Filipinos in Silicon Valley: Build yourself, your network

Filipinos working in the Twitter HQ in Silicon Valley say honing your skills and growing your contacts will get you to your goals

Carissa Villacorta

12:0:0pm August 3, 2016

11:1:58am August 8, 2016

Jojo Antonio (L) and Ken Villa, both working for Twitter in Silicon Valley, share advice for Filipinos looking to join the tech industry. Photo by Carissa Villacorta

Jojo Antonio (L) and Ken Villa, both working for Twitter in Silicon Valley, share advice for Filipinos looking to join the tech industry. Photo by Carissa Villacorta

SAN FRANCISCO – “Let’s hire more people, but make sure they’re people like you.”

Those were the words Jojo Antonio, 44, heard his employer say when he was at Paypal. His boss knew him and his skills, so even when he passed up a chance to work at Paypal at first when it was a startup, his boss took him in a year after their interview when the other startup Antonio did join folded.

Now he’s at Twitter HQ in San Francisco.

“Companies care more about what you do, not where you came from,” says Ken Villa, Jojo’s 29-year-old colleague and fellow Filipino at Twitter.

“We’re a bunch of people who have crazy amounts of skills all in different fields. We have different engineering teams who help us. The common thing that binds us all is our focus on safety and defending users’ voices online." 

For over a year now, Villa has been working at Twitter’s Trust and Safety, and Legal Policy. A graduate of NYU Law, he’s worked with Kickstarter and Senator Hillary Clinton’s office before joining Twitter in 2015.

Villa feels privileged to work for his company and department. “Trust and Safety’s general purpose is to promote safety on the platform and defend users’ voices on the Internet, because Twitter allows people to speak truth to power and express themselves." 

"This is a human issue, it’s not just on Twitter, and it’s up to us to safeguard these values. You don’t really need a law degree to be part of the team; we come from different backgrounds but our common purpose is to keep users safe online. A lot of the people who work at Trust and Safety really care about our users and do our best to honor these values.”

There are over 3,500 employees at Twitter and 20-70 new people start every week. But Antonio insists, “There’s a lot of opportunities for people even for people who are not here."

'We didn't have anything'

Speaking of opportunities, Antonio has one advice for Filipinos who want to succeed globally: “All you have to do is take that opportunity, don’t be shy. Filipinos are shy. We don’t show off. We feel like we’re the underdog but we’re not."

One might say Antonio’s work life started in McDonald’s before embarking on a career in Motorola. Both his parents worked abroad – his dad went to Saudi Arabia and his mom went to Qatar. His dad didn’t graduate from college. But in all of his college years, Antonio was a scholar. He was determined to graduate early by necessity. 

“I had no money to pay for college. We didn’t have anything. I had to graduate in four years, so I had to enroll for 21 units (even though only 16 units were allowed)... I graduated earlier than those with 4.5 averages. Because I really had to graduate."

In all of those college years, Antonio chose his subjects well. Knowing his strong and weak areas, he went into IT while all his friends went into hardware, software, and computer technology. 

Antonio had a brother and a sister and all of them graduated from college. “We knew how to iron our clothes, wash (our clothes) with our hands, cook our dinner, so those things you bring it here. It brought us closer together because we came from that environment. So when I was here, and I got laid off, I was like, “Who cares? I was down before. This is nothing. I enjoyed. I went to Disneyland.”

“That’s a good way to recover,” joked Villa.

Villa is also grateful for the sacrifices of his mother who sacrificed living in a basement in the US while Villa was a baby growing up with his lola in Cebu City where he lived for 10 years.

“I never saw my mom then. She moved to New Jersey to work as a MedTech; eventually she was able to get sponsored. It was my grandmother who raised me, that’s why I’m very close to her.”

"When I was 10, my mom brought me to the US. It was hard to fit in initially. This was in the East Coast. During that time, there weren’t many Filipinos in my town, so it was hard to acclimate socially. From a kid’s perspective you just have to learn to adjust and adapt quickly.”

From his mother’s sacrifices and hard work and through his own resilience and interest, he went on to study International Relations at New York University. His first break was to work as an immigration intern for then Senator Hillary Clinton.

Villa feels fortunate to be able to advocate for people’s rights, bring people together for a cause and show compassion within the confines of law. “Law by nature is just following precedent… What drew me here (at Twitter) is that a lot of times we’re setting the policy or strategy, we’re creating it and that makes me happy here.” 

For Antonio, timing played a role that brought him from database administration in the Philippine banking industry to the tech industry in the U.S.

“I was a consultant. During that time, Y2K, they were hiring a lot of people but nothing happened during Y2K.” He laughed.

“When I was in the Philippines, I was doing good. I was a manager at a bank, I had a house, a car... In 1996, I got an offer from the US, but I said  ‘No, I’m not gonna go. Three years later I realized that I have a car and a house but I don’t have any savings. So I said, ‘Okay, let’s go, let’s try.’

"But I told them I’m only gonna go if they show me tickets that my whole family was gonna go too. I wasn’t gonna leave them behind. So we all came to San Francisco. On the first week, I got an interview with the company I was consulting with, I got accepted. Six months after I figured out how it works here. So I applied for a startup and they paid more.”

After Antonio worked for the startup, he moved to Paypal, and then eBay for seven years, and then to YouTube before it was bought by Google. He stayed in Google for eight years. Through all those years he stayed with Database Management (DM), his expertise. Antonio says he feels very blessed. He then explains that DM is about operations, making sure everything works; for Paypal it’s all about logging everything that a user does into a database, like usernames, passwords, etc.

“Paypal became big because the people I worked with have passion in what they do. I was 28 then, and they were 21 - very passionate about it.”

Their parents’ sacrifices and decisions coupled with their hard work and determination shows that Filipino families do what they can to ensure that the next generation is better off.

Practical tips

For the rest of the community and their countrymen who would want to join a tech company, Antonio and Villa have these to share:

“You can study in the Philippines, and still join tech companies like Twitter."

"You don’t have to go to school here because school here is expensive... You get a degree, if you want to really come to the US, come over here, apply for an MBA... It’s cost effective. If you don’t get the MBA, just get the experience. We’re looking for experience. It’s all about how you project yourself, and of course, the experience that you’re gonna get. Make sure that they’re valuable experience," said Villa.

Antonio adds, “Don’t be afraid if you’re from AMA, De La Salle, wherever as long as you start early...If you have an opportunity, just grab it. Don’t be afraid, just do it. Be good at what you’re doing, make sure that you know what you want.”

“Have passion in what you do, be passionate about your field and then everything will just come together. Increasingly I think tech companies care about what you can do than where you come from." 

Villa and Antonio also shared these practical tips: 

When you fail, just try again and don’t stop.

Put yourself out on the internet, show your accomplishments. 

Network, meet up and keep in touch.

Don't be afraid to make mistakes.

Connect, be passionate, and ask. 

“Also for Fiipinos, there hasn’t been a place I’ve been to that there are no Filipinos,” Villa then shared. "There’s bound to that connection that people should take advantage of.”

“I think the people here are generally willing to help. In every company I’ve been to, I’ve never met people who generally didn’t want to help other people who are passionate about something. It’s all about asking.” – Rappler.com 

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