Have Hammer, Will Travel

Have Hammer, Will Travel

While navigating her own career, Fiona Tay ’12 is preparing the way for others.

FIONA TAY TURNS OVER HER STICKER-ADORNED laptop to reveal a fitting emblem: a claw hammer.

“I’ve always been one to smash glass ceilings,” she says with a smile.

It’s true. In high school, she became the first woman to win the Singapore Physics Olympiad. The 2012 computer science graduate finished Harvey Mudd in just three years and is already a leader in tech at just 25. The self-identified feminist is working to empower women through organizations like Write/Speak/Code and Women Who Code and by sharing her experiences through Twitter and blogging.

“There are so many things I care about changing in the tech industry,” she says.

Tay is a full-stack software engineer for global hospitality giant Airbnb, whose meteoric ascent and bizarre advertising tactics have attracted attention both positive and negative. Airbnb offers over two million listings in 34,000 cities worldwide and gets more than 870,000 unique visitors daily—with forecasts for continued growth.

Tay played a prominent role on the three-person engineering team that oversaw Airbnb’s major 2014 rebranding campaign, leading the reskinning of its mobile web and email platforms. She spoke at CSSConf Asia 2014 and CSSConf Australia 2015 about the monumental task of rolling out the website’s new CSS framework.

Tay says her passion is “creating infrastructure that is scalable and works solidly.” She describes her job as equal parts creating new tools and figuring out how to migrate the legacy code.

She’s also worn other hats. She jumped from infrastructure to product work for six months, developing better tools for users to find answers on the help center. At a 2013 hackathon, Tay and her team of mostly female engineers and designers prototyped a smarter and simpler listing page that was eventually launched by the search team.

Diversity and inclusion are really important to me personally. I’m passionate about raising awareness of the issues that exclude women and people of color.


But she’s more than an engineer, having undertaken an advisory role raising awareness for underrepresented groups on the company’s Tech Diversity Leadership Team (TDLT) and revamping the interview process for front-end engineers along the way.

“Diversity and inclusion are really important to me personally,” she says. “I’m passionate about raising awareness of the issues that exclude women and people of color. Software engineer is my job title, and if I stopped writing code I’d be out of a job, but as far as my role on the TDLT, I’m helping shape our approaches to interviewing and mentorship.”

Tay grew up and attended high school in Singapore, where she says boys and girls alike are encouraged to excel academically. Her mother, an accountant who worked for Ernst & Young, was also more educated than her father—uncommon in Singapore.

“That kind of worked to my advantage. I was like, I’m a girl but I’ll just do math and be smart,” she says. “No one cares if you’re cool.”

“I came [to Mudd] with a lot of extra preparation,” says Tay, who tested out of first-year chemistry and physics, helping accelerate her graduation. Now, she’s eager to talk with current students and help prepare them for life beyond the Mudd “bubble”—especially those headed to industry jobs in Silicon Valley, which she admits was a difficult transition.

“I definitely feel like I had a big culture shock coming out of Mudd, so I do my best to kind of pay it forward,” she says. “I meet [current Mudders] and can’t help but see, oh, this is a younger me.”