Do you know how terrorist attacks are stopped?
Military intervention is certainly one way, but Jen Hicks prefers another.
"I really, really believe that the key to preventing terrorist attacks is by cutting off their finances," explains Jen, a senior cybercrime investigator at cryptocurrency compliance and investigation firm Chainalysis.
Growing up in a military family and serving in the Navy herself, Jen has lost friends to war and considers it her life's work to help develop a more humane way of stopping attacks and stemming the growing wave of cybercrime. "I like to think that at least in my small corner, it's making a difference," she says. "That if we're able to stop things from happening without violence, then that's all the better."
We sat down with the veteran, blockchain expert, and steampunk enthusiast to unpack her role at Chainalysis, her personal interest in investigating and stopping crime, and why it's so vital that women continue to join and lead the rapidly growing fields of cybercrime and cryptocurrency.
Falling in love with financial intelligence
Jen was born in Okinawa, Japan to an Okinawan mom and Black American dad and raised between Okinawa Island and Miyako Island. Following in her dad's footsteps and joining the military wasn't her original plan.
"As a high-achieving military brat, doing ROTC and becoming an army officer felt like something I was expected to do," she explains. "But I never took a moment to do any self reflection."
When she did, around age 18, Jen realized she had political reservations about the U.S.'s involvement in the Middle East and decided against enlisting in ROTC. That was an early example of Jen breaking out from other people's expectations for her and building her own path, but it wouldn't be the last.
When she did go into the military a couple of years later, it was because she realized she couldn't afford college and didn't want her parents to go into significant debt to help her pay for it. Inspired by her Marine father, she decided to pursue a more cerebral position and became a linguist, studying Mandarin at the Defense Language Institute.
After working for a few years as a hybrid translator/cyber analyst, looking at sensitive data and combing it for intel, Jen wanted to stay in the Navy and work as an instructor, but didn't get those orders.
She decided to leave the military and look for a civilian job. Not everyone agreed with her decision, but Jen was sure of it. "I knew I'd figure it out on my own. I said, 'I know what I don't want to do, and it's this,'" she remembers.
After being recruited by Booz Allen Hamilton and working as a critical infrastructure analyst, Jen became a threat finance analyst at Leidos, where she got to combine her long-standing loves of cryptocurrency and intelligence.
"I fell in love with it," says Jen. "I saw how financial intelligence is crucial to national security—money laundering, trafficking, terrorist financing, all of that. I thought those were fascinating. So I soaked everything up like a sponge."
Jen had been following cryptocurrency as a hobby ever since she read Satoshi Nakamoto's Bitcoin whitepaper when it was published shortly after Jen graduated from high school. "I can't say that I understood every single thing at the time, but from then on, I was hooked on this idea of peer-to-peer digital currency that was, like, very cyber punkish," she says. She kept her early interest to herself because "it was such an obscure, nerdy topic," she says. But once she realized that she could work in a security capacity, investigating the dark side of cryptocurrency, from the darknet to hacks and scams and more, Jen decided to lean into her interests.
"I made it my life's mission to map how terrorists and violent extremist organizations were using cryptocurrency around the world," she says. But that mission wasn't a business priority for the company where she worked at the time, so Jen started looking for a company where it would be.
That's how she found Chainalysis.
A colleague of hers suggested she apply to the blockchain investigation firm, but Jen wasn't sure she qualified. "I had such a high opinion of them, like 'Oh my god, they're all super smart, they probably talk in Bitcoin addresses,'" she says. "But as it turns out, they really wanted me on board, so I was hired and now I get to indulge in my 19-year-old fantasies of exploring illicit activity as a job."
Jen splits her time doing investigations tied to business priorities—from looking into exchanges targeted by malicious cyber actors to investigating how someone could avoid compliance regulations and launder cryptocurrency to identifying who's phished millions out of people's accounts—and doing the work she considers her "moral responsibility."
That second set of projects includes looking into things like child sexual abuse and terrorist financing. "The spectrum is vast, and it's super, super exciting. In between these cases, I have the freedom to pursue the research that I've been wanting to for the past couple of years now," says Jen. "It's really gratifying."
Some of those leads come from her team's research; others come from law enforcement. Her team has relationships with different agencies, from local to federal. "We provide them with data to track people down and make arrests," explains Jen.
Other leads come from individuals in the community who find people like Jen via LinkedIn or Chainalysis's contact form and ask for help. "People will come and say, 'I was scammed out of thousands of dollars,'" says Jen. "It's almost always part of a larger phishing campaign. So we take that, ingest it into our database, and absorb that information into our research to see if we can find where the money went."
It's that open-ended puzzle-solving that Jen loves so much about her job.
"It's the ultimate puzzle to be solved every time you're given one of these cases," says Jen. They'll start with an address and an initial transaction and will follow transitions in and out of different cryptocurrencies, building a graph of transactions and understanding of what is happening.
Jen has two goals for her work: first, to make cryptocurrency more accessible and safer, and second, to help educate people on how it works to empower them to participate in crypto.
Now is the time to get involved
Financial crimes are here to stay, says Jen, even for people who aren't in traditional finance.
"Let's say you're a social worker or a mental health counselor or provider of some sort, right. And you have an elderly patient who just happens to mention that they've struck up a long-distance friendship online. You're going to have to know what the red flags are for possible scam attempts," says Jen.
And cybercrimes often exploit social vulnerabilities, not just technical ones. Look at the 2016 election, says Jen: "They're able to exploit deep fissures that we've always had here and do some considerable damage." On a smaller scale, criminals are sending phishing emails that look like crowdfunding campaigns which people are less likely to look closely at in their rush to help. "It's a new flavor of social engineering that malicious actors are latching onto," says Jen.
With cybercrime already impacting so many aspects of our lives and soon to impact more—"targeting IOT devices, medical technologies, self-driving cars, NFTs"—it's a prime time to shift into the field, and Jen believes that there's no one 'right' way to make that pivot. You don't have to come from traditional IT or finance backgrounds to make an impact in this space, and if you come from an underrepresented background, that's especially true.
"It's easy to build up that psychological barrier of entry to the crypto community when you see that these huge online communities might be filled with trolls saying derogatory things that are either racist or sexist, or that conversations surrounding cryptocurrencies are being dominated by certain personalities on Twitter, or there are men around you who try to confidently tell you the most contradictory things about investing in crypto. To me, all of that is just noise and you have to block it out," says Jen.
"What I want women who are interested in this stuff to do is just be hands-on with the technology itself," says Jen, who suggests starting by creating a private wallet, understanding how privacy coins work, and learning about centralized versus decentralized systems.
If you're a woman interested in the field, reach out to others! Jen is happy to talk to anyone interested, she says. "People in the field are way, way too happy to talk to you for hours about how it works or how they got there," she says. "Chainalysis is doing a fantastic job of hiring women as investigators, and our director is a woman, and it's really cool seeing the empowerment there and knowing that we're considered the best of the best. But we always want more! So feel free to reach out."
A company that is built around offering modern collaboration software needs to believe in the power of bringing people together.
Luckily, that's just what Quip is all about.
Their annual three-day hackathon Quiprupt is an example of what collaboration looks like not just as a product offering but also as a core tenet of company culture. We asked participants from Quiprupt 2021 to tell us about their experience coming together to ship cool stuff—and how Quip's culture sets them up to be able to find meaningful work while building better products.
Tips for planning committees on setting up the event to succeed
1, Build in intermixing from the start.
When Technical Program Manager Michael Lee volunteered to organize the hackathon, he knew he wanted to ensure that teams were of mixed compositions, with different people from around the company and not just staffed by people in the Engineering, Product, and Design (EPD) group.
"The hackathon really pushes for teams to work with other members outside of EPD," says Michael. "Everyone is welcome to work on projects they're interested in, so they get a chance to work with those they normally don't get to work with."
Event MC Meghna Purkayastha, a Growth Business Account Executive, was drawn to participate specifically because of the opportunity to connect her side of the business—sales—to the engineering teams. "Our business units have so many different ways in which we interact with our customers," she says. "Often EPD doesn't have insights into what customers are asking for or their common challenges, so it's so great to close the gap!"
2. Encourage creative ideas.
Project ideas for Quiprupt bubble up from people on the ground, explains Michael, and that's what lets people have ownership over their projects. "People are free to join and work on projects they're interested in. We hold pitch sessions and additional sessions to help teams recruit new members and answer questions about their project ideas," he says.
3. Brand it well!
Designer Kyle Tezak stepped outside of his normal day-to-day responsibilities to create an engaging theme and brand for Quiprupt 2021, and even though he was on the planning side and not on a hackathon team, he still got to plug into the collaborative spirit.
"The best part about collaborating on these projects is letting go and trusting your team," he says. "I think it's easy for designers to get possessive with projects and this is a fun, low-stakes way to experiment and pass things back and forth."
And beyond having fun, he also built something beautiful. "The work we've created gets people excited to participate," says Kyle.
His team landed on a "mid-century, retro science, research, and development theme"—not unlike the Dharma Initiative from Lost, added Michael—and produced graphic, web, and video content, including a fun promotional video for the hackathon.
Tips for engineering leaders on participating fully
4. Define project roles quickly.
When Quip Senior PM Melissa Chan was setting up her team for the hackathon, she was careful to pull from different parts of the business, in line with Michael's vision. "It's really important to get the perspective of our Sales and Go to Market (GTM) team," says Melissa, who worked with those members to "understand what customers were looking for but was currently missing in our product." She also pulled in Kevin Zhang, a friend from engineering, to serve as her tech lead, which "centralized a lot of technical decisions."
Once she had a team, Melissa quickly got them in sync on a project scope and responsibilities.
5. Construct your narrative around the customer.
Melissa's team ended up winning the Grand Prize at Quiprupt, and she credits their success to the "end-to-end" story they shared. "I knew who our customer was, what they wanted to do, and what features would help them achieve the goal," she says. "By having that narrative throughout the week, we could figure out how to descope parts of the project that were taking longer or make sure that we spent more time in areas that were critical."
"I think it's always important to keep the customer in mind and to be able to reflect on where we've fallen short of their expectations," she added.
6. Embrace remote collaboration.
Niccolò Zapponi, Senior Manager, Salesforce Anywhere Labs, who was a member of Melissa's winning team, says that they were able to work together so well because "everyone had their own remit."
"We had daily stand ups to discuss progress and priorities," he added, "and then got on with our work. Running something like a hackathon entirely remotely is definitely not easy, but we made it work and managed to keep everyone engaged throughout the week."
Tips for everyone on embracing collaboration
7. Recognize your unique strengths.
When Niccolò signed up for the team, he knew he wasn't going to be bringing in deep technical expertise. "I'm glad I could rely on the rest of the team [for that]," he says. He did know, though, that he could provide something super valuable: the customer perspective.
"My ability to understand customer needs and translate them into technology solutions is really where I shine and what I brought to the table for Quiprupt," says Niccolò.
Meghna agrees. "It truly takes a team! Each person regardless of role has a vision and idea that can help benefit a customer. All members are necessary."
8. You'll learn faster than you think.
Kyle was surprised by how quickly he was able to pick up new video editing skills as part of his branding work on the hackathon, and it's a lesson he thinks applies in general. "Learning a new skill often takes a lot less time than you'd expect. You're not going to become an expert overnight, but you can probably learn enough to accomplish a focused goal in a relatively short amount of time," he says.
9. Sign up to do more of it!
This year, Melissa participated in four different projects (!) during Quiprupt, and she plans on doing the same thing next year. "I think working across teams, solving new problems, and pitching it across the company make hackathons really fun," she says. "I think there's so many talented people with great ideas here at Quip."
While she'll go into next year confident, the capability of her coworkers is keeping her humble: "It's hard to say if we can defend the crown!"
Insight from YouGov's Victoria Ganusceac
Victoria Ganusceac knew she wanted to be a product manager, but the HR manager at the company where she was working at the time wasn't on board.
Not immediately, anyways.
"I pestered them for three months," says Victoria. "I spoke to every single product manager [in the company] and found out what kind of people they were looking for and what it took to be a good product manager." Insights from those conversations included understanding common PM frameworks and the importance of empathetic communication.
And eventually, Victoria's perseverance paid off. Her first few roles in product management set her up well for her current role as Senior Product Manager of SaaS Products at research, data, and analytics company YouGov. In non-pandemic times, Victoria works out of YouGov's London headquarters.
Her role is complicated enough that her family isn't exactly sure what she does—"Explaining it to my grandma is pretty hard, because I do so many different things!" jokes Victoria—but we sat down with Victoria and had her explain how she found her current role, what her responsibilities entail, and how she successfully manages cross-functional projects.
Learning how to move quickly
Victoria started her career in marketing, but quickly realized she wanted to be more tech-focused. Right after finishing her undergraduate degree, she got into an enterprise hub to work on a fashion app, where she did business development, then moved over to Camelot, which runs the national UK lottery, for a role in strategy.
"It was great to come up with ideas in strategy, but I really wanted to get something into users' hands," says Victoria. When her three-month campaign landed her a PM role, she leaned into the world of product management at Camelot before moving over to an influencer marketing startup where she could be even more hands-on. "I knew I had to go somewhere a bit smaller so I could really ramp up the learning curve," she explains.
When that startup failed, it hit her hard. "I took it personally for quite a while," says Victoria. But that experience helped her recognize what she was looking for in her next role: a PM job in a fast-paced environment that encouraged innovation and had the resources to support it.
"YouGov attracted me because they were a 'scale-up,' and they still are. Even though they're public. The role I interviewed for was creating a product from scratch, setting up a team from scratch, but within the safety of a funded company: the best of both worlds," she says.
Since coming over to the data analysis firm, Victoria has led several products and features through ideation, prototyping, creation, and deployment. Her first product was Audience Explorer,helping marketers understand their audiences in more detail. A recent favorite was a feature with a goal to increase conversion rates for YouGov's freemium product.
"It was a really great collaboration," says Victoria. "We worked together with marketing, the design side, the product side, and engineering to really quickly embed our data within the business website, and as a result, we increased lead generation by 300% in just a few months."
The 9 principles of PMing
Victoria's favorite part of her job is how much she learns by constantly collaborating with peers across the business. "It can feel like there's a lot going on because there's so many moving parts, but when you really start to understand how it works, there's a lot of opportunity to have impact," she says. "And YouGov really gives you opportunities to grow and get exposed to lots of different things."
To make the most of those opportunities, Victoria has a set of hard-learned lessons and best practices for successfully managing products with a diverse range of stakeholders that she applies time and time again, and that we're excited to share here.
1. Bring people together as early as possible.
Silos impede collaboration, says Victoria, so a process that is a series of direct handoffs—product requirements handed to the design team, designs handed to the development team—means "[the team] never gets a chance to really discuss it and make sure that they're solving the right problem."
Instead, she makes sure to involve her stakeholders, including engineering and design, but also sales, marketing, and client service teams to get their input on a new problem or solution as early as possible.
2. Define the problem.
"Make sure you're solving the right one," she says.
For YouGov, explains Victoria, the product vision comes from the business's five-year objectives. "We want to make sure we're aligned with the whole company," she says. "We have to ask how we achieve those big, overarching goals while also making sure that what we build is what our customers want."
3. Make room for creative ideas.
"How can we get the best ideas and get the best out of people?" That's the question Victoria asks herself before she takes on any new initiative. A good first step is asking for insight from people who are customer-facing and thus have more exposure to how customers are using the product.
And a vital approach is being curious and humble about what the best idea really is. "We all come with our own ideas and we're really keen on them, but spending a lot of time actively listening helps tremendously," she says. "Don't come with an agenda to get your idea done."
4. Don't be afraid to challenge authority.
If something doesn't make sense to Victoria, she doesn't demure and defer—she asks about it.
"If you're at the beginning of your career or lack confidence, there's a way of challenging authority without being too abrupt," she says. "The best way I've found to challenge an idea is to ask questions." Unpacking assumptions and ideas either gets everyone on the same page or leads to a better final idea, she says.
5. Use meetings sparingly.
50%. That's how much of her time Victoria spends in meetings. That's reasonable for a senior product manager, she notes, but that wouldn't be reasonable for other roles, which is why her team has recently started restructuring the meetings they run.
"We're having a think about different types of communications and flows. If there's an information meeting, can we just record it and send it out? We did a dev summit recently and it was pre-recorded with live Q&A, and that worked," she says.
6. Embrace deep work.
Victoria takes meetings on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, but her Thursdays and Fridays are bare beyond a quick stand-up. That's because she saves that time for uninterrupted problem solving and creative work.
"I try to get at least a day and a half where I have solid blocks of three, four hours to really get my head down and get things done," she says.
7. Keep learning.
There are plenty of product management frameworks, tools, and software out there, says Victoria, so don't be afraid to keep looking up new ones to try. She's a particular fan of Miro, an online collaboration tool, and the ICE—impact, confidence, ease for prioritization—framework, along with standard product tools for prototyping and remote user testing like Marvel.
8. Learn how to say no.
"Cross-functionality is the heart of everything, which means we get so many different ideas. And we have to translate them into decisions, into what goes in and what doesn't. There's a lot of expectations, deadlines, and challenges. You have to be comfortable with saying no," she says.
9. "Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do it."
Victoria's final piece of advice for product managers? If you want to get into or stay in the field, don't give up.
"Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do it because at the end of the day, the landscape has changed in what an engineer looks like, or maybe acts like, or what a product manager looks or acts like; it's very different now," says Victoria. That means there's room for plenty of interpretation of what a great PM really is—though Victoria's example is certainly a great one to start with.
If you've been paying attention to the news recently, you likely have noticed a sharp rise in Anti-Asian racism. Members of the Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities have been vocal in bringing awareness to the heightened racial discrimination they have faced since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, which, in some cases, have had tragic consequences.
If you are not a member of the Asian-American community, you might feel powerless– as if you have no say in the matter. It's easy to believe that your actions aren't effective and cannot lend support to your colleagues and friends from the Asian-American community. But that is not the case– in reality, there are a number of actions you can take against Asian hate that can have real impact, in both your professional and personal life.
Acknowledge the problem
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, you should recognize that anti-Asian discrimination is a real problem, and that its effects are on par with some of the more visible forms of racism in America. There is a long history of anti-Asian discrimination in the US, dating back more than a century, and this has recently been heightened by the irresponsible comments of some politicians.
Nevertheless, many people are still in denial. Some commentators– even in the mainstream media– continue to perpetrate the Model Minority Myth, which points to the fact that Asian-Americans are wealthier than other minorities, and use it as evidence that they do not experience racism. Further, when businesses focus on diversifying their customer base, they often make the same kind of assumption– that in order to appeal to Asian-Americans, they must target a number of dated and dangerous stereotypes. Perhaps the biggest stereotype that Asian-Americans must contend with is the idea that they are inherently foreign and not American.
The reality is that anti-Asian discrimination is very real. Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition documenting and addressing anti-Asian discrimination during the pandemic, has recently released sobering reports on discrimination and hate in the community. The organization said it received 3,795 self reports of anti-Asian hate incidents between March 2020 and March 2021. Women are more likely to be targeted and accounted for 68% of the reports, versus 29% for men.
Recognizing and combating anti-Asian racism is a key part of spreading and practicing anti-racism.
Check in and offer support
One of the simplest, and yet most effective, ways of combating anti-Asian discrimination is checking in with colleagues and friends who might be experiencing it. Showing that you are aware of what is happening in the news and showing your support for anti-racism campaigns can help your Asian-American colleagues feel supported and empowered.
This does not mean, however, that you should identify all of the Asian-Americans in your workplace and send them an email about the latest instance of anti-Asian discrimination. Similarly, asking colleagues open-ended questions such as "how are you feeling?" or "is there anything I can do for you?" can create more stress, because the person you are asking can feel unwarranted pressure to respond.
Instead, take a look at some of the materials on how to promote inclusion in the workplace. Most guides to creating a truly open and inclusive workplace stress that it's important that staff– of all ethnic and racial backgrounds and groups– be regularly educated about the impact of discrimination in the workplace around all minorities, Asian-Americans included. Often, the best thing you can do is to spend some time reading about the subject or enroll in a course that will help you understand these complex issues.
If you are a manager, you can take this one step further, and make sure that all of your employees are aware of these issues surrounding racism and discrimination.
If you are ready to take more direct action, a good place to start is your workplace. Stop AAPI Hate, in the aforementioned report, found that, in the last year, workplaces have been the primary sites of discrimination, accounting for 35.4% of logged hate incidents; 25.3% of reported incidents took place in public streets, followed by 9.8% that occurred in public parks.
First and foremost, this highlights the importance of reporting any anti-Asian incidents through the channels available to you, and making sure they are followed up by your employer. In order to do this, it can be helpful to review the literature on the differences between "incidents of bias" and "hate crimes". Knowing the nomenclature, and how to express yourself clearly, can make all the difference when it comes to reporting racially fueled incidents.
Depending on the industry you work in, it might also be possible to look at some systemic issues. Most industries exhibit some form of bias when it comes to hiring practices, and some are particularly reticent when hiring Asian-Americans. Even where this group is over-represented, in the Fintech industry for example, diversity issues remain, such as the fact that Fintech lags behind in female representation, and this disproportionately affects Asian-American women.
If you are in a position where you are hiring staff, it is therefore possible to shepherd your industry in the right direction by putting monitoring and direct action tools in place to improve the racial and gender mix in your own organization.
Donate to the cause
Another great way to help Asian-American communities is to donate to organizations that directly support them. This is a fast and simple way to make a real difference, and there are many ways to do it– this list from New York magazine shares more than sixty ways to donate in support of Asian communities.
Many of these groups are focused on advocacy for Asian-Americans, and will help those directly impacted by discrimination. In recent years, given the trends in the types of discrimination the community faces, there has also been a focus on supporting women within the Asian-American community. If you feel the same, organizations such as the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum can be a good place to get information on further ways you can help.
It's not necessary to make a charitable donation to support the community– supporting business run or owned by Asian-Americans can also make a huge difference. Multiple research studies have shown that, nationwide, Chinatown businesses have been hit disproportionately hard during the pandemic– between decreased foot traffic and rising xenophobia, they are greatly suffering. So the next time you go grocery shopping, consider passing through your local Asian supermarket.
Look to the future
Ultimately, building racial justice in America is not going to happen overnight. Instead, it will require sustained work by many communities and individuals. The first step is to recognize the problem and to seek more information about it.
That's why civil rights activist and Rise founder Amanda Nguyen has argued that greater education about the experiences of Asians in America is crucial to bridging the gaps to end anti-Asian racism.
Nguyen has said that, often the most effective step in combating racism is to start from home. "Turn on your computer and find out more information about the AAPI community and listen to the grassroots organizers on the ground," she says, and you'll be taking this important first step.