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 Annie Tan and Jenny LaPierre.
Annie Tan: Where are you from and where do you live now?
Jenny LaPierre: I'm originally from Bucks County, Pennsylvania; the Philly suburbs. I currently live in northern Delaware, which is also the Philly suburbs, just in a different direction. But I spent the majority of the past decade in Massachusetts because I went to college in Boston and then lived there for a couple of years afterward as well.
Annie: Very cool. And how did you get into this career path? Was it something you always wanted to do?
Jenny: When I was picking a major, I didn't have a strong idea of what I wanted to do for a career. My dad suggested I try programming, so I decided to give that a try, and then I ended up liking it.
In high school, a lot of my favorite classes were the English classes; I had a fascination with language and how you can carefully construct syntax to communicate effectively and clearly. I’ve found you get a lot of that with code as well. And I'm really glad that I ended up going into software as opposed to hardware, or lower-level programming, because you don't get as much of that language aspect, which is really rewarding for me.
Annie: Interesting. And now that you’re in this profession, what inspires you about engineering?
Jenny: I really love the collaborative aspect of it; being able to bounce ideas off of other people and work together to come up with the best solution given the resources and the tools available. I really enjoy that kind of optimization, but also the creative brainstorming aspect of it. I also really like sitting down and writing a lot of code. It's more clear cut than with something like writing an essay because you can write tests and you can know that it works. It's clear what your objectives are and whether you accomplished them.
Annie: Got it. What was it about Cape Privacy that you found compelling and gave you a desire to join the team?
Jenny: When I was interviewing with Cape, I got a good sense of the team dynamic and had a good feeling about how the leadership team was taking a people-focused approach toward the team that they were building. I remember specifically, David said, “I'm looking to build a kind team.” That really resonated with me. I'm fortunate enough that I've never had a particularly unkind team in my limited career, but I've heard stories of people being absolutely miserable in their jobs, even if the work would otherwise be rewarding, because they didn't feel valued or treated well.
When I decided to leave my previous job and started interviewing, I initially focused more on proving my worth than thinking about what I actually wanted. But it quickly became apparent to me that, now that I had some full-time experience, I was a lot more employable than I thought. I realized I had a lot of options available to me, so I started thinking more about what I really wanted to do.
I realized I wanted to join a smaller, early-stage startup, because that environment would maximize opportunities for creativity and greenfield development. I liked the idea of getting in on the ground floor to build something correctly and something that will hold up against all the changes we’ll make over the following years. That was really compelling to me.
Annie: You started interviewing to figure out your worth as a female engineer in a male dominated industry. Interesting. Well, now that you’re here, what is the most exciting thing about your job?
Jenny: Definitely the collaboration and the creativity. I feel like I get to contribute a lot in a way that makes me feel valued and like an important part of the team. Also the fact that it is a kind team where everyone is super nice to work with. I get to go in every day without worrying whether people think I'm doing a good job; instead I can just focus on doing a good job. And that's really nice, because even in the absence of external pressure, I have tended to self-impose that doubt: “Am I meeting expectations?” But here I was able to hit the ground running and prove myself. Knowing my colleagues have confidence in my work, I can trust that if I have a bad day, no one's going to hold that against me.
Annie: And what kind of impact that you might have would bring you great satisfaction in your work?
Jenny: I feel like I'm making an impact when I'm able to deliver something that's actually useful for other people, and when I can see how my work fits in with the larger goal at hand rather than just being heads-down and not really seeing the impact of what I'm building. There tend to be more opportunities to have a bigger impact in a smaller, earlier-stage company and a new product
I get a lot of satisfaction from using my imagination to think about different possibilities, scoping out the process, and delivering features that allow the users to do things they couldn’t do before. I find it especially rewarding when my efforts support something my colleagues are also working on, because I see the impact more immediately.
Annie: That's why you said that you preferred working at a smaller startup instead of a larger company. Got it. So, what does a typical day in your job involve?
Jenny: I don't have a strict routine that I follow every day, and that's one thing I like about working for a remote company-–and especially working for a remote startup-–is you get a lot more of that flexibility. I just need to attend team meetings and get in a full day of work; it doesn't matter if I shift my day a little later, or a little earlier in the morning. No one's micromanaging me. It's more about the overall impact than whether you're looking busy on any given day.
Annie: I like that. What are your hopes for the future of engineering?
Jenny: That more of it will serve humanity. Before joining Cape, I ended up turning down an offer where I liked the team, but I felt conflicted about a surveillance-related aspect of their product. Meanwhile, data privacy is a cause I can get behind.
Annie: Right. You need motivation beyond just a good salary, but to be part of a mission you believe in. How motivated are you knowing that women represent only 14 percent of the total software engineering workforce? Does it motivate you to be a part of improving that number?
Jenny: I really didn't think much about the gender aspect. I just picked a field where I felt like I could do a decent job and have a stable career. I’ve also been fortunate in that, by the time I entered the workforce, there was a push for women in engineering and more representation. Maybe if I was trying to be an engineer a couple decades earlier, I would not have had the same experience, and probably would have faced more discrimination or lack of opportunity. And I recognize it has been harder for others, and that I was privileged to have the opportunity to major in software development or major in computer science and get a college degree; that helped a lot. Though, in that way software engineering is a bit more accessible than some other types of engineering: more companies will consider people without a college degree, as long as they can demonstrate the required skills.
Annie: That is true about software engineering versus other engineering disciplines, but it’s interesting that you never really considered the potential challenges of being a woman in tech prior to joining software engineering. But now that you are, have you had any role models as you pursued a career in software engineering? Who were some of the people who helped you along the way?
Jenny: There were definitely a lot of my peers, teachers, and professors who helped me out when I didn't understand something, as well as more experienced colleagues who mentored me. I feel very lucky to have had so many people who were helpful and collaborative. There are a lot of people in your life who help you get to where you are. It’s a group effort.
Annie: I think that's common. I had a similar experience to yours. So, what have been the biggest obstacles you’ve faced in your experience as a woman in software engineering?
Jenny: This isn’t gender-specific, but my biggest obstacle was passing calculus. Math was always my worst subject: I could grasp the logical aspects, but memorizing formulas and crunching numbers manually were often challenging because I would make mistakes. I did relatively well in college in my programming classes because the computer abstracts away those opportunities for mistakes, but it took me three tries to pass Calc I.
It’s actually a good “worst problem” to have: better than facing sexism in the corporate world, or someone saying hurtful things to you about being a female engineer. I have witnessed some of those other issues. I found out toward the end of one of my internships that the department head had been making inappropriate comments about women in the office behind their backs. I was fortunate that by the time I heard about that, I was about to leave anyway, so I never faced any of it directly or personally.
Annie: So how did you finally pass calculus?
Jenny: I went hiking. I went long distance backpacking with my boyfriend, and while we were climbing mountains, he drilled me on the basics of calculus. And by the end of it, I had all of the derivatives of sine and cosine, and all of that memorized. And I was able to pass calculus; I actually got an A.
Annie: Wow, that is just amazing.
Jenny: It was ultimately a time management issue, because a lot of my other classes took up so much of my time that I didn't have the capacity to give that one class the attention that it needed. I was trying to pass calculus, but more importantly, I was trying to pass Object Oriented Design, which would be more relevant to my career. So I put calc on the back burner. Then there was a summer of no classes, just moving my body, and that was the one thing my brain had to do all day. So in that context, I could handle it.
Annie: Well, I'm glad you overcame that obstacle. And that brings us to the present, and the next question: What has your experience been since joining Cape Privacy?
Jenny: My experience has been great overall. I really like everyone that I've worked with, and I feel like we're in a very special time as a company, being an early stage startup where we’re all working very hard to accomplish our goals. But also we have a good cadence going where we're not overworked or anything like that; where we just get to go to work, and work regular hours, and still be able to make all these great strides in building the product.
I feel lucky to be here and to experience that. My last job had a lot of the same positive aspects: we had a great team and everyone was really nice and friendly. But by the end of my three years there, we had moved out of that startup phase, and a lot of the work was shifting more toward bug fixes and debugging issues by reviewing customer logs and stuff like that. It’s a necessary part of the job, which I will have to do here eventually–and I'm completely OK with that–but it's also not as fun for me as the greenfield development and the more creative aspects.
Annie: This year's theme for International Women's Day was, “Break the Bias,” focusing on creating 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 on both an organizational and an individual level?
Jenny: On an organization level, I feel like the most important way to achieve an inclusive, diverse environment is to be intersectional. I know that there are companies out there who say, “We're diverse! We have women!” But, statistically, white women are the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action and these pushes for diversity. So I think that it can't just stop there, and it shouldn't just focus on the gender part of it, but also all of the other axes of oppression and inequality. Those need to be addressed at a corporate level.
On an individual level, I feel like one of the most important steps that we can take is to address bias in ourselves because, by the nature of the society that we grow up in, we're ingrained with a lot of biases that need to be actively confronted in order to not only acknowledge, but also change them. Then going from there, to speak out on it and make sure that you're confronting it in yourself, and also calling it out and other people and being more public about it.
Annie: When you say we need to address the bias in ourselves, what exactly do you mean?
Jenny: There are internalized biases that can harm yourself, but also there are ingrained biases you can have against others that result in discrimination or casting judgment where you might not necessarily realize that you're doing it. It's important to address those and work past them.
Annie: Yeah. That's called “unconscious bias.” When I talked with Shweta she mentioned that she took a test and found she had an unconscious bias against other women that she wasn’t aware of.
Jenny: Right! I’m familiar with the implicit bias test; I think it's a good tool to identify that those biases do exist. And then aside from that, you can't always control what your gut reaction is, because that is based on a lot of unconscious factors, a lot of which can be unconscious bias. But you can control what your words and actions are, which is where the change happens.
Annie: Those are really good answers. And the next question is, what advice would you give to a little girl who might be thinking about joining the rarefied air that is being a woman in tech?
Jenny: If her concern is that she wants to go into tech, but doesn’t see many other women doing it, I would say that it's not all that rare anymore. In all of my jobs so far, I've never been the only woman there or even close. There's still a long way to go, but progress is being made all the time. And while there are still environments that are more discriminatory, with the strides that have been made, they're not the norm anymore. They're not as accepted as they used to be, and so the future's looking bright in that regard.
Annie: Nice, nice. I agree. Especially if they're a little girl now. In ten or 20 years there will be more and more women so, as you say, it won't be as rare. But it also depends on the industry segment you're in.
Annie: Yeah. Because I worked for a hedge fund before Cape Privacy, and that's definitely a very, very male-dominated industry. I was probably the first female engineer there. And it wasn't until much later that they hired a second one. So maybe that would change in the future. And maybe this little girl won't have to worry about joining a hedge fund and saying, “Oh, there's no women in here.”
Annie: All right, we're on to our last question. So thank you for doing this interview. What keeps you occupied when you aren’t on the clock?
Jenny: I've been trying to take more time to sing and play guitar. And I enjoy playing board games, either in person or more recently online with my friends. We have a Monday night Zoom call where we’ll chat and play games. I also like cooking and making cocktails. I also joined a pottery studio, so I've been making more pottery, which has been fun, and I’m starting to get better at it.
Annie: You should post pictures once you’ve got some pieces you’re comfortable sharing.
Jenny: I've been meaning to make a “Cape Crafts” channel or something on Slack where people can share things that they've made. Shweta was telling me the other day how she painted an accent wall in her house, and I said, “I'd love to see you post a picture.” I think if there was a dedicated channel to show things that you made in the physical realm, that would be nice.