On being a CTO, everyday sexism and kicking ass (literally) by Vivian Chandra

Vivian Chandra

Vivian Chandra is apparently a superhuman. I knew that Vivian works with the Pam Fergusson Charitable Trust (better known as OMGTech!), a wonderful organisation that helps to democratise technology in Aotearoa – with a particular focus on tamariki. But during my interview research, I have also found out that Vivian has recently been a consultant CTO helping non-profits and non-tech startups, is currently an Ally Skills NZ workshop facilitator, a self-defense teacher, an Access Granted interviewer and a founding member of Aotearoa Tech Union. Oh, and she recently did a Masters degree in Sociology. Vivian has done numerous talks and interviews before and I am really looking forward to uncovering some of the backstage stories of hers on Kia Ora! 

Where do I even start? Vivian, you have done so many incredible things with the underlying theme of technology and equality. How did all these things fall into place?  

Whenever I’ve been asked about how I got started and I think back, it’s hard to pinpoint one particular thing. I do credit a few early influences. I have a mother who in some ways didn’t conform to the patriarchal ideas that a lot of us are socialised to think is normal – men can do things that women can’t for example – but also in some ways did. This kind of paradox sat easily with her but had the result of causing me to question things from a really young age. She would build me up to be able to do anything I want, and on the other hand, encourage me to consider myself in terms of whether I can ‘snag’ a good husband.

Pictured from left to right: My mom, my grandma holding a baby me, and I’m not sure who that is on the right! All standing in front of an old school looking white car and a yellow motorbike, in suburban Malaysia

Pictured from left to right: My mom, my grandma holding a baby me, and I’m not sure who that is on the right! All standing in front of an old school looking white car and a yellow motorbike, in suburban Malaysia

I first got a taste of tech at high school. Our maths teacher in year 12 (we called it Form 6 back then though) decided to dabble in teaching a few of us how to code. He refurbished a bunch of old PCs and found a spot which I think became a caretaker’s basement years later. It was a girls-only school and back then (*ah-hem* nineteen-ninety something) there wasn’t an official digital tech curriculum – well there wasn’t at my school anyway. He did a few lessons and then off we went to a competition! We were the only girls’ team there and we did TERRIBLY. The boys from other schools talked about playing with this kind of stuff all the time, and we had barely gotten a chance to touch any of it before game day.

Fast forward a few years, and I enrolled for Auckland University. I sometimes get asked about my degrees. When I talk to rangatahi and tamariki these days, I always say… do what feels right for you. I went to university because it was expected of me and I enrolled in a science degree because it was understood and acceptable by my extended family. I barely scraped through, and it took me almost seven years to complete a three-year degree. When I graduated, I felt empty. It somehow felt like someone else’s accomplishment. I had already moved on with my life, and an undergraduate degree in Physics didn’t seem to be something that fit with who I was.

I did return a few years later with some kind of half-baked idea of investigating the link between racism and religion. My abysmal marks in my undergrad meant that I was not allowed to enrol in any other degrees without laying down some more groundwork. I enrolled in a grad diploma and then a post-grad diploma. It was Theology, and at Auckland University, it is Christian Theology. I met the most amazing people, all of whom had an absolute conviction of their place in the world. The majority of the people who were studying theology were sent there by their churches and religious orders. They were studying to be religious leaders, and for them, they weren’t questioning their place in the world, only how they could be of the most help. I felt like some kind of weird outsider. In a way, it solidified for me that you should know what you believe, it makes you who you are. After meeting these people, who had such conviction and belief, I look inwards at myself, and thought, what I really wanted to look at was my bourgeoning feminism – to understand a subject as you only truly will if you do a lot of research (what can I say, I’m a geek). So I switched gears and ended up at a Masters in Sociology looking at the language behind sexism (more on that later).

This was quite a long rambly way of answering the question (and I’m not sure it even did). I guess what I’m trying to say is that things do eventually fall into place, and I’m not entirely sure whether it was because of choices I made... or just inadvertently. I do know that all the experiences thus far in my life has made me who I am, and looking back, changing any one of them would have made me a far different person today.

Most people are quite impatient to produce a meaningful impact and it is always hard to see that it might have taken others a long time to get to where they are at. How did you approach things - did you plan out what you wanted to do or did you take it step-by-step? 

Hah! I actually do remember sitting down as a fourteen-year-old, about to go into year eleven (Form 5 then - School Cert year)… picking my classes carefully: I was going to be a doctor. I had been watching Doogie Howser and imagined myself as a young whiz kid doctor wearing sneakers on the wards and learning how to blow bubbles with bubble gum. 

Asian children career options meme - four options are doctor, lawyer, engineer and disgrace to the family.

I did really well in high school. I even got my Bursary (what the kids these days call Level 3 NCEA) with a scholarship in Biology. My plans were set in stone. Then I went to enrol at university. I looked through all the booklets and worked out which ones I needed to become a doctor.

In Startup speak, this was my first pivot :-D

When I discovered that Pathology was a compulsory first-year paper and that it involved ACTUAL DEAD PEOPLE (even worse, BITS of dead people), I was like, nope nope nope… I’m outta here.

A cartoon zombie

My mother tried to change my mind, but my grandmother told me an amusing anecdote from the second world war. The occupying forces had forced all the local girls to train as nurse aides, and she recalled how, after months of training and being super excited about being a nurse, it took the first glimpse of blood to drop her into a dead faint. She learnt then that no matter how much you want to do something, your body will have different ideas.

About this time (1998), I had been lucky enough to be up to my second computer. I had been dabbling in programming since my dismal failure at that competition in high school. I was getting a lot better (QBASIC FTW!). So I figured, why not, and enrolled in Computer Science. Dreams of surgical wards became dreams of corner offices.

When I started failing at my papers, it really threw me. I wasn’t a genius but I always got good grades throughout school. The way that they taught me at school, hand-holding you along the way did not prepare me for the self-led nature of university life. I also moved out of home at about this time and adulting hit me hard.

I drifted around for a while. I kept plodding through the classes while working a part-time job in a large insurance company. They had paid for some internal training called “train the trainer”, which was my first taste of adult education. I discovered that I loved helping others get to where they want to be. I stopped being as interested in university, and even considered the insurance exams, to work my way up in the insurance industry. To be honest, as a twenty-something year old, working part-time for an insurance company paid way more than some of my other friends’ part-time jobs and it seemed like a great option.

What happened at the same time was an increasing interest in the application of technology. I had long since given up my dream of being a developer, having changed my major from Computer Science to Physics a while ago. It was quite cheeky actually. I don’t even know if I should share this story. As a lowly staff member, I was sitting next to the shift supervisor who kept an eye on the queues. I had figured out that it was fairly easy to switch the queues over… so, at the beginning of each month, I switched myself to sales calls, achieved my sales target then switched myself to the easier service calls for the rest of the month. It made my life super cruisy. It occurred to me that people with knowledge or access to technology were often at an advantage. I saw many senior people to myself struggle with various systems, things I picked up without a second thought. 

I also started to feel an increasing amount of unease. Working at an insurance company felt wrong, I just couldn’t put my finger on why. I think it all became obvious when I realised that the surgical policy we sold didn’t really give people that much more than the national health system, and yet I was using things like background sounds of children to push people towards the sale. It just all felt wrong. This kinda leads nicely into the next question… so to be continued over there.

How does one become a consultant Chief Technical Officer (CTO)? What does that job entail?

So, about the time I was starting to question all of life; I bumped into one of my old teachers from high school at a supermarket. We exchanged pleasantries and then she mentioned that the school had been wanting to discuss their tech needs with someone they trusted. Their current arrangement with a third party managed services company was costing a lot, and they were sure a part-time person on staff would save them money, did I know of anyone?

It turned out that my partner was dabbling in the managed services field, and had picked up a few small clients here and there. I was helping with some of it when I was around, so knew that I could probably convince them that a small local company associated with an old girl would be better for the school. I went in for a kōrero.

The principal was impressed that I was about to graduate with a physics degree (shh no one mention how long I’d been plugging away). She offered me the role and the rest, as they say, is history.

The job was officially a computer technician’s role. Back then, there still wasn’t much digital tech on offer (it was a few years after I had left the school, and that enthusiastic maths teacher had long since gone). Although the school now had three computer labs, they were mostly for classes to teach “how to research” and “how to type”. My job was to make sure people could log in, onboarding and offboarding staff and students... the usual stuff you can think of in an IT helpdesk. It wasn’t a particularly difficult job, nothing a good Google couldn’t fix (although I think back then it might have been Altavista, I’m not sure, timelines are fuzzy). The bane of my existence was mapping printers to the right place, to be honest.

My next big pivot came in late 2007. I’d been comfortably at the school for a few years, and that fact that some of my colleagues had been my teachers, it was obvious that it was a job you could easily work at for your entire life. My partner and I had married and our first child was on the way, we had two dogs, we bought a house… it was like a sitcom minus the laugh track.

When I went on maternity leave, I had another kōrero that changed my life. I had been volunteering for Amnesty International for a few years and had found my way onto the National Board. I was becoming increasingly frustrated at the lack of strategic technical direction in such an amazing international human rights organisation. So I talked to the executive director at the time, resigned from my role on the Board and worked through some of their tech issues as a contractor – yes while on maternity leave but you know, who needs a break? It quickly became obvious that I probably needed to stick around for a few projects at least... just a few months we thought...no big deal. I’d return to school after the baby arrived.

Suffice to say, the projects lasted for a tad bit longer than a few months. My role grew and grew, all in all, I was there for almost a decade and was the only technical staff member the whole time.

Being the head tech person for an organisation that has over a million dollars turnover, but only a handful of staff is interesting. It is a Charity. Spending money on yourself feels wrong. I was officially the top tech person in the organisation, but my role ranged from what you’d have your first-level helpdesk do, to leading the technical strategic direction of the organisation and convincing the Board of it. I was also the database manager, mining the data from a supporter, activism and fundraising perspective. Being such a wide-ranging role meant that I learnt a lot. But being by myself meant that it had to be self-taught. I made networking connections all over Aotearoa. It helped that I love public speaking (yea I know...you can probably blame a Rotary speech contest where I did a Steve Urkel impression when I was fourteen) and so I jumped at every opportunity to speak at conferences about the exciting and amazing projects we were pushing forward. 

The hustle was all about trying to get as much free stuff as I could. It worked. I made friends all over and they were all willing to help an organisation doing awesome things in the world.

The CTO/CIO thing came a few years into the role. I was interviewed by CIO Magazine and realised that IT manager sounded a bit junior. So I figured, how could it hurt... and then I realised that this sort of thing (titles and whatnot) were important to the people I was trying to hustle... I never did call myself that though, until after I finished the role. A friend of mine had a chat with me when I was considering contracting and self-employment. I lamented that with the skills I outlined it seemed too hard to succinctly describe what I was doing. He said... you’re a CTO... and I remember scoffing, and saying, no, I call myself a CIO because it looks better in the magazines. I guess imposter syndrome is real. 😊

That was a bit flippant, but in actual fact, I am only too aware of that feeling of ‘not enough’. One thing I’ve come to realise is that for almost twenty years now, I’ve been married to one of my biggest cheerleaders. When I was first offered that role back at my old high school, my initial thought was to turn it down. I went home and talked it over. He handed me a mini set of screwdrivers and told me what I already knew inside (but didn’t dare to admit). Then, every step along the way since then, we’ve been each others’ sounding board and cheerleader. 

It’s hard to do things by yourself, and if you manage to find one or two people who will support you, but more importantly, will also call you on your bullshit, then you’re most of the way there.

You call yourself not too technical in other interviews. One thing that intimidates a lot of people is lack of technical knowledge. How did you develop the necessary background to have such an impact in that space? 

I’ve hinted at the answer to this already. What might be useful for people starting out in the industry is something that someone much wiser than me told me a long time ago: Pretend you’re a middle-aged pakeha man, and learn how to Google. You’ll have the confidence to do what you need to do and fake it until you get the right answer. I do a lot of that, but always make sure to do it with integrity. I never lie about knowing something when I don’t. The confidence lies in knowing that you will be able to find the answers later and that nothing is ever as urgent as the other person wants it to be. Instead of saying “I don’t know”, say “I’ll find out”.

What I am passionate about is helping others do things with technology to better their lives. Understanding that our world is on the precipice of change and that technology will become so ubiquitous that if you don’t understand it, you will be left behind.

I am writing this as I travel all over Italy on holiday. At the Colosseum, the Vatican, the leaning tower of Pisa and heck, even at Auckland Airport! There was always a shorter line for those that had bought their tickets online. We are using Airbnb instead of hotels because it is cheaper. We are using app-based ride-sharing instead of taxis because it is safer, more reliable and cheaper. In Aotearoa, in general, as a society, I think we are quite tech-savvy. We were the first country in the world to trial ubiquitous EFTPOS and now cash is fast becoming rare. The more I travel, the more I realise how awesome Aotearoa is.

 

“Why do we need diversity in tech / STEM” question has quite an obvious answer but also it has been addressed right-left-and-centre. You have done a lot of work around this area. Do you think things have changed much in the last 5-10 years? What are some of the basic and simple things we are still missing in Aotearoa?

In the previous answer, it was a bit tongue-in-cheek when I implied that you had to model a middle-aged pakeha man in order to have confidence. However, there is a grain of truth buried in that off-hand comment. We still have more men on Boards, more men as directors and CEOs. 

Here is a photo of what most boards around the country looks like:

Four men leaning over a table reading some papers

I could go on and on. It also feels like we have been going backwards in this fight lately. You can’t even mention discrimination without someone immediately rebutting that it no longer exists. We have a woman prime minister, she’s not even the first one! In a way, it’s like with every step forward, it becomes harder to achieve long-term systemic change.

When I think about what is missing, I worry about how to normalise inclusiveness. For example, when I organise events, I explicitly leave space for someone to include their pronouns on their name tag. I’ve been accused of ‘catering to the minority’ on more than one occasion. Worse, I’ve had people ask me when I proudly put my pronouns on things, “What if people think you are trans?”. Like for them, this is the worst thing in the world.

A name badge with space for pronouns to be stated

To me, this is the nastier version of “boys shouldn’t wear pink”, because in a similar manner, if you extrapolate that, you are saying that a cis-boy if he wears pink, might be mistaken for being a cis-girl, and in their mind, that is the absolute worst that could happen.

To eliminate these sorts of examples is to usher in an era of true inclusiveness. There is nothing wrong with being a cis-woman and there is nothing wrong with being a trans person.

What is needed is the collective societal understanding that ‘diversity’ is not something we ‘do’ because it is trendy right now. It seems too much like box-ticking, and less like including people because we understand the inherent importance of why.

PS: if you want to learn more about any of these things, here is one place you can get started.

 

Tell us a bit about your Master’s Dissertation? What were some of the interesting things you have uncovered during your research? 

Content warning: I mention sexual assault in this answer. I do not use graphic descriptions.

With #metoo, there has been a worldwide rise in awareness of sexual and gender discrimination, and yet somehow in the midst of it all, a President of a major Western country was voted in after admitting to sexual assault publicly.

My dissertation was completed long before #metoo, so it was equally awesome and depressing to see the subject matter become a worldwide movement years later, where seemingly things had gotten worse, and not better.

I analysed stories collated on the Everyday Sexism Project. In order to make the data set more manageable, I only looked at the stories submitted by people in Aotearoa. I looked at the correlation between the language used in descriptions of everyday sexist encounters versus the language used in descriptions of sexual assault. The TLDR was that there was not much difference.

I really want to do more on this. The stories that were available were all volunteered by the people who knew of the site. The site was started by Laura Bates, a white woman who lives in the UK. The snowball effect of being told by a friend of a friend meant that there was a lot of missing voices in the resulting data set. It was hugely obvious in the data from Aotearoa. There was not one that identified as being Pasifika or Māori, and a very small number that was queer. 

Imagine if I could re-do it with real-life interviews, done by folks within each of our varied and beautiful communities. As a queer person of colour myself, it would be amazing!

It is easy to get overwhelmed by the list of achievements that people might have on their websites, LinkedIn, social, without knowing the full story. Could you please share some of the personal or professional challenges that you have experienced?

I mentioned before how much I love public speaking. I really do. I feel alive on stage, sharing my stories and energy. I feel that if we want to get over the box-ticking feel of diversity, young people should see people that look like me on stage more. So when I started to systematically lose my voice, it was a huge blow to my confidence. It started as just a few hoarse moments after a presentation or a weekend conference, but it took longer and longer to recover. Then it stopped recovering at all. My voice became permanently husky and I couldn’t raise it over a certain volume.

It was devastating.

I went to my GP who couldn’t see anything wrong from the outside but referred me to an ENT (Ears, Nose & Throat) specialist anyway. At the first scan, they found two bilateral lumps. I was terrified. The surgeon said that it was ‘unlikely’ to be cancerous, as cancer doesn’t usually grow bilaterally… but you can’t help imagining the worst.

After months of waiting in line and more scans, the surgery was upon me. 

It went well. What they thought was one lump and bruising turned out to be two cysts formed independently. The good news is that you can heal from that pretty much instantly. The bad news is that they have no idea how it happens and it could come back at any time.

It was a personal and medical challenge that really affected all that I love to do professionally. About the same time, I was asked to be the Auckland-based host of Access Granted (a podcast - read a bit about my story there too!). I am so grateful to Mike and Raj for ignoring my terrible voice and letting me try it anyway – since the surgery I’ve done a bunch more interviews and I feel much better about it all.

I did have to decline multiple speaking engagements, including a keynote, and once you say no to those, they sometimes don’t ask you again! A few times I suggested a colleague or someone that I knew and got the worst FOMO when I watched from afar.

I had also just completed training as a self-defence instructor with an amazing feminist self-defence network. Teaching children and adults alike. The most important part of self-defence is the kōrero, teaching the students that it is their voice that is the strongest. You cannot demonstrate this if you can’t yell yourself.

When I’m not working, I train as a karateka with Seido Karate club. I’ve done so (on-and-off) since I was a teenager. Part of being a karateka and training in karate-do is to exert your energy both physically and vocally through what is called a Kiai (literally the giving of energy). Not being able to kiai really affected the way that I trained and as a result, affected the way that I felt about myself.

Vivian doing karate at the Japan festival (photo credit Rob Stone Photography)

Vivian doing karate at the Japan festival (photo credit Rob Stone Photography)

Training in karate-do and grounds you in a way that is unique to martial arts. We start every class with a meditation where we are encouraged to break from everyday life and concentrate on being in the moment. When we end class, it is not the reverse, you don’t reconsider the problems and worries, rather you have taken a step back to understand that they are not as major as you thought they were mere hours ago. I struggled to do this with my voice the way that it was. It was hard to break away from this big worry on my shoulders.

The surgery was in February of this year, as I write this, it’s been about six months with my new voice. I’m still afraid the cysts will come back… but for now, I’m as loud as I’ve ever been.

 

What’s your opinion on our culture of over-achieving / ‘productivism’ in society nowadays? Do you personally think you would be satisfied with yourself if you stopped doing so many things?

I am absolutely the worst person in the world to answer this question. I’ve always been someone that doesn’t feel satisfied unless I’m busy. Lying on a beach feels like a waste of time and even on holiday, I have to have activities lined up and planned to the minute. I’ve got two boys, currently eleven and eight, and the most common criticism I hear from all the extended whānau is that they have “too much on”... I mean I don’t disagree, but if they didn’t have something on, they’d just be sitting around, and what would be the point of that!?

Animated gif of a dog in bed typing furiously on a laptop

Animated gif of a dog in bed typing furiously on a laptop

What is the most rewarding activity you have done in the last year? What did you feel had the most external impact? 

I love love love my new job. At the beginning of the year, I became the professional development lead at the Pam Fergusson Charitable Trust (PFCT). There is a new Digital Technologies section in the Technology Curriculum within the New Zealand Curriculum. I get to teach it to the teachers of our tamariki and rangatahi, and share my joy and passion for technology with them… so that they can share it with the next generation. It is amazing. Every time I see someone get something or see that spark of understanding about something new, it makes me happy all over again. I used to think that if I could get through to kids it would make the most change in the world… and while that remains true, teaching the teachers is an exponential impact. Every teacher I talk to and inspire will share that inspiration with at least thirty kids a year… forever! 

Not only that, PFCT does all kinds of different projects and so every day I get to meet the cool people who work in our booming tech sector right across Aotearoa.

What are some of the day to day moments that bring you the most joy in life? 

It is so cool being a parent. I don’t know if other parents take a step back and really think about it, but I often do. I think, wow, I made a human being, inside of me… and now I get to shape their thoughts and personality. It is a breathtaking amount of responsibility and I worry every day that I might do things that will daisy chain them into being bad humans.

There are small moments every day where they figure something out or make some kind of observation which makes me laugh, or even better ponder life in a new way. I especially love when I am out and about and meet a slightly older child. Often, I can see similarities between them and my kids, and think to myself, wow, in a few years that might be me.

Consciously living in the moment has been something that has given me joy all my life. When I get into a spiral of worry about what next, or what will happen if, that is when I consciously try to take a step back, a deep breath and re-centre myself at the moment.

Vivian and my family playing with straws - Photo Credit: Kitchen Science Cook Book

Vivian and my family playing with straws - Photo Credit: Kitchen Science Cook Book

Are you learning/pondering about anything right now that you would like to share?

One of the ways I start some of my digital tech classes is to introduce with morals and ethics. I use examples from MIT’s Moral Machines and ask my participants what they would do if they were faced with the age-old philosophical trolley problem. I then introduce them to some examples of the modern tech that is now around… Sophia, Big Dog, Skin Vision… and together, we consider the ethics around each one.

It’s a great way to consider technology. Just because we are able to do something, doesn’t always mean we should do it. It’s also important to consider where our moral code comes from. To understand the unconscious decisions we all make when we make conscious ones. To challenge ourselves all the time as to why we think a certain way, and if it no longer works for who we are or who we want to become, to actively change that way of thinking.  

And finally, whose story would you want to read about on here?

I would like someone reading this who hasn’t ever been interviewed on anything at all to reach out. A challenge, if you will, to anyone out there doing awesome things… also, even if you think the thing you are doing isn’t awesome… it probably is. We are our own worst critic, and sometimes all it takes is someone else to tell us we’re doing awesome to figure it out for ourselves.

Elina Ashimbayeva