2017 Year In Review
Like almost every other millennial, I’ve tried my hardest this year to create a down-to-the-pixel version of myself on social media. Far from accurate, of course, this contrived version of “Cindy Zhang” stemmed from working at a social media company focused on showing users beautiful images and from watching the talented friends around me live their lives to the fullest on Instagram. I felt a pressure to do the same by showing off the most artistic and wittiest parts of me on the internet. As 2017 comes to an end, I want to be more sincere and tear down that image temporarily—if you don’t mind—and walk you through an honest rewind of the year for me.
The latter half of 2017 was—to say the least—mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting.
Mentally because expectations at work were not low, and working on an app that is used by millions of people is not easy. I came to understand that everything I built was fragile: poor code written on top of poor code. As that poor code festered in the repository, I woke up to crashes and a swarm of bugs created by that poor code. What was the most mentally straining however, was not things breaking but how I reacted to things breaking. I found my coworker constantly telling me to -breathe- during stressful situations that I handled with shaking hands at the keyboard—trying to fix a NullPointerException in order to make the next release so that the press article scheduled to go out at 10AM was accurate. But maybe I didn’t have to freak out that much. Maybe code is just code and the world won't end if Pinterest crashes for a few users.
I’m physically exhausted from actively choosing not to take care of myself. I had hit my all time low weight of 84 pounds in the second half of this year, which even at the short height of 5’3”, is a little bit alarming and enough to make my mother worried. I’ve struggled with my weight since sixth grade, so this is not the least bit new to me; but I feel like this year my body has taken the worst blow in the last twelve years or so.
I’m emotionally exhausted because I cut ties with many friends this year and saw several relationships come to an end. This may have a lot to do with the fact that 2017 was the first full year I spent away from San Diego, where most of my close friends reside. It might also have to do with the fact that I’ve changed quite a lot in the past year, and no longer identify with the many surface-level friends I’ve made in college. Losing friends, unfortunately, didn’t stop at losing friends. A relationship coming to an end somehow brought all things associated with that relationship to an end. This made me create a new set of boundaries on my life to restrain me to what I was allowed to touch and see on the internet, and even songs I was allowed to sing and listen to. Relationships going sour made me quite paranoid at what people back home were saying about me, and whether they were laughing at me behind my back. Because their perception of me is only as good as someone else’s, I felt like I had no control over their opinion of me if they’ve already sided with someone who thought negatively of me.
Anyways, this was my first serious relationship ever, so excuse me if I let my introvert tendencies slip into something that required so much communication.
OKAY, let’s take a break from all this. Yes I am exhausted, but I’ve also grown a lot in 2017, and after taking a lot of hits from this year, I can confidently say that I’ve grown in these 2 areas: music and engineering.
I learned how to play the guitar!!! This still seems a little bit crazy to me because in the beginning I had a lot of insecurities holding me back and could come up with a million reasons why I didn’t need to learn guitar. The first being that everyone my age already knew how to play it, and I was too much of a late bloomer to even bother. A girl singing with a guitar is also far from original and seems like a musical cliche, doesn’t it?
When I started out, my fingers did not comply and I found it almost impossible to produce the simplest sound. Because I had been studying classical violin since 4th grade, it was mind-boggling to me to move my fingers in ways that were frowned upon in my violin training but were standard techniques for guitar. I had a hard time convincing my stubborn fingers to change their behavior and admitting that I was playing a guitar and not just a bigger violin.
There was a huge learning curve, but the solution to that learning curve was the same solution to everything else in music—more practice and more listening. I made it a goal to practice every single night, even if I was busy and it was far beyond my bedtime. Eventually it became a nightly routine—like brushing my teeth! I figured with even just a small amount of practice every day, I would gradually get better.
After listening to my favorite acoustic guitar jams at work and practicing nightly, everything about the guitar turned out to be incredibly intuitive, and it opened up an entirely different world of music to me. Technically, it allowed me to visualize chords clearly and made me appreciate how easy it was to transition between consecutive chords of the same quality (even sliding into them to say the least! That’s unheard of on a piano!). Creatively, it allowed me to develop a different approach to songwriting from the one I become comfortable with on the piano. Can we also talk about how beautiful the acoustic guitar sounds? It sounds so incredibly... sad... like, in a good way. I love it.
But no means am I any good at guitar yet. I’m just more familiar with basic functions and I still have a lot to improve on in 2018.
I started doing gigs by myself! I probably should’ve started doing this sooner but always found myself in musical situations where I was only contributing a small portion to the full picture. I’ve constantly been surrounded by talented musicians and so I’ve become reliant on them to take care of me as a struggling musician. After doing a few shows by myself, I developed the skill of quick error recovery, meaning: not giving a shit when I sing/play the wrong note and moving on. I learned that in order to be a good performer, you need to put all your emotion and skill on the current note you’re playing (maybe a bit of thought on upcoming notes as well), and not linger on past mistakes you’ve made.
The engineers at Pinterest are some of the most hardworking people I know, and I’m happy to say that I’ve learned a huge amount from them this year. There are a few who have been amazingly helpful in explaining difficult concepts to me and held my hand when I ran into challenges. I am incredibly grateful to those people and I’m confident to say that I’m a better engineer today because of them.
Pinterest Lens was my biggest project within my first six months at Pinterest. It was a huge technical challenge and I spent many long nights trying to build the smallest parts of it on Android. Luckily, I was able to finish the front end in preparation for a press event, and even did a tech talk around it in March. Doing an interview with Mercury News was another new and exciting step forward this year—mainly because I’ve been daunted by the idea of public speaking my whole life. Luckily, the PR people at Pinterest are, like the engineers, total beasts and helped me a tremendous amount in tackling these interviews and improving my public speaking skills.
I also ended up writing my first blog post for the Pinterest Engineering blog about Pincodes, which was technically challenging mostly due to dealing with a third-party library and working with external engineers. This was yet another project that made me realize that being a good product engineer does not mean just being a good programmer. It’s crucial for engineers to be good at communicating and to bring up concerns about what is technically feasible or not during meetings—which was, again, tough for an introvert like me. I'm still trying very hard these days to develop a good sense of the product and voice opinions from a perspective different than the PM’s or the designer’s, and to not hate the sound of my voice as I'm speaking up meetings.
I wanted to end this year on a good note. So even though my reaction to 2017 was not the most positive, I want to remind myself that a lot went right this year and I should be fortunate that I have the opportunity to improve as a musician, engineer, friend, and daughter. Growing is by no means painless and it would be worse to be blind to stress and to overlook the problems that I have the ability to solve. I’m fortunate that I was able to come face to face with many challenges this year and—for the most part—overcome them.