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In Conversation with Sandra Liu Huang

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To call Quora the chimera of Google and Facebook is not unapt  the question-and-answer startup has the boundlessness of Google (given that there is no limit to what questions one can ask), and the sociability of Facebook (users collaborate and suggest edits to others’ answers). In many ways, the idea itself is nothing new. When Quora first got off the ground in 2010, there were plenty of such sites on the Internet. Yet, as its founders saw, “no one had come along to build something that was really good yet.” What differentiated Quora was not so much the idea, but the product itself.

The lady behind some of the most important nuts and bolts that make Quora tick is Sandra Liu Huang, its director of product management. A Stanford alumna (class of 2002), Sandra’s foray into the tech scene had been more accidental than intentional. She came into Stanford with an inclination towards disciplines in the humanities, but that was to change when she stumbled upon CS 106A when a high school friend demanded she take him to that class. Several more computer science classes later, she found her own sweet spot in the program of Science, Technology and Society.

Into the Valley

Still, it did not become clear that she was going to end up working in Silicon Valley until she took Tom Krosnick’s popular class on Global Entrepreneurship Management. “That class got me asking several questions: What do I value? What am I good at doing? What will people pay for?” Several internships later, she decided that the high-velocity, action-oriented culture of Silicon Valley was the right fit for her. It also gave her the opportunity to engage intellectually with one of the problems at the core of STS challenges: how innovations affect the way we live, act and adapt.

In 2002, she walked straight into the dot com bust as a fresh graduate, eager to be at a high velocity workplace. “At that time, given the relative shortage of venture capital, it really mattered that companies were adding real value,” she recalled. She landed her first job in marketing at Google, then a relatively small company with 2,000 employees.

Complexity and Consistency

Quora came along in 2009 with a simple proposition: If someone’s brain held a piece of useful knowledge, that knowledge should be able to find its way out there for everyone. Over time, it evolved into a space where people share experiences, from what it’s like to get accepted into Stanford to what it’s like to fly on Air Force One (Sandra’s personal favorite). With Hollywood wanting to turn a single Quora thread into a TV show, it is also proving to be fertile ground for the imagination.

What makes Quora such a gold mine for for the curious and the inquisitive? Answer: the presence of other curious and inquisitive people. A critical mass of people with solid answers doesn’t snowball without a solid platform. As product manager, Sandra’s mission has been to make Quora a smooth place to share what we know through good user interface design.

Getting things right is, as any experienced product designer would attest, an iterative process requiring trial and error. For Sandra  product design majors on campus might take note — two design principles are key. The first is the effective management of complexity. “We could make a design issue more complicated for users, or for backend engineers; there’s a very delicate tradeoff between the two.” The other is consistency: ensuring that usable components are familiar with users, that they rest on the same building blocks on the backend. She credited Stanford’s human-computer interaction classes for preparing her well for designing intuitive, empathetic interfaces.

Leaning in and leaning out

If a woman in tech is as a rare as a girl on a skateboard, a woman tech executive remains, unfortunately, a curiosity. Despite various attempts to create a more gender-balanced industry — from Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” movement to projects encouraging girls to code, the lack of representation of women in tech remains an outstanding problem in the valley. This is especially true of management and executive level positions.

“It’s a hard problem with many inflexion points,” Sandra reflected, “a lot has to do with culture  some stereotypes find its way to people’s heads at an early age. On the leadership side, it’s all about keeping women in the workforce.” Although her identity as a woman never figured prominently in the early stages of her career, over time this perspective was to change. “Having a family gives you a different experience,” the mother of two said, “it’s really important for companies to have policies that make it work for women.”

Clearly, the choice that women face is not as simple as that between leaning in and leaning out. Sandberg’s advice to not “leave before you lean” is an empowering and necessary one, but confidence can only do so much. Ultimately, the message of empowerment has to be complemented by structural changes in the workplace. “Your career is not lateral,” said Sandra, “and sometimes it’s not as simple as a choice between leaning in and leaning out.” Silicon Valley, it seems, needs to figure out how to make it easy for women get back into the game even after they choose to lean out.

In the meantime, navigating the tech industry might take more than grit and gumption. “What, then, does it take?” one might ask. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to ask Quora.

Interview and profile by Chi Ling Chan, contactable at chiling ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Chi Ling, Chan ('15) is a junior majoring in Political Science and Symbolic Systems. On campus, she presently runs The Stanford Roundtable where she facilitates conversations on science, technology, society and more broadly, the human condition. In her free time, she writes. Chi Ling can be contacted at chiling@stanford.edu.