Part 1: Dating an Engineer
Nearly 3 years ago, I moved from London to the world’s tech center for a job and to escape the rain. Silicon Valley is everything the stereotypes make of it: start-ups originating from someone’s conversation late one night on the couch, horror stories of failed pitches to venture capitalists, and even crazier stories of companies that had made it. Of course, one of the most notable features of the Valley is the high ratio of Engineer:Non-Engineer. The place is seething with engineers. You can’t escape from it. Even on 4 hour bike rides that carried me to what would seem like the countryside (say, Half-moon Bay or Pescadero), I often heard conversations like this one at the local coffee shop in a town of 3,000 people:
“A ram access takes 60 nanoseconds, and I don’t have that kind of time!”, or
“I have to load up those ring buffers and flush them…”, or
“Kernel networking is no joke.”
Now, as a woman in my late-twenties, I thought I’d move to the Valley for my career. Having been romantically unsuccessful in previous cities that have been noted for their plethora of young, single adults (ahem, London, New York City), the last thing I thought I’d find was a relationship in a place that inspired this movie about a guy who falls in love with his computer. This is why when I found myself - three weeks after having moved to California - on a date with an eccentric, lovable software engineer and his 3 male friends playing Street Fighter II (he had double-booked seeing me with “video arcade day”), I couldn’t help but appreciate the zany irony life decided to throw at me.
Two and a half years later, I will share with you all the following tips from what I’ve learned after dating an engineer:
- Say exactly what you mean. Now, I know plenty of male friends who would argue this relates to all men, but I would argue that you need to be especially precise with engineers. Here’s a joke I often refer to: A wife sends her engineering husband to the store and says, “Get a gallon of milk, and if there are eggs, get six.” The engineer comes home with 6 gallons of milk to a surprised wife who says, “What have you done?” He replies, “There were eggs.”
- Context switching can be especially challenging in conversations. I’ve nearly pushed my boyfriend into panic attacks with conversations when I move from the weather to the car to work to my friend Suzie and back to the weather again.
- Romantic ideas or events - such as dates - will require some additional guidance and clarity. In my relationship, I’ve learned it’s not because he doesn’t care. Most times, it’s because he is caught up trying to sort out all the details, and of course, perfecting them. In addition, if you’re like me and enjoy surprises, you’ll have to get over the fact that you need to be explicit about it (see Tip 1)
- Where there's boys’ nights, there will be tech talk. There’s actually no way to get around this one, so you’re on own here.
- Consistency is key. One of my male friends is constantly confused about the “mixed” messages women he dates give to him. When I asked him to give some examples he said: “Well, one moment she says she wants to spend more time together, and then next moment she says, ‘It seems like you want more time alone, so it’s up to you!’ Well, what does she want?! Yes or no?” To which I replied, “That’s obviously a trap, and the answer is always ‘It depends’."
- Be careful of what you ask, as the answer might be brutal. Most engineers I’ve met have to be very precise in their professional lives, and that carries into their personal lives. Luckily, having been together for a long while now, my boyfriend can usually tell when the question is rhetorical and the expected answer is comfort versus a real opinion. For example, one of our recent conversations: “Have I been high maintenance lately?” I asked one evening after a particularly stressful day at work. I looked to him, and I noticed he wouldn’t look me in the eyes. He deliberated for some seconds. Then, suddenly, he pushed his face close to mine, squinted one eye and stared me down and replied, “It’s a trap! It’s a trap!”
- Behind all the technical discussions, facts, intellectual chat, there’s probably a shy, lovely person who doesn’t quite know how to “shoot the shit”. Be patient, and you’ll probably be surprised at the fun eccentricities and quirks and, in turn, really learn to love them in your relationship.
Part 2: Dating Experience - from One Ambitious Gal to Another
I grew up in a stereotypical Chinese-American household with a step-cousin and step-sister of similar age to me. When we were teenagers, none of us were allowed to date because we were expected to focus on our schoolwork and extracurricular activities. Dating was secondary, and it was also considered a needless distraction from our “priorities”. We each took our family's advice seriously and put our heads in the sand, worked really hard, and ended up doing fairly well academically. Then suddenly, when we came back from our respective colleges during a family holiday, we were faced with prying questions of:
"Why no boyfriend?”
“Where is boyfriend?”
“Why you bring female friend home? Why no boy? Next year, we want to see boyfriend.”
Suddenly, after spending 18+ years prioritizing work and education, we were expected to find a boyfriend just like that. To make matters worse, it wasn’t as if the pressures and challenges of remaining a career-driven woman were excused. So as you can imagine, all three young ladies of the Cheng-Ding household grew up to be fairly independent, highly driven, Type-A ambitious women for whom dating was a slightly nebulous and confusing new territory (and should be saved for later stories).
Since our early twenties, we’ve each learned quite a bit from our romantic adventures, but this leads me to the next set of advice: Dating for Ambitious Women.
- Finding a partner is not like climbing the career ladder, getting a degree, or completing an Ironman. It just isn’t. There’s no linear path, and there’s no real way you can control your surroundings. You don’t get to succeed by working really hard at it. Sorry to say, but dating is uncontrollable, oftentimes irrational, and definitely not a reflection of your success or worth.
- Avoid the null set. I’ve heard friends say the equivalence of the following when describing their ideal partner: “Climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, traveled the world, really successful in his career, wants children, willing to be a stay-at-home dad, wealthy, kind, and romantic.” I’m really sorry to say, but you’ve just described the null-set to me. No one like this exists, and finding someone who doesn’t fit all those builds isn’t “settling”, it’s being realistic. Pick a few top priorities (a few, not half a dozen) and ignore the rest.
- Learn to let go. This one reminds me a little of (1). When I was younger, I often achieved things people said were impossible for me by sheer stubbornness. I applied the same fervor and ambition toward certain relationships that just didn’t work, and one day, I realized that banging my head against a brick wall wasn’t going to move it an inch.
- Smart men like smart women. Period. Throughout the past 10 years, I’ve heard countless times (and have even been a perpetrator) that men don’t like smart women. I simply disagree based on fact alone. I would say most of my male friends here in the Bay Area are insanely proud that their girlfriends are “smart and successful”. If your relationship falls apart because of your success, don’t put it on yourself and say, “It was because he was intimidated.” No, it was more likely he is a moron.
- What relaxes you after a hard day? Find that in a partner. Before I had more dating experience, I thought I wanted a partner that could keep pace with me. But the reality is, I needed someone who admires and enjoys my pace of life but could at the same time support me. This meant slowing things down. Keeping things calm. Weathering the stress and not being worked up with it.
- Learning to be vulnerable grows relationships. Vulnerability is hard for everyone. But, if you’ve gotten to where you are in life from playing the “tough gal” role, being vulnerable can seem like a flaw. What I’ve learned over time, though, is that you’ve got to ask for help and let other people take care of you. Otherwise, it’s not a genuine relationship.
- Stop looking at the next step, and start enjoying your relationship today. I’ve always had a hard time getting to point B without trying to figure out where point C will be. Relationships, however, really test this tendency. In dating, maybe there is the next step; maybe there isn’t, but if you keep thinking of “what next?” you might miss big clues that are right in front of you.
Now, go out there and enjoy the beautiful day with friends, family, or your loved one. Happy Valentine’s Day!