From the time she first took apart a computer at age 13 so she could install a CD-ROM to play more video games, to now leading a business development team at X — formerly Google X, Diana Skaar ’00, M.S. ’08, MBA ’08 has come a long way in breaking the bamboo ceiling.
A proud first-generation Thai-American whose parents moved to Los Angeles in search of the American Dream, Skaar vividly remembered the look of horror on her father’s face when he saw the parts of the Commodore 64 strewn across the floor of her room. After all, it wasn’t something the family could easily afford with her mother working as a nurse and her father, a hairstylist. But the experience had sown a seed in the future tech executive.
“Looking back, it was in that moment where circuit boards and wires — the hardware side of computers — were demystified for me,” Skaar said. “This would come to help me in my computer science studies at UCLA, when I learned how to design digital logic circuits and connect the dots of how software translated into zeros and ones that controlled physical electronic parts.”
Initially inspired by the beauty of the UCLA campus, Skaar said she soon realized that the university had everything she was looking for — strong academics, a great athletics program and a vibrant culture.
While studying at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, Skaar also took advantage of courses offered by other units, including an ethnic studies class on the Thai-American experience. Not only was she able to gain a greater understanding of her own heritage, but courses like this also allowed her to grow a deeper appreciation of the journey and contributions of immigrants. They enabled a wider perspective on how people can look at the same solution but interpret its applications differently depending on one’s lived experiences. These are lessons that Skaar says she applies in her current role at X, as she thinks about how technical innovations will be adopted by different people.
“The most important thing I learned at UCLA was that we are all multi-faceted and to not define yourself or limit yourself by your major,” Skaar said.
After completing her undergraduate studies, Skaar said she could not be happier to say goodbye to bluebooks and finals, eager to roll up her sleeves and start her career as a software engineer. After five years of working at various startups, however, she decided to return to UCLA to pursue a master’s in computer science and an MBA through a joint program.
“Even though I had a solid job, I realized that investing in myself through education was the best decision I could make,” she recalled. “This decision still holds true today.”
Prior to joining X, Skaar was the head of Google Product Partnerships, where she led the Google Arts and Culture project designed to make art more accessible. Now as a business development lead at X, the moonshot factory at Google’s parent company Alphabet, she is responsible for taking early-stage technologies from concept to market through strategic partnerships. Her current focus is on innovations that can create a more sustainable and equitable environment.
As she advances in her career, Skaar has written about her journey in tech as an Asian-American woman and the importance of allyship.
“Ask your colleagues for more context. Be curious about their experiences or backgrounds that may give a perspective different from yours on how a technology can be used,” she said.
When executed well, Skaar says, this practice not only creates a stronger team culture because people feel truly seen and heard, but it also enables solutions, services and products to be developed that meet the needs of a diverse set of customers.
For young people looking to start a career in tech, Skaar offers a few words of advice.
- Pursue your passions, even if you feel like you don’t belong.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions — You’d be amazed at how many of your peers have the same question, but were not brave enough to ask.
- Push yourself and don’t be afraid of failure — a bad grade, a failed experiment. The lessons you learn are far more valuable.
- Find your voice — you are your best champion.
- Find a mentor and a sponsor who can advocate for you.
More than two decades since she first set foot on the UCLA campus, Skaar recently took her family on a tour of her alma mater. Her two kids, she said, came away inspired much the same way she was the day she became a Bruin for life.