Sandra Trinh, Data Analyst on Poetry

Being a woman in STEM can be difficult. I’ve felt a lot of sexism, difficulty, and frustration. English was something that I worked at when I was in high school, and I thought it’d be a good outlet for me. From there, it led to creative writing, and prose led to poetry. I want for another young woman to see this article and know that she’s not alone. I want people to know that they can, indeed, mix technology and liberal arts.

My name is Sandra Trinh, and I’m a data analyst that has worked in multiple fields. My latest stint was in mobile data, but before that, I was working in healthcare and user behaviour in media. I am a born and raised Philadelphian. I live in West Philly now, and if I had a dollar for every time I heard the ‘Fresh Prince’ rap, I’d be able to pay for a month’s worth of rent. I chose a consulting position when I graduated college, and my managers thought I’d be well suited to data. I interviewed for the position, and the contract thought I was well suited. Little did I know that it would become a lifelong obsession for me! I think that data chose me, not the other way around.

I first became interested in creative writing and poetry when I was younger, reading Little House on the Prairie. My older sister likened herself to Mary, and me to Laura – she told me that I would be the one that needed to write for her. As I grew older, the need for expression grew, and it started with prose, which turned to poetry. I have a friend to thank for that.

I find that great prose writers lend their wit to poetry. I adore Nabokov, absolutely, along with James Joyce. Strictly in poetry, I admire a lot of local writers – Frank Sherlock, CA Conrad, Brian Teare. I also adore Russian literature, Tolstoy and Nabokov particularly. I find myself falling into Junot Diaz often, when I can recover the copies I’ve lent to friends. I do love reading Sylvia Plath as well.

My primary interest is code poetry. For me, code poetry is writing poetry that reads as code. It doesn’t quite run as code, mostly because I was burning out on programming when I wrote it. But if you write pseudocode, you know what I’m saying. I found it so incredibly relatable after another class in programming. Life is quite recursive – each person has a schedule that they stick to, over and over again, and there might be an exception (which we handle with an exit statement). People are habitual, and it’s easy to write into code. Generally, I write about the more painful parts about life: breakups, failures, difficult decisions. Lately, I’ve been working on a series in which I compare memory to SQL queries, wondering if my computer also dreams in her sleep. It’s a flight of fancy, I know, but it’s also a comforting idea for someone who works very late hours. I wonder if my hard drive can wonder, can believe, can dream.

When it comes to an audience for my poetry, I generally write to tech-savvy people. When I presented my senior thesis, I wrote a tutorial on how to read code, and I colour coded it! I’m mostly looking for people in my position, understanding that it’s difficult to get out of ruts and feeling the repetitive nature of life, until we decide to break out of it. It’s a difficult process, but I hope that I can help someone. I think that part of my writing got me a scholarship to go to the Grace Hopper Conference. It was incredible – after years of being surrounded by men in my field, I was at a conference of just women who were at the top of what they did, looking for other women being great at what they did, and supporting me for what I was doing.

I write about 1000 words a night, sleep on it, and then edit it down to 200 words. Brevity is the soul of wit, after all. My writing process has definitely gotten slower since university. I don’t feel as much anxiety to push out information and data, and I feel as though I have a lot more time to proofread. Before, I was struggling at 2000 words and maybe getting down to 1500. I am not that frantic any longer, and I’m really grateful for that.

I think the main similarity between poetry and my job is working with people. With poetry, you need to slant and work words toward people, and I do the same thing with people at Comcast. In the end, people just want to feel understood, and that’s what I do with both poetry and Comcast. A lot of people in my field are highly technological. While it’s not a bad trait, I think that it’s also good to be able to connect to people in a humane way. Data is so much more than just binary, it’s holistic. In order to holistically understand data, you have to understand people, and poetry helps me do that. I think the role of a poet has definitely become different with today’s technology. A poet used to be lo-fi, but any poet worth their druthers is now online, tweeting, Facebooking, doing whatever if they want to popularize themselves. At the same time, my work is in code, in technology, in Internet. So I can’t pretend that I don’t owe my success to tech, both creatively and professionally.

My advice to someone who wishes to write poetry is to read so much. Read more than you think you’re capable of. Blow off people, sit on your couch, read literature that’s known for language, arm yourself with post-its and a pen, and write down and pin down each and every great phrase you see. If I suffer from writer’s block, I’ve always just walked – I think best when I walk, and I walk for a long time. Immerse yourself, and above all, trust in yourself. You will write horrible poems, horrible pieces of prose. The only way you will get better is to keep going.

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