When she was a child, Annabel Liu wanted to be a carpenter. One of her uncles was a carpenter, and the process of building furniture fascinated Annabel. “It was magic,” she says. Today, Annabel, a Vice President of Engineering at LinkedIn, still likes building things, but most of what she builds is in the digital realm. To build a bridge or a building, explains Annabel, “You need a lot of things, but programming—all you need is a computer!”
Annabel was born in Zhoushan, China. Her father headed a construction company, which, with the opening-up of the Chinese economy, thrived. Annabel’s mother managed the farming. She didn’t have to—“My dad was doing well, financially,” says Annabel—but “she wanted to have a sense of purpose, wanted to have independence, wanted to do something meaningful and interesting.”
When Annabel was fifteen, her family left China for the United States. The family’s primary motive for coming to the United States was to secure the futures of Annabel and her brother. Neither of Annabel’s parents spoke English. Her father, who had not cooked a single meal in China, became a cook in a Chinese restaurant. “He had to learn everything,” Annabel says. “He would come home excited and be like, ‘Let me tell you the different pork cuts!’ Before, he only knew, ‘This is pork.’” Annabel’s mother worked in a clothing factory, “a lot of hard work.”
Now, Annabel is roughly the same age that her parents were when they left China. “Wow, at this age!” She exclaims wonderingly—the risk that her parents took in coming to the United States still leaves Annabel in awe. From their example, Annabel continues to derive her own independence, determination, and the ability to “always keep hope high,” traits that she identifies as key to her career.
Annabel began to learn about coding in high school. She enjoyed it but had no conception of how it might translate to a career. Thus, as an undergraduate at Columbia, she decided to pursue chemical engineering. Chemical engineers “are the guys who wear lab coats and goggles,” she thought. “Seems like a really serious occupation.” Serious it might be, but, after plodding through two years of a chemical engineering major, Annabel found herself bored and uninspired. She changed her major to computer science, completing three years’ worth of requirements in two years, in order to graduate on time. “It was very tough,” says Annabel. “But I really liked it, and I just felt like I totally made the right choice.” After graduating from Columbia, Annabel went on to a master’s degree at Stanford University. She’s been on the West Coast ever since, first at Ariba, now at LinkedIn.
The STEM fields always felt like a natural place for Annabel. She was “lucky enough,” she says, to come from a family whose expectations of her were independent of her gender. Nevertheless, Annabel notes, the tech industry has a gender problem. Not only does it remain male-dominated (in numbers and in workplace culture), it’s not especially sympathetic to women, whose caregiving responsibilities outside work—for children, for the elderly—generally remain greater than those of men. “I try to demand to be treated equally in the workplace, but sometimes I’m not demanding the same amount at home,” says Annabel. “I think my husband has all the right intentions. He just needs to be reminded.” She smiles. “I do, from time to time.”
--Thea De Armond