Roche Janken is an engineer on Uber’s Privacy Engineering team, responsible for developing features that ensure compliance and protect user privacy. In this article, she discusses her unconventional path to programming and explains how her career as a dancer inspires her to think creatively about her work at Uber.
When I meet new people and they ask what I do, I tell them, “I’m an engineer on the Privacy Team at Uber.”
I always use that exact phrase. I lead with “engineer” so they don’t assume that I am in a non-technical role because I am a woman (which is embarrassing for them), then I mention “privacy” because privacy is a fascinating problem space and many folks have opinions about online privacy. Sometimes I also add, “I’m a retired modern dancer.”
While my career trajectory is certainly unconventional, I would not have it any other way. My time as a dancer allowed me to grow into my creativity, which in turn serves me well as an engineer tasked with tackling some of privacy’s most challenging problems.
Dancing to development
I transitioned to programming from a ten-year dance career. My friends and family are not surprised that I ended up in tech. They know me as bright, exacting, and diligent, qualities that have served me well both in dance and as an engineer. I have always been good at computers; in fact, I wanted to double major in both computer science and dance in college, but did not have the bandwidth since both paths require an excessive amount of time and devotion. I chose dance, and I am so glad I did. Working as a professional dancer, I was able to collaborate with brilliant artists, push myself both physically and intellectually, and get to know myself as a creative person.
When I finally accepted that it was time for me to retire from dance, I dusted off my programmer’s skillset, attended a developer bootcamp, and eventually received a full-time offer from Uber. I honestly feel like I won the lottery ending up here, especially right now in the field of privacy. From a technical and creative perspective, the problems we are solving are complex and challenging. Privacy Engineering is a huge part of Uber’s current initiatives so I get to work on impactful services that are used across the company.
Engineering user privacy
One of the things I love about working at Uber is that my manager and team empower me to grow in my career. So much of being a professional dancer is about lightning fast learning—imagine a choreographer showing you 60 seconds of dance moves that you are required to retain and replicate after watching them just once—anything less challenging might not hold my attention! I started working on mobile code once I arrived at Uber and was part of the team that landed privacy settings on both iOS and Android. I am proud of the features we launched, as giving users control over their data is important to our team.
In addition to building user-facing features, our team also evangelizes privacy to the rest of the organization. A few months ago, I was chatting with a colleague about the importance of privacy. He said, “I don’t really think much about online privacy. I feel like I’m a pretty good guy, and I can live my life out in the open.” A lot of folks of my generation share a similar view, but my perspective is somewhat different. It is easy for me to envision a world where my life choices are frowned upon by those in power—where I would need to protect myself and my family from hostility.
During a recent talk I gave at a team meeting, I posed a hypothetical scenario to emphasize the importance of privacy for our users: “What if a law was passed allowing police to stop and frisk all current or former Uber employees? You might want LinkedIn to delete Uber from your profile, Facebook to remove mentions of Uber from your feed, and Uber to remove you from their rider database…and you’d burn all your Uber T-shirts. While this specific scenario is far-fetched, we owe our users the ability to control the data we collect.”
Reframing the issue was a successful technique; after the meeting, several teams contacted Privacy to confirm that the features they had planned were sufficiently respectful of our users’ privacy. I thank my years as an artist for the inspiration to tell our privacy story in a more personal way.
Recharging my creativity
While I love writing code and mastering the technology we use at Uber, in my spare time I try to avoid computers and my phone as much as possible. I hang out with my dog, my partner, and my roommates, read books (mostly fiction), take walks, and cook. I believe it is crucial to maintain my humanity, despite spending the majority of my day talking to a computer. How else could I deeply consider the complexity of such a personal and human issue such as privacy?
Over the years, I have also learned that I am much more creative and productive when I actually take time to recharge—ten hours of working is always less productive than seven or eight. When I let my mind wander, my typical rigour is relaxed, and the more unusual and brilliant ideas come forward. One year into my career at Uber, I am less overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of information I ingest every day, which affords me the opportunity to to return to dance as an enthusiast. I always invite my teammates to see shows—a few of them have even taken my up on it!
After my energy is restored, I can return to my work ready to tackle my team’s latest security and privacy initiatives with empathy and creativity, leading to stronger solutions and an improved user experience.
Roche Janken is a full-stack engineer of Uber’s Privacy Team. Learn more about Roche and the rest of the privacy team’s latest initiatives on the Uber Security + Privacy blog.