How Computer Science Helped Me Break Into The Fashion Industry



Fashion is a huge industry. We’re always told there are limited seats at the table, and only a few highly coveted jobs. But that’s not true. Fashion is diverse, and you don’t have to be a stylist or a designer to enter into it. Cindy Chu joined Polyvore five years ago as an engineer, rose through the ranks and became their Director of Engineering.

Who’d have thought engineering and fashion could go hand in hand? Well, they do. Polyvore is the app you go to if you want to see what’s hot in fashion, home, and beauty and create inspiring pinboards to reflect your style. I had a chat with Cindy to find out what it takes to be an engineer in the fashion industry and what working at Polyvore is like.

Computer science was a surprising choice

I think no one was more surprised than I was when I ended up in Computer Science. I was heavily involved in journalism and writing when I was in high school, so I always assumed I would study something related. My first quarter at Stanford though, I took CS105 (advertised as “CS for non-majors”) and it ended up being my favorite class.

I played catch up the rest of my freshman and sophomore years since I was behind all of the other CS majors, but I really enjoyed the immediacy of writing code and seeing it work. This was also when I realized the importance of liking the people you work with— late night coding sessions can be fun with a great group of people.

I didn’t want to be an engineer when I was younger

I read all the time as a kid, which made me want to be a writer. I spent afternoons at the public library or in our study at home, just reading. I was constantly in trouble for reading at the dinner table or after I was supposed to be asleep. My favorites from this time included Roald Dahl. His villains often got what they deserved, which appealed to my strong sense of fairness.

Engineering and fashion can go hand-in-hand

When I was growing up, I was used to being told by TV or magazines what was “in fashion” and I felt pressured to conform even if it wasn’t what I was most comfortable in. But through engineering, Polyvore has enabled a global community to connect and decide their own style.

We have so many diverse groups on Polyvore that you can always find someone with similar taste. I’m inspired every day by what our community creates and it’s so gratifying to be able to be a part of their self-expression.

My morning routines are very athletic

Most weeks I’m in the gym five days, focusing on weightlifting. I’m a charter member at Prometheus Athletics, whose mission is to offer a place where people interested in both athletic and intellectual pursuits can come together. After the gym, I take my two dogs around the neighborhood for their morning walk.

I started working out at my current gym about five years ago. Lifting keeps me grounded and is great for stress relief. I also bike to work most days, as long as the weather is nice. It’s a sixteen-mile round trip and I love that I get to catch up on podcasts and just have some time to myself.

My workwear staples are ever-changing

I love leather jackets and own them in a variety of colors (though many of them are just black).

It’s summer now, so a typical uniform has been a light dress, a cropped jacket, and heeled sandals. I like to accessorize with at least one piece of really interesting or weird jewelry; those can be great conversation starters!

The most inspiring person I’ve ever met is in my family

I can honestly say, my own mother. She worked two jobs for most of my childhood, including working the graveyard shift at a bank, to make ends meet. Later, she started her own business while still working her full-time job. It was always her dream that I would go to a great college and she always told me that if I got into Stanford, she would sell the house if that was the only way to pay for it.

She taught me that when you enable others to succeed, you succeed too, which is a philosophy I employ with my teams at work.

It’s easier than you think to get into engineering

Just get started! There are so many free resources online now which you can use to teach yourself. You may also find meetups near you if you’d rather learn in a group setting. Pick a project you’re passionate about, so you’ll be motivated to work on it, and then build away.

In my free time, I write and maintain a dog rescue website, as a way of giving back to the organization my two pups are from. It helps them out, but it’s also a great playground for me to test out new technology and stay up-to- date with constant changes. I don’t think I would be as motivated to spend my nights and weekends on it if it wasn’t for a cause I care deeply about.

I love reading

I still read a lot, so it’s difficult to pick a favorite. I will enjoy pretty much anything by Neil Gaiman or Haruki Murakami. More recently, I haven’t been able to put down The Expanse series.

The book that changed my life, though, is Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home. Her base recipe for homemade ice cream is brilliant, and it’s resulted in a freezer full of the good stuff. I’m a strong believer in consuming small quantities of ice cream, but frequently.

On the apps side, I use MapMyRide and Fitocracy every day to track workouts and Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram to keep up with my friends. And to post silly pictures of my dogs.

Don’t expect everyone to work in the same way

It seems obvious when you say it, but because people are different, they will have different paths to success. You can’t expect everyone to work or communicate or lead in the same way.

As a manager, it’s my job to recognize those differences and help people find what works for them. However, keeping the whole team working together is still the highest priority, and sometimes that means making the hard decision to finding a new role for an individual.

The best work advice I’ve received: When you’re a manager, your team’s success is your success, so do everything you can to help them succeed.

The best life advice I’ve received: There are only so many things you can eat/buy that will bring you happiness, so when you find them, you should eat/buy them!

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Managing Editor

Beth is the Managing Editor of CGD. She is a graduate of the Penguin Writer's Academy, has published a short story and loves to read creative writing manuals in her spare time.

  • Leah Rose

    Love this post, people always forget about the technical side of the industry.

  • Helene Vlacho

    Polyvore addict here: ( ) I always enjoy reading and learning more about people behind the tech bars on Polyvore. Great advices Cindy!

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