At PowerToFly we’re interviewing women who can tell us, first-hand, what it’s like to work at organizations focused on hiring for more diversity. Even if an organization hasn’t reached its goals, we’re eager to learn what they’re trying to do to get there. That’s why we sat down with Erica Greene, the community development team manager at The New York Times.
Erica told us how she became a backend developer, what the women in tech task force at The New York Times is doing to attract more female engineers, and why she feels working with more women will be better for the media company.
1. What do you do for The New York Times? What stack do you code in?
I’m a backend developer although I can do fullstack. I’m more passionate about data and architectural issues. I’ve been at The New York Times for three years and just took on a new role as manager of the community development team. We manage the comment stack. Currently all of the comments are moderated by hand and we are looking into a way that we could possibly automate this process.
2. Tell us about the new comment moderation platform The New York Times just announced.
We’re collaborating with the Google Jigsaw group to experiment with using machine learning to scale comment moderation on our site. We made an announcement about that project yesterday and Bassey, the head of our comment moderation team, wrote a little quiz to give readers an idea of how hard the moderation problem is. Many of our readers are not aware of how much work we put in to keep conversation on our site substantive and civil. We’re hoping the quiz raises awareness about how hard the comment moderation problem can be and how committed we are to solving it well. Deploying and scaling that system is the bulk of what we’re working on for the rest of the year. We’re going to be rolling the new moderation platform out one desk at a time. We need to gather confidence in the predictive models before we turn on automatic moderation.
3. What is it like working as a woman engineer in The New York Times newsroom?
At The New York Times, tech is a piece of the puzzle. There is a culture beyond tech. The Times is an old storied company with amazing traditions and folklore and structures. As an engineer here you get to work with people with lots of different backgrounds. It’s not a brogramming culture — there are no pics of “Star Trek” on the wall, conference rooms are not named after robots. The culture beyond tech is actually a positive. Our games team does things like crossword puzzles. You get to be a part of the Pulitzer ceremony where the entire company comes down to congratulate the winners. The positive thing for women engineers is that you can have broad interests beyond tech on the development teams and that can be a really good thing.
4. What are the most exciting and/or rewarding parts of being a developer at The New York Times?
At The New York Times every day you are able to work with people who are at the top of their craft — journalists, producers, designers etc. As a developer you share experiences and learn from them. I know that The New York Times newsroom deserves the best tools and as a developer I find it very fulfilling to be able to create the tools for such an amazing brand.
5. Where did you start your career as a developer?
I started to learn to program in 9th grade. My high school offered 2.5 years of computer science classes. My mom actually recommended that I study computer science. My mother was a chemical engineer and then switched to research. When her three kids were little she was working at Bell Labs and she was able to move to research. She switched from being a chemical engineer because working in computer science was a better lifestyle fit for her family so she learned how to program in her adult life. My mom found coding so interesting because there was so much problem solving. I thought computer science would be useful to know and so I took the classes in high school. I thought I would eventually go into something else. I became a math major in college. I went into a PhD program after college and studied natural language processing for 2.5 years. I loved the material but I was not interested in the full PhD program. I left that program and took a job at Etsy in data engineering. After Etsy, I moved on to my role at The Times.
6. You are working on “digital diversity” initiatives for the Times. Can you tell us more about that?
I am a member of the women in tech task force that was created to encourage gender diversity at The Times. We have created a mentorship program where you have one on one mentor to mentee pairs. It’s been wonderful and we have gotten very good feedback. We have been doing more trips to women’s colleges to talk about The New York Times. We are also working on a code of conduct and I am helping to draft it.
7. How important do you think having a diverse (male/female mix) is for a development team? If very important, why?
Having diverse teams gives you better products. We have a diverse audience so our team should reflect that. Diverse teams make you better and more profitable. Besides that it is the right thing to do. Women need great opportunities in tech!
Selfishly I enjoy working with women. One of the frustrations of being a women developer is that it’s hard to meet more women in tech. It’s hard to meet women friends at work unless we bring in more women engineers.
And once we bring in women engineers we need to work hard to retain them. I feel that the geek culture stereotype for engineering is very toxic and puts women off from Computer Science. It’s not like that at The New York Times. We have a very interesting place to work. Pop culture shows like the Big Bang Theory and movies like Silicon Valley promote this geek culture and that is not attractive to women. You can have a very different experience as a woman developer at The New York Times. It’s a wonderful place for women in tech.