December 3, 2019

Q&A with Engineering Manager and Research Scientist Ying Zhang

By: Facebook Research

In November, Facebook and N2Women invited several women in networking to Fort Worth, Texas, to visit one of Facebook’s advanced data centers. The purpose of this event was to facilitate connections between Facebook’s networking researchers and top female PhD students and researchers. To learn more about the event, read our blog.

The event was planned by Facebook Director of Engineering Omar Baldonado, Engineering Manager James Zeng, and Engineering Manager Ying Zhang, who was recently featured in a ByteSizeBio on Instagram @facebooklife.

“Diversity and inclusion are important to any organization or field of research,” says Zhang. “Seeing other female scientists and engineers succeed in the field is very encouraging, and having them as role models helps build confidence — so I do as much as I can to be a mentor and role model for young engineers early in their careers.”

For Facebook’s Women@ Leadership Day, we sat down with Zhang to learn more about what it’s like to be a woman engineer in Infra at Facebook, what her path to Facebook looked like, and how she overcame the challenges of being a minority in her field. Zhang also provides a few words of encouragement for other female PhDs looking to break into the industry.

Q: How did you first become interested in software engineering?

Ying Zhang: My dad was a software engineer for the Chinese railway company. He developed railway scheduling software and led the development of the very first generation of ticket-purchasing systems that could be used by the public. Trains were a major method of transportation in China, and his work helped billions of people travel easier and be reunited with their families.

I was (and still am) very proud of his work, and this is why I decided to go into engineering myself. As a kid, I was pretty good at math and physics in high school, and I enjoyed logic and hands-on experiments. I would love to be able to make a positive social impact and help people the way my dad did.

Q: How did you end up where you are today? What did the path look like for you?

YZ: I studied computer science as an undergraduate. During my study, I realized that I enjoyed creative thinking and would like to explore cutting-edge technology. After undergrad, I applied for a PhD in the U.S. and got my PhD in computer science from the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. There, I learned about the finer points of conducting in-depth research, public speaking, writing scientific papers, and critical thinking.

Computer networking is my main area of research. I’ve always felt that the internet is one of the most amazing technologies ever invented. It connects me with my friends and family in China and makes me feel close to them even though I’m thousands of miles away. I’m passionate about improving it.

At Facebook, I’ve had the opportunity to do some of the most important work of my career. Today, I work on one of the largest networks in the world, and the tools we build are used to ensure that the Facebook network is running quickly and efficiently while connecting billions of people. Our work impacts the world, which is the most fun and exciting part of my job. There are also lots of challenging problems to solve — problems you can’t work on anywhere else, like how to handle scalability and performance, and how to understand real-world use cases.

As I mentioned, the tools I’m building help increase efficiency, which helps billions of people stay connected — so what I wanted as a kid sort of became a reality.

Q: What challenges have you encountered being an underrepresented minority in your field? How did you overcome them?

YZ: It’s certainly challenging to be an underrepresented minority in the field. Unconscious biases are always present. In my career, oftentimes I’m the only woman in a meeting. There’s much work to be done, and I’m focused on building my support network with other female engineers to inspire new ideas and relationships. Knowing you have a support network helps a lot.

Another challenge is work-life balance. As a mother of two young kids, I discovered that balancing work and family is hard. Fortunately, my husband is very supportive, and he takes a lot of responsibility while I’m busy at work. I also use my time at work efficiently, and I intentionally carve out time for activities with my family. On weekends, we focus on quality time and plan family activities that everyone can enjoy. This balanced approach is instilled throughout Facebook and across my direct team.

Q: What advice would you give to female PhDs trying to enter the field?

YZ: My first piece of advice is to be bold and move fast. I think as women, we are often taught to be very careful about how we act. As a result, we tend to be more hesitant to express and defend our opinions. To female PhDs in particular, I encourage you to take constructive feedback when your research is challenged, but also be sure to defend your position firmly. This is important if you’re trying to enter the field of networking.

My second piece of advice is to make yourself as visible as possible, which relates to my first piece of advice. In addition to being bold with your individual opinions, it’s important to be bold about your work in general, to work toward becoming your strongest advocate, and to make sure that you shine just as brightly as everyone else.

To learn more about diversity at Facebook, visit the Facebook Diversity page.