Imagine being trapped in a life you don't want, a fate you can't change. Imagine people deciding who you are with a glance—and getting it wrong, every time. Imagine knowing you could be so much more if only you had the chance. Now imagine you get that chance—and you might begin to understand the life, and work, of Vivienne Ming.
The first thing you notice about Vivienne Ming, PhD, is the way she notices you: Her gaze is appraising, curious. Her eyes appear to shift in color from sapphire to silver. At 41 she's extensively freckled, with the oversize ears of an adolescent. Her sharp cheekbones bookend her assertive nose and shade her easy smile.
Ming's penny-colored hair hangs limp and, in the morning, shower-damp, gathered in a hasty ponytail or left to dry on the rack of her broad shoulders. Her hands are wide and knobby, with long, unvarnished nails. Her bare arms bulge with muscle. There's a white scar at her hairline and a vertical crease between her eyebrows. She wears scant makeup and dresses with the sartorial indifference particular to the three populations she inhabits: science geeks, Bay Areans, suburban moms. Today's look, however, fits her exceedingly well—a Kelly green top and plum skirt that reveal her figure. Later, as she walks down the street, a man will stare.
Ming's hands stir the air when she speaks, which she does in wandering monologues, enunciating prodigiously with a breathy, canyon-deep huskiness. Her eyes telescope with discernible patience when you don't understand something she's just said—which, if you're not a data scientist or a mathematician, is likely to be often.
We are sitting in a sparse conference room nearly a dozen floors above downtown San Francisco, where Ming is describing her work while eating macarons from the fancy restaurant up the street, cracking jokes about her nerdiness, and glancing all the while into the Google Glass attached to her head—the wraparound apparatus, with its brushed steel and occluding square prism, makes her look like a welder from space—through which text messages are being transmitted directly into her field of vision.
The conference room belongs to Gild, a company that aims to revolutionize Silicon Valley's recruiting methods with complex algorithms refined by Ming, Gild's chief scientist. Ming came to Gild because she believes that the tech world's hiring criteria are needlessly—and detrimentally—exclusionary. "There's a philosophy among these companies," she explains, "that says, 'Only hire the best! One bad hire and you've wrecked your company!'" But a deluge of résumés courses through the Googles and Facebooks of the world, and sifting through them for gems would be absurdly inefficient. Thus, acquiring "the best" has meant fishing the elite pond of Stanford and MIT grads or buying out companies to acquire their talent. In other words, if a programmer isn't enrolled in one of a handful of prestigious universities or already in the tech game, he or she is shut out of the running entirely. That's the scenario Gild hopes to change. "We don't much care where you went to school or where you've worked," says Ming. "What we care about is, are you good at the thing you want to do? And if you are, let's help you find your dream job."
Gild aims for meritocracy in a world where it's often hard to come by—a situation to which Ming is particularly attuned. She understands the torment of being unable to fulfill your potential, of watching as something beyond your control compresses your destiny. She's passionate about her work in part because it's personal to her—as personal as her own skin, her own face, her own life.
Next: The moment she realized something was wrong
One day in 1984, 12-year-old Evan Campbell Smith—freckled and towheaded, with the same brilliant eyes that now glint behind Vivienne Ming's futuristic glasses—stood in his uniform at football practice, watching his teammates huddle, hustle, hike. The long-ago scene is hazy in Ming's memory, but the insight it provoked is as clear to her now as it was to Evan then: "I was out on the field," Ming says, "and I realized I was playing for the wrong team. I didn't want to be a boy."
The realization began to explain Evan to Evan. It accounted, at least partially, for his chronic feelings of isolation. It clarified his furtive forays into the closet of his older sister, Cassandra, where he would try on clothes and wonder how it would feel to live as a different person, not yet understanding that his deeper question was how it would feel to live as a girl.
Evan now grasped that the bylaws of boyhood—aggression, competition, locker room japes—had nothing to do with him. "I didn't understand," Ming says, her hands uncharacteristically still. "I didn't understand why the jokes boys told were funny, why boys were so crude. I explained it to myself as, Well, they're all just idiots." She pauses to let the punch line land: "Which largely holds true right up through the fraternity years."
And yet Evan did the things boys are supposed to do, and did them well. He was a talented athlete, winning track meets and excelling at football despite himself; his coach was so eager to put him in games that Evan took to hiding from him. He reliably dazzled in science and math; his father, a beloved doctor in Monterey, California, groomed him to be, Ming recalls, "his intellectual heir," and with his high marks in biology and advanced chemistry, Evan seemed poised to fill those shoes. As a teenager, he morphed into an attractive young man with a nest of wavy copper hair. He began dating a girl he'd known since childhood. He hung out with his two best friends—Ming remains close to both men today—and his younger brother, Eric, concealing the schism inside him.
"Evan wasn't someone you would've called effeminate," says Eric Smith, now 39 and a Foreign Service officer with the State Department. "But he also wasn't the older brother you idolized because he talked about girls and partying—and I understand now why that is. I looked up to him for other reasons. There were occasions when someone would pick on me, and he'd stand up to them. He was there for me when I needed him."
Cassandra Smith, now 46 and a nurse for the San Francisco school district, says, "I always knew there was a sadness about my sibling. But when Vivienne told me later that she'd tried on my clothes as a kid, it was incredibly surprising. I didn't see any signs" that Evan had struggled with his gender.
By high school, however, there were signs that he was coming unmoored. The star student began to flail. Though his advanced classes enthralled him, he couldn't be bothered with homework or tests. When school administrators attempted to remove him from his honors courses, he decided to rally his efforts, and forged a letter from his parents blocking the move. The ploy worked—Evan wasn't caught in his ruse until the end of the year—and after a heroic final push, he salvaged his grades enough to enroll at the University of California, San Diego.
There, far from the stabilizing presence of home, Evan watched the air go out of his life. He paid tuition and then blew off his classes. He refrained from socializing, refused to date. ("Getting involved with someone seemed like a cruel thing to do," Ming says.) His thoughts darkened, drifting toward violent visions of being beaten or set on fire. He contemplated suicide. And after three years of scraping by academically and emotionally, he dropped out and returned to the Bay Area, staring down a bleak and uncertain future.
In need of a job, Evan eventually took a position at, of all places, a failing abalone farm overlooking the ocean. The company was so deep in the hole that as soon as it turned even a meager profit, creditors arrived with lawsuits in hand. Yet its owners refused to close up shop, so "there was nothing to do but make it last as long as I could," Ming says. The futility was oddly liberating. Each day Evan watched men spatula shellfish into containers, then ship them to Japan to become sashimi. He reorganized the books, prolonging the company's doomed life. Sometimes he stood at the cliff's edge and gazed into the rippling Pacific, watching humpbacks and their calves glide beneath the swell.
The experience shifted something in Evan. "I thought, 'I'm going to stick this out,'" Ming says. "'And if I'm going to stick it out, I'm going to go do something substantial.'"
He flipped a coin between economics and cognitive science—"the fields where I thought I could make an impact"—and cognitive science won. In 1999 Evan returned to UC San Diego with renewed purpose, and this time completed his degree with ease, going from a transcript littered with Fs to one full of As. He applied for a spot in Carnegie Mellon University's psychology PhD program, intending to study the nexus of computation and neuroscience, and was accepted. Within a month of landing in Pittsburgh in 2001, he'd met a pretty and driven Harvard graduate named Norma Chang, also a PhD candidate in psychology. By the end of their first year, they had fallen in love.
Next: Finding a gap in the market
A human life is a series of accidents—the culmination of hundreds of arbitrary quirks of geography, lineage, and circumstance. But Ming believes it's within the power of technology to realign our stars, to correct the caprices of destiny, to meet people wherever they are and help get them where they need to be.
The basic premise of Gild is this: Right now, in Bangalore or Berlin or Branson, Missouri, there's a self-taught computer programmer who can code just as well as half the hotshot Stanford and MIT grads currently vying for the world's most coveted software engineering jobs, but no Silicon Valley company has the time or capacity to discover him.
Which is where Gild steps in. Ostensibly, the company is an HR consultancy, doing recruiting legwork for outfits in need of fresh blood. But at its core, Gild is a matchmaker, uniting programmers with the jobs that best fit their skills—and, by extension, that best allow them to fulfill their potential. To find these people, Gild deploys sophisticated software to scour the Internet's open-source Web sites, like GitHub and SourceForge, where software engineers share computer code that's visible to anyone who cares to read it. In seconds Gild's program makes thousands of observations about that code, evaluating its idiosyncrasies to divine insights about its author. It also searches for ancillary information about each programmer—via his LinkedIn page or Twitter account.
These data are plugged into the Gild algorithms; each tidbit, however small, is a valuable clue. If a software engineer tweets "I love celery," it's possible, if unlikely, that he's referring to the vegetable—it's much more probable, Ming says, "that he's talking about Celery, the multiprocessing framework for Python, a popular programming language. And if he uses Celery, he almost certainly uses RabbitMQ or Lettuce, and if he uses those he's probably making Web apps using Flask or Django, and if he uses Django, he knows all about templating languages like Jinja...and that single tweet suddenly paints a rich picture of this person, in a way that listing 'Python' on a résumé would not."
When a company comes to Gild for hiring recommendations, Ming can scour her data and offer concrete, personalized advice tailored to its particular needs. "We'll say, 'Here are ten people,'" she says. "'Three of them are great programmers from big-name schools, and this is the premium you'll pay for them. Now here are five people who are just as good but don't have those credentials; this is how much they'll cost. And here are two people who are also just as good, but who have no credentials. And this is how much you're going to save if you hire them.'"
What's presented as a shrewd cost-cutting measure becomes, in effect, a stealthy upending of the old, outdated rules: A candidate without traditional bona fides gets a chance, and the company giving them that chance gets a great deal. It's a classic win-win.
Next: Evan and Norma's early days
In a 2004 photograph of Evan and Norma from their Carnegie Mellon days, the couple sits near a tableau of stone Buddhas and bodhisattvas. The statues adorn the Indian Room of the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning, an architectural ode to education around the world. Though they don't know it yet, the location is fitting: In 2011 Norma and Vivienne Ming will cofound Socos, one of the nation's most intriguing educational start-ups, which uses algorithms to give teachers measurements of each student's grasp of the material—whether it's Biology 101 at a local community college or basic arithmetic in a K-12 classroom—without the use of notoriously biased standardized tests.
But here in Pittsburgh, 2004, educational innovation is a mere glint in Norma's and Evan's eyes. They're still in the thick of their dissertation research, and the heady days of new love. At 32 Evan has shrugged off his boyishness; his face is chiseled, his build muscular, thanks to the intense training regimen P90X. In the photo, Norma's energy is radiant, her brown eyes shining. But Evan's expression is inscrutable.
"It's hard to even imagine that person now," Ming says, looking at the photo.
Norma Ming, 40, reaches down to lift her and Vivienne's 2-year-old daughter, Thalia*, onto her lap. From the next room comes a steady din of yips and yeehaws from Baxter*, the Mings' 5-year-old son, who's busily building with Legos. The family's Bay Area home is cozy and classically Californian—their front window looks onto a lineup of similar Craftsman bungalows, each shaded by the street's long procession of oak trees. The scent of breakfast blintzes still hangs in the midday air.
As Ming recalls the early days of Evan and Norma's relationship, she moves from a chair in front of the sunny window to the living room couch, then to a kneeling crouch beside the coffee table, effusive when she describes Norma as a young student and somber when she speaks about Evan, whom she mostly calls "me" but very rarely refers to as "he." On a dozen occasions over the span of a few hours, the couple relays nearly imperceptible gestures of encouragement—a smile, a two-word prompt, the discreet removal of a child from the room—when part of the story of Vivienne's transition feels difficult to discuss. Norma is the keeper of dates—"No," she says at one point, "That was 2004, not 2003"—and, today, the cradler of babies, and as Thalia's eyes begin to droop, Norma and Vivienne retrace the timeline of Evan's final years in the muted tones of naptime.
The searing depression Evan endured in San Diego had, by grad school, dulled to a chronic ache—one that made social interactions taxing and sleep a distant dream. "I had terrible insomnia," Ming recalls. "I'd stay up for hours thinking, 'Oh, let me wake up different tomorrow.' And I'm an atheist, so that was particularly pointless—but under the right circumstances, you beg for anything from anyone."
Evan threw himself into school, saddling himself with a backbreaking course load. And he grew ever closer to Norma. "There was a date early on," Ming recalls, "where we were starting to reveal things to each other. I told her, 'I have a deep, dark secret—maybe someday I'll share it.' Of course I wasn't ever planning to. But Norma made me happy, and I was successful at school, and I thought, 'I'm going to go with this, I'll be the best husband I can be, and I'll find happiness in that.'" Soon they were engaged.
Around this time, in the spring of 2005, Evan did a seemingly inconsequential favor for a classmate. "When you're a graduate student," Ming explains, "you're desperate to find people to be in your experiments. So when I was asked to be in one that examined the effect of antianxiety drugs on heart health, I said yes. It was several months' long, and involved taking pills with no idea whether they were placebos, and answering lots of questions. I didn't feel anything, but at the end, when I met with the doctor overseeing the study, he said, 'You're in the treatment group; you've been taking Celexa. Has anything unusual occurred?'"
Indeed, something unusual had occurred, which Ming, in hindsight, now attributes to the medication. On October 19, 2005—Evan's 34th birthday—he and Norma were preparing for bed when he said, apropos of nothing, the thing he had never said to anyone: "My secret is that I wish I were a woman."
Next: Norma's surprising reaction
However unfathomable such a revelation may seem—however impossible it would be for many of us to absorb these words with a modicum of grace—Norma admits to no anger, no terror, no sense of betrayal or despair. If Evan had ever given her reason to question his sexuality, had ever tipped his hand about his discomfort with his gender—made some half-jesting crack to test the waters, say—Norma does not disclose it. Her flat tone is a kind of fortress: There are some things, many things, she will not reveal. And so when she speaks of Evan's 34th birthday, the night that effectively ended their former lives and thrust them into a brand-new one, the one emotion she describes is surprise: "I remember thinking," she says, "'Do you have any idea what you've just told me?'"
Now she grows emphatic. "I said, 'You need to decide what, if anything, you want to do about this—what it means for you, what it means for us.'"
The couple talked all night, then took two weeks off from school—despite their looming dissertation defenses—to decide whether or not to move forward with their wedding. They agreed not to discuss the revelation with anyone else.
"I'd been tasting cakes and trying on gowns," Norma says, "and it was hard not being able to talk to other people about something so big." She glances up at Ming, who has just gone to get a photograph of Evan at his college graduation to jog her memory.
Ming moves toward her wife. "I told Norma I wouldn't do it without her, that she meant more to me than going through gender transition," she says, the timbre of her voice high with a learned girlishness.
Norma shakes her head. "This was too important. I said, 'This is something you need to explore.'"
Neither recalls a precise moment when they decided to stay together. Perhaps because it was never really a question. In fact, asking Norma about her continued devotion occasions only this: "Vivienne is the one I love, the one with whom I have chosen to spend the rest of my life. That's all that matters."
Now Baxter enters the living room, toting the fearsome Lego creature he's just constructed. "He can see super-duper-duper good," he says, pointing to where the blocky beast's eyes would be. "He's part robot. This is his human side and this is his robotic side."
Earlier, Baxter had shown off his own robotic side: the insulin pump affixed to his belly. A few days before Thanksgiving 2011, Baxter, then 4, got sick in the bathtub. "I thought, 'It's just the flu,'" Ming says. But Baxter had also been wetting his bed, which was unusual, and in the days after the incident in the tub he was lethargic, disoriented, stumbling when he tried to walk. The pediatrician's diagnosis stunned the Mings: "Your son has diabetes," she said, recommending that he be admitted that night to a local children's hospital. By the time he arrived, Baxter was incoherent, his blood sugar so high, Ming says, "you could smell the sweetness in his sweat."
Once Baxter had stabilized, his moms scrambled to learn what they could about managing type 1 diabetes, which requires the constant monitoring of blood glucose levels, often via finger-prick blood tests (which Baxter, an old hand at the procedure, can now do himself). It also demands a vigilant awareness of what, when, and how much Baxter eats and drinks throughout the day, which the Mings have simplified by creating a detailed mathematical model that helps them predict the effect of Baxter's eating, say, a medium apple, including when and how much they'll need to dose him with insulin before and after he consumes the fruit.
"I mean, what a couple of scientists, right?" Ming says, grinning.
The blintzes have ratcheted up Baxter's blood sugar, and now he's hopping from couch to floor, floor to coffee table, coffee table to bookshelf. There he pauses, looking at a photograph of Evan with his siblings. "When Baxter was little," Ming says, "he saw this photo and asked, 'Who's that?' and I said, 'That's Mommy.' And he got confused and pointed to her"—Ming indicates her sister, Cassandra—"and I said, 'No, that's Aunt Cass,' and then he immediately pointed back to the photo of me."
Next: The transition from Evan to Vivienne
On the bookshelf, just below the framed photograph, is the Mings' wedding album. In July 2006, Norma and Vivienne—as she was by then known at home, if nowhere else—were married in California, having driven their possessions from Pittsburgh in a clattering U-Haul after accepting positions at Berkeley and Stanford, respectively. Ming had grown her hair, lost 60 pounds of bulk by switching from P90X to yoga, and begun wearing women's clothes at home. ("Goodwill was my best friend," she says. "Starting from scratch is surprisingly expensive—we keep quite a little fortune in our closets.") Reverting to the costume of manhood for the wedding pained her. "Norma looked beautiful," Ming recalls. "And I was up there with my long hair, so skinny. At home, I was finally me! And then to have to get married in a tuxedo..." Ming trails off. She dislikes looking at the photo album.
By the spring after their wedding, Ming was eager to extend her gender transition beyond the bubble of home. At first, she had come out as transgender only to Cassandra—who calls being trusted with that information "one of the greatest honors of my life"—but she'd already begun investigating gender reassignment surgery, or GRS, which, it turned out, she was eligible to receive through Norma's University of California health plan. (Very few employee healthcare plans are willing to cover GRS, which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.) She legally changed her name to Vivienne Ming: Vivienne was a name Norma had imagined for a daughter, and Ming is a hybrid of their family names, Smith and Chang. "The name change rankled my parents more than a little bit," Ming admits. Then her expression twists into a wry smirk. "But I don't need a name to remind me that I'm a pasty European mutt from very cloudy places. I know where I come from."
Ming had also investigated hormone therapy, which would increase estrogen levels and suppress testosterone, but she waited until Norma had safely reached 12 weeks of pregnancy with Baxter to begin the prescribed course of injections and pills, when she could be confident they would no longer need Evan's sperm. "We conceived Baxter the good old-fashioned way," Ming says. "I thought, 'This is a part of me I'm not happy with, but here's a good thing I can do with it before it's gone.'" (Thalia was conceived with sperm frozen prior to Vivienne's transition.)
Once she'd begun hormone therapy, Ming's personality underwent a tremendous shift. She was animated where she had been silent, emotional where she had been stoic. "Estrogen's a wonderful thing," Ming says. "I'd be doing the dishes and suddenly be like, 'Wait a minute, why am I crying?'" ("It was kind of like living with a teenage girl," Norma recalls.) Ming slept peacefully, regularly, deliciously, for the first time in a decade.
She was apprehensive about coming out at work. "Vivienne sent an e-mail to her students and colleagues the night before," Norma says, clearly relishing the telling of a favorite story. "And then I came in super-early the next morning," Ming continues, "hoping to get there way before everyone else to avoid some kind of perp walk. I'd been particularly worried about this student who, when he didn't realize there was"—Ming points to herself—"a lady present, would every now and then make a joke or say something that made me wonder how he might react.
"So I showed up and he was already there. And he walked right up to me and said, 'You know that idea you had for the model? I implemented it and it worked great and here are the results.' And for engineers, that's like their version of a big hug."
Ming also came out to the rest of her family. She composed a letter—"I have ghosted my way through life," it said—that she read, in person, to her mother and father, and, a month later, sent to her brother, Eric, who was stationed in Budapest. "I can remember it was on July 4, 2007," Eric recalls. "I was alone in my apartment and I got this e-mail, and it came as an absolute shock. I didn't know anything about this—any of it. I just sat there, disoriented, in a state of disbelief." It was a few days before he replied, saying that life deals us some difficult hands, and that he understood, and would offer his full support. When he returned to the States shortly thereafter, Ming came to pick him up at the airport. "That was the first time I saw Vivienne," Eric recalls. "When I left I had a brother, but when I returned from Hungary I had another sister."
For Ming's parents, the news was harder to swallow. "My mom struggled for a few days," Ming says, "and then called me and said, 'Well, we've got to get you a wardrobe.' I think she was still grieving the loss of her son, but in her interactions with me she never let on." (Asked about her reaction to Ming's transition, her mother, Sally Smith, handwrote a few sentences for Ming to pass along. "I am very proud of the woman Vivienne has become," the statement reads. "She is a caring and attentive parent, a brilliant scientist...she's beautiful inside and outside.")
After Ming's announcement, her father also expressed his support, but in the measured language of resignation. "You know," Ming says, "a classic thing you hear is, 'I love you no matter what.' Oh, so this is a 'no matter what'? I had that with my father. He hugged me, and he was initially accepting, but it got harder and harder for him. And there were a couple of moments when it peaked. Once, he said, 'Don't let Norma slip away, because no one else is ever going to want you.' Which was not remotely like anything he'd ever said to me before.
"I thought, 'I've been unhappy my entire adult life, and you can see the transformation. You know I'm happier now. And it's more important to you that I'm a certain person than that I'm happy?' And that was the hard thing for him and me."
Ming's father, Dr. Jon Smith, died last March at the age of 73. "My father got there with my transition," Ming says. "It was gradual, but he got there. I'd get e-mails from family members who'd say, 'Your dad was bragging about you, and I wanted to find out about all the amazing things you're doing.' The idea that he'd reached a point where he could call me his daughter, and actively did so because it gave him the opportunity to say 'My daughter had this paper published, my daughter just started her own company...'" Ming's voice is tight in her throat.
In 2008 Ming underwent GRS, a grueling series of surgeries that involved roughly 46 hours on the table (in the male-to-female procedure, a man's genitalia and urethra are restructured to function like those of a woman) and a recovery time of about three months. The following year, she had further operations to feminize her facial features. She hesitates before discussing her surgeries, explaining that they were deeply personal choices—and that the medical route to gender transition is not the only option available to transgender people. "It's important to me," Ming says, "that talking about my experience not undermine those who choose differently. There can be a stigma for people who don't take the path I did, as though not having surgery means you're not really transitioning. No one should feel as though it's everything or nothing."
Ming didn't expect the GRS to shift her thinking so completely, but it did. "It really changed my thoughts about myself," she says. "My body became aligned with my identity, and it was profound."
Next: How life is different as a woman
Life as a woman had always been Ming's wish—but there were aspects for which she was unprepared. "You just have these great and crazy experiences," she says. Shortly after Baxter was born, Ming was pushing him in a stroller past a tennis court in her neighborhood where two men were swatting a ball back and forth. "And I hear from behind me, 'Hey, Mom, the goods are lookin' good!' I wanted to turn around and just kick that guy right in the..." Ming laughs. "But I couldn't, because I couldn't get the smile off my face. I thought, 'Oh, finally! Finally I've been objectified!' It was gross, yes, but it had its own wonderfulness."
Then came a more subtle, and more significant, moment in Ming's journey to sisterhood. "I was walking down the street and this woman was holding her baby while trying to open a stroller. I said, 'Can I help you open the stroller?' And she said, 'Oh, thank you so much.' And she hands me the baby." As she tells this story, Ming's beaming expression is laced with incredulity.
But though Ming went through her transition with the support of most of her family and colleagues, and though it spelled the end of her depression and insomnia and sense of dislocation, and though she had the unflagging encouragement of her wife, and though the experience represents the culmination of every deeply held wish Evan ever had—because, as transition stories go, Ming's is "a fairy tale," her sister says—she hastens to stress just how difficult the process was for her, for her family, for Norma. "If my son came to me years from now," Ming says, "and told me, 'I'm gay,' I'd say, 'That's wonderful, I'm so glad you know who you are.' But if he said, 'I want to be a woman,' I would say, 'Ahhh. This is gonna be hard. Let's get started.' Because it doesn't matter that that's where happiness lies—it's on the other side of a lot of struggle."
If Evan Smith hadn't gone through his own struggle to reach the happiness on the other side, and if circumstances hadn't aligned to guide him toward his highest potential, his life would have ended up in a very different place. But he was up to the fight, and his circumstances did align, and because of that, each day Vivienne Ming wakes up grateful that the coin toss landed in her favor, that fate and science and her conviction conspired to give her the life she deserved.
And then she goes to work.
More Stories of Transformation
Printed from Oprah.com on Tuesday, December 10, 2013
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