When Ya Xu’s parents sent her from Sichuan, China to Williamstown, Massachusetts for her undergraduate degree, they thought that their daughter would be returning to China. Several generations of Ya’s family—her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents—had settled in the same town in China. After finishing her degree at Williamstown’s Williams College, Ya, too, was to return to Sichuan, to join the family’s business.
At Williams, Ya majored in math and economics. She took an internship at J. P. Morgan her junior year but found that finance wasn’t for her (“too money-driven,” she says). On graduating, Ya did not return to Sichuan—she went to Stanford instead, where she earned a PhD in statistics.
Ya’s academic training could have translated to employment in several fields. “There are different areas that [statisticians] can go into,” says Ya. “One is, obviously, finance and quantitative trading,” a profession Ya had already eliminated from consideration after her stint at J. P. Morgan. Another possibility was the pharmaceutical industry, whose slower pace didn’t suit Ya. “And you can go into tech,” says Ya. And that’s what she did—first, working at Microsoft, then, at LinkedIn.
Because Ya has a PhD, academia—that is, a professorship—was also a possible career track. She likely would have been an excellent teacher. Ya’s time at Williams—a liberal arts college that produced relatively few tech workers (“Actually, I don’t know any people from Williams working at LinkedIn,” says Ya)—taught her how to communicate highly technical information to people outside her field. “You’re surrounded by people who are historians, musicians, and artists,” Ya explains. “How are you going to tell them about what you’re doing?” When she talks about her work, Ya is careful to provide clarifying context, examples, and analogies. She knows that communicating knowledge helps us to deepen that knowledge. This is why Ya has always liked teaching (she taught in graduate school and tutored as an undergraduate). “We always think we know stuff,” explains Ya. It’s only when we are compelled to teach another person what we think we know that we realize the shallowness of our knowledge.
Academia had drawbacks, too. “I’m a utilitarian person,” Ya says. In academia, she notes, “You can advance methodology more than in industry, but it’s not as practical.” Ya is problem-oriented, results-oriented. She likes to see what she has created. She considers these predilections to be broadly shared by her colleagues in the tech: “We’re all here to solve problems, to some extent.”
Ya’s future may have been open—her parent’s business, finance, the pharmaceutical sector, academia—but she cannot, in fact, imagine a different path for herself. Though she recognizes that the tech industry needs to work on inclusivity (Ya herself only began to critique its biases recently, when she joined LinkedIn’s Women in Tech program: “If you grew up always seeing this as the status quo, you don’t realize that there’s a problem”), she loves her work. “I’m such a workaholic,” says Ya. “I always joke with my husband because my husband has so many hobbies. We balance out. I have zero hobbies; he has a lot. We even out.”
--Thea De Armond