Ever since arriving in Silicon Valley in 2013, I have encountered hundreds of brilliant, passionate, and super smart people. Many have impressive resumes, such as graduating from Ivy League or world-class universities. As a young woman coming from a background that differs from the typical Silicon Valley experience, it was a daunting time for me at first, and I honestly did not know what to expect.
Today, I often receive many questions about how and why I became an engineer, because of my untraditional background. Believe it or not, before working in tech, I was a flight attendant. To this day, I’m always surprised by the number of lessons and skills I learned in that role that continue to serve me well in my present position; although, when I think about it, many of those lessons are likely what helped me become an engineer in the first place.
First lesson: Go against the norm
When I was 20 years old, I was in my fourth and final year of college, majoring in computer science. I found myself about to graduate with an unclear job outlook and future. Having grown up in Thailand as a foreigner, I could not obtain a work permit unless a company wanted to pay me double the salary of a typical recent Thai graduate. I could not apply for a citizenship without (1) marrying a Thai person, or (2) working for three years with a salary five times higher than average compensation, while paying an expatriate tax for this income. I was looking for an answer, a chance of survival in or out of the country that I had lived in for fifteen years.
One day, a flight attendant visited the small factory store I ran for my family’s startup and asked, “Why not apply to become a flight attendant? Your English is good, your service attitude is excellent—why are you working here?” I had never thought about that option before in my life. In most Asian countries, flight attendants were seen as beautiful, poised, and elegant. I had never been described by anyone around me as such. Nonetheless, with the alluring salary of four times more than any other possibility in Bangkok, I decided to give it a try. When I did, everyone around me, including my closest friends, laughed and said I couldn’t possibly get the job. They all turned out to be wrong. I got the job as one of the 35 successful applicants out of a total of 800. I worked for four years in the industry, culminating in being hand-selected to work in first class before I left the airline in 2010.
Working as a software engineer now, I still find myself sometimes riding against the same current of social norms. In the beginning, nobody asked me if I would become an engineer, even though I had a computer science degree. I also didn’t think anyone would hire me as a software engineer because I had no relevant experience. Nonetheless, when I had the opportunity, I jumped for it. And since I did, I have received all sorts of questions and comments, like “Did you do a technical interview when you transferred?” or “You don’t look like an engineer.” But these external opinions do not matter; how others think of you does not define you. You are defined by your own and independent capabilities.
Second lesson: Never stop learning
When I decided to begin my career as a flight attendant, I was unable to finish my last term of college because I started the job immediately. There were no programmer jobs hiring back then in Thailand and I also figured the odds of getting the flight attendant position were slim—both reasons why I took the position right away. These were my initial thoughts, but after about a year of working as a flight attendant, I started to regret not being able to finish my degree. I found an online university that offered computer science degrees through DETC, an institutional accreditor of distance education institutions. I would go to work, finish my service, and study on the L-shaped seats at the back of the aircraft galley while the passengers were asleep. I would finish up from work, shower, sleep, and then wake up to study some more. After two years of studying and working full-time, I obtained my bachelor’s degree.
When I decided to come to California with my husband in 2013, I had already been working part time as a software translator for two years. I was contacted by a sub-contracting company and started working for LinkedIn as a linguist. However, my desire to continue learning new things didn’t change. I would go to work, and continue to take online courses to satisfy my curiosity. I wanted to better understand the tasks of the frontend engineers I was working with, what kind of problems I could help solve, and how to make collaboration at work easier to create a truly localized experience for users. After getting about three courses under my belt, one day, I offered to try my hand at fixing some frontend bugs our engineers did not have time to fix. My manager and director were very supportive and encouraged me to apply for an engineering position. That led to me interviewing for an internal opening within the team, which led me to my career today. This has reinforced for me that it’s important to never stop learning.
Final lesson: Patience, patience, patience
All professions have their unique challenges. While I was working as a flight attendant, I experienced a wide range of issues as I encountered a number of different personalities on a daily basis. I persevered through four years of working in the airline industry by learning to have patience with everyone and everything, and always maintaining professionalism.
In my second year of working as an engineer at LinkedIn, I became pregnant with my first child. I had a high-risk pregnancy, and my career took a hiatus due to several months of maternity leave. When I came back, work was as fast-paced as ever, and many changes had occured—I couldn’t just pick back up right where I had left off. I returned to work when my baby turned three months old, and I had to quickly figure out my new norm of work-life balance. My hours were not as flexible as before. I could not stay at the office late to finish a project because I needed to pick up my baby from daycare. I had to structure my days around two full-time jobs, one at work and one after work. But what kept me going against all odds was patience. Through patience, I knew that I could get back on track by working hard. I stayed confident in my ability to contribute just as effectively, if differently, compared to my colleagues who had not taken a similar amount of time off work and didn’t have similar responsibilities at home. I am still determined to continue achieving my goals, in both my professional and personal lives.
My mother always said, “Opportunities await those who are ready.” Looking back, her words have rung true for me throughout my life. No matter what profession we are in, we can always do good by having faith in ourselves, never ceasing to learn, and trusting our intuition. If I had a chance to relive the past fifteen years, I think I would still make the same decisions all over again.