Sandra Liu Huang, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

Sandra Liu Huang, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

Those who have worked with Sandra Liu Huang won’t be surprised to see her in a publication about good people doing great things. Sandra leads product and engineering at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and has had a front-row seat to many of the great companies in technology over the past two decades.

I had the opportunity to work with Sandra during Facebook’s earlier years, from 2008 to 2010, before she left for Quora. She set my bar high for what to look for in an exceptional product manager and operator. Sandra leaves her mark through her actions.

During those early years at Facebook, Sandra brought calm, order, and focus to situations that could throw the best of us off-center. I’d been meaning to catch up with her, and sat down with Sandra in Menlo Park to learn more about how she became the person she is today.

Our conservation has been edited for clarity and brevity.  

Childhood: Crossing Cultural Borders

David Swain: Why don’t we start with where you grew up?

Sandra Liu Huang: I was born in South Carolina, and grew up in Atlanta near Stone Mountain. I spent most of my childhood in Georgia, from age four to almost 14. After 14, we moved to Taiwan, where my parents are from. Until then, I’d only visited Taiwan once.

What was your neighborhood like as a child?

We were in the suburbs, but backed up to forests. I think, in general, my parents definitely trusted me. I don’t know if I was more trustworthy as a kid, or if they were more trusting as parents, but we used to run around all the time, just in the woods all day. Some of the neighbors had a blow horn or something, and when you heard the horn, it was the signal to go home for dinner. It was pretty free range growing up, I’d say.

Tell me more about life with your parents.

My mom started her career as a nurse, but all of my childhood she was at home. My dad is a mechanical engineer. He never brought work home, so I barely understood what he did. They were immigrants to the U.S., and I was one of two Asian kids in a class of 600.

Growing up, I was very, very shy until something—I don’t know what happened, but until fifth grade, when I ran for student council president. The rest is history. I think part of it was just realizing I was a little different. You don’t quite understand racial dynamics as a kid, but you just know you’re a little different.

At Chinese New Year, my mom would come in, and we’d bring Rice Krispie treats to school. My mom would write everyone’s name in Mandarin. It was special. My parents raised us to strongly identify as Taiwanese Americans, but at the same time, we were different than most of the people we lived around. Growing up, it was just figuring out our place and my place in that.

How did you figure out your place with your friends?

I actually had three birthday parties every year. One was for my school friends, one was for my Chinese school friends, and then a small one was for my Taiwanese-American friends, which was not quite the same group as my Chinese school friends.

My parents were the youngest and second-youngest of really big families (eight, nine kids on both sides), so I was the uber-big kid. In my family, I was the only firstborn child. I just did a lot of things pretty independently, maybe as a result of who they were as parents, or maybe from their experience as immigrants. They didn’t always understand the letters from the school. I would read them and tell my parents what they said.

What brought your family back to Taiwan when you were 14?

My dad changed jobs, so it was mostly for work reasons. Also, he wanted us to get to know our grandparents better and learn the language. It was really a big, crazy move, especially when you’re about to go to high school and leave all your friends.

You were in eighth grade? That’s a big transition year.

I was in eighth grade, yeah. I went to a bilingual school in Taiwan, so it was half-English and half-Mandarin. Culturally, it was still very, very different than Georgia.

We had a half-day of school on Saturdays all the way through the second half of senior year, when the law changed. We had to clean the classroom every day. I had to do bathroom checks. It was just different.

Did you like the intensity of the Taiwanese education system?

It was really academically-oriented compared to my experience in the States. Starting in third grade, you know who is at the top of the class. They call out the little third graders by name, so it’s just very academic. I think the bigger thing was when I went out into the city, my Mandarin wasn’t very good, and so it was such a different world.

You do learn quickly when you’re fully immersed because you have no choice. It was also a more urban experience—you’re in a really dense place compared to running in the woods of Georgia.

What was the cultural adjustment like for you?

What was interesting is that growing up, my parents were really active in the Taiwanese-American community. They support Taiwanese independence. I grew up with a strong sense of being a Taiwanese American. It’s a political choice to identify that way—I went to rallies and all these events. Then, when it came time for us to actually move, all of my friends in that community were like, “Oh, my goodness, how could you possibly move to Taiwan?” I found that really confusing because we were so pro-Taiwan. It was just this really big transition.

Have you gone back to the South?

I think I lost the twang years ago. I did go back between ninth and tenth grade. For some reason, my parents trusted me to spend the whole summer there by myself, and I just went from one family friend’s house to another. I literally bounced around all summer.

What I realized from that trip was even though I was not enjoying Taiwan, and I really wanted to be back in the States, after that summer alone I was like, Oh, actually, family is important. It was better to be where my parents were than to be in the States, and also, life in the U.S. was not the only way to live.

You left Taiwan to go to Stanford. How did you know you wanted to go to such a top-tier school?

It was, I would say, a lucky accident. I was thinking of going to a small liberal arts school and doing a Music and Technology major. I played piano and stopped taking lessons after I moved to Taiwan, but I accompanied the choirs—like the elementary school choirs—as the pianist.

Also, applying from Taiwan, we couldn’t afford to visit schools. There wasn’t really the internet. It was back in the brochure days, and you had no idea what college was like.

My cousin had gone to Stanford, and she randomly visited Taiwan that winter. It was probably my junior year, and she said, “You have to apply to Stanford.” I had no idea, so I was like, “Okay.” I figured Stanford had a lot of majors compared to the smaller schools, and applied and was really lucky.

What did you study?

I did an interdisciplinary major called Science, Technology, and Society. It was basically most of the Computer Science (CS) major. Then I took all these other classes that I thought were interesting around public policy, communications, and economics. In many ways, my college friends look at my career and are like, “Oh, it’s exactly that.” Even though I didn’t quite realize it along the way, it was a mix of how to think about building technology and having it impact the world we live in.

On Parenting and Finding Balance

You have two kids, ages eight and five. How is their childhood in Palo Alto different than what you experienced growing up?

It’s very different. When I got back to the States for college, I thought California was really weird. There were a lot of Asian people, and that wasn’t the America I knew, where I was very different from everyone else. For them to grow up in California—if, in the world, the U.S. is a very comfortable place to live, I think California can be considered a very comfortable place to live within the U.S. I think about it a lot because I feel like it is a little bit of a bubble. I think about making sure they’re pretty grounded people, despite living in a place where you can order gas on your phone to come to your house. Crazy things like that.

How do you help your kids stay grounded in Silicon Valley?

It’s something I think about, and my husband and I talk about it a lot. When I was growing up, my parents would say, “Hey, when we were younger, we didn’t have shoes. We’d have to walk so far. I used to ride the water buffalo.” As a kid, you’re just like, “You’re crazy, Mom and Dad.” That was a different world, and so I struggled. How do you tell our kids that this is not necessarily everyone’s normal?

We’ve tried things like volunteer work. My eldest, at age four, was helping with projects at the local school. When we would drive by the school later, he’d be like, “Oh, that’s the school that I helped paint or plant flowers at.” We’ve tried to do service activities. They know they donate their Halloween candy to people—the military abroad. We try to have habits and traditions now that help them at least be more aware that they are fortunate and that they have some obligation to give back in, as kids, really small ways. That’s important to me to have them recognize that our experience is not normal compared to how a lot of other people live.

What are some things you do to navigate parenting, which can be so much more emotional than work? Who are you as a parent versus a product manager?

Kids are definitely challenging. You wish you could control them, but you can’t. They’re similar to you in some ways, but really, really different in others. I think, though, there is a similarity to work in that—whether it’s my kids, or my colleagues, or my team—my hope is that you realize what you’re good at. I see a lot of my friends getting to points in their careers where they’re really in their element. They’ve finally found what they’re supposed to do—really leaning in on their strengths and getting energy from doing work that makes them feel alive. That’s my hope for everyone. It makes me happy when I see people in their element.

As a parent, that’s the guiding thing. I hope my children can be both self-aware and independent. Having the right boundaries is probably the other part that makes for a healthy person. Even though my kids are very different, I have to remind myself that they’re on their own journey. Just like my colleagues from many different companies, you don’t work with anyone forever. I’m only going to be able to parent my children for these early years, and so in some ways, it’s quite parallel.

I do what I can to help them be happy and fulfilled. One of my kids is very different than me, and one of my kids is uncannily similar in personality. It’s weird. I think a big part of parenting is setting boundaries, teaching them to be thoughtful, and letting them be okay with who they are, even though it’s hard for me sometimes to watch and I’m sure it’ll get harder as they get older.

How do you and your husband balance kids and work?

He is an amazing partner on all fronts. He cooks and has all these skills I don’t, so we definitely share the home duty. Children, though, aren’t always 50-50, right? They just have preferences, and it ebbs and flows. We communicate really well, which helps make it work, and then I think we try to be gracious. There’ve been phases when I’ve done a lot of startups. He’s had moments. Not keeping tabs—we’re just trying to work together to make it all work.

What do you do to stay grounded in situations where you have those ebbs and flows?

A big thing I’m still struggling with is self-care and resting enough. Honestly, I have this coach—we’ve talked on the phone for eight years throughout my career. She’s an executive coach. We probably talk about sleep a huge portion, at least 50 percent of the time, and I’ve gotten better. I am a high-action person. I enjoy my work a lot, but over time it’s become clear that resting enough is critical.

Exercising—I could definitely be better at that, but I work a very physical job, even though it doesn’t seem like it because we’re just using our heads and talking and sitting in meetings all the time. Realizing it’s actually like a full-body thing has been important.

Before I started at Chan Zuckerberg, I took a little bit of time after Quora, although I still had assigned projects and things I was working on. For the rest part, I took art classes, and the art instructor in my first class kept yelling at me, “You need to relax! You can’t draw with your fingers. You need to draw with your body.” I was like, “I understand what you’re saying, but I can’t quite get there.” It took time. Now, I definitely recommend that people take time to just step back. It’s easy in the Valley to be in hyper-drive all the time, and I think we should all aim more for the marathon than the sprints.

Have you kept up your art?

I do sketch once in a while—it helps me find calm. I’m not a good artist, but I think what I learned from the classes is that to actually draw something, you need to be quiet. You need to see and observe, and then you can draw.

What about routines or habits that get you through your week?

With young kids, you just do what you can to get through. One habit that’s been important is understanding, at least for family stuff, what each kid most appreciates. This is the “languages of love” thing where I realize one of my kids just really wants me to do things. That’s how he feels appreciated, and so I have to be pretty conscious about doing things. Not just things that are convenient to my schedule. That makes me feel like, if not every day, certainly every week I have done the things to really meet my kids where they’re at.

In general, routine-wise, I’m definitely more of a night person. The mornings are a little crazy. I try to have family time in the evening when there are all the logistics of getting fed and to bed, but I think that is also time to just enjoy and be offline. There are a lot of antics in our house. It’s silly in our household, but it’s fun.  Bedtime probably takes longer than it could. It’s not the most efficient thing, but it’s part of our routine to enjoy our family at the end of the day.

Bringing Order to Chaos

“The thing that’s always clear is no matter the problem, I feel pretty confident we can do something—and we can do something better if we’re calm.” — Sandra Liu Huang

You’ve worked at Google, Facebook, Quora, and now the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative—all companies that work to have massive scale and societal impact powered by technology. Was that a deliberate choice in your career path?

My high school was in Taiwan’s equivalent of Silicon Valley. It was a school built to get people who had left to go to grad school in the U.S. to come back and have an affordable place to send their kids.

Even in high school, I was surrounded by the semiconductor companies and all of these international companies. I think what drew me to the school originally was the sense that you could create something new.

Some of the themes through my career I’ve realized in hindsight. Not all of it was super-deliberate. I just wanted to be working with people who wanted to build something new, and to do it in a mission-oriented way. I think all these companies really want to create tools that are helpful to people’s lives. For many reasons, they’ve been able to reach scale, but my time with those companies was always at the earlier end. For me, I’m drawn to that creation phase. Not just of the products, but also the organizations.

The other theme for me is learning. The transitions have all been around, Where might I learn more? I have always wanted to go to smaller and smaller places because, in startup mode, there’s more to do than people. It’s exciting to me to be in those situations.

The self-awareness to learn you like that creation phase—is that something you thought about over time, or did it happen more naturally?

I think, when I left Google, I did want to go to a smaller place, or I knew that at some point I would want to. It wasn’t easy to leave Google at that point.

Google was probably about 16,000 employees when I left, and about 2,000 when I joined.

At some point, you can’t really feel the size of a company. It’s just big. Facebook at the time I joined (2008) wasn’t tiny — it was 400 people. When I got there, I quickly realized, oh, many things are actually figured out even earlier in a company’s history, and so I knew even then that I did want to try to get closer to the creation stage. I had mentors who encouraged me to spend the early part of my career optimizing for learning, and so I had that as a value—to try different things while I had some flexibility. Now, looking back, I’m like, Okay, I really do love that phase, which is what draws me to Chan Zuckerberg.

One of the things I remember most about working together at Facebook is your bringing order and vision to chaos. Things like producing our annual event, f8, every year—I think it was 2010 when we had to line up 80 partners in six weeks, and you brought a sense of calm to it. Is that naturally who you are?

I was just thinking about that journey. I think there’s some part of me that’s always been like that. There was one year where I planned this massive scavenger hunt at the mall. I must’ve been no more than 10 or 11. I was calling all these stores, “Would you hold my clues? My friends are going to come.” I was so proud of this game I had created, but it turned out I made it too hard. My friends had to traverse the mall 10 times, and by the end, everyone was really mad at me because they were tired.

There’s part of me that’s always loved to pull people together, and do stuff for people. Also, I was a camp counselor pretty early on, and at this one camp they talked about servant leadership—something that, even at a young age, really resonated. It’s like, “Leaders, you lead because you model.” I both enjoy doing things, and also realize that at some point, to do bigger things, you need to bring people along. That’s always been some part of who I am, and I’ve been lucky to apply it at work.

You’ve worked through roadblocks and challenges, and still managed to stay positive and calm. Do you feel that way on the inside?

Yeah, that’s interesting. People will say I’m calm or graceful under pressure. There are definitely moments of freak-out, with some of the crises and things we’ve dealt with. But I think I know it’s not that productive to really go there and indulge in the freak-out.

The thing that’s always clear is no matter the problem, I feel pretty confident we can do something—and we can do something better if we’re calm. I think that’s part of my leadership style now, and I’ve dealt with lots of crises, bugs, and other problems. Those are some of my peak moments. At that f8 you mentioned, I distinctly remember when the keynotes ran really early—the food wasn’t out yet, and we were coordinating the simultaneous launch of the Like button on hundreds of partners sites. I was the one with the headset running the launch room. Those are the moments when I get to see all the pieces, and see a picture for how it will be fine. It’s just that we have to execute.

What do you do to stay focused and productive when you’re not in those intense moments? You’ve got to keep your team motivated too.

I look back at my time at Quora, where I think, overall, the team and the company—we managed it well. There weren’t a lot of fire drills compared to other startups. In some ways, if you talk to the executive team, everyone is at their best during some of these moments of maybe not crisis, but just high pressure.

Since there weren’t always high-pressure situations along the way, I think, especially as a product manager, you can create those moments. Whether it’s around a launch or a milestone, part of moving teams forward is recognizing that people feel good when they accomplish something, and you can frame the work into those moments in some ways. Not to cause artificial fire drills, but to really create a moment of, Hey, if we get to this line, we should all feel a sense of accomplishment.

A lot of us here in the Valley are younger when we’re put in challenging leadership situations. Things like being vulnerable, bringing yourself to work, and having hard conversations don’t always come naturally. What have you learned?

Yeah, I think I’ve grown a lot as a people manager and a leader. The core that’s always been there is the idea of servant leadership. That has helped me feel like, for better or worse, I have to model and do the work to be a leader. That’s one theme.

The other theme I’ve learned in recent years is the value of being direct, and I’m trying to do that more. I honestly believe getting feedback is a gift. If I can do things to help my team get better by being direct—even just by sharing where I’m at in my own journey—that’s really valuable.

I’ve optimized for learning in my career. I’m also a very strengths-oriented person. The idea of just working on your inner strength is what I think everyone should do, ideally. That would be awesome, if the world could enable that. For me, those things mean being direct, realizing everyone’s on a journey like I am, and doing whatever I can to give feedback to help people become more of who they are. That’s just something I strive to do.

Leadership, Tech, and the Future

You recently spoke at the Fortune women’s event. Where have you seen things progress in your career in the Valley with women in tech? How do you hope things will evolve?

On a personal level, and I think my college classmates, a similar-age cohort, shared this feeling—I think we all entered the workforce feeling very empowered and optimistic. You realize that actually, at some point in your career, it’s not that easy necessarily, right? It’s not quite as straightforward. The business world is complex. It’s not like you get good grades, and you’ll just definitely progress.

I would say, honestly, at the beginning of my career, I didn’t think about being a woman in tech that explicitly. I was a woman in tech, but it wasn’t necessarily a thing. Honestly, it just took more time in my career to realize there are certain things we need to talk about. It’s important as a leader to acknowledge that, but that was a journey for me.

Where we are now? I think a lot of the recent dialogue is great, both the work from Sheryl (Sandberg) and Lean In, as well as some of the more recent issues around harassment and other challenges that women disproportionately face, especially in tech.

At the same time, I do feel hopeful that in tech, where in many ways as an industry we’re really lucky, there are more and more people moving into the venture space, or there are new sources of funding. You’ll start to see a shift in more founders who are women, more leaders who are women. It’s just clear. Having that mix, there are more things you think about, and you will take better care of your team if you have a representative leadership team. I have personally seen the value of that and benefited from it, and just think we still have a long way to go.

I’m hopeful that tech can really be ambitious on this front because we’re ambitious on all sorts of other fronts. Hopefully, we can lead and model and innovate. What are the workplace policies that could shift to really support not just women, but also families better? What are the programs that we can do more systematically to improve things?

Is there anything unique to your approach to management and things like running meetings?

For me, as a product manager, you learn to operate in a very interdisciplinary way. Sometimes you’re working with engineers. Sometimes you’re working with finance. Sometimes you’re working with legal, with the communications team—a lot of experts from different fields. I think a big part of what makes me good at what I do is being pretty empathetic to other people, but also creating a safe environment to surface ideas. I don’t know if everyone agrees with this, but I really think that if we get the best ideas out there and we trust each other, a team will have great results. I fundamentally believe in the power of an interdisciplinary, diverse team. It’s hard, and someone has to create a platform to make it safe for the ideas to come out. Then someone needs to glue it together, and get the team to move in one clear direction.

The worst case is tons of ideas and no forward momentum. Part of what I see at my job is to get the great ideas, really hear them, and then create a strategy that is better for having had all those ideas on the table. When I run meetings or lead teams, that’s an important value. How do we hear from the perspectives we have, and then move forward?

What brought you to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative? What are you hoping for?

After I left Quora, I was looking for an opportunity that would still let me build products and organizations, but also, something with a little more tangible impact on the world. I had mostly built consumer tech software products. For me, Chan Zuckerberg is a very unique model, and I am here because of the combination of Mark (Zuckerberg) and Priscilla (Chan).

Mark, we all know, is the tech visionary, and thinks about scale and impact. Priscilla is a practitioner. She’s a doctor and an educator, and really pushes us to be close to the work. I think that combination makes CZI a unique vehicle to impact some really important areas. My role here is certainly on the technology side, which is more my experience, but I am super-excited to see us bring together a team of experts— whether from academia, or government, or philanthropy, or top technologists—to try to solve some really challenging problems that I don’t quite see other organizations solving.

Are there any problems where you’re digging in more personally than others?

Right now, I’m doing a lot of work to set things up across the organization. We work in science, education, as well as opportunity, and all three are distinct areas of focus. There are also a lot of patterns and adjacencies across the areas, which is to think about how CZI will bring technology, bring grant-making, and bring policy and advocacy to each of these problems. I’m thinking a lot about how this all fits together and how we develop strong product strategies in this context.

Here’s Sandra catching up with author Michelle Kuo about her book, Reading with Patrick.

Also published on Medium.

About The Author

David Swain

David Swain is the founder of Common Threads Media. Swain was the head of communications at Instagram and director of technology communications at Facebook. He is an advisory board member of Strava.

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