In gleeful defiance of the haters, SexyCyborg remains a woman in full control of her reality. The young web developer from Shenzen, China recently unveiled a pair of 3D-printed platform heels that contained hacking tools, a router, and a lock-picking set. Her prototype went viral on Reddit and landed on MailOnline, with one tabloid running the headline: "World's sexiest computer hacker claims she could attack massive corporations using her BOOBS." While her DIY projects on Imgur regularly rack up hundreds of thousands of views, she's also been attacked for her appearance and her fondness for mini-dresses and adorably tiny denim hot pants.
In short, she doesn't quite fit into the mold of what we expect to see from a smart, driven female developer. Much to the chagrin of politically correct techies, by-the-book feminists and the undying Facebook peanut gallery who can't deal with a woman who talks openly about her measurements and 800cc breast implants, SexyCyborg freely admits to loving attention and to championing women in technology.
But the anonymous technologist doesn't need to prove herself—she believes that she is already doing tangible things to lower the barrier for women interested in becoming makers. As she puts it on Imgur: "Remember ladies—if you are thinking about becoming a Maker, learning to code or doing hardware: If a girl who looks like me can do it, how hard can it really be?" I spoke to SexyCyborg about becoming an unexpected cyperpunk icon.
The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Broadly: Tell me about yourself and your background.
SexyCyborg: My home city is Shenzhen, has a population of ten million. Most Westerners know the region as where the world's consumer electronics are made. I am active in the local startup and maker communities so ended up becoming interested in hardware. The hardware I build is simple and the attention not justified compared to the many more skilled female makers out there. But when someone pushes you on stage and shoves a microphone in your hand best to not play coy and instead make the most of it. So I've been doing what I can to encourage women to learn technical skills, promote open source, and write about my city and life in China for a young woman.
What were your early projects like?
My LED skirt was my first hardware project. It got a lot of attention online, mostly because boobs (let's not kid ourselves). My skill level was so basic and the skirt so simple that I got a lot of really nice feedback from other women who, like me, wanted to start with something a bit simpler than an Arduino. Later I overheard the comment "If she can do it how hard can it be?" from some girls. It got me thinking: instead of showing off what I could do, I just set the bar so low that there was no excuse for not being able to step over it? So my subsequent projects have sort of followed that vein: Basic maker projects well within the ability of any woman with patiene and an Internet connection, plus my customary flamboyant clothing for traffic and a bit of a laugh.
When was the first time you realized technology could change your life?
When I was 15 I had decent English for someone my age. I realized I could chat with foreigners online to improve it. Looking back it seems like an awful idea but everyone was very nice and I learned to say I was older than I was. Online I had absolute control and could just block anyone rude or difficult. After about a year of this I won a local contest for spoken English. Realizing I could learn things online and have a real advantage over other Chinese is what really opened the door to learning to code and everything else later.
What scares you the most about tech?
This obsession with real names and identities. I work online under a male name to avoid any issues that gender may cause. Doing this is difficult and getting more so. Anonymous work is the fairest possible environment anyone can ask for. To be evaluated only by the quality of your work and nothing else is priceless. Just a portfolio and established record of client feedback. Now when I work online I know that any compliment or criticism has nothing to do with me being a woman. That is absolutely priceless to me as a learning tool. If we do anything with the blockchain in the next few years I'd love to see it be anonymous online work contracts.
What kind of new tech are you most excited about right now, and why?
Mostly VR really. Wearables as well, but I have yet to see compelling wearable concepts for women with one possible exception. Huge numbers of Shenzhen kids now wear WeChat-enabled watches. It has an intercom function and GPS. According to some of my female friends, now their child can contact them directly when they are ready to leave school, tutoring etc. Some women run online TaoBao or WeChat stores from home so this is a big deal. Any time freed from traditional homemaking duties is easily monetized. With crypto-currencies, those earnings are easy for a woman to control or conceal. As your Susan B. Anthony said, "Every woman should have a purse of her own." That is [happening] on a massive, game-changing scale for women who might never have had that option before.
There are many millions of 'Ting Tings' here. The key is figure out what they really want.
What do you think about virtual reality?
I think VR tech is very close to being "good enough". Chinese have played themselves to death in low-resolution virtual environments in role playing games. The VR units we already have in China where you can snap your smartphone in are very usable. Having photographic quality is not necessary if the product is engaging enough. So my attention right now is less on hardware than on content, because regular Chinese people are now starting to pay for content and virtual products.
When my female friends and I get together we have a thought experiment. It goes like this: Ting Ting is a 18 year old factory girl working in Dongguan. She is is working to save money to open a small convenience shop back home. Every day when her shift ends she goes back to her dorm, sits on her bunk bed, snaps her smartphone into a 200 renminbi VR headset and puts it on. Ting Ting can go anywhere in the world. On any world. At any time. She spends all day on the assembly line looking forward to that evening. She's willing to pay 30RMB a month for access and fresh content. Where does she go? There are many millions of "Ting Tings" here. The key is figure out what they really want.
While you post your projects on Imgur, your profile really blew up when you started posting on Reddit. What drew you to it as your forum of choice?
I read and post on StackExchange.com for coding information. Reddit came up a few times there. Eventually I started posting a few pictures of me and my life here to see what Westerners thought. I was a very plain, geeky and unassuming teenager so still get a ridiculous amount of genuine pleasure out of this kind of thing. I know I won't have it forever and I don't use it as a professional crutch. I just enjoy it in as harmless a way as I can, while I can and make sure that one day I'm the old lady with the best pictures and stories.
Read More: Does the Tech Industry Even Deserve Women?
You've talked about 'end results' being more important than process for women—why do you think this is the case?
In China men buy DSLRs almost as a fashion accessory collect lenses and talk for hours about cameras. The cameras are usually set to auto and the photos uninspired at best. Women here shoot and share far more images, probably at least 50 to 1. But for the most part they do it using their phones. We want nice pictures to show our friends—not really to talk about cameras.
This dynamic can be tricky because one of the metrics by which many technical professions are judged is tool trivia. Male programmers like to talk at length about their favorite database and just why it's the best. That's not a bad thing, it's just not necessarily universal. Unfortunately within the startup and tech community it's all about "passion." A lot of men liked my LED skirt and shoes, until they found out I did not use an Arduino. "Real" makers use an Arduino, and for many men it's not what you made, but how you made it that determines the value. Hacking and making sites are full of people doing fairly simple things in the most complicated possible way for aesthetic reasons. Which is awesome for guys, but does not always translate well for many women. I don't hand churn the butter and expect people to appreciate my cookies more.