On security, racism and killing your ego

Serena Chen

September 17, 2019

I played a game of Werewolf with a big bunch of awesome people a year ago, Serena Chen was one of them. Since then Serena’s name kept popping up everywhere for me. I applied to speak at a User Experience conference - she spoke there the year before. I was talking to a friend about their company - Serena gave them advice. After she kindly agreed to do an interview with me, I spent hours listening to her podcast and reading her blog. I have barely spoken to Serena in real life but totally fell in love with her writing. So here we are, with Serena Chen, a product designer at BNZ, security and privacy enthusiast, writer, speaker.

Serena, tell us a bit about your background, and how is it different from product design at BNZ?

Physics and math is my background — I studied the quantum behaviour of very cold, very uniform atoms called Bose-Einstein condensates. I also spent a decent portion of my Honours degree studying Einstein’s general relativity, something I’ve wanted to study ever since I first read about it in primary school.

There’s not much similarity between physics and product design, but if there’s one thing that studying physics has taught me, is that every idea — every concept, every thought — is a tool. These tools are naturally better at solving some problems and not others, but there is no law that dictates that models in sociology can’t be applied to chemistry. Or models in economics can’t be applied to computer science. The distinctions between fields are made up, as are the problem solving approaches within them. When I look at design problems, I’m primarily solving it with my design toolkit. But I make sure to check in with my programming toolkits, my psychology toolkits. When you’re stuck on a problem, sometimes a fresh perspective can be all you need to crack it.

Not working in the same field you studied is a well accepted millennial phenomenon. However, it is still intimidating to be told that “you can do whatever you want”. Tell us how did you create your path and how did you choose what to learn on the way?

Going from one field to another was, I feel, a natural consequence of the typical life things experienced by people in my generation. Throw in some mild depression, an existential crises or two, a new city, a lot of luck, and a complete career change just kinda happens.

People are often curious about what it was that drove me from academia to tech. And often I’ll reply with an answer filled with faux-insight, lamenting about how publishing in science is a broken model, or how the lack of job security and pressure to publish is a detriment to doing actual science, or how universities shouldn’t be businesses. But if I’m honest, had the variables been ever so slightly different, I might still be in academia. It was never really a conscious move.

This is not to say that I don’t enjoy design, or that I wish I were back, buried under differential equations. There are so many possibilities in life — so much to explore, to appreciate, to master. It’s overwhelming. So instead of being paralysed by choice, I figure it’s better to simply make the most of whatever situation you find yourself in. For me, I happened to start an online magazine with some friends after graduating. It happened to gain a lot of attention. It happened to be selected as a finalist for Webstock’s Start-up Alley, and people from BNZ happened to be in the audience. They asked for the designer. It was me. They were kind enough to offer me a job. I said yes.

I wish I could give you some sort of solid, inspirational advice about how to navigate life and career, but I don’t believe that we really have as much control over our own lives as we would like to believe. So much of my success depended wholly on the generosity and support of others. There is so much I do not know. But I know what I enjoy, what excites me, what pulls me. And so I choose bits and pieces out of those things, and work my ass off until I’m satisfied.

I hear a lot of people going on about “what you have to offer to the world,” and in some ways, that’s a good approach. But you can also think about what the world can offer you. And the world is infinite in its beauty and ugliness; a candy shop of knowledge to learn and problems to solve. Don’t be shy. Dig in.

Serena Chen photographed by her sister

How does one learn the basics of security and privacy? Why is it important for people who are not working with digital products and therefore, think that this knowledge isn’t necessary for them?

Honestly I don’t think everyday people should have to stress about their privacy and security — it should be the duty of companies and governments to take care of that stuff for us. But the fact is, most of them aren’t looking out for our personal privacy and security. And some companies even make money off of us not being so private. As everything about our lives — our work, our banking, our friends — move further and further online, it’s something we all need to think seriously about.

I got into the security world through hacking and reverse-engineering puzzles on various websites and forums in the ‘90s. I enjoy the hacker mindset, the kind of “break it to fix it” approach to understanding how a system works.

Throughout the years I’ve noticed that security isn’t just full of gnarly technical problems — a lot of its problems are human, too. Navigating ambiguous communications, building trust, designing for better behaviour. These concern design and psychology more than they do computer science. That’s when I started focusing on security and privacy for everyday people.

This is a little embarrassing, but last year I tried making a YouTube channel talking about security for everyday people. The videos aren’t very good, but I can summarise the most basic security advice here.

First, the single easiest thing you can do to improve your personal security, is to make sure all of your phones, laptops, TVs, whatever is connected to the Internet, has up to date software. Yep, that software update you’ve been putting off for a week now? Do it. Then turn on automatic updates. Most of those updates will be security patches. Also, you might get new emoji, so don’t put it off 😝.

Next, the single most impactful thing you can do is to make sure you’re using different passwords for each and every different account. This is harder, since you have to spend time updating passwords, so I’d just recommend updating your most important accounts. As long as the passwords for your emails, your bank accounts, and your government accounts are all different and used no where else, you’ll be so much safer. You can update the others over time. And use a password manager to remember them all!

Serena Chen speaking at UX New Zealand, slide reads: “I care!! - Serena Chen, lone nerd shouting into the void”

You wrote a magnificent piece on the urge to be productive and valuable. I personally struggle so much with this feeling of not being valuable enough. It seems like there is nothing I can do to prove to myself (or the world) that I am doing enough, that I am enough. What is your current journey with this feeling?

It’s a constant struggle. I’m still working on it myself.

I think the main takeaway I got from writing that piece, was that the pressures of modern society can truly suck the joy out of everything. If we want to avoid burning out, we need to consciously detach ourselves from the incentives and pressures around us. The pressure to be “productive”, to make things of “value”. The state of being continuously busy, and for what?

This is easier said than done, of course. If we want to continue living in society, it’s impossible to completely detach oneself from these pressures.

We can make it easier, though. I’ve noticed that in our society, we tend to celebrate bigger-than-life, individual figures with an abundance of resources and accomplishments. And while these people are super cool and deserve recognition, our hyper-focus on the biggest baddest and bestest really starts to distort our expectations of each other and of ourselves.

It’s time to kill our heroes. Ego? That’s so 2018. What I notice more and more is how crucial and invaluable the little things are. Communities coming together to affect change in their local neighbourhood. Small acts of kindness and compassion. A simple choice that puts the needs of the many ahead of the needs of yourself. Grand plans with a big leader creates a tidy narrative, but everybody pitching in is what creates real change. That is what will save the world.

What is your opinion on personal brands? You have quite a strong presence online - what is its main goal?

The idea of a “personal brand” has always been a bit yucky to me — a symbol of how our relationships with other humans have transitioned from haphazard hangouts into the highly-curated, highly-digital space. There’s an air of faux, monetised-authenticity to it, a created real that leaves a weird taste in my mouth. Do I have a personal brand? I guess I do, by nature of existing online. What is it? I have no idea. Please email me and tell me, I’m curious to know.

I guess I have a personal website, and that’s not a usual thing for people to have. But my approach to personal websites is very 90s/2000s-early-internet — my website is less of a billboard and more like my house. It’s my personal space where I can put my things, my work, what I’m proud of, what I like. And I built it,  I own it — not Facebook, not Twitter, not Medium, not Tumblr. Sending someone a link to my website is like inviting them over: here, sit on my couch, check out my bookshelf. Drink my tea, and let me entertain you.

Serena Chen reading a book

You shared your experiences with racism in New Zealand when you were a little girl. Do you think things got significantly better since?

Better? Sadly, no. Different, for sure. Worse, probably, with the radicalisation that is rampant on Facebook and YouTube, and white supremacists feeling emboldened enough to carry out mass murders. 2019 is a scary time to be non-white.

The frustrating thing is that the people with the most power to fix the problem are also those who benefit the most from it. And no one wants to be told that they’re inadvertently being harmful. Sometimes it feels like people respond harsher towards having their actions called out for racism, than actual acts of racism itself. “I’m not racist, but...” is at joke-levels of ubiquity, and yet I hear it unironically used every other day.

More and more I feel like I don’t know how to reach out to those who think racism isn’t real (who often think “reverse racism” is the more pressing problem). Data and statistics don’t work, gruesome photographs of drowned migrant children don’t work, pleading parents who have had their babies taken don’t work, the mounting bodies of black people shot by police don’t work. People of colour cannot successfully claim damages upon our humanity if our humanity never existed in their eyes to begin with. The constant dehumanisation of non-white people is real, even if most of the time, it’s subtle. Hell, I catch myself out for thinking racist thoughts, or having automatically racist responses, too. It permeates our culture, everything we watch and consume. Racism is in the air we breathe. And it’s poison.

If you’re reading this and you are white, or white-passing (and if you catch yourself saying, “well I’m 1/16th...” you’re white), then I hope you’ll choose to exercise your power for good. The majority of those who don’t think racism is a problem are those who I will never be able to reach. But you can. You can during Christmas, you can during lunch at work, you can at the pub and you especially can with that uncle you only see once a year. It’s awkward, hard, thankless work. There are no cookies, no gold stars. But you do it for the people in your life who you love. At least that’s what I tell myself before wading into those kinds of discussions.

What’s next for you? I heard that you are looking for your next adventure outside of New Zealand, do you have any specific goals / plans for the future?

I don’t know yet myself! The only plan I have is to live and work somewhere different. Steep myself in another culture, and learn as much as I can from a new place. New Zealand will always be home, but right now is just a really good time to get some worldly experience.

Are you learning / struggling with / pondering about anything right now that you would like to share?

Too many thoughts swarm in my brain, percolate and fight with each other for space. I feel like I’ve already talked too much for this interview, so if you’re interested, I send out a monthly-ish newsletter with my thoughts and musings. Let me know if you do sign up, I’d love to hear from you!

And finally, whose story would you want to read about on here?

Gosh, everyone has a great story worth reading. Something recent that comes to mind: my good friend Rose Lu is publishing her first book. A real book! She’s a software engineer that did a Masters in Creative Writing and now she’s being published! I’m so proud! You should buy it and read it. If you enjoy any of my writing, you’ll enjoy hers even more.

Hmm, you’ve already interviewed Laura O’Connell Rapira, so is it too basic-city-liberal of me to say Chloe Swarbrick? Actually, I’d love to hear from her campaign manager from her Auckland mayoral run. I’d be keen to hear what their thoughts are on getting younger and more diverse crowds to run for local and national government, and how to actually elect them.

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