your work? 

Annie: Satisfaction comes from knowing that you are making a positive impact and working for a company that has similar values as yours. The work that you're doing now might seem really small, but if you think about the big picture and what you're working towards, the application of the technology that Cape provides is profound for a variety of people and industries.

Shweta: That’s true. Because our tech is focused on a specific purpose, and not generalized for the world, as long as it helps our customers it’s very satisfying. 

Annie:  Exactly. It can be applied to many different industries because data privacy and security is such a big thing. The work we’re doing now is going to be worth it in the end. 

Shweta:  All right, so what does a typical day in your job involve? 

Annie: The usual stand-ups and the company-wide meetings… and a lot of time spent on reviewing teammates’ pull requests. It’s a good way to make sure you know what's going on with others and what other parts of the code base are being worked on. Occasionally, we'll have design meetings and talk about the architecture of new applications. If I’m working with a small group of engineers, I’m probably spending a lot of time on Zoom calls brainstorming, pair-programming, and debugging with them. But if I'm working on a ticket alone, most of that time goes to individual coding.

Shweta: Knowing that women represent only 14 percent of the total software engineering workforce, what was it that attracted you to the field? 

Annie: Knowing that there was such a small demographic of women in engineering, I wanted to be a part of that momentum to represent women in engineering. That’s why I studied chemical engineering in college, and despite making a career change, I’m glad that I’m still representing women in engineering by being a software engineer.

Shweta:  That makes sense. And who were your role models as you pursued a career in software engineering? Who were some of the people who helped you along the way? 

Annie: My biggest role models were my colleagues at my previous job. They were the ones that even inspired me to become a software engineer, so when I joined their team, I went to them for advice on my career, and how best to add value and best practices for coding.

There were other people that helped me along the way, such as my classmates from Fullstack Academy. It was nice to see other people working towards the same goal as me. 

Shweta:  It's interesting to know you could be inspired to completely change your career track because you were so impressed by what you saw other people doing. Are you still in touch with those people? 

Annie: I’m in touch with some of them. They were a very smart bunch and I am really honored to have worked with them. We're all connected on LinkedIn and I'm sure that they're doing well, and that they're also wondering how I'm doing at Cape Privacy.

Shweta: What are your hopes for the future of engineering? 

Annie: I hope that more women will pursue all types of engineering and that they won’t feel discouraged because it's a male dominated field. It’s 2022, but I'm hoping in ten years, twenty years, that the demographics will have changed significantly.

I’d also like to see equal pay between males and females, equal opportunities as well as salary transparency. People don't talk about these topics as much because it's taboo and not standard, but hopefully within the next few years we can make strides there. 

Shweta: Yeah, I’m with you on that. Equal opportunity is really important, but we're in 2022. We shouldn't be holding ourselves back just because there are not a lot of women out there doing what we want to do. So just go for it. 

Annie: Have you ever felt discouraged from pursuing engineering as a female? 

Shweta: I never really did because I have an elder brother and sister, both of them are in engineering. I watched them go into engineering, so it didn't really hamper me. And if I ever felt like I was the only female engineer on my team, I wouldn’t dwell on it and let it keep me from making progress.. 

Annie: That’s one thing that I like about Cape – we have a good representation of female engineers here so I'm glad that Cape is inclusive. 

Shweta: Oh, that's very true. That leads us to, what is the biggest obstacle you’ve faced in your career, or breaking into engineering as a woman? 

Annie: I'm lucky that I haven't faced too many obstacles as a female engineer, and it helped that I went to Columbia University, which opened a lot more doors for me after I graduated. But if I had to pinpoint an obstacle, it would probably be facing skepticism from others. Sometimes you can feel that they might be doubtful of your success or of the value that you can add as an engineer. I think people may see women, and especially Asian women, as an easy target.

Shweta: How did you overcome that? 

Annie:  The best way to overcome that is to prove them wrong. To show that you can do just as well, or even better. At the same time, it's unfair that women have to put that pressure on themselves to prove their value to others.

Shweta:  To follow up on that, have you ever felt that someone is skeptical of you and your skills just because you're an Asian woman? 

Annie: It's hard to know for sure because they might not even know of their bias against women or Asian women.

Shweta: Yeah, we’re talking about unconscious bias; that we have a bias towards something but we don't realize it. At a previous employer a couple of years ago someone shared a quiz with us, I think it was from Harvard University. It was a set of questions and, depending on your answers, it would tell you if you have some sort of unconscious bias. And being a woman, I learned that I was biased against women. You would expect it from the opposite gender, but we found we had bias against women, too. It’s something everyone needs to work on. 

Annie: Now that you mention it, I can see that happening because of how competitive it is here. You can't help but feel like you have to compete against other women, too. That's really interesting. 

Shweta: Moving on to the next question, what has your experience been since joining Cape Privacy? 

Annie:  Good vibes all around! Everyone here is really nice and collaborative and I appreciate the level of transparency we get from leadership. I also enjoy that it’s a remote-first company, which has granted me so much more flexibility in the things I want to do. If there’s one positive thing that the pandemic has brought us, it’s remote work… without it, we’d all still be in the office right now.

Shweta: This year's theme for International Women's Day is Breaking the Bias, focusing on forging an inclusive, diverse and equal future between genders. What would you say is the most important action that needs to be taken to achieve this? How can organizations address bias, and how can individuals address their own bias?

Annie:  My answer applies to both organizations and individuals, and the first step is awareness. Some people might not have heard of Women's History Month, or International Women's Day, because they're not on social media, or maybe they're not talking to people that talk about these things. So if we want change, we have to talk about it. Have conversations with friends, family and colleagues to bring awareness to the table.

Shweta: I recently came across a news article about “Equal Pay Day.”  I didn't know that much about it, but Equal Pay Day represents how far into the next year a woman has to work to earn the same amount as a man from  the previous year. So awareness is very necessary. 

Annie: Yeah, I think people are supportive of the cause if they know about it, but some don’t. We should send articles and posts about it to get people talking.

Shweta: What advice would you give to a little girl who might be thinking about joining the rarefied air of being a woman in tech? 

Annie: I’d ask her if she has any questions or concerns about becoming a woman in tech. If there is reluctance because of fear, then I’d say, “Don’t let fear stop you from doing the things that you want to do. It’s 2022, you can do anything that you want to do.” But if she’s unsure because she is still exploring, then my advice is to try it out because you never know until you try. If it works out, she can pursue it but if not, she can choose something new.

Shweta:  I like those answers. Should we really be afraid of pursuing something just because you feel like there are not enough women in that field?

Annie: Yeah, if I ever have a daughter, I hope that she would never be discouraged in pursuing engineering because of that.

Shweta:  Absolutely. Now a fun question to close out. What keeps you occupied when you are not on the clock? 

Annie: When I'm off the clock, you can find me sleeping… Just kidding! Hanging out with friends, cooking, catching up on some shows on Netflix or YouTube, editing videos and photos. Maybe planning my next trip? 

Shweta:  Nice. Are you planning any trips right now? 

Annie:  Potentially South Korea!

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