Triplebyte just seemed like a really great opportunity to find companies that I wouldn't otherwise have had access to. I definitely wouldn't have found Even through my own network. And Even ended up being a place that I really liked...Because of my age, people assume a lot of things about me. In that way, being background-blind really helped me because I work as a senior engineer now. And that was not an opportunity I think I would have had without the background-blind process.
There were one or two companies that really screwed up the 'dealing with a trans person thing' pretty hard, and having that 20 minute screen let me filter them out a lot faster and in a much lower pressure environment. Finding that out through a long technical phone screen, or after, would have been a lot more painful.
Julia Merz is a 23 year old transgender software engineer working in San Francisco. Although she was born in Germany, Julia grew up in the Bay Area and attended UC Berkelely, where she was involved in both the hackathon and dance communities. She dropped out to help found an esports startup and go through Y Combinator but later returned to finish her degree. Julia currently works as a programmer at Even, a mission-driven financial services company. She was hired through Triplebyte last year.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On learning to program
How did you get into programming in the first place?
In middle school, a friend and I really wanted to start a business together—and we were smart enough to realize that we couldn't afford rent on a candy shop.
Was a candy shop your dream business?
We had two ideas: a candy shop or a Lego ideas website. So that left building a Lego website. Legoideas.net was the domain. I got a copy of Microsoft Front Page and one of those programming books. But a book on using Microsoft Front Page isn't super helpful: Front Page will let you put PowerPoint word art on the Internet. And that is already like a huge sin. The website only worked on Internet Explorer, and the formatting was constantly off. In terms of UI inspiration, it was like YouTube at the time. The problem was I couldn't build YouTube. I was a 13 year old kid with Microsoft Front Page, so I ended up just taking pictures of things we'd we'd built with Legos and putting them on the internet.
But the idea was somewhat inspired. Lego ended up building something very similar that actually worked like three years later. I'm proud of that part.
What happened next in your development as a programmer?
In high school I realized that I had to learn something like PHP. So I took a PHP course online, and in retrospect, I learned a lot of really bad things. PHP can be used well, but this was not a course that taught me how to use it well.
What do you think about PHP today?
As a result of PHP I got into computer security a little bit. I'm definitely in the bucket of high schoolers who got hacked because they weren't properly escaping their strings. It took until after I stopped programming PHP for me to properly understand which version of escaping strings applies when. So that kind of sums up my feelings on the language.
Did you study CS at Berkeley?
Yes. I fell in love with programming at Berkeley. I started going to hackathons and learned the beauty of software development.
When I was in high school, a lot of people around me assumed I would get into computer science, but I didn't feel super passionate about it at the time. I knew that I wanted to make things. And by “make things” I meant have an impact on the world—building startups and that kind of thing (I spent a good amount of time in high school building up an—I think calling it a “startup” is a bit charitable—it was an esports thing). For me, programming is a really good way to do things like that.
What is it about software development that you find beautiful?
It's really powerful. I think that's a big part of the appeal to me. You can build a lot with very little if you come up with something elegant. I was always really into the creative aspects of programming.
In my freshman year, I did a hackathon with a friend and in 24 hours we managed to use a combination of python and Android to build a sensor network that you can deploy in your house. I knew Python a little bit before then, but I picked up the entire web server technology, Flask, just in that day. I just worked my way through a 24-part tutorial series in 24 hours. That's amazing, right? That you can build something that quickly. I don't think it's because I'm a genius, it's because the technology is just that powerful at this point.
So, you were working on an esports startup in high school?
Like I said, calling it a “startup” is a little bit charitable. I was really into gaming when I was a kid, and I got really into esports. I knew that I didn't have the patience to be a professional gamer. It's really rigorous, and I'm someone who likes to bounce from project to project. So I figured I could become a shoutcaster—a sports commentator for esports events.
But there was a problem. A commentator is only valuable because of their fan base. But in order to get a fan base, you have to already be doing events. You have to break in somehow. So I picked this game called FireFall, and I created my own esports website. I did my own journalism and started hosting my own events, and I made sure to use the phrase “we” a lot, to build up this reputation as an organization. And I actually managed to recruit one or two people to “work” for me.
The website itself never made any money, but that wasn't really its purpose—and I did end up getting a job with ESL, the biggest esports organization at the time, as a result of it. So I was a semi-professional shoutcaster for a summer. And then the game died, and I realized I should probably go to college.
And at college you were really involved with hackathons?
I'm not sure why I picked the hackathon community to get involved with specifically. I think it was my first week at Berkeley. I went to this hack session from a club called Hackers at Berkeley—and it was amazing. As someone who had mostly been programming in my bedroom, it was just amazing to see this room full of people working on different programming projects.
My freshman year, I attended a hackathon every two weeks. I started throwing hackathons too. We started a hackathon at Berkeley that still exists. It's called Cal Hacks. That was actually how I met the co-founders of my startup.
On starting a company with Y Combinator
Tell me more about your YC startup.I think my co-founders took me to a Wingstop to introduce me to the idea—and it's a miracle that I actually joined because Wingstop made me really sick and I haven't gone back since—but yeah, they wanted to build an APP to better follow esports. And that combined my two big interests at the time.
We started in January of my sophomore year. And from the start we took it pretty seriously. We did an on-campus incubator startup, and then applied to YC almost on a whim. The interview process for YC is a really great way to figure out the details of your startup, nailing down your pros, your cons, and your plan. Then we did the interview and got in. And when you get into YC, you do YC. So I dropped out of school. And it was amazing. That's actually also where I first met Triplebyte because they were in the same YC batch as us.
What ended up happening with your startup?
It was called Instant Esports, but they renamed to Blitz Esports. It got acquired by Discord last year, but I wasn't involved in it anymore. We raised a seed round after YC, and worked on it for about a year, but at that point we discovered that what we were building was the wrong product. So I decided to go back to school. And then my two co-founders continued to experiment with that for, I think, two-ish years and eventually got acquired by Discord.
What did you take away from your experience as a founder?
When you're a founder, you generally look back on yourself six months ago and think, “God, I was such an idiot back then.” I think that's a universal experience. You don't learn one specific lesson, but you build up this collection of anecdotes and wisdom. I know that if I did it again, I would be much better at it, but I also couldn't tell you exactly which part of the experience would make the biggest difference.
Would you do it again?
Definitely. My plan was to do another startup after college. But then in the fall of my senior year I kind of pieced together the whole trans thing. A startup takes all of your physical and emotional energy, and I couldn't do that and transition at the same at the same time.
On being transgender in tech
What is it like to be a trans person working in tech right now?
It's a mixed bag. I won't say there aren't challenges. I think it's better than being a trans person in almost anything else. A big part of what enables me to bear the financial cost of transitioning is that I have a job in Silicon Valley. That's definitely something I will never forget.
Could you tell me a little bit more about your trans experience?
The weird thing about being trans, for me at least, but maybe not for everyone, is that it's a constant feeling. The best way I've heard it described (in a Medium post) is to imagine that you're at a really fancy party. Everyone is wearing their best suits and ties, their best dresses—and you're there in dirty old rags. That feeling of discomfort. Out of place-ness. Every second of your life.
The problem is that since it's every second of your life, you think it's normal. I've always had this feeling of being out of place, something not being right. I used to ascribe it to my immigrant background. I thought I just didn't fit in. I spent a good amount of time in college trying to drill down on that and figure it out.
I joined the Berkeley dance community. And dance is an extremely gendered activity. I was like, “Oh hey, there's something not quite right here.” I was figuring this out with my girlfriend at the time, and we both realized, “Okay, this is no longer something we can do on our own.” So we each got therapists. And then, you know, once you start seeing a therapist and talking about your gender, it's a pretty fast road from there.
How did your parents respond?
My parents are amazing and accepting. I've been really fortunate.
Were your co-founders and hackathon friends accepting as well?
Surprisingly so. I think having that network is actually one of the things I feel most fortunate about. It is often really difficult for trans people to fit into society. Trans people are disproportionately, low-income, disproportionately homeless. Especially people without accepting families. And I managed to dodge all of that. I'd already done a startup. I had a really well-established network in Silicon Valley. I had marketable skills. And that made my process transitioning a lot easier than for most people. I had people that I could fall back on and people that I knew wouldn't abandon me when all of this happened.
I think part of what makes the transition process so difficult is that it's symptomatic of being trans to think something's wrong with you. To be your own harshest critic. Like, “Am I a 'monstrosity.'” Right? It's really easy to believe that everyone will abandon you, that the world is going to hate you in the same way that you kind of hate yourself. A big part of the process is learning to emotionally get over that, learning that people are generally really accepting.
Why do you think so many transgender people work in tech?
I've met a decent number of trans people in tech. It's definitely more common [to be trans] in tech than elsewhere. I would say it's common enough now that half the time you are the only one, half the time you're not.
From an early learning perspective, a lot of learning tech does not require social interaction, and social interaction is some of the stuff that's the most difficult when you're a trans person who hasn't figured out their identity yet—and even afterwards a lot of the time.
Do you think tech is a good career for a trans person?
Because engineering skills are really valuable, I was able to approach interviewing with [my trans identity] front and center...I can be very forward about this. I can fish for the discrimination, and if someone discriminates against me, great, I'll go somewhere else...And that is extremely powerful because [as a trans person] you already have very little societal power, but it gives you some of that freedom of choice back and gives you some of that agency back.
What advice would you give to a younger trans person considering a career in tech?
It's better than the alternatives. I would say do it.
I found being really forward to be the best strategy. Being really direct and open about it early in my transition, kind of diffused it. I mentioned it at the top of my calls with companies. It's featured very prominently on my website for expressly that purpose. I don't pass on the phone. It's very obvious that I'm trans. I was very careful and deliberate about asking culture questions in my interview process. I've seen what healthy culture looks like. And, through the experience of friends, I've also seen what unhealthy culture looks like.
What are good questions to ask potential employers?
The diversity and inclusion questions are actually really useful. But not always for the right reasons. For example, when a company throws a diversity event, the event doesn't always make the biggest difference, but the fact that they put in the thought and effort matters. The biggest thing that's important for culture is caring about having a culture.
How did you approach coming out in the workplace?
I was at a small startup, so I decided to come out to people individually because that was something that was more comfortable for me. But I think that's a very personal choice. For me, being able to do it individually meant I could disarm it. I could explain it. I could make it not weird. But for other people, individual meetings are really intense. They were emotionally exhausting for me. With my background, I felt comfortable having those conversations, but I know other people might not.
On using Triplebyte
Why did you decide to use Triplebye?
Triplebyte just seemed like a really great opportunity to find companies that I wouldn't otherwise have had access to. I definitely wouldn't have found Even through my own network. And Even ended up being a place that I really liked.
Was the background-blind aspect of Triplebyte important to you?
I actually have a lot of experience from doing a startup, but because of my age, people assume a lot of things about me. In that way, being background-blind really helped me because I work as a senior engineer now. And that was not an opportunity I think I would have had without the background-blind process.
At the same time, I'm really privileged in terms of my background. But I still really like Triplebyte's process. I think it was definitely the easier half of the interviewing I did. I think the biggest thing for me was the two hour phone screen. It's more in-depth than most technical phone screens will ever be, and it's super useful.
What else was useful to you about using Triplebyte?
And being able to have 20 minute pitch calls instead of technical phone screens [with every company] was really valuable to me because there were one or two companies that really screwed up the “dealing with a trans person thing” pretty hard, and having that 20 minute screen let me filter them out a lot faster and in a much lower pressure environment. Finding that out through a long technical phone screen, or after, would have been a lot more painful.
On moving to the US from Germany
Do you remember your childhood in Germany before moving to the Bay Area?
I remember the typical things, just small things like images, but not too much. I don't have a particular place in Germany that I could call my home. But as a result of being raised by two German parents, it's such a strong part of my cultural identity. Berkeley is probably what I would consider my hometown in terms of emotional attachment.
How has moving to the US from German shaped you as a person?
In more ways than I could count. The biggest thing is a willingness to roam and move. I was never at the same school for more than two years at a time. At some point you get used to moving and used to saying goodbye and going somewhere else.
Julia, thank you so much for your time!
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