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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Leaving Her Comfort Zone Helped This Engineering Manager Succeed in a Male-Dominated Field

Xinhong Yuan, a senior manager of engineering at Discord
Xinhong Yuan, a senior manager of engineering at Discord.
| Courtesy of Discord

When faced with picking her college major, Xinhong Yuan was confident computer science would be a natural fit. “Growing up, my favorite subject was math, and I also loved logic games a lot,” she says. “Writing computer programs was basically sorting out the logic of it all.”

Her degree helped lay the foundation for a successful career in software engineering. Today, she’s a senior manager of engineering at the voice, video, and text app Discord. “My favorite part about being an engineer is solving real-world problems using skills and creativity and making an impact in people’s lives,” Yuan says. “It brings me a great sense of satisfaction to see something I’ve been working on take shape for real.”

Here, she shares what engineering candidates can do to stand out, how the company supports working parents, and the impact Discord has had on her son’s Boy Scouts troop during the pandemic.

What excited you about the role at Discord? How did you know the company would be a good fit?

I wasn’t a Discord user before joining the company, but I knew about it for a long time because I saw my son use it and knew how much he loved it. So when my hiring manager described the role to me, I was super excited. During the interview I learned about the great culture the company leaders have built, and many of the engineering values really resonated with me. I knew quickly that I had found what I’d been looking for.

Now, more than two years after I was hired, I’m still excited and highly motivated by the company’s mission: to create space for everyone to find belonging. I feel extremely honored to contribute to the positive impact our product has for our users.

What are you responsible for in your role?

I am the engineering leader for the Native engineering team, which is responsible for building the best-in-class voice and video technologies that empower people to hang out with friends and communities on any device from anywhere. Voice and video communications are extremely important in bringing people together no matter where they are, and we are committed to bringing great experiences to our users.

My responsibilities include making sure our team has a clear vision for where we are heading, building and growing our team so we do more faster, and coaching individuals so I can help and inspire them to grow personally and become a better version of themselves.

Why is now an especially exciting time to work at Discord, specifically for tech professionals?

Discord has been through hyper growth the past two years, and we are in the process of transitioning ourselves from an early startup stage to an early scale-up stage. It is not only exciting, but also critical for us to do it right so we will enter a whole new chapter where Discord becomes the de-facto communication hub for everyone! We need the best talent in tech with the skills, creativity, passion, and shared vision to come to work with us.

What advice do you have for engineering candidates looking to get hired at Discord?

Candidates should check out our company blogs, especially the one on engineering, to understand Discord as a company as well as some of the engineering areas we work on. To stand out from a large pool of candidates, you should definitely do research and make sure both your values and skills are aligned with ours.

Although technical skills are essential, don’t downplay the non-technical aspects. We want to hire incredible talent with diverse skill sets and perspectives, so the value alignment interviews—where we get to know candidates as humans—are just as important as passing those technical interviews.

Tell us about the startup you founded. What did you learn from developing it?

When my children were very young, we lived in China for a few years before moving to the U.S. After experiencing some reverse culture shock there, the idea came up to build an online parenting community for connecting people and sharing experiences. Social networks were on the rise, so the structure was like Reddit in the early days, but for parenting. We built blogging, friending, upvote-based posting, RSS subscriptions, etc.

While the startup is no longer active and I no longer work on it, it was a great learning experience because initially I only had a vague idea of what I wanted this community platform to be. The process of gathering data points, marketing research, creating a business plan, and engineering was completely new to me. Luckily, I had a couple of friends working with me. We learned to work through ambiguity, take calculated risks, and make decisions quickly.

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced as a woman in tech, and how did you overcome it?

For me, the biggest challenge was not just being a woman in tech, but it was also being a single mother raising two young kids without support. It’s literally two full-time jobs. Like every working woman with children, balancing work and family is my biggest challenge.

There is no ideal solution here—there are always struggles I am facing. In the end, my family is my first priority, and I feel grateful that Discord is a company that values its people as humans and understands the importance of work-life balance. During the day, I focus on being productive, but evenings are dedicated to my family and children. During that time I completely unplug from work. It’s an amazing feeling to know that I’m surrounded by supportive colleagues and an incredible company that never makes me feel guilty for taking the time I need to focus on my personal life. Discord also offers generous benefits that support working parents including flexible sick time (including mental health days), parental leave, and fertility, adoption, and surrogacy benefits.

What does it take to succeed and grow your career when you are underrepresented in an industry?

I, like many other women in tech, face unique challenges and have often had to slow down my pace at work for family purposes. However, even when faced with these obstacles, continuing to learn and stretch yourself is what’s most important for growth and success. I’ve found that I will never stop learning and growing, no matter what stage of life I am in and what kind of job I have.

Computer engineering is a rapidly evolving industry, and that motivates me to step out of my comfort zone and stretch myself to do something new. I’ve found that this is an excellent way to stand out from the crowd, even in an industry where women are historically underrepresented. For example, I recently took machine learning (ML) online courses because I’m interested in how ML changes the software industry. This was completely new to me and gave me a different perspective that I could bring to the table. In addition, I took my current job to work on technologies that I never worked on before.

What advice do you have for young women who are hoping to pursue a career in tech?

Don’t be intimidated by this still largely male-dominated industry. Women can absolutely be as successful as men. Even when you make mistakes (because everyone does), do not lose faith in yourself.

Invest in learning and building your skills. You’ll get better when you keep learning. I love what Discord’s CEO says about growth: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Talking to your company might be a great place to start since many offer diverse training, leadership programs, and plenty of opportunities to develop personally or professionally.

Finally, build a support network. Find a mentor, or people who will back you up and cheer for you.

What Discord server are you most active on? What is your favorite part of the platform?

I use Discord mostly for work. Outside of work, I’m most active on a server for my son’s Boy Scouts troop. I’ve been deeply involved since my son joined seven years ago. He’s an Eagle Scout now. When the pandemic started, our troop’s activities were severely impacted. The scouts adapted and moved to Discord for many activities to keep everyone engaged when outdoor gatherings were not allowed. I was one of the few adult leaders guiding them and overseeing the activities. The troop created monthly challenges so scouts would submit recordings of themselves doing the work. They also host virtual events on Discord. Most scouts were already on the platform, so it was a very successful transition.

My favorite part is the sense of community we have created. Most parents never knew about Discord in the beginning, and now everyone is connected with their kids on the platform. Discord not only bonded our scouts together, but it also helped to bring families together.