“At its heart, artificial intelligence is just mathematical models built from data sets. It’s not magic, but if people treat it as if it is, we give up our ability to interrogate it and demand better of the technology and how it’s used.”
“Software engineer” is just one way to describe Tracy Chou. Sure, she studied computer science at Stanford, and yes, she took over the tech industry with roles at Google, Facebook, and Pinterest. But as the founder and CEO of Block Party, a consumer app that tackles online harassment, Tracy is now using her engineering experience to build a better, safer world.
Born to Taiwanese immigrants, Tracy was introduced to tech at an early age; not only did she grow up in the heart of Silicon Valley, but both of her parents were software engineers who held PhDs in computer science. She essentially went into the family business, studying the same subject at Stanford University with a specialization in machine learning and artificial intelligence.
Before launching Block Party in January 2021, Tracy was one of few female engineers writing code at some of tech’s biggest brands. The Hall of Femme honoree was also “a little bit addicted” to Twitter, where she enjoyed sharing her thoughts about the industry but was often subjected to trolling, racist and sexist slurs, and even IRL stalking. Tracy took action by building Block Party, a suite of anti-harassment tools for Twitter that works to mute, filter, and hide abusive content. The app allows users to take back control and experience the benefits of social media without the negative impact on their safety and mental health.
“We are pushing the industry's conceptions of what is possible for trust and safety and user experience, and we are also showing individual consumers that they can expect and demand better,” says Tracy.
In addition to running Block Party, Tracy is a diversity activist and founding member of Project Include, an initiative that aims to give everyone a fair chance to succeed in tech. She also co-founded the non-profit #MovingForward, which works with Venture Capital firms to implement anti-harassment policies that ensure a more inclusive workspace. Tracy has since traded the Bay Area for Brooklyn, where she enjoys both a vibrant tech and startup community as well as a broader arts and culture scene. She was honored as one of Time’s Women of the Year in 2022, and Block Party was named in Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies of 2023.
Here, Tracy shares her thoughts on the future of AI, gives advice for inspiring young girls to get involved in engineering, and reveals the one big skill she’s working on.
When you were a young girl, what were the narratives you were exposed to about women and women's rights?
I heard my mom’s stories of being a woman in computer science and software engineering back when the gender imbalance was even worse and the sexism more egregious than it is today — stories that would make anyone feel indignant — but we were an immigrant family without a real safety net in the States, and back then the narrative was mostly one of resignation about the way things are and learning to cope with it.
Tell us about a woman who has inspired you to stand up for yourself.
I’ve not thought about any stands I’ve taken as stands for myself so much as for the various communities I belong to, represent, or hope to serve. To be honest, it’s not worth the fight just to make my own life better — I am lucky to already be very comfortable, all things considered. It’s only worth it if there’s a chance of changing the system and improving the lot for everyone.
In that vein, though, a woman who has truly inspired me is [investor and former interim Reddit CEO] Ellen Pao. Though it came at great personal cost, she was willing to call out gender discrimination and sexism in Silicon Valley and speak up against very powerful actors long before people were willing to hear it. In fact, it is probably in large part due to her actions that we eventually did witness a shift in the consciousness of the tech industry.
What’s a skill you don’t have, but would learn and hone if you could?
I can’t draw at all. I’m worse at drawing than your average kindergartener. Recently I’ve been eyeing the classic drawing instruction book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and I mean to give it a go sometime soon! I am bought into the author’s contention that everyone can learn how to draw and it’s about engaging the perceptual abilities of the brain that often get overshadowed by our more analytical focus.
You have meaningfully shifted mindsets about the trajectory of women in software engineering, not only because of your advocacy work, but because you’re incredibly accomplished in the field. How can women who don’t know a lot about the field help get young girls excited about participating in it?
One, highlight inspiring role models that not only make it possible for young girls to see themselves in the field, but actively get them excited about the prospect. Two, draw the connection between the work and the kind of impact it can have — engineering is about building things, software engineering is about building digital things, and in a world where we all have phones and are connected all the time, the possibilities to build clever and transformative digital products and services are endless: not only in connection and communication, but every other aspect of our lives too, like education, medicine, transportation, commerce, sports, entertainment, travel.
I’ve read that little girls like to imagine themselves as nurses, teachers, veterinarians, and such roles when they grow up because it’s easy to see how those jobs help the people and world around them. It might not be as obvious how sitting in front of a computer writing code can be as meaningful, but in fact the scale of potential impact can be many orders of magnitude greater!
You know more about Artificial Intelligence than most people. What are the most important things we need to be thinking about as this field advances and becomes an even bigger part of our lives?
At its heart, artificial intelligence is just mathematical models built from data sets. It’s not magic, but if people treat it as if it is, we give up our ability to interrogate it and demand better of the technology and how it’s used. We can — and should — look at the inputs, outputs, and how they’re linked; we can — and should — examine the risk of biases being amplified in screeching feedback loops as data is fed and looped through technical and societal systems.
Society always needs time to adapt to technological changes, but we may accrue harms faster than we can retroactively remedy them if we aren’t aggressive in identifying potential risks and mitigating them now.
What's a ritual in your life that you swear by?
More routine than ritual, but definitely something I swear by: a regular pre-bedtime schedule and good sleep hygiene. At least half an hour before bed, I put my phone away, take a melatonin gummy, brush and floss my teeth, step through my 5+ stage nighttime skincare routine, then retreat into bed with a physical book and read until I fall asleep.
What's your favorite way to celebrate a win (big or small)?
I like to treat myself to a new gel pen in a fun color. It is a small and silly extravagance that brings me great joy. I was a huge fan of Sakura Gelly Roll pens when I was younger; now I tend to go for Muji pens, which have a lovely minimalist aesthetic.