When today’s tech employees were growing up, the most advanced technology in their households might have been a graphing calculator or a basic computer. Today, millions of people walk around with far more advanced devices in their pockets. Dave Chen, a senior manager on one of Google Play’s engineering teams, has been there to see that rapid change, and to be a part of it.
For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Chen, who has worked in software engineering in Ohio, Maryland, and California, about how Silicon Valley differs from other tech hubs, the quickening pace of industry innovation, and his experience as an engineer. This interview has been lightly edited for context and clarity.
Adrienne Green: What inspired you to start working in technology and engineering?
Dave Chen: I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and I always enjoyed programming and coding. In eighth grade, I was taking a geometry class and it required the use of a graphing calculator. We were lower-middle-class, but my parents got me one. It was really my first experience with coding; it was engaging and exciting to create something. I experimented with coding all the way through to college.
I ended up being selected for the freshman engineering honors program at Ohio State, and we had to build a robot for our final capstone class. I worked on a team of four people, and we built an autonomous robot that ended up being very successful. During the first year of college, I had a few odd jobs: I worked at a grocery store as a bagger making minimum wage, and then at CompUSA, a computer store, as a cashier. In the summer after my freshman year, I was working at CompUSA again. The professor of my engineering class asked me, “Why are you working here?” He asked me to come work for him at his design center for a startup in Cupertino, California. I worked for him on a part-time and full-time basis for my remaining three years of college. That was my first real professional job being paid for coding.
Green: How did you end up at Google?
Chen: I got job offers from a couple of different companies after college: IBM and Lockheed Martin. I picked Lockheed Martin because it included a three-year, rotational program that allowed me to get my master's degree in computer science from John Hopkins. After four years at Lockheed, I came over to the Valley. When I got my job offer at Yahoo, I later found out that my hiring manager had a big stack of resumes, pulled one out, decided to interview that person and hire him or her—and that person happened to be me.
I worked for Yahoo for two years. At the end of 2008, I interviewed at Google during the height of the financial crisis. After two years of working as a software engineer, I started managing others as an engineering manager at Google Play.
Green: What exactly do you do as a software engineer?
Chen: I'm an engineering manager at Google. On a day-to-day basis, my job revolves around both short- and long-term strategy for Google Play to build internal-testing tools. If we're successful, that means that the next feature we launch be faster than the past features that we launched. In tech, the goal is to move fast.
Green: How is working in Silicon Valley different than working in Ohio or Maryland?
Chen: In Ohio, I was technically working for a company in the Valley, but it had this Midwestern feel. In Silicon Valley, the pace is a quicker. Compared to Maryland, the value systems and pace, and drive for innovation might be a little bit different. I think Silicon Valley attracts this very interesting sort of person.
Coming from the Midwest, I always tell people my first job was a minimum-wage job, and I often feel like people who have had minimum-wage jobs have a different sort of flavor. In the Valley, everywhere you look there are people pushing for crazy amounts of success. In Maryland, people look at a job as a job and are less concerned about career, whereas in Silicon Valley people are very concerned about their careers. The Valley can be very grounded, but it can also be this place of wild and crazy expectations where people push themselves because they want to be part of that next thing. I don't see that quite so much in Ohio and in Maryland.
Green: How do you think working a minimum-wage job and then becoming an engineer has affected how you see work culture?
Chen: I was a bagger at a grocery store and we pushed carts around. This was the 1990s and you still put pride in the job. At least I did. I worked with people everyday and their value system was very much focused around who you were outside of work. Who you are in the Midwest largely depends not on your job, but on your family, friends, and hobbies.
There are really good opportunities in Ohio, but I think the opportunities in Silicon Valley—that dream of getting there and trying to make it—consumes some people a little bit more. Especially in tech, people are always chasing that next big thing. It can, in many cases, become “This is my purpose in life or my singular purpose.” There are lots of people that are very grounded in the San Francisco Bay Area, but there's always that looking over your shoulder, keeping up with the Joneses kind of feeling: You see those stories or the status symbols or the people. I think in Ohio, that may be looked upon as less of an ideal than it is here.
Green: You talked about the fast pace of your current job a lot. Do you ever feel stressed because of that?
Chen: I have friends who work at startups in Ohio, who experience that same sort of stress and fast pace. At Lockheed Martin, there was a strong focus on doing things the right way. When you're in a startup, you're basically looking to survive to the next month or the next quarter. When you look at all the internet companies, it's very easy to see how many have come and gone. Google, or any company, could very well be that next has-been. I think the pace is born out of innovation.
We're trying to bring that same sort of development and discipline to software engineering that industries like manufacturing and architecture have achieved. Our job is to focus on how we improve software engineering and make it better, faster, easier for engineers to actually deliver amazing experiences to our users.
We could look at it in terms of the competitive nature of Company A versus Company B. I think that's there, too, but for me it's more about, how can we make it so that the next coder in any part of the world can come along and say, “Wow, I have really, really amazing tools to help me create things that never existed before”?
Green: What motivates you as an engineer?
Chen: For me it's about making a difference. My foundational focus is around the people on my team. Am I doing a good job for them? Am I putting them in the best position to succeed? I went into management primarily because, from a people perspective, if I can help somebody grow and advance to the next thing, or open up more doors and opportunities, that's exciting for me. Secondly, Google Play is a really enormous platform for impacting people. It encompasses both apps on Android phones as well as digital content. If we can do a great job, and focus on the user, then I think we can do great things and that's where I find that motivation.
Green: You just mentioned that opening doors for others is important to you, and the lack of diversity in the tech industry is widely known. What has your experience as an Asian American man in Silicon Valley been?
Chen: In Ohio, Asian Americans are a minority in the workforce. I guess it’s less so in D.C. and in the Bay area. I think part of what drives me is the motivation to be inclusive. When I was in D.C., I never felt like it was ever a bad thing being a minority. One thing I really advocate for in my personal work is, how can I encourage minorities to get involved in STEM? This is how I got involved in the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers. I was very passionate about seeing how I could help Asian Americans succeed in STEM fields.
I wish that I had these stories, or the same opportunities to connect with somebody in the industry who had faced some of these challenges—someone who had learned what was important and how to navigate corporate America. If you look at the different companies I’ve worked at—a startup, Lockheed Martin, which has a more traditional corporate culture, and then Yahoo and Google—they’re actually significantly different culturally.
Green: In Silicon Valley, it seems as though Asian Americans are the most highly represented minority. How has that affected the way you mentor other Asian American students?
Chen: My parents had immigrated to the U.S. when I was three or four years old. Growing up in the Midwest, where I was definitely a minority, I remember being bullied. It was challenging growing up as a minority. I'm really passionate about making sure that minorities from whatever background or gender can find a home and can be included and contribute ideas. If we're going to really build products and build a discipline around engineering and around software engineering that incorporates the best of all ideas, we need everybody. Efforts around diversity and inclusion and unconscious bias are critical to the success of not just people in tech but people in industries worldwide.
The volunteering is a big part of giving back. I think I’ve been very lucky in my career. Tech exploded, and it was my interest area. So I was lucky to have been part of that.
This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a voice of OnStar, a cartographer, and a medical illustrator.