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Celebrating the Women of Cape Privacy: Meet Chris Friesen

by Chris Friesen, Grace Poetzinger
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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 Grace Poetzinger and Chris Friesen. 

Grace Poetzinger: So Chris, where do you live and where are you from? 

Chris Friesen:  Where I'm from is a complicated question, I moved around a lot. But I'm currently living in Montreal, Quebec. 

Grace: How did you get onto this career path? Were you always interested in a career in tech? 

Chris: I wasn't always interested in a career in tech. I did a dual degree program as an undergrad in which one major was science and the other major was arts. Computer science seemed like the science major that could combine with any arts major and do something interesting. For example, you could combine it with art history and do image recognition or graphics. Eventually I ended up with criminology as my arts major, which led to my eventual master studies in cybersecurity a few years later. That combination made sense, and turned out to be pretty cool, so I was like, “Let’s do this.”

Grace: Was there a particular project where you combined those things in a satisfying way? 

Chris: I wrote a lot of essays on how hacking and piracy can be good for the economy.

Grace: I feel you. At my school, you were allowed to create a dual major if you could make the justification for it. But all the STEM departments were like, you can't combine us with an arts field. It was either stem and stem or arts and arts. 

Chris: I was definitely the only person in my school doing such a weird thing. 

Grace: So what was your degree called? 

Chris: I have a Bachelor of Arts & Science in Software Engineering and Sociology, with a specialization in Criminology.

Grace: That's so cool. So, what inspires you about engineering? 

Chris: You know, I'd write an essay, ten people would read it, and then it would get tossed. But with computer science, I could build things that I would use, or that other people would use, and it felt so much more productive. And I could put things out into the world that were useful and that was really appealing to me. Don’t get me wrong; those soft skills are very important, but it's nice to have a tangible, reusable product; something that you can say, “I built this.” That’s really rewarding for me. 

Grace: I can relate to that. What was it about Cape Privacy that you found compelling and gave you a desire to join the team? 

Chris: I’ve always had an interest in privacy but I know at this point you can’t stop companies from collecting private data because the door has been opened and there’s no way to close it. I’d tell people that if I had a start up, its purpose would be to make it as safe as possible for the people whose data is being collected. Homomorphic encryption was such a fascinating idea, to be able to do operations on data while keeping it encrypted, but when I went to do my masters I found that the technology is not at a level where you could apply it in that way yet. Then I learned about Cape Privacy, that it wasn’t using homomorphic encryption but solving that problem in a different way. And it’s working.

If you can protect the underlying data from being exposed, prevent a person's health records from being exploited, or someone's racial background being determined during a resumé evaluation or anything like that… I think that's a huge step forward. Obviously it’s not the only consideration, as there are biases in training data, etc. But if we can apply it to location data, that would have a big impact because in aggregate location data is incredibly useful but the data points are all terrifyingly identifying. 

Grace: I didn't know that your interests aligned with Cape’s before you joined, or that you wanted to pursue that as a goal, and then to join a team of people who are like, “Yeah, we're doing this.” 

Chris: The technology is really, really interesting. So, yeah. Happy to jump on board with an organization that is trying to solve problems I want to solve. 

Grace: What kind of impact would bring you great satisfaction in your work? 

Chris: I want to stay around long enough to both see my mistakes come back to bite me and learn from them, but also to see what decisions that I made really lasted, were really smart, and made a difference. 

Grace:  What does a typical day involve here for you? 

Chris: Just working on things as they come up, trying to plan ahead, and a tiny bit of meetings. But it’s never the same. Sometimes you're stuck on one problem for a really long time. Sometimes you get through a bunch of things all at once. So a typical day is hard to describe. 

Grace: What are your hopes for the future of engineering, 

Chris: I like engineering because I feel like there's little drama. People are very focused on what is the best solution to this problem. I can suggest something, but I'm not mortally wounded if you don't like my idea, because if you have a provably better idea, we should use it. Sometimes there's ego, but most of the time everyone's just happy if we find the best solution. And so I really like the practicality of people's perspective as opposed to something where everything is very subjective.

So for the future of engineering, I just want us to have our feet firmly on the ground and for people to operate assuming that everyone has the best intentions and go forth with that.

Grace: Women represent only 14 percent of the total software engineering workforce. What was it that attracted you to the field in spite of there being fewer women? Or was that something that you even thought about? 

Chris: Even though I took it as a major in undergrad, I wanted to work in internet policy or intellectual property law after. I dislike people who make policies or rules about things that they don't understand, so I decided I had to go into the industry and work as a developer for at least two years before getting a law degree or masters in public policy. I took a software engineering job in New York after graduation at a clothing rental startup. I had never been to New York, knew nothing about fashion, and it was a startup–who knew if it would succeed. But I thought, I'm young. I have time. Let's do it. So I did it, and I really loved it.

I remember in undergrad I thought, there's no way I would love to stare at code for eight hours a day. I really liked having a balance of art and science, but I was wrong, I really loved it. The people were great. The problems were interesting. And so my plans changed. I never really considered the gender thing because I went into a female led start-up about fluffy dresses where the male engineers would come up to me and ask, “I'm designing a database. Do I need to know the difference between a sweetheart neckline and a boat neckline?”

The environment did still skew male on the engineering team, but had an incredible female majority exec so it never played a factor in my day to day, although I’d go to meet-ups for the New York Linux Users Group where there were two women in a group of a hundred people. But I had tons of female engineer role models at my company. 

Grace:  Is there one role model that comes to mind?

Chris: Yes. Camille Fournier, who wrote The Manager’s Path, was my CTO in the beginning. The best piece of advice I got from her was to stay on the technical track until you were absolutely sure you wanted to be a manager. She said that women are often pushed into a managerial track early because our soft skills are perceived as better than men’s; that we pay attention to what other people are doing and act as facilitators. It’s not that you wouldn’t succeed at being a manager, but you would climb further up the career ladder and get to a point where you wouldn’t understand the technical nature of what the people on your team were working with because your foundation was shallow. And at that level a woman had the potential to lose more respect from their team because of it then a man because of stereotypes on technical competence. 

I’ve seen variations with friends where it’s simply harder to get back to a technical role once you have moved out into managerial or product paths so it’s important to only do the move if it’s what you want, not because you’re being led into it.

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