Ten years ago, I was scared to talk to strangers. Today, I can take an unstructured problem, build a team, and create an impactful solution.Featured
My name is Jessie Duan and I’m currently an Engineering Manager at Quora as well as the cofounder of Code.X, a nonprofit that empowers high school students to become change makers in developing countries. Even 5 years ago, I never would’ve imagined myself taking leadership and tackling these challenges, so I wanted to share my career and leadership journey with you. I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina and studied Applied Math and Computer Science at Stanford. It started with a computer science class during my freshman year — I fell in love with the ability to build and create. I joined Quora with the goal of sharing and growing the world’s knowledge. Today I lead the Core Product engineering team, building product features to shape the fundamental dynamics of Quora. Throughout this time, my passion for education also evolved. Early on, I drew on my personal high school experiences to found Girls Teaching Girls To Code to expose more high school girls to computer science. This passion evolved into more general computer science education, teaching a high school AP Computer Science class. That was when I realized that -- even when teaching computer science, what we’re really teaching high schoolers is life skills. I then cofounded Code.X to focus on those broader life skills, and to date, we’ve reached hundreds of students in Palestine and Albania. Careers aren't static. I believe that careers aren’t static. I see my career as a decades-long journey that involves exploration, experimentation, and impact. Within Quora, I started as a product engineer, dabbled in product management, ran events for summer interns, and eventually transitioned to become an engineering manager. Outside of Quora, I founded a nonprofit, taught at a public high school, worked on projects with established nonprofits, held storytelling events, and mentored incarcerated people. I used to worry that I was too unfocused and aimless, but I followed opportunities that seemed interesting. Each opportunity led to more opportunities, and more experiences, and reflecting on these helped me realize that my passion is empowering and growing people. But even “empowering and growing people” is such a broad mission! There are so many ways to do this — as an engineering manager focusing on my team members’ career growth, as a nonprofit leader empowering young leaders around the world, as a teacher in a high school classroom, as a member of government… the list goes on and on. There are a lot of different routes I could take from here, and I don’t know which is “best”. So now, I see myself continuing to prototype different ways to reach my mission. Currently, I’m focused on two “prototypes”: (1) growing my management skills at Quora, and (2) running Code.X to empower our students to become change makers as well as support our volunteer instructors in their teaching journeys. I’m building skills and learning a lot about myself, and I know that this exploration will evolve into even more prototypes. The key to building and maintaining networks is to build a community around myself. I think less about networks and more about building the community around myself. With that framing, it becomes about the people themselves. My best recommendation is to genuinely care about people. When you meet someone, get to know them and what they care about, whether it’s their work, kids, or a passion project. By engaging at a human-to-human level, we both enjoy our interactions and build a long-lasting relationship. I’ve seen this play out with Code.X. Every year, Code.X recruits recent college graduates to volunteer abroad as instructors, and dedicate an intense 3 weeks to growing our students. I genuinely care about each and every one of our instructors — I’ve had phone calls with parents to soothe family concerns, helped with jobs and connections, and spent countless hours just talking about life. This has built trust. During the summers, our instructors are comfortable raising issues to me to resolve; afterwards, instructors are invested in improving the Code.X program. More broadly, it helps build an instructor community that’s representative of our Code.X values. The best leaders figure out their leadership style and leverage it. The stereotypical image of a leader is charismatic, bold, and visionary. Well, it turns out that’s just not me. I don’t like the spotlight — I like to lead by coaching and enabling other people. Back in high school, I never thought I was “leadership” material. So I was floored when my tennis coach made me the captain of the team. I wasn’t the best player — but I showed up, rallied the team, and made sure everyone had what they needed. I helped the team do what we needed to do — and that really is leadership. Today, as an engineering manager, I have a more nuanced view of leadership, and I’m still developing my own style. I’m very transparent and have a lot of honest conversations about how I’ve failed, what I’m uncertain about, and my perceptions. I focus on coaching my team and empowering them to make decisions and create their own visions, and am clear that mine is just one opinion of many. That said, there are many leadership styles that are effective in different situations, and even though one comes naturally to me, I can also take on other styles. It’s important to choose the most effective style at any given time. Just take the first step.More than anything else, I’ve gained confidence through my career. 10 years ago, I was scared to talk to strangers. Today, I truly believe that I can take an unstructured problem, build a team, and create an impactful solution. This change has come through taking action and tackling problems, working on projects, recruiting people, and just taking that first step whenever I’m not sure where to start.--Jessie is the Engineering Manager for Quora's Core Product team. She is passionate about education and cofounded Girls Teaching Girls To Code and Code.X to spark interest in computer science among high schoolers. She holds MS and BS degrees in Computer Science from Stanford, and can be found searching for a paragliding launch site or training for her next triathlon.
> I wasn’t the best player — but I showed up, rallied the team, and made sure everyone had what they needed. I helped the team do what we needed to do — and that really is leadership.Love this part so much! Thank you, Jessie for sharing your story with us!
Thanks @kuan - means a lot coming from you :)
Thank you for sharing your story, it's is so inspirational! I'm afraid to talk to strangers... but I'm trying to figure out my style of approaching people and wish to also eventually be in a leadership role.I love what you're doing with Code.X and wish opportunities like this were available when I was a recent grad! I don't think I'm considered a recent grad anymore, but if Code.X expands towards that direction, I'd be very interested.
@bonnieli I totally hear you on talking to strangers (as you know!), but I love that you're focusing on figuring out your style. There are so many forms of leadership and working / connecting with people, and I know you'll figure out what's right for you.I'll keep you posted on Code.X! In the meantime, if you're interested in teaching, I'd definitely recommend trying to find local programs (high schools, nonprofits, etc) -- might be good practice for leadership too :)
Hi Jessie,I love your story. I relate a lot because I have been reading a lot about leadership styles and finally found one that feels great which is service leadership. At work I also don’t like to be the center of attention but rather the work itself. I see my job as being supportive and encouraging to my team so we can all do great work together. Thank you for highlighting there are many ways to lead. This has given me space to explore my leadership style and now I feel much more empowered to lead people around finances and how they impact the company as a whole, including your great point about connecting person to person. This is where loyalty and care is born. Congratulations on your work and nonprofit. 🥳
YES! I am a big fan of servant leadership -- I love how you describe it as "we can all do great work together".
Hi Jessie, thanks so much for spending time with us! Could you perhaps highlight your framework for tackling an unstructured problem???
Great question -- I've found design thinking (https://voltagecontrol.co/a-step-by-step-guide-to-the-design-thinking-process-d0a95a28b9db) to be a great framework for me.Here's how I think of an overall process, which is probably pretty standard:- Understanding the space -- interviewing people, gathering data, etc- Distilling down to 1-3 key issues that will move the needle the most- Figuring out solutions and testing them out- Iterating -- going back to Step 1!There are a couple things that I find particularly important in this process though:- having focus on the key problem(s) -- there are going to be a lot of distractions and ways to improve things, but we want to focus on the most effective.- testing and iterating quickly -- I believe that testing gives me more information to understand the space better, so it's valuable to get to testing as soon as possible, even if it's just bouncing an idea off a potential person I'm solving for.