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Special Episode: Celebrating Technology, Asian Heritage, and Our Communities
Hosted by Brian Chan and Anna Chan, with guest Vikram Sreedhar.
May is Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month. On this episode, members of Salesforce's Asian employee resource group--Brian Chan, Anna Chan, and Vikram Sreedhar--talk about their experiences as part of the Asian community entering the world of technology. Find out what binds them together, despite their disparate backgrounds, heritages, and geographical locations. They'll share their personal stories, advice on how to get into technology, and how to give back to your communities.
Brian Chan and Vikram Sreedhar are Asian Americans and Anna Chan is British born Chinese and they are all working in various roles across Salesforce. Each of them grew up in different parts of the world and with varying interest in a career in tech. They discuss their journeys into a STEM career and ultimately how they ended up at Salesforce.
One of the consequences of the COVID-19 situation has been an increase in the amount of racism aimed at members of various Asian communities. Because of these, each of the speakers has felt an increased responsibility in helping members of their community and others around them. This takes the form of donation, volunteering, or even just educating people on why their behavior could be interpreted as being hostile. What drives them in this work is the goal of raising awareness for these problems and helping improve the diversity for future generations entering tech.
They conclude with some words of encouragement for people who want to start helping people in their community, whether they come from an Asian background or not. They also provide advice for those coming into tech on how to prepare themselves for success.
Links from this episode
Brian: Welcome to Code[ish]. My name is Brian Chan and I'm a Technical Architect at Salesforce, where I help our customers solve their problems through our developer platform and tools like Heroku. Today, I'm joined by my cohost Anna Chan.
Brian: And Vikram Sreedhar.
Brian: Anna and Vik, we all share something in common, that not only are we in technical roles at Salesforce, which I think is the minimum requirement for us to be talking on this podcast, but we're also part of the same community. We are all members of Salesforce's Asian employee resource group Asia-Pac force, and as a part of Asian Heritage Month, we'll all be centering and joining together in our conversation today around our communities, where we come from, what they mean to us, and why we give back to them. So to kick us off, Anna, could you talk to us about what it was like for you growing up in your community?
Anna: Sure. Thanks, Brian. I'm Anna Chan and I grew up in a small town in the north of the UK and I was one of the only Chinese families in the area. I'm the eldest, female, and already have my future dictated to me by my culture and my family. This was that my family owned a Chinese takeaway where we lived above the shop, helped out most weekends as well. I really wanted to go into catering to enhance my creative skills, but was massively discouraged by family not to carry on the family business, went to uni and did advertising, and there's still lots of pressures to be a female figurehead for my family, and I think in most families with Asian heritage to be a mother, to have children and to have a home and provide for your husband. Not as much pressure as my brother to carry on the family name, but I was always compared to cousins who became lawyers and doctors. So, yeah.
Brian: I did end up going to school to be a biomedical engineer. I'll be the first admit that from a schooling perspective, I probably wasn't the best student in the world, but I did graduate with an engineering degree, but ultimately, didn't end up practicing in that field. For me growing up in that culture, it was really about trying to work in a field or be in a field that my family thought would be secure or thought would provide money or help kind of ensure that we had a comfortable life. So culturally and community wise, though, for me, it was really centered a lot around family, around the people in my town that were of a similar background or similar cultural background as me. Vik, how about you?
Vikram: Yeah. I realize I grew up a bit differently from both of you. I lived in, I'd say, a medium sized city in the Bay Area and I grew up around a lot of other Asians actually. So I kind of grew up around like predominantly Hispanic, Asian population. So it always just felt more comfortable in a diverse group. Definitely did feel pressured though, from just general stereotypes about South Asians, from the media and friends to kind of succeed in my studies and go into a STEM career.
Vikram: My parents though, I guess you could say were not your typical Indian parents. In my opinion, they never really pressured me into anything nor were they strict on me for the most part. For background, my mom is a substitute teacher, and my dad is in the biotechnology industry, so they definitely wanted me to pursue higher education at least, but they didn't mind if I went into STEM or not, but I guess I did.
Brian: Yeah. So that's an interesting point Vik, I mean, although your parents didn't push you to go into a STEM career, you still ended up falling into it somehow. Or how did that happen?
Vikram: I guess it was because of those pressures for me, from just friends and stereotypes that I kind of still enjoyed the whole experience of learning math and going into STEM. When I went into school, I actually wanted to become a mechanical engineer instead and work on hardware. I really wanted to stay away from computer science and software engineering. I saw those two as different fields because I guess in the media, like South Asians can usually be portrayed as like the IT tech person. So definitely didn't want to go into computer science.
Vikram: But as you can tell from my current job title, I ended up actually falling in love with computer science. When I was taking those classes in my university, I really enjoyed the immediate impact I could make on a community through like a simple website or application. So I always felt like I could make this difference in the way that people live their lives through tech and specifically software engineering.
Brian: I probably had a similar experience to you as well. Although, I will definitely say that my parents pushed STEM and were a lot more fierce in terms of their desire for me to be in a STEM career. But I definitely did, from a personal perspective, find a lot of inspiration from a robotics program, actually, that we have. I think it's global now, but it was called FIRST Robotics, and basically, as a high schooler, you would work with local companies, local universities, and they really built an amazing community, but it was essentially you would spend, it was like up to three or four months building robots together and creating with these massive kits.
Brian: We got an opportunity to work with the Coast Guard Academy. So they had these massive, insane machine machinery that they would use. We would fabricate these robots that we would all come together with other schools, other groups, and competed with each other in these giant stadiums. It really built up this idea of not only that science and technology is freaking awesome, but that there's also a huge community behind it as well, where you had all of these people that came from diverse backgrounds, like in our group, we had people from the Asian community, we had Caucasians, we had kids from a local homeschool as well, that would normally not work together or come together, but wanting to build an awesome robot that you could then compete, and like, I think ours, we had to like shoot basketball hoops or something.
Brian: But it was really because of that really awesome community that was built around it that, I mean, this program has been ... came out of, I think, MIT, or WPI, many years ago. It was founded by Dean Kamen and his organization, but they've been around for a long time, and it's because they've built a really strong community that has continued to inspire people to go into the STEM career.
Brian: Anna, I want to turn it over to you because I think your background's really interesting because you ... You know, we're all in the tech industry now working for Salesforce, but you kind of took a little bit of a more non traditional path to moving into a more technical role. Can you kind of talk through your experience in uni and extending beyond that, how you came here to Salesforce?
Anna: Definitely. I think it's really interesting that Brian and Vik, both of you went through the engineering route and it's just really interesting how you both kind of found that passion. For my background, like you say, it wasn't traditional into technology. I think my family were very specific on what kind of career they wanted me to have. So that was either to be a doctor, a lawyer, or go into business because business is always seen as something quite stable as well. So in terms of business, I kind of got around it with advertising and brand.
Anna: I went to a business school in Manchester, in the UK, and I fell in love with the creative side. Like I say, I wanted to do catering, which had a creative outlet. I think advertising and brand for me really let me be exposed to the business side as well as that creative outlet. So in terms of that, I've been in email for eight plus years. This kicked off from the mobile era where no one had emails on their mobile. If you can cast your mind back to them. I've worked in digital agencies, really fast paced environments and loved being agile and creative, to be proud to be innovative and pushing the boundaries, and really wanted to join an industry and a company that really gave back to these innovative ideas, but also back to their local and global communities as well.
Brian: You brought us back to that idea of communities, and like what drives you to want to give back to your community Anna and also like what exactly does community mean to you?
Anna: Yeah, so it's to be able to give back to the next generation and also our current generation to really know that we can actually do what we want, even if it's not a traditional way of life as our communities have seen it, but to really loosen blockers and open doors, to make sure we have those conversations so that others can thrive like my parents and my family before me when they came to the UK. So I want to show people that you can be an Asian woman in tech and you can have a voice and be valued, that social and historical stereotypes can and will be changed and that we can be resilient in this community as well. I think we've seen that a lot, not only in Salesforce, but right now in terms of this pandemic.
Brian: Yeah. That notion and that idea and that concept of community has become so important in how we engage with each other and how we communicate, and how we just kind of feel love as well. But also, I know that there's been a huge wave of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia that unfortunately has really touched the whole world because the COVID-19 virus has originated from Wuhan China. It's unfortunately, it's shown that you're not only are we dealing with the virus, the current pandemic, but also the virus of hate and racism as well. So I mean, I guess in this time, right? Like how have you guys felt that sense of community and what are some of the things that you guys have done to really help maintain that, especially during this time?
Vikram: Yeah. It's been pretty frustrating seeing in the news, like the whole racism and xenophobia that's being put out by so many different groups of people during these really tough times for everyone. That kind of motivates me, and a lot of my friends also just want to give back to this API community because for me personally, I guess this community has given so much to me already. I understand that these hardships like facing this discrimination and racism while COVID-19 is going around is not fair at all.
Vikram: Some of the ways that I've been trying to give back is, of course, like since I'm able to, just donations to certain communities because I think like the financial need that they face right now is super challenging. But other than that, thankfully through Asia-Pac force, I've been able to create events and host events that impact the community, that kind of spotlight certain nonprofits and talk about the struggles they're facing and why their struggles are really important.
Brian: Anna I mean I'd love to hear your perspective as well. Obviously the UK is a different place, but it's also similar in a lot of other ways. What's your experience been during this current pandemic and during this time around community and around some of the other things that are happening?
Anna: Yeah, definitely. I think there are similarities, like you say, with the UK and the US, in terms of COVID-19, a lot of press around the stories that have happened, which is really disheartening and quite painful to see. I'll go back to my upbringing in the north of the UK, and there was a lot of racism when I was growing up, a lot of insults and situations that aren't great to be in. Then I grew up, moved away to the big city, and tried to basically make my way in the world and to kind of come back maybe 25 years later, this COVID-19 situation happens and I'm having friends that are upset, and colleagues that are really afraid to leave their offices or their house to go get groceries. It's really disheartening. That's why I think it is really important to give back to these communities, whatever community that is.
Anna: It's just starting. You can go and discover, reach out to others, ask questions, if you feel comfortable to ask those questions and have those conversations. It's really just getting involved, listening as well to these stories, even if it's disheartening, it's a start, in terms of a conversation happening and actions being taken, and really not to be afraid to lose face and make sure that you're challenging the situation in a really healthy way. So in terms of getting involved in local groups, networks, make sure you look at your circles of friends, colleagues, are you diverse? Maybe you need to broaden and understand other people's ways of life as well to really make sure that you're giving back to the community.
Brian: Having grown up in a really similar background as you, I get brought back to some of my childhood, the fears of getting beat up on the playground, getting called names, and being labeled as a certain type of person because you look different or you are different, even you you're not related to, or you're not even of the same ethnic background. So I think as a whole, Asians are under attack and that I think that there is an importance of why together we do need to stand united as a community.
Brian: I would say, especially, I've seen a lot of things that we can be hopeful of. I've seen a lot of really rallying behind our community, around our community. It's important not only as Asians, as people who come from that ethnic background that we stand together, but also that we have allies, that we have people who may come from a different background from us that are our friends, our families, or the people that we work with that may not identify as an Asian, that they participate and are part and that we include them as part of our community as well.
Brian: Something that I'm particularly proud of that we've done at Salesforce is we partnered with the Phenomenal Woman brand, and that campaign to produce and provide phenomenally Asian t-shirts to our employees. In particular, something that's interesting that happened as part of that conversation is that I had a number of Caucasians that came up to me and said, "I wanted to show solidarity with the Asian community, but I'm not Asian. Is it okay for me to wear this shirt?" And I have my opinions on it, but I want to hear what you have to say, Vik and Anna.
Vikram: Yeah. I think the whole Phenomenally Asian campaign is really motivating for a lot of people. I know a lot of my colleagues and friends have been like, "Hey, like, where'd you get that shirt? Like, how can I get one? How can I support the API community through this campaign as well?" And I think it's a great start because really, I remember, Anna, you mentioned this, like, don't be afraid to lose face when trying to give back to these communities. I think that's a great motif because we need to step up and just do something about it, in general. It only takes one person really to start a movement.
Vikram: I remember for me personally, when I was first going through this whole quarantine and shelter in place, I realized that I really wanted to give back to certain nonprofits. I didn't know which nonprofits to really donate to. One thing I decided to do was, "Okay, let me post on my personal Instagram story and just ask for nonprofits that people recommend and that there's a need for right now." I was surprised people actually responded to my story because I never really post anything like that and I was afraid of how people might react to this kind of different side of me posting this on my Instagram. But people did respond in a very positive way and were like, "Hey, this is a great nonprofit that you should donate to like research into it more, let me know what you think." Yeah, I got so many responses that I decided to kind of like create like a series of posts about it so that others can also gain the same information that I was able to get.
Brian: That's awesome. I mean, I think that really shows, right? Like the power of the community of ... You know, that you, as an individual, you can make an impact, right? You don't have to move mountains. You don't have to ... That story of the young boy that like goes and picks up sea stars on the beach, and you don't have to pick up every single sea star to make a difference. You just have to pick up one and make that difference in one person's life and that can have a huge impact. I think that like no movement goes from one person to an entire full blown movement overnight. But it takes groundswell. It takes people coming together as a community, identifying and seeing the pain that we, each other, that our common person is going through, and really helping and lending a hand. Anna what's been your experience?
Anna: I think our listeners are probably doing more than they actually know in terms of helping diversity and really raising awareness. Like Vik said, his story, when he posted one post, he got a lot of reaction and then that encouraged him to do that more. So that just one small thing really opened up the conversation. Going back to the t-shirt, I wore that out to go grocery shopping and someone said, "Oh, I really love your t-shirt. What is it about?" And it just really is that conversation starter that you need. So that's what I mean around just start because I think that just opens the flood gates in terms of being able to have these conversations. Some of them might be difficult, they might be hard, but I think that just makes us that much closer to getting to a solution.
Brian: For those who are allies, the people who may not come from an Asian background, how would you recommend that they have those conversations?
Anna: Just starting. Like I say, keeping yourself honest and keeping curious is what I would say. If you feel that it's going to get a bit uncomfortable, I think just caveating that it might be an uncomfortable situation but you want to have that conversation to help that community. So let them really guide you as an ally in terms of the language being used, but don't feel afraid to use certain language. Just always, I would say, caveat that with anything that you feel might be perceived as inappropriate. I would just be really honest and have that candid conversation, really.
Vikram: Yeah. I really agree with Anna. I think it's all about educating yourself first, trying to learn about the community that you went to ally for. There's so much news out there, and there's so much information in general. So really just trying to understand first from your perspective, like, "How I can be a good ally or how I can help?" Then when you start communicating with this community or interacting with them, like, make sure you're open minded. Like sometimes you might get called out for saying something that's not really correct or inappropriate, and you have to be open minded about that. You need to make sure that you're not defensive, and you understand that maybe this is something that shouldn't have been said, or you need to change the way you were behaving. That's okay. Like, we're all learning, and we're all in this together.
Brian: This is a process. Equality is not something that is going to happen overnight, and it's a continued fight. It's something that we globally are still battling with and trying to create a more inclusive, a more equal world, and just being able to live our lives without having to be fearful of someone calling me a name or going into work and not being considered for that promotion because I don't look like that person, I don't come from the same background. Those are the things that we don't want to live in a world, or we want to live in a world that we don't have to think about, and we don't have to worry about those things. I think that we all strive to do that.
Brian: But it does start with learning, it starts with making mistakes, but making a commitment to be better, to learn from one another, and most importantly, to listen as well. I mean, I definitely know from a business perspective, especially being somebody in tech, especially being someone in sales as well, that there are some cultures, there are some parts of that culture that are a little dated. Sometimes we use speech that we don't know that we're guilty of, that we say things that we don't understand or have context for why it may be offensive to somebody, but it's just a phrase that we've heard for a long time or used for a long time.
Brian: I think it's just, it's okay to call somebody out on that. It's okay to say something to someone because in most cases we don't know we're doing something wrong or someone doesn't know they're doing something wrong, but it's really about how do we open up the conversation with that person to say, "Hey, maybe don't say it that way, or this is what it means to me when you say something like that, and maybe there's a better way to potentially phrase that." So I think that these are things that it's a work in progress and it will continue to be.
Anna: Yeah, definitely. I think the art of feedback is something that some people are really good at, some people might need a bit of practice. But again, it's just starting, giving that feedback, having those conversations. Hopefully you have a community, whether that be your job, your family, your friends, where you can be your authentic self. I think we're very privileged to work for a tech company at Salesforce doing the jobs that we really love and giving back to our community.
Brian: Yeah. So I know we've all talked a lot about giving back and how to give back, but do you guys have any advice for those coming into tech and how to get into tech?
Anna: I think it's just finding that company and those values that you really want to keep honest to yourself and also something that you're really passionate about. So for me, I didn't think I would be in a tech company for four plus years. I didn't think I would be in email necessarily. I knew it was something along business and something in terms of being creative and giving back to my community. So it was really just a learning process as I went through.
Anna: But I think in terms of technology, just make sure that you're passionate about learning, making sure that you're comfortable in a fast paced environment. A lot of these tech companies are very innovative right now and moving at a very fast pace. So that's why I think agency life for me kind of set me up for being in technology and digital to make sure that I was comfortable with that pace of life and yeah, just really talking to other people, getting their opinion, and yeah, just asking loads of questions.
Brian: Yeah. I think for me it was not necessarily the desire to get into tech that led me here. I would also say that getting into tech, there's a lot of people that want to get into tech, but aren't able to or there aren't careers for them or whatever that is. Maybe they don't have the skills to do it. But I would say the destination should be whatever helps you pursue your passions and allows you to take the skills that you do have, or maybe help you develop the skills that you need, or that you want to have in the future, and identifying with those and figuring out a path for yourself that helps you to accomplish that.
Brian: For me, like I mentioned, at the beginning of the podcast, I went to school for biomedical engineering and I fell into entrepreneurship. But what I was really drawn to was about this idea of building something and being part of a community, being part of something that I felt passionate about, and helping to help others to accomplish what they wanted to, and that drive to actually help people as well, since we were a biomedical devices startup. But that really led me, or spun me into a career of continue to work for startups. Eventually I fell into solution engineering or now called technical architects or solutions architects. There's a million different titles.
Brian: But what that really allowed me to do is balance the technical aspect of my background, but also really being able to enjoy having conversations with people. That career, that position really helped lead me down the path of continuing to work for other tech startups and then eventually coming to Salesforce. I believe that I'll continue to have a great career in this kind of a role, but I would say that it was never the destination for me to move into tech. It was really about how do I continue to pursue what I am passionate about? What skills I do have? And eventually, I got there and I love where I'm at, but I'm also looking forward to where I'll be in the future as well.
Anna: Yeah, definitely. I would just add that, don't think that you need to code and know all these different languages. It's really impressive if you do, obviously, and it's great to be able to do that and understand that, but there are roles that are nontechnical within tech companies that you're able to discover as well. So, like I say, just reach out about that. How about you, Vik?
Vikram: Yeah, I got into tech because I just really enjoyed it overall. I loved coding, fell in love with that, and I felt like I could really make an impact easily with it. But for those who maybe don't know really where to start, for me personally, I would just suggest like, just going through online learnings, like online classes. YouTube is a huge help, even for me now, while I'm in the industry, kind of teaching me and refreshing my mind on how things work. That's always a great start. Then from there on just talking to people who are in the industry and seeing like how they are keeping up with their skills or what kind of technologies they're using and just kind of learning that and seeing like where you can get your foot in the door.
A podcast brought to you by the developer advocate team at Heroku, exploring code, technology, tools, tips, and the life of the developer.
Principal Technical Architect, Salesforce
Brian likes walks on the beach when he's not creating great events for Salesforce's Asiapacforce or in front of customers as a Technical Architect.
Senior Campaign Manager, Salesforce
Anna works in Marketing Cloud Services, Customer Success Group at Salesforce. She leads global communications and leads the UK hub for Asiapacforce.
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