Instagram Executive Maria Zhang Headlines Discussion on Tech Industry

Niall Simonian, Contributing Writer

Maria Zhang, vice president of engineering at Instagram, visited campus on Tuesday, April 12 for a discussion on working in technology. The dialogue, titled “What Does It Take To Run Instagram,” was hosted by Career Services and took place in Benton Hall.
Born and raised in northern China, Zhang came to the United States as an international student at Eastern Michigan University, gaining employment as a software engineer at Microsoft in Seattle post-graduation. Zhang spent several years working for Microsoft, as well as several startups including the now highly successful real estate marketplace Zillow. Zhang also spent several years working on iPhone technologies, Yahoo, Tinder, Instagram and Meta (formerly Facebook).
Zhang began her career in entirely tech and engineering focused roles, before pivoting towards more management roles. She describes this personal shift in her own career as reflective of a bigger truth about the industry.
“If you look at my career from afar, you would think it was a straight line. But, in reality, it wasn’t like that,” Zhang told the audience. “This concept of a career ladder is not the case for most people; it’s more like a jungle gym with lots of ups and downs.”
Zhang described the many factors that might contribute to a change in career trajectory for a young person entering the workforce. These factors include evolution within the industry as a whole, decisions about family (e.g. having children) and self-discovery, as in figuring out a new skill or passion.
In a somewhat unconventional fashion, Zhang began her talk by asking the audience for any questions they might have. She then used these questions to frame the direction and topics of her talk. The most notable requests by the audience were for her to talk about the importance of particular majors for tech applicants, provide advice on holding leadership positions in tech, and discuss her experience as a woman in a male dominated tech field.
On the latter point, Zhang said, “Diversity has definitely improved. When I started, I was probably one of the only women in my workplace.”
Since the beginning of her career, Zhang has noticed a marked shift in companies attitudes towards hiring women, particularly that those in leadership positions are seeing the benefits of doing this more clearly. Beyond the oft-discussed concerns about equity, Zhang noted an additional defense of the importance of hiring more women in tech. That being that women actually represent a bigger proportion of the consumer population and, thus, there is value in having a woman’s perspective when engineering and marketing the products they will purchase.
Zhang’s talk is one in a long series of events hosted by the Career Services department all year long. Teresa Olsen, assistant vice president for career initiatives, explained the motivation for bringing Zhang to campus and the value of the opportunity for Colgate students.
“We often try to bring individuals in who are just really inspiring and help students think really deeply and broadly about the work that they want to do. But also the impact that they want to have,” Olsen said. “And so Maria is a wonderful person who has been to Colgate before, and helped inspire many students to go to Tinder.”
Senior Yaoqi Shou summarized his experience at the lecture: “This was the closest I’ve been to Silicon Valley.”