Ayana Miller: “ I had no idea of the crazy turns that my career would take”

“I wasn’t sure what the future of privacy policy would look like, but I knew I wanted a seat at the table.” Our TechGirl of the Week, Ayana Miller, could not predict how much her love for privacy would grow, but it definitely did. This is the story of Ayana, privacy engineer at Pinterest.

You are an engineer, why did you start doing that?

When I decided to take an exam to become a “certified privacy professional” in 2012, I had no idea of the crazy turns that my career would take. I was finishing my two-year graduate master’s program in public policy and management at Carnegie Mellon University and needed to decide on a career path.

I looked around and saw companies like Google collecting unprecedented amounts of user data. I noted how rapidly they were innovating on new products like Google Glass that would make data collection and sharing even easier.

I read news articles about people like Edward Snowden who were blowing the whistle on questionable surveillance practices within the federal government. I sensed, even then, that this was only the beginning of big data conversations and the questions associated with it. Specifically, I wondered how society would grapple with questions around privacy, surveillance, ethics, and data ownership.

I wasn’t sure what the future of privacy policy would look like, but I knew I wanted a seat at the table. After working for the US Federal Trade Commission, Facebook, and Snapchat with job titles ranging from privacy program specialist to privacy engineer, I’ve seen what works well and not so well for protecting user data across the political and technical spectrum.

You have worked at Snapchat, what did you do and can you tell us more about your experience there?

I was a privacy engineer at Snapchat and served as the technical team lead for our privacy by design team under the security engineering team.

I was responsible for ensuring that we were in compliance with a consent decree established by the US Federal Trade Commission from a privacy engineering perspective. Many of the major tech companies have similar consent decrees. I essentially made sure that Snapchat abided by their privacy policy and managed the user data they collect from people appropriately.

This includes doing technical reviews of features before they were launched to a production environment. I advised on aspects of the feature on the front and backend such as how long to retain data, the privacy user experience, and what approach we would need to take to ensure data was appropriately deleted. I also worked closely with application security engineers to ensure mechanisms for encryption, anonymization, and data de-identification were appropriate.

You are what we consider a TechGirl, when was the first time you were attracted to the magic that is technology?

I used to watch movies on the sci-fi cable channel with my dad growing up. I was fascinated with the idea of a future where technology could drive everything about society. Those movies often revolved around an all-too-common plot twist where that technology would malfunction or become so advanced that it become smarter than humans.

I think I’ve always been intrigued by this notion and I knew I wanted to be involved in ensuring that doesn’t happen. Working on data protection puts me in the front seat of conversations about how machine learning processed data and then offers personalized solutions and are learning about us.

I always tell my uber drivers that ask what I do for a living that I “make sure tech companies don’t do creepy things with people’s data.”

What languages do you use for coding and with what purpose?

I don’t have responsibility for writing code in my field, but it does help to know how to read code when reviewing technical specs. In grad school, we learned MATLAB, but I haven’t had to do any coding since those years.

Do you have your own company or do you work for a company, can you tell us a bit more about it?

I currently work at Pinterest as the manager for privacy and data protection technical program. It’s similar to the work I’ve done in previous companies like Facebook and Snapchat.

I also have a boutique advisory company where I focus on privacy training for high net-worth individuals. It’s still in the beginning stages, but eventually I’d like to become the go-to resource for celebrities and athletes who want to learn how to control their personal lives and those of their families rather than letting it control them.

What do you find is the hardest thing about your job?

The hardest part about working in privacy is not getting recognition for a job well done. There’s no good time to celebrate the absence of any breaches.

When a product launches and there are no privacy concerns, no one celebrates that. When there’s a breach or something goes wrong, there’s plenty of blame to spread around. No news is good news when you work in security and privacy, so finding things to point to as accomplishments can be intimidating. You don’t want to jinx yourself and experience a privacy PR nightmare or breach right after explaining how well a launch is going.

What do you like to do when you are not busy on your phone or laptop?

I started fabricating jewelry in my free time in 2014 and fell in love. I’m not talking about cute beading projects. I use fire and chemicals to melt sterling silver, gold, and other metals using a process called soldering. It’s a new perspective on chemistry and math for me that lets me be creative. I hadn’t realized how much STEM was involved in the fabrication of jewelry, but now I want to tell everyone I meet.

How do you feel is the best way for women to empower each other in the tech field?

I tell the women I mentor in tech to be bold and proactive about their career. No one is going to advance your career for you. Be proactive in asking for feedback. Be proactive in asking for challenging projects. Be proactive in telling co-workers what works for you in your interactions and when something they do doesn’t help you perform at your best.

Women in tech also have to come together and talk to each other. It’s not enough for there to be company-driven initiatives and programs. They are great, but that’s not where you’re going to have organic growth. Don’t rely on your company to be your career savior. Find men and women who you see who are supporting women and talk to them about what you can do to become a better professional. There are a group of amazing women I met at Snapchat who will be my friends for life. Our bond goes beyond the walls of work because we took the time to get to know each other beyond our job levels and titles.

What are your plans and hopes for the future? 

Working in tech has made me more courageous in how I approach my personal life. The most successful people that I’ve met in tech don’t stay in one place for long. They are curious and are always iterating in their narrative. I’ve taken on that same approach. The moment I started talking about my privacy advisory company at networking events, I became more recognized (and sought out) in the privacy industry. I used to think telling an employer that I had a side hustle might limit my opportunities, but it’s actually expanded them.

In the long term, I’ll likely be running my privacy advisory company along with a few other investments I manage in real state and a restaurant franchise.

My social media (Instagram, Twitter) handle is @ayanarmiller.


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