At MERORA, we believe that you are as strong as your community is. We’re proud to be launching a new interview series featuring badass women in tech, to discuss their triumphs and what they’ve learned from more challenging moments as they navigate through their career. We hope to inspire more young minds to consider entering the STEM field as their career choice, by sharing stories of brilliant women who have paved their own path.
Settle in for our inaugural interview featuring an invigorating conversation with the one and only, Whitney Mak, where we discuss everything from how she first got into Engineering, to debunking common misperceptions, changes she hopes to see in the industry, and more.
Within five minutes of meeting Whitney, you already know you’re in for a treat. She stands out in the room with her purple unicorn hair, unique sense of style, sparkly DIY nails and a certain je ne sais quoi attitude. We catch up over a delicious lunch at a rooftop restaurant in Toronto on a snowy winter day while she snaps gorgeous photos to post to her foodie IG at @dreamzangel.eatz. In addition to climbing the ladder to becoming one of the few female Engineering Managers at Zynga, leading developer of the world’s most popular social games (Words with Friends, Farmville), she is also part of a hip hop dance troupe that performs throughout the city.
Q: What’s your current role and position?
A: I’m an Engineering Manager on the Words with Friends team at the Zynga Toronto office, where I lead a team of six engineers with a number of direct reports. I manage the team’s workload and work closely with other disciplines and Engineering leads to establish strategy and tech structures to ensure there’s minimal overlap across the entire team of 35 - 40 engineers.
Q: How did you get into Engineering?
A: At a really young age, I was introduced to computers by my dad who studied Computer Science at the University of Waterloo and worked at IBM his whole life. He’d bring home the latest tech gadgets and would show me how things would work. I remember when I was in elementary school, I was fascinated by websites (the newest thing at the time) and everything changed when my dad showed me how to view the source code that runs all the visuals on this screen in front of me. It became my playground.
In high school, I fast tracked and took courses in both computer science and computer engineering and was inspired by a great Tech teacher who kept me going. That was probably the first time I noticed the difference in the gender ratio in my classes; I was always one of the very few female students.
In Grade 11 and 12, I led the Robotics team at my high school and that helped to solidify my interest in programming and creating things with technical systems. I followed in the footsteps of my father and applied for Computer Engineering at University of Waterloo. By the time I graduated, Zynga was booming and everyone was talking about it in my field. Luckily they had just acquired a studio in Toronto to which I applied, and I became the first hire of Zynga Toronto.
Q: What have been some of the challenges that you faced in a male-dominated industry and how did you overcome them?
A: I’ve been really lucky to have supportive male mentors and managers that have helped me grow. While it’s true there hasn’t really been many female leaders I had to look up to at the time, I was constantly looking for inspirational people (male or female) who would listen and support me; and I was able to find that within Zynga through all the great teams I’ve worked on.
I remember early on in my career, I was working with a lead Engineer in a remote studio team that was constantly asking me to explain my work but would not ask others. This one time, I wrote five lines of code and he asked me to add comments explaining how my piece of code works, which to be honest was some really straightforward logic. My rebellious side kicked in and I wrote a paragraph of explanation in so much detail, where I broke down every single line of code and reasoning used behind it, so that the comment became a proof of my technical abilities. I think he realized I actually knew how to code after that. So there were little things like that, but luckily all my teammates since then have been very supportive.
Another challenge I had was that I had always doubted myself. Growing up as an Asian kid, my mom didn’t believe that I’d be able to get into university, even though I had a 90%+ average. So I always thought I wouldn’t be able to succeed. Working with people who believe in me has helped me rewrite that narrative.
One thing I want to share with aspiring or existing female engineers is yes, you are doing a good job.I want to build that up for the younger generation. Statistically it always looks like men are more successful but it’s not necessarily true. I also want to reassure aspiring female engineers withdon’t worry, it’s not a boy’s club. You don’t have to drink beer and play video games to be a part of the community. You can still love fashion, paint your nails and write some kickass code.
Q: What is one of the biggest myths/misconceptions you want to debunk?
A: One of them is that you have to be really smart, or really logical to be an engineer. I believe anyone can code; it’s like learning another language. If you’re multilingual, you can relate; you’re speaking the language of technology.
People think it’s boring but I don’t think it’s true. There is so much creativity happening with engineering and technology that’s very visual, for example, anything that you see on your phone. Someone had to put that together. You’re making inanimate objects more animated through engineering so people can interact with it.
Q: What are the qualities that make a solid engineer?
Curiosity - to know how things work and how things are built
Persistence - rarely things will work the first time. In engineering, when you’re building things for the first time, things will fail a lot. You need it to fail a lot of times before you’ll get to the final answer.
Creativity/Innovation - when you’re in engineering, you’re always building something new. It’s creativity in a different form, like an inventor’s mindset.
Q: There are not that many women to look up to as role models. What do you think needs to change?
A: We need to band together to create a female community to find female mentors. Most importantly, the men in the community also need to be vocal and show their support as well as being an ally to generate more awareness with this issue. The more that it’s discussed will make it more normalized.Gender has no place in the workplace.
Parents are also an important factor in making a child realize what is possible or not. I’m starting to see change with the new age of parenting, where job aspirations, skills and hobbies are no longer being separated and judged by gender roles at a young age; however there is still a long way to go with engineering.
Q: Tell me about your world outside of engineering! What are your hobbies?
A: Dance has been a big thing for me. I use my logical brain at work and when that’s done for the day, I like to tap into my creative outlet and that comes through in dance.
Food blogging is something that I also enjoy. A positive note about engineering is that it pays well when you come out of school straight out of graduation, so I was a lucky one that used my earnings towards really good food, which has now grown into a bigger community that I want to share my foodie experiences with.
I’m big on video games. I used to have more time to play but that’s a field that I’m still really passionate about. It’s awesome to see more women into gaming with it becoming more mainstream and trendy, rather than the nerdy and uncool stereotypes that used to surround it.
While I was part of the Robotics team in high school, I was doing a lot of work planning events for teams of students which required a lot of multitasking. For me, pieces come together quickly for event planning, which is like putting together the logical component with a creative wrapper around it. I don’t do it professionally but I’ve run a lot of large events for up to 40 people and also volunteer for event planning and senior home galas.
Q: What are some of your goals?
I’m striving to be a leader in the field and being a voice and inspiring anyone in the younger generation to lessen the gender gap. I’d love to build a community for this in Toronto to inspire the younger female audience in STEM education. I want to help students find mentors while they’re in school and share a perspective on what it’s like. I want to help break down stereotypes; just because you’re an engineer, it does not mean you have to be a know-it-all, or that you don’t enjoy socializing or have no style at all. Everything and anything can be engineering.
Q: Who inspires you?
Debbie Sterling, the creator of Goldie Blox, toys meant for empowering females to develop an interest in engineering and technology andLinda Liukas - a programmer and author of childrens’ books that teaches kids the concepts of coding and how computers work, via the character of a young girl named Ruby.__________
We’re thrilled to be a part of Zynga’s Women’s Maker Faire today celebrating International Women’s Day on Friday, March 8th! If you’re a Zynga employee, swing by our booth to check out our latest merch, tell us YOUR story, and have an opportunity to win some MERORA gear for yourself!
Feedback? Questions? Know someone who has an amazing story that we should interview and feature next?Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts and ideas. We’d love to hear from you!