Lean in, Geek Out: Girl Geek X SquareTrade Panel (Video + Transcript)

Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

Josephine Chan welcoming the sold-out crowd at SquareTrade Girl Geek Dinner.

Wini Hebalkar / VP, Supply Chain & Operations / SquareTrade
Margaret Reeves / VP, Product / SquareTrade
Bonnie Shu / Product Compliance Manager / Harbor
Claire Hough / Head of Engineering / Udemy
Lisa Q. Fetterman / CEO & Founder / Nomiku
Nupur Srivastava / VP, Product / Grand Rounds
Staci Slaughter / EVP, Communications / SF Giants

Transcript of SquareTrade Girl Geek Dinner – Panel:

Josephine Chan (SquareTrade): Hello everybody! I am Josephine, Head of People at SquareTrade. We want to welcome all of you here tonight. I look around and what an amazing crowd in this room. All of us at SquareTrade are really honored to be host of this meaningful event, a panel of inspiring and wise female leaders will begin really shortly. I know they will help us lean and geek out. Some of us asked about what SquareTrade does, so I thought I would do a really quick 30-second intro — At SquareTrade, we are disrupting a $30 billion industry with innovation and also our attention to our customer happiness. We provide the protection that covers those everyday, little calamities like spills, breaks, and mishaps on your phones, or appliances, or TVs, or laptops, you name it. We’re also really proud to partner with some of the biggest retailers like Amazon, Costco, Staples, Target, and many, many others.

Josephine Chan (SquareTrade): What do we do here? We are turning a bad day into a good day every single day for our customers. We have more than 40 million of them and growing. Today we’re really excited to sponsor this really special event. Thank you Girl Geek for giving us this opportunity — our first dinner — and I hope this says a lot about our commitment to women in our field and actually, women in any other field, in any other industries, including all of you here. And now, I’m really delighted to introduce my colleague. She is also the moderator of the night, Wini – she runs Supply Chain and Operations at SquareTrade.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Thank you, Josephine. Can everyone hear me back there? We’re good? All right. Well, good evening everyone and welcome to the first SquareTrade Girl Geek Dinner. We’re very excited to introduce our six panelists who are going to be here. Each of the panelists is a leader in their own right and in a very different industry from the other… that was intentional.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): We wanted to showcase what leadership is within the broad range of industries represented here in the [San Francisco] Bay Area. Let’s start out with starting at the far end, introduce yourself, tell us who you are, the role that you’re in, and what is the one piece of leadership advice you’d like to share with the group here? Obviously some aspiring leaders, some actual leaders in their own fields. But what’s the one take away you’d like them to leave with or perhaps a story that you’d like to start us out with around how you got started in leadership?

Margaret Reeves (SquareTrade): I’m Margaret Reeves. I’m VP of Product here at SquareTrade, so welcome everyone. It’s very exciting to have you all here. Yeah, woo hoo! Gosh, takeaway…

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Take one, one piece of advice you’d like to share. Anything.

Margaret Reeves (SquareTrade): Okay, one piece of advice. This is a piece of advice I got from Lorrie Norrington who presented at an event like this. She was very senior at eBay, Intuit; she’s now an operating partner somewhere. Her piece of advice which has stuck with me all these years is your career is a marathon, not a sprint. You have successes and you have set backs, but remember, it’s going to be for a while so don’t get too down when something doesn’t go the way you want it to go.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Okay, Bonnie? Thank you, Margaret.

Bonnie Shu (Harbor): Hi everyone and thank you so much for having me here and Girl Geek as well. I’m so thrilled to be here. My name is Bonnie and I am running the Compliance team over at Harbor which is a compliance platform for issuing private securities. Before that, kind of along the lines of the career advice that you just heard, I actually started my career out as a lawyer, hated it, gave it up, went into tech. My advice to all of you is just to keep persisting. When you come up against a really difficult challenge or a really difficult moment in your life, just keep going.

Claire Hough (Udemy): I’m Claire Hough. I’m the Head of Engineering for Udemy. Udemy is an eLearning marketplace. How many of you have taken a course on Udemy? Yes! This is great. I do these events a lot and I always ask this question. In the beginning when I was Udemy in the early days, I would ask this question and there would be few hands that are going up, so come and take a course at Udemy, it’s a place where you can pretty much learn anything. It’s a marketplace, meaning we bring teachers as well as students together in the marketplace. We also offer those courses to companies, so any companies here can actually sign up to offer our courses to their employees. It’s not just a perk, it’s a learning opportunity. We have 400 people at Udemy, about 30,000 instructors and 45,000 courses. I’ve been at Udemy for five years and I’ve been around the block a few times as a Head of Engineering. Actually worked with Josephine in the old days. That’s how I got recruited.

Claire Hough (Udemy): One piece of advice I want to give you would be tech is many things, right? So you have to find the tech that you feel passionate about, like a lot of us here work in different things. If you are in a job where you’re not sure you really love the product, then go find something else because you’ll find that when you’re passionate about, you’ll go further in your career.

Claire Hough (Udemy): That’s my advice: find something you are passionate about. Udemy is an eLearning marketplace. Our mission is to improve lives through learning and who wouldn’t get on that mission? Because the mission is so compelling to me, I know that I put more of my energy and more of my passion behind the job that I have.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Thank you, Claire.

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): I have to tell you how energized I am to be here, to be around people who, you know, nobody forced your hand to go to Geek Girl. You’re here because you want to be here. I can feel it. We want to rise ourselves, we want to rise the community up. It feels really good. My name is Lisa Fetterman and I’m the Founder of Nomiku. We invented the home sous-vide immersion circulator. We manufacture our hardware, software, food, all here. We have our new program where you wave our food in front of the machine, it automatically recognizes it… In 30 minutes, you get a gourmet sous-vide meal, just the way Noma, Saison, Restaurant at Meadowood, Eleven Madison Park, Atelier Crenn does it because they use our machines there. I’m the writer of two cookbooks: “Sous Vide at Home”, “Sous Vide Made Simple.” There’s a theme there… I’m here because Josephine and I nanny share, yo! Yes!

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): That’s that female power network! That’s how shit gets done. The boys are smoking cigars and drinking whiskey; I’m like, “Hey, your baby friend takes care of my baby friend.” That’s a bond. My big piece of advice for everybody here is that … Well, more of what I see is you are right. Whatever it is you are building right now, you’re right. I guarantee you: you’re right. If I could give a piece of advice to myself when I first started Nomiku, which was in 2012 and invented the home sous-vide immersion circulator — holy shiznit! I went to a party and I was like, “I invented the home sous-vide.” They’re like, “Oh, I invented Post-its.” I’m like, “Uh … Okay.” I would just say to myself, “You are right.” Just imagine if you’re right. If you’re right and you can’t go wrong, why wouldn’t you do the next thing that you’re going to do? Just know that you’re right and move in that direction.

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): I am so energized right now and hungry! I really want a sous-vide piece of meat, so maybe later at night. Hi everyone! My name is Nupur. I lead Product at a company called Grand Rounds. I think I was invited because I’m in the same building — that’s basically why I was invited.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): You can tell there’s a theme here.

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): Yes. They want to … I think you guys believe in limiting gas emissions or something, making sure our commutes were easy… so yes, I’m in the same building! I’ll tell you a little bit about Grand Rounds. I completely agreed on the piece about passion. At Grand Rounds, we connect members to high-quality care. We’ve spent the past five years trying to understand what exactly makes a high-quality physician and we help members that are sick get connected to the right care so that they can get better faster. When we first started the company, we were shocked — Over 66% of the patients that were coming to us were changing their diagnoses or treatment. There’s that much bad quality healthcare in this country. We try and do our best to get patients to better care and we sell to large self-insured employers so that we can give their members access to high-quality care so that they can get better faster.

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): The piece of advice that I will give, and some of this will make more sense as I share some stories, is it’s kind of cliched but I truly believe you miss all the shots you don’t take. In my life, I’ve been lucky to have many strong women around me and on my team and I can firmly say that it’s really important for you guys to demand what you deserve because time and again, I see really, really talented women underselling themselves and not demanding what they deserve. So you miss all the shots you don’t take, you gotta try, and you gotta ask for things that you deserve.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): Good evening everyone. My name is Staci Slaughter and I’m the Executive Vice President of Communications for the San Francisco Giants. Yeah, go Giants! My kids would probably laugh that I’m here speaking to a bunch of people in tech because I’m the most technologically challenged person on the Earth. I was one of the first female executives in Major League Baseball. I guess maybe that’s why I’m here. I work with a lot of dudes, as you guys probably all do.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): But I think, I guess for me, one of the things that I tried to do from a management style perspective is my philosophy in management is that you want the people who work for you to be able to step in and do your job at any single moment if you by some chance get hit by the proverbial bus or you can’t come into work, that you don’t hold people down, that you feel like they can work alongside of you.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): Really, my goal is to get the next generation of Giants folks — we’re a 138-year-old franchise and I’ve been there 22 years and it’s time for me to think about the next stage in life at some point. I want to make sure that the folks who work with me are able to take their experience and then be able to be the next generation of stewards in our organization.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Thank you. Here’s the first question I’m going to direct at you guys. Some of you described and provided some great advice around leadership and what people can take away today, but think back to the point in your career where there was a pivotal moment or a turning point that propelled you into a “a leadership position.” Right? Whatever that might mean for you, whether it’s the current role you’re in or a role that you had prior to that that set you up. Nupur, would you like to start us off?

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): Sure. So I’ll provide a little bit of a background. I joined Grand Rounds about four years ago and I joined as a Senior Product Manager in the company. I loved the company and worked to build out a great product team. There was a time when I got promoted to Director and I was really excited about it. But we were scaling as a company and my CEO told me that he’s looking to bring in a VP of Product to consolidate different product functions that we had.

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): I was actually really excited; I helped interview, I was actually vouching for a couple of the candidates. Once I was in the room with him, we were discussing a candidate and he looked me straight in the eye and said, “Why have you not asked me for this role?” I was like, “Because I didn’t think it was an option. I didn’t know that’s a thing you can do.”

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): It really was a pretty shocking and pivotal moment for me because he saw my leadership potential way before I believed I could be a leader or even deserved to be the VP of Product. I was lucky he gave me the role. Now I lead the Product team and I’ve grown the team out. But I think the biggest thing that taught me is …

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds):  This comes back to why I was saying – “You miss all the shots you don’t take.” It really made me think about what are other opportunities where we’re not raising our hand for? And what other things are passing us by?

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds):  That is a moment that has stuck with me and I constantly think of that, even with my own team, which I certainly tend to have it be female-heavy because why not? You’re always looking out for these instances where people are not asking for what they deserve and I see it time again. If Owen, my CEO, hadn’t said that to me, I would have been probably still happy but reporting to another VP of Product and probably not talking to you guys tonight.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Great. Bonnie, how about you?

Bonnie Shu (Harbor): For myself, well, Harbor’s a pretty young company so I’ll talk about my previous experience. After I quit law, gave it up, decided to move into tech, I joined a company called Zenefits. While I was there, I was basically hired to put out fires. I was put on this client escalations team which basically meant anyone who’s really, really pissed off came to my team. Really what that did, though, was put myself in the spotlight for really high-profile issues. Whenever there was a company-wide issue that was impacting a lot of clients, myself and my team were the first people that the leadership would come to.

Bonnie Shu (Harbor): When I tackled that head-on and jumped right into it, didn’t shy away from it, really. Sometimes it’s easy for us, when it’s a really difficult problem or a really stressful problem, or a really high-profile problem, it’s easy to freak out and throw your hands up in the air and say, “I don’t know what to do here.” But really, it was a lot of persisting, as I said, and just trying to figure out a solution to the problem. I was blessed with a really great group of operations analysts that were working underneath me, some of whom are here, actually.

Bonnie Shu (Harbor): My team was really involved in the clean-up crew. We would help fix client issues. After that, the leadership team, really, I think, saw the potential for me to take on more very highly stressful clean-up fixes.

Bonnie Shu (Harbor): Whenever there was a high-profile issue like there was a time where we had a tenuous partner relationship and we needed to build a new payroll product, they came to me and said, “Will you help us build this?” And then when compliance became in the spotlight for the company, they came to me and said, “Will you build this compliance team out?” And so really, I think what it was was getting to be on these really high-profile issues and proving myself as a really hard worker and someone who didn’t shy away from the issue.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): So raise your hand again, right? Make sure you volunteer for those opportunities.

Bonnie Shu (Harbor): Exactly, exactly. Step up in those rare moments where you can really shine.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Margaret, I know you have a story to tell around this because you and I have talked quite a bit about it.

Margaret Reeves speaking at SquareTrade Girl Geek Dinner.

Margaret Reeves (SquareTrade): I do have a story. A big turning point in my career was actually when I turned down what was essentially a promotion. And I turned it down because I was in an operations group at the time and this role required a daily 8:30 meeting. I am not a morning person. This was not going to work. My manager was like, “But this would be great! We think you’re really suited.” I’m like, “Yeah, no. Thanks, no.” And the people who work with me are all going, “Yeah, I can see this.”

Margaret Reeves (SquareTrade): Finally, they came to me and said, “Okay. We want you to take this role. You don’t have to go to the meeting except when there’s a major incident.” Somehow we left this meeting, my boss thought I would come to this meeting when there was a major incident and I left thinking I would not come to this meeting when there was a major incident. Never went to the meeting. Did take the role. It really played into a lot of my strengths. It allowed me to … I grew from there. I took on a lot more responsibility, I got a team, so it was a great stepping stone. Like I said, I played to my strengths and I managed to not have to deal with my weaknesses or worked around one of my weaknesses. Yeah, big turning point but started with actually saying, “No.”

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Staci, I know you’ve been in the industry and in the communications role for a very long time. What started you off? What was that pivotal point?

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): In communications or leadership?

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Either.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): Well, gosh, I’ve been working in communications for long time before the Giants. I graduated from Berkeley. Go Bears!

Claire Hough (Udemy): Bears!

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): I went to work for a PR firm. I grew up around journalism. I worked in politics before; I had been the Press Secretary to the Mayor in San Francisco before the Giants called. But I was always an implementer, you know? I wasn’t a manager, if you will. And so even when I got hired to work for the Giants, I was hired to work on all of the communications and media strategy around the building of AT&T Park, so this is how long ago it was. We still call it “the new ball park” but we’re having our 20th year next year. I was the one writing the press releases, I was the one taking the media on tours of the construction site, I was doing media communication strategies, but I still had a staff. I kept getting promoted and I had folks that I … But I was still kind of trying to do everything myself and not delegating and not empowering people to do the work.

Staci Slaughter speaking at SquareTrade Girl Geek Dinner.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): And really a turning point for me was actually when I went on maternity leave with my first child because it was the year the ball park opened and he was born in the middle of the season. Of course we went to the playoffs that year too and I had to let go. I had to handoff and I had to say it because I had just never taken time off, really. I had to say, “Okay, you guys are going to have to handle that,” or, “You’re going to have to do that.”

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): It was empowering for them because they were able to, like I said, step into my shoes, and do my job, and deal with our CEO, and deal with our Team Manager and General Manager. So for them, they were growing professionally and for me, it was a growth opportunity for me too because I realized that I could step back and trust the folks to do the job they needed to do. I didn’t have to do everything myself.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): It was a really pivotal moment for me to realize okay, that I don’t have to be there for every moment, that I can trust people, and I think they grow professionally as a result of that.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): So you really delegated then at that point?

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): Finally, yeah.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrae): And let go.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): Yeah, I let go.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Very good. Lisa, you started out in journalism too. What was that pivotal point that triggered that leap into leadership for you?

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): The leap into leadership happened every moment of my life.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Okay.

Lisa Fetterman speaking at SquareTrade Girl Geek Dinner.

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): I just created a … It’s a leadership moment when someone’s like, “Hey, who’s going to throw the ball at jacks? Who’s going to throw the hacky sack?” I’m like, “Me, me, me, me!” Very early on I was just like, “Yo, people don’t like to be leaders maybe because I’m dominating in all these leadership positions.” And then when I started Nomiku, that leadership moment, I was 22 and I put “CEO” next to my name and I was like (laughs). I was like, “I have to work really, really, really hard to grow into this title.” And at the same time, I was like, “That was it.”

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): So there’s nothing stopping everybody here from, tonight, updating your LinkedIn and Facebook being “CEO of ____.” Then as an exercise, put away some money and go through the exercise of creating a LLC or a C Corp or an S Corp and then you’re the CEO. You might be like (laughs), and then you grow into it. That’s what happened. I just made myself room to grow.

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): I mean, first it was small like, “Oh, who’s going to …” Like every role, when I have a small group from church, they’re like, “Who’s going to lead?” I’m like, “Me.” She knows. She’s from my church group. Holla! So many networks. I love community and I love leading it. Whether it’s like a small thing like, “Who’s going to bring snacks?” “Me!” Or, “Oh, I chose for me to be CEO.” I’m just constantly swimming towards it. You can do it. There’s a holy kind of of, “(singing) Ah! Leadership, take the baton!” And then it’s like I say, “Me!” and then it becomes you! The sooner you start the better because if you say you’re CEO now, four years from now, people are like, “Oh yeah, she’s the CEO. It’s been on that LinkedIn for a while.”

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): So Claire, what are you the CEO of today?

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): Can you just ask her all the questions?

Claire Hough (Udemy): Yeah.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): When did you become CEO?

Claire Hough (Udemy): No… so when I hear Lisa talking, I see this duck that’s smoothly sailing in the lake, but underneath the water they’re pedaling like crazy. That’s you, working very hard.

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): That’s one sexy duck.

Claire Hough (Udemy): You look very … yeah… you look very smooth.

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): Thank you.

Claire Hough (Udemy): Yeah. I have to say I’ve been around the block a few times but young women these days impress me every day. I am so proud and privileged that I’m still sitting here being able to talk to you about my experience that sounds like it matters. I’m Head of Engineering. Not a lot of many women in Head of Engineering. So I am just proud that I was resilient enough to just keep in it.

Claire Hough (Udemy): One of the reasons why I stay there is for all of you to know that you can be Head of Engineering anywhere you want, right? There were a lot of opportunities for me to get out of engineering. People offered me other jobs like product, GM, or whatever. But because tech is such an unfriendly place for women, I didn’t want me to add to the number of women who’s getting out. I wanted to be resilient, stay in it, and add value.

Claire Hough (Udemy): So that’s my story of why I’m so old but I’m still in it.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): So stay in the game.

Claire Hough (Udemy): Yes.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Stay as long as you can.

Claire Hough speaking at SquareTrade Girl geek Dinner.

Claire Hough (Udemy): Stay in the arena, take risks, and just be in it.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Maybe I’ll direct this question to a couple of folks here. Some of you have described attributes or qualities that keep you in the game. So raise your hand, make sure you ask for that promotion, make sure you ask for that opportunity. Who in your life was a mentor, an important person that you might be able to attribute some of your success to? If there’s one thing I have learned in my career it’s that you can’t do it alone. You’ve gotta rely on your network around you, your support system whether it’s your family or otherwise. So who’s that important person in your life that you might attribute some of that success to?

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): I grew up in a family of all girls and my dad was very clear about, “You can go do whatever you want.” Neither of my parents went to college. My dad didn’t graduate from high school. He’s a very successful political columnist in California. There was just never this barrier that you’re going to stay at … If you want to pursue a career, you can do that. If not … And my husband was always that way too because he’s always like, “You don’t ask for enough when you go in there and negotiate. You gotta go and ask for …” Kind of that same thing. But I’ve had Larry Baer, my boss, for the past 22 years.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): I really thought I was going to opt out when I had kids quite honestly. It’s just there were no women in the organization. We didn’t even have a maternity leave policy. I just always thought that I would and I had so many friends that opted out. There were times that my husband was in a trial and he’s a lawyer and I was working and I had these two little kids under two. I’m just like, “I don’t know how I’m going to do it.”

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): I remember going into Larry’s office saying, “I think I need to take a break.” He’s like, “You may not quit. We will do whatever it takes. If you want to work three days a week, I don’t care when you get your job done. I don’t care if you come in late and stay. If you’re available, we have got to make this work.” That push, they knew it before I knew it that it was going to work. I got through those early years when the kids were really little and then they went off to school and I was like, “Okay, I’m so glad I stayed in it.”

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): I think that’s really good advice that it’s staying in it and really continuing to grow professionally that gives me the flexibility now that I can go and do other really interesting things in addition to my job. I think that having that support network of men really saying, “You can do this and we’re going to make it work for you” enabled to create more flexibility within the whole organization. I’m proud to say we have a maternity leave policy, we have a paternity leave policy, and more men in our organization take advantage of that than women do. That’s important.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Very, very cool. Thank you, Staci. Nupur, how about you?

Nupur Srivastava speaking at SquareTrade Girl Geek Dinner.

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): It’s a very similar answer. Growing up, very much my dad. We were a family of six — four girls, two boys. My dad never made us think that we were any different than the boys. I grew up in the Middle East but in a super supportive household where my dad made me believe that I could do anything and fueled any interest that I had. I distinctly remember I really wanted to go to Stanford for business school and I was terrified that I wouldn’t get in, but it was the only place I wanted to go. I remember calling my dad and he said, “Just apply. What’s the big deal? You’ll get in.” I was like, “Okay.” You know? I was like, “That was easy.”

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): 37 essays later, I was super lucky to be accepted there but without my dad’s confidence, I wouldn’t be able to. I think right now, it’s probably my husband. I know he’ll be very happy to hear I mentioned him tonight. Nana, please tell him I did. That’s my sister. It’s really important, I think, to have a partner that’s super supportive. I think he’s certainly pushed me a lot and given me the confidence I need time and again to keep reminding myself that I can do what I do. So very similar.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): One of the things we’ve been talking about at SquareTrade is this concept of an imposter syndrome. Show of hands, who’s heard of the imposter syndrome? Wow, okay. Pretty good. For the few of that didn’t raise your hands, what the imposter syndrome is a concept in psychology where you have a feeling that you’re somehow not worthy of the success you’ve had.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Many of the women in leadership honestly have had this experience and had this feeling where they feel like no matter how hard they try, and how many levels they are successful at achieving, and how many projects and successes they’ve had, that somehow they don’t deserve it. They’re a fraud. So to just get a sense from this panel, how many of you have experienced the imposter syndrome and what do you do to overcome it?

Margaret Reeves (SquareTrade): There was recently a New York Times article also that said that it’s even stronger if you’re not like everyone else around you, you don’t have the standard background for your role. I’m here VP of Product, we’re a technical product team. I don’t have a CS background, I don’t have a tech degree. History, woo! And I don’t have a MBA. That’s the other common background for my role. I’m not the normal background.

Margaret Reeves (SquareTrade): A few years ago, we were talking about hiring practices here and somebody brought up the concept, you’ve probably heard this, that A players hire A players and B players hire C players. I was like, “Ooh, what am I?” What I did to talk myself out of it, which I did, was I thought about all the people who had hired me over my career and did I think they were A players? Yeah, they’re some … And about half of them were women and they’re amazing women.

Margaret Reeves (SquareTrade): I also thought about those people who had hired me, no matter what level I was, they were Senior Manager or a Director, a good percentage of them, amazingly, have gone on to be C-Level. So not only do I think they were smart, the world thinks they’re smart. They are smart. So they’re most definitely A players, so if they’re A players, then I gotta at least be a B+, A-. I’m good. I think, you know, think about the people who support you, and believe in you, and have entrusted you to do things. They’re smart so you’ve got this.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Bonnie, how about you?

Bonnie Shu (Harbor): Yeah, so starting out as a really young female attorney straight out of law school, of course I felt the imposter syndrome. You have these opposing counsels who are really mean and scary, and they’ve been the business for 40 plus years, and all they want to do is bully you around because they think they can and they think that’s going to help them win their case. Really for me in those moments –

Bonnie Shu (Harbor): I kind of have this tough love approach with myself where I’m like, “You know what? You’ve got a job to do. You have a client you have to put your full, best effort for and you have to separate out those feelings of insecurity and say, ‘Look, I gotta get this done and I gotta crush it.’

Bonnie Shu speaking at SquareTrade Girl Geek Dinner.

Bonnie Shu (Harbor): So taking that to tech where you’re a first-time manager, that’s really scary. All of a sudden there’s people expecting you to know what you’re doing, and you’re like, “Uh, I don’t know what I’m doing.” You just gotta kind of put those feelings aside a little bit and just look at it from a very objective perspective and say, “I have a job to do and I’m going to kill it.”

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): As women, we’re pretty humble. Many of us are. But if you do get that opportunity, and you do have that success, don’t sell yourself short. Really. Don’t sell yourself short, right? You have earned it. You’ve earned the right to be there. You’ve earned the right to that success. It’s not just a team effort; it’s your success. Own it. I think that’s the one piece of advice that somebody gave me a long time ago. It was a mentor of mine. And it stayed with me for a long, long time. I’m sure, Staci, you have had a similar experience when you’ve had to overcome that imposter syndrome. What’s your story?

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): Well, yeah. I mean, gosh, going to work, my job at the Giants, it was all men, all the time. Then we were building a ball park so I’d be in these construction meetings. They were all incredibly supportive and nice, but I did feel like, “Oh, I didn’t completely measure up. What am I doing here?” I think part of it is I just started to get them to mold toward us a little bit more. There was this badge of honor you had to stay until the very last out of every game, even if you didn’t have game day responsibilities, or you had to travel with the team and all this stuff.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): There were women at the Giants and other men at the Giants who were like, “No, we’re not going to do that. We’re not going to have our children raised by nannies, we’re going to have a life outside of the game.” Slowly but surely, people started taking vacations in the middle of the season, and having people cover for them, and starting to change the culture of the organization.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): It was a really slow turnaround. But there was a group of folks who wanted to say that there was a different way to do that. And so rather than trying to conform to what was the norm there, we tried to have them conform more toward us. Then I started feeling much more comfortable in my role at the Giants and I’m still there.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): So build your posse.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): What’s that?

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Build your posse, build your network around.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): Yeah, build your nest, your posse, and have people who think like you. I just think it’s balance, it’s trying to find balance.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Yeah, balance is super important. Claire, maybe I’ll ask you to start us off with this next question. What are some strengths that you think female leaders bring? Now today, I have not really talked about women in leadership; we’ve really talked about leaders and showing you how women can be amazing leaders. But there are some ways that women differ from men in their strengths and what they bring to the table. What are some strengths that you think you bring? What have you seen work well in the workplace and what should we watch out for?

Claire Hough (Udemy): I think we have all the strength the men bring to the table, number one, and perhaps we have even more because I think our brain is wired to be able to handle multiple issues and find that balance, right?

Claire Hough (Udemy): As a female leader in a mostly male executive team, I think what I bring to the table, for me it’s been a different perspective and also my experience of many years of being in tech. I think these are things that men can bring as well. I think you should approach all situations with confidence that your experience brings that specialness, whether you’re women or men.

Claire Hough (Udemy): I think as a woman, people think I have more empathy and you know, today one of my women engineers said, “You smile more than other male leaders.” I don’t know why they don’t smile as much but I think these are your strengths that you can bring to the table, who you are, being authentic, and approaching people with what your personality brings to the table. I am actually very interested in people in general, so I want to get to know people, I want to get to know their strength, I want to get to know their backgrounds and all that. I think that builds very strong relationships and when you actually build that relationship of trust, it’s much easier to get stuff done because they trust you, they know you trust them.

Claire Hough (Udemy): Even if you’re in times of crisis, how you handle those situations together as a team, it changes the whole picture. I don’t know whether any of you have read Kim Scott’s “Radical Candor” — I am actually very blunt communicator; I just get to the core of the issue and yet, people don’t get offended by it because they trust that I trust them. I’m giving that feedback with personal care as well as just good intentions of wanting to do the right thing.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): How about you, Lisa?

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): The strength of the female leader is the element of surprise! It really is. For me, what I’ve found is people have preconceived notions of what women might be better at than men and what they come to toolkit with, and then what we may be insecure about like imposter syndrome. I’m going to be like, “I’m going to whip it up for you. Done.” In fact, I’m hungry for more recognition and did you know I also did this? I just like to go into whatever I’m going in with where people are … I just surprise them. There was one meeting I had with a VC and I presented my magical life-changing machine. It’s magical! It cooks food for you in 30 minutes. The same food that Michelin Star chefs do.

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): I’m like, “Go! This is revolutionary. Put it in your mouth. Yum yum!” I did the whole thing plus presented the numbers. Like, “Wow, numbers! Look at this chart! Up and to the right, up and to the right,” and then afterwards … Same energy too, same energy. I was met with like this. And then he was like, “Yeah, you know what? I’m going to talk with my wife about it because I’m going to see if she’ll use it.” And here’s where comes the element of surprise, okay? I said to him, “Wow! Your wife is also a GP too at this firm, just like me and my husband are co-founders!” And he didn’t talk to me ever again.

Claire Hough (Udemy):: If you didn’t sign up for Nomiku, it’s the time to go do it. I signed up. But had I met Lisa before I signed up, I would have run to the counter.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Okay, before I turn it over to the audience, one last question from me. Think back to 10 years ago, what advice would you share with your younger self knowing what you know today?

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): That’s a tough one. I think I was always high-strung, so I would say, “Things will work out, calm down.”

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Okay.

Bonnie Shu (Harbor): Okay, I think I’m ready. I think for myself, I came out of school expecting to have a set path, a set career, knowing exactly what I was doing for the rest of my life.

Bonnie Shu (Harbor): I think I would tell my younger self, “Stop thinking about this so much. Just do what you want to do. You can change careers. It’s not the end of the world. You can change jobs, you don’t have to stay at the same job for the rest of your life. So just chill,” I think, I would tell myself.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Margaret, how about you?

Margaret Reeves (SquareTrade): I’m trying to think back to what I was doing 10 years ago.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): We can go back five years.

Margaret Reeves (SquareTrade): I think 10 years ago, I actually, I think that’s when I was actually making a big leap and I left a company I had been at for a long time and was making a switch. I’m not sure I’d give advice to myself but I’d tell myself, “Don’t worry, it’s all going to work out. Leaving is the right decision.” Sometimes moving on is the right choice, although not for any of my team who are here by the way. No, now is not the time to move on. Stay.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): It does matter if you’ve been here a long time.

Claire Hough (Udemy): I would say I wish I had the self-confidence. When you’re young, you’re generally insecure or maybe a lot of you are not. Just tell yourself that you deserve at least 10x more self-confidence than you already have because you do. If you look at people who are successful, they carry that presence and self-confidence.

Claire Hough (Udemy): I think that’s one advice I would give to anybody walking into interviews or walking into meeting people who could influence you. Just lift yourself up, just tell yourself, “You deserve 10x the self-confidence you’re walking in with.”

Claire Hough (Udemy): I wish I had that advice because I think always going in, underselling yourself, it’s not where we ought to be. We are many, many years from where our mothers were, so let’s lift all ourselves up because I see a lot of women coming into interviews underselling themselves. Their resumes written in a way they undersell themselves. Stop it. You deserve much, much more.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Okay. I am now going to open the floor to questions. Who has questions?

Audience Question: I do know there was some mention about how your engineering is very male-dominated and I found personally that women who are more successful are often viewed more negatively by both men and women, while men who are more successful are often viewed more positively. How have you handled this challenge and how do you think that the status quo can be changed?

Claire Hough (Udemy): I’ve been in tech for a long time and it’s very disheartening to me that tech has become increasingly unfriendly for women, especially women engineers. Statistics say that a lot of women get out of engineering at a faster rate than men. These are all very disheartening statistics and I think we’re trying to turn that around.

Claire Hough (Udemy): You can only turn that around by educating people and actually having people become really aware that we’re all people, we all have strengths, and we have backgrounds that we bring to the table. A lot of companies do unconscious bias training. That alone, it’s not enough. You have to have these conversations constantly.

Claire Hough (Udemy): During my career, of course every job I go to, I have to reprove myself, although my resume is very long and has very reputable companies in it and I’ve earned promotions at those companies. And yet, sometimes when I get a new boss, they always question, “Can you do this job with mostly, in dominantly male population, male engineers?” At one time, one female executive actually said, “I’m not sure you could handle our male dominant engineering team,” even though I came out of companies where it was-

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Very male-dominated.

Claire Hough (Udemy): Largely male, right. I think we have to just keep educating others and I think actually, the younger generation’s much more open to this idea of diverse work environment, that you could learn from each other. There’s lots of statistics that diverse engineering organizations actually deliver better products or diverse companies do much better in the marketplace. So these are not just, “Diversity’s good therefore you should do it,” there’s statistics that better products are built, better companies come out of having more diverse workforce.

Claire Hough (Udemy): So we need to be constantly educating, but also being empathetic to learning about each other’s background. When I talked about imposter syndrome with my entire engineering team which is about 80% men still — actually men also raise their hand when we asked, “Do you have an imposter syndrome?”

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Wow.

Claire Hough (Udemy): It’s not just women. So we have to be empathetic to what their imposter syndromes may be and just have that empathy and through conversations and through sharing experiences, I think we could change the workforce.

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): Nobody has to like me as long as they buy my stuff and my girl gang likes me. That’s the most important part. Having your best, best girls who you really, truly admire like you and anchoring yourself in that, that’s how … Everybody’s like, “Oh, they didn’t like you,” I’m like, “Mm, sucks.”

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): It’s a good thing my kids like me, and my husband likes me, the girls, people with high moral fiber like me. I’m like, “Oh yeah! I’m into that.” This whole thing, the way this question’s framed, there are less likable duh, duh, duh. Does that matter though? Does that matter? Because they better get used to me, they better get used to us, and then they’ll like it. They’re like, “Oh yeah, what’s not to like. They’re all just right there.”

Wini Hebalkar (Squarerade): Cool. Wow, wow.

Claire Hough (Udemy): You just won.

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): I like you.

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): Thank you. See? She likes me. Nice!

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): There you go.

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): I like you too!

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Who here does not like Lisa after that one?

Margaret Reeves (SquareTrade): Unconscious bias training only goes so far. One tactic I use is I try to call things out when I see it, but I try to do it with humor. It’s kind of been a joke around here when everybody says, “Man power” or “Man hours” I’m like, “People hours.” I’ve actually got some other people doing it now. Just trying to make people realize but do it in a not … I do it in a non-threatening way at least and making it not … I’m not accusing them of doing something of wrong, I’m just making people aware.

Audience Question: What you said about stepping into leadership, 100%, love it. That’s always been me and I don’t apologize for that confidence because I think it’s one of the biggest career pushes and personality pushes you can ever enable for yourself. But be that as it may, the biggest challenge or one of the biggest challenges I’d say that I run into with my leadership style is that time and again, the feedback I get is that I am intimidating. I hear that and it breaks my heart because I am a kind person, I care a lot about how I’m able to mentor the people in my community, and build strong leaders to take over when I graduate, and keep on creating the community that we love.

Audience Question: When I hear that, part of me wonders how would this be perceived differently if I was a guy? To what degree do I care? How do I handle that without diluting what makes me a strong leader? Sometimes I want to call BS on it. The other times, it has an effect on how I’m perceived in my community and how effectively I can lead because you can’t empower people who are nervous around you. So I was wondering if you had any experience in that space and what kind of advice you would give for remaining a strong leader and not apologizing for your confidence while continuing to bring people up around you.

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): How would it be different if you were a guy? You already know the answer. I used to get that all the time, that I was intimidating. All the time when I first started. I was like, “What the eff is going?” So then I tried this new method — well, it’s an old method — it’s the Socratic method.

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): Whenever somebody, I could feel them pulling away from me, I would just ask a shit ton of questions about why they do this? Why do you think this? Why is this place there? Why did you choose that color instead of that color? What is the message you’re trying to get across?

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): Ever since I started the more questioning thing, I never get “intimidating“ anymore. People are just like maybe, “annoying,” maybe “exhaustive,” but no longer “intimidating” when I added way more questions, way, way, way more.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): Can I jump in on that?

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Yes, Staci. Go ahead.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): Someone was saying something and it reminded me of when you were asking that question. There’s another woman who I work with and we were both two of the early senior leaders in the organization. We would say something or we would do something and we would get these weird looks. One day she and I were talking, we’re very close, and I was like, “Do you think they’re intimidated by us? If we say something, they automatically jump.” I’m like, “Why are they afraid of us?” Because I had that imposter thing going on at the same time.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): So what I realized is all of a sudden there was this ah-ha moment that she and I are in these pretty high positions within the organization and when we say something, apparently people are supposed to jump and do it. What I found is to try to break … Because you know, I grew up in the organization. I was a 20-something when I started and I still saw myself, even though I had senior position, now I’m a 50-something.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): What I tried to do though is to meet people where they were on a personal level, so really making the effort to get to know people outside of just the meeting we were in about whatever event we were planning and really try to get to know each other on a human level.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): If someone had a baby, check in with their family, things like that. And really spend time with them, go grab coffee, go grab lunch. We started putting together these women mentor groups at the Giants because the really cool thing now is that we’re half women and half men and we have just an incredible group of young women and we have squads.

Staci Slaughter speaking at SquareTrade Girl Geek Dinner.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): We have older women paired with — there’s about 10 of us in a squad — older women with younger women in all different senior leadership, middle management, administration, everything. It’s really cool because a lot of times we just go for a walk around a ball park. We’re like, “Okay, meet at 12:00, let’s go take a walk around South Beach.” It’s breaking down those barriers outside of the meetings that I think has really helped with the breaking down the intimidation factor.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Okay.

Josephine Chan (SquareTrade): I think, Wini, we have a question here.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Yeah, we have time for maybe one or two last questions.

Audience Question: I’m a Product Manager here. I wonder what’s your advice on what’s the difference between from IC to your leadership position that you’re in now and how you would prepare for that in terms of, for example, strategic thinking and other aspects that you probably know much better than me? Thank you.

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): It’s very different. Very, very different. If you’re an IC, you’re mostly evaluated based on your scope, your project delivery, how you communicate with others and what have you. As a leader, your product is your team, so a lot of your role becomes enabling your team to success; a lot of your role becomes making sure you have the right leadership bench so that they can deliver the right results; your role becomes setting a strategic vision so that everybody feels like they’re swimming in the same direction with a goal that actually motivates them.

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): The notion of being authentic and open becomes really important because that’s when your team trusts you and works hard to deliver results for you. So it’s actually an incredibly different role when you move into management from being an IC. Obviously a very exciting one and one that I think everyone is more than capable of doing, but a very different skillset for sure.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Is there anything that Individual Contributors can do today to prepare themselves for that shift?

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): I would just say quickly that I think many of you, even in your IC roles, I’m sure have opportunities to display leadership, right? Whether that means stepping up, raising your hand for a tough project, helping your team rally behind a goal, communicating difficult things to your management and giving honest feedback. I think I see many leaders in my team, even though they’re ICs. So I think there’s plenty you can be doing in the way you carry yourself, and in the work that you do, and in the results that you deliver that make me see leadership potential for ICs as well.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Okay. One last question.

Audience Question: What I’m struggling with right now is managing my time. How much technology should I be studying versus how much leadership skills should I be studying? Like soft skills versus hard skills, which I believe should be called technical and non-technical skills. How do you find the perfect balance without jeopardizing your Individual Contributor role?

Margaret Reeves (SquareTrade): I have thoughts. I think the switch from Individual Contributor to managing your first person is the toughest shift in your career. I know I did it terribly the first time I did it and I’ve seen other people do it terribly. When you’re a strong IC, you’re really good at your job, and you’re on all the details, and you know everything, and you know the technology, you know your product really well. And then you’ve gotta manage someone and you’ve gotta trust that they’re going to do it.

Margaret Reeves (SquareTrade): You have to let go and empower them, and not micro … It’s really hard to not micromanage because especially if they’re taking over some of your stuff, and you know it so much better than them, and if only you were doing it, it would get done in half the time but you don’t have that time and that’s why you’ve got a helper.

Margaret Reeves (SquareTrade): You’ve got to learn to let go and how do you coach and mentor and have the patience to let them make a few mistakes but guide them along the way? So rather than training for it, I would think about, okay, you’re now a manager. How are you going to empower the person who you’re managing, who you’re leading, how are you going to lead them and help them along the way, help them do their job? That’s my perspective.

Claire Hough (Udemy): I think as an engineer, I think first chance that you get at showing some leadership is how you mentor more junior engineers. You’re still keeping up your technical skills because you’re still doing your technical work, but you’re reviewing somebody else’s work and giving them advice or giving them good feedback on how they’re approaching problems and all that. I think that builds your skills alongside your technical skills, so then your mentoring skills become one … You’re mentoring one engineer, you’re mentoring the next engineer, and then you’re building that. As you’re taking on those mentoring skills and time to mentor, then you are going to do less technical work over time, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not keeping up with technology. Right? At some point, you may have a big team such that you cannot keep up with every single thing that everybody’s doing. That’s when you have to let go and trust other people that they know what they’re doing.

Claire Hough (Udemy): I think I always tell the first-time managers that your success is not about you; it’s about your team. The output that you should measure yourself is the output of your whole team as well as the growth of your whole team. You have to, at some point, change that, change how you’re looking at yourself. But I think there’s a lot of satisfaction in mentoring others, so enjoy that where that’s happening and don’t worry about that whatever, that 20% of time I’m spending mentoring others is somehow taking away from me. It’s not. It’s adding to who you are as an engineer by giving that feedback.

Wini Hebalkar speaking at SquareTrade Girl Geek Dinner.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Wow, some amazing advice to leave us with. Make sure you mentor some junior team member, make sure you don’t sell yourself short, stay in the game. If you guys are early in your careers, you can always be an Individual Contributor and a successful leader at the same time by doing just this one other thing.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Mentor somebody else, form a network with like-minded individuals like you, and help promote them and help promote yourself. I just want to take this time to thank our panelists for being here — I hope you guys all enjoyed it.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): I hope you all took away at least one thing that you can implement as soon as you go back home or maybe tomorrow morning when you wake up.

Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

“From Cat Herder to Air Traffic Controller: Engineering Leadership” — Girl Geek X Elevate (Video + Transcript)

Laura Thomson / Director of Engineering / Mozilla
Miriam Aguirre / VP of Engineering / Skillz
Rija Javed / Senior Director of Engineering / Wealthfront
Vidya Setlur / NLP Manager / Tableau


Laura Thomson: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the panel on engineering leadership from cat herder to air traffic controller. My name is Laura Thomson, and I’ll be your moderator. I’m going to begin by introducing the panel, and if each person could wave or tell us who they are as we go around, that would be great. First up we have Miriam Aguirre, who is the VP of Engineering at Skillz. We also have Rija Javed, Senior Director of Engineering at Wealthfront. Vidya Setlur, a NLP Manager at Tableau. And my name is Laura Thomson, as I said, and I’m the Senior Director of Engineering Operations at Mozilla. Welcome to the panel, everyone. We’re going to try to do this in a conversational way. I think a good icebreaker question is for us each to talk about what our career path was. How did we get here? How did we end up in these roles? So who would like to kick us off? Miriam, maybe?

Miriam Aguirre: Sure, absolutely. I actually graduated from college in 1999, and immediately moved to Silicon Valley. I went to MIT and graduated with a computer science degree, and it seemed to be natural for me to move to Silicon Valley. I spent most of my career here in the Bay Area, big companies, small companies, from HPs to two or three people companies. As a software engineer primarily, made my way into architecture and then joined a startup where I felt like I finally had to break into management just because I wanted to drive more of the decisions on what products to work on and what teams to build and how to build those teams. I just felt kind of like there’s only so much I could contribute as an engineer, but there were a lot of decisions where I felt like I could make better decisions at the management level. So I carved my way into leadership at Skillz, now as an VP of Engineering here.

Laura Thomson: That’s great. What about you, Rija?

Rija Javed: I’m originally from Canada. I went to the University of Toronto, did undergrad and grad school there. And then similar to Miriam and, I think, a bunch of people that moved to the Bay Area, that being the hub of tech and software. I was at Zynga, which was a very interesting experience, given that it is a gaming industry, very famine and feast, I was there for about a year, and then this interesting opportunity from a company called Wealthfront came about. The engineering culture really spoke to me, and I joined the company when they were about 20 or so people, and then I recently left when we were about 200+ people. So I was able to contribute across various different areas, and just grew within that role from being an individual contributor to leading and managing that core business area for Wealthfront. And, yeah, met a lot of great people and learned a lot professionally.

Laura Thomson: That’s awesome. What about you, Vidya?

Vidya Setlur: Well, I am originally from India, and so I did my undergrad in India and came here for grad school. My background is in research, so I’ve been doing research and NLP and it’s natural language processing and graphics for more than 10 years. And most recently, an opportunity came up at Tableau where I could manage an engineering team in this space, so it’s just been a great opportunity to practice some of the technical expertise in this area as well as people management hand in hand.

Laura Thomson: That’s terrific. All right, I’ll tell you about myself. I’m originally from Australia, which you probably never would have guessed. When I started college in computer science, the web didn’t exist. And then I decided that that was what I wanted to do for a living, so that worked out well. In Australia I ran a consulting company, went to grad school, and about 11 years ago, I moved to the US and started working for a company that did consulting for startups, really like a lot of scalability stuff. I’ve done a lot open source work and written books and so on, and that’s how I ended up working there. And finally, about 10 and a half years ago I came to work for Mozilla, and I started as a senior engineer and worked my way up to where I am now, which has been a great ride. I wonder, often, how much longer I can go on, but it’s been fantastic.

Rija Javed: Nice.

Laura Thomson: Okay, so next question I have is what’s your management philosophy? How do you approach managing up, dealing with your people that you report to, and down, which is sort of an expression I hate, actually, but, you know, the people you manage. Who would like to tackle it?

Vidya Setlur: I can. I’ll start off. My general philosophy and just watching people that I admire is leading by example. I find it highly uncomfortable asking my team what to do, but intrinsically motivating the team and inspiring the team to really feel the passion and being part of this journey and working on items. I can take the horse to the water and force it to drink, but there’s something lovely about someone who is just excited and passionate about working on certain projects. But, you know, by me getting in and working and leading by example, that’s for me, one way of getting people excited and passionate. The second aspect is just being a really good listener, listening to what people are saying, listening to their signals. There’s a lot of implicit listening that I like to do, their body language, their gestures … Are they uncomfortable? Does their voice need to be heard? So really acutely signaled into some of that as part of the way that I approach leadership.

Laura Thomson: That’s a wonderful answer. I really like that part of it, being a good listener. That’s really important.

Rija Javed: I guess my experience, the way I envision it, for in terms of people managing to me, I very much believe that a job of a manager is to make the people successful, and that’s not while they’re within this particular team or within this particular company. And the way I always look at opportunities, especially within the company scope, is what are the company’s priorities? What are the person’s skills, and what are their interests? And you always want it to be a step up for them, while keeping all of those things intact. And in terms of people higher up than me, I very much believe that an individual’s job is there to make the company successful, all the while, especially when you have people reporting to you, making them successful as well, too. But I feel like I myself have grown a lot within the companies that I’ve been at, and I think good things will just happen to you. You’re then able to make that impact, and other people will see the value that you bring to the table, and it will all work out professionally for you. But, yeah, for me it’s very much making sure that that individual is successful throughout their career and maintaining those relationships and having a good communication system.

Miriam Aguirre: Yeah, really understanding where people want to go and helping them get there and doing the right amount of pushing versus not. Listening, but also listening for things that they’re not saying, and digging in and asking those questions, and trying to steer them towards where they think that they want to go, and giving them those opportunities to see what that’s like. A lot of times you know, or you feel like, something will not be a good idea, or it may not necessarily turn out the way that they think, but you want to be supportive, and you want to give them that space to grow and find out for themselves what they want to accomplish. You taking on that support role is super important for me, in terms of management, just making sure that you’re being supportive but also pushing. I keep pushing them forward.

Laura Thomson: Right, I hear a lot of common things and things that I try to do as well, but maybe not as eloquently stated. A couple of things I really like to do … I like to meet people where they are and not try to force everybody to work the same way or follow the way that I think they should work. As long as they are doing good work, then it doesn’t really matter how they do it. I try to give people the freedom to be themselves. Also, really want to push responsibility to the edges. Wherever possible, the person who knows the most about the thing should be making the decision about the thing, and a lot of the time that’s not me. Those two things are really important.

The other thing is I try to encourage them. I take a philosophy of communication that is kind, direct, and prompt. Because I think, particularly in the open source world, you have a place where people can be kind of jerks, right? They’ll say, “Oh, my god, this code is terrible.” And sometimes you need to communicate that, but you don’t need to communicate it in that way. Also, you can go too far and be nice and not say anything, and that’s not helpful. What you have to do is be kind by telling them, by sharing that with them. Be direct. Say what you mean. And be prompt. Don’t think something and not get around to telling someone until it’s too late for them to do anything about it. That’s my philosophy.

Vidya Setlur: I think, adding to that point, is a fantastic book. I don’t know if you’ve read it. It’s called Radical Candor.

Laura Thomson: Oh, I’ve heard this is really good. I’ve not read it.

Vidya Setlur: It’s a very good book. It’s all about honesty and how you can care about people through honesty…

Rija Javed: I think … Sorry, one other point. One of the things that I recently read in a book … It was by Ray Dalio, and the quote there was that the job of manager and especially any person in a senior leadership role is to figure out the individual’s motivations and ensure that those align with the company strategy and goals. If you’re able to do that, then you’ll really be able to help the people grow, which are the most important part of any organization, and that will help the company grow itself.

Laura Thomson: That’s really great. What do we have next? Oh, this is a great one. So what are your thoughts about mentorship or sponsorship? I’ll just qualify what I think the difference between those are. Mentorship, it tends to be helping someone grow or receiving advice. Sponsorship is more the act of helping someone in their career, like offering them stretch opportunities, helping them be seen, and so on. So how have mentors helped you, and how have you been a mentor to others now that you’re a leader?

Miriam Aguirre: I’d like to hit on that one. I definitely feel like, as someone who has now spent a better part of two decades in tech, being really mindful of where I spend my energy. And especially when I think about giving back to the community, whom I choose to mentor and whom I choose to sponsor. I can only sponsor people who work at my company effectively, but who I choose to mentor, it could be outside of my organization, and that’s where I feel like I could make a big difference if I help girls in junior high or people of color before they leave STEM. And so I try to focus my energies around that.

In terms of my own mentorship and allyship, I try to be pretty focused about what I need from certain people. I have a senior executive that I consult with at Lyft, and I ask him for information that would not be readily available to me. For example, what would a white male ask for in terms of salary for this kind of position at this stage company? And him having that experience is able to give me that information pretty easily, and I don’t have to feel like without this information I can’t negotiate effectively. So being really specific and intentional about the info that you want or the kind of sponsorship or mentorship that you need really helps guide me and focus my energy.

Rija Javed: I like to echo that point, especially in terms of mentorship for outside communities. When I was in high school, in terms of my maths and sciences classes, it was actually most of the girls or women there that were actually achieving the highest grades. But careers, in terms of the STEM category, is just things that they would not think of, so they would try to go into more of a business side of things, whereas it would be more of the male population that would think about going into it. And to be honest, I actually first was doing undergrad in terms of business and economics, and then I just loved math way too much. So since high school up till now, for the past 10 years, I’ve tried to focus a lot more in terms of those diverse groups that wouldn’t necessarily automatically be thinking about the STEM careers, just to open up their mind to learn more about it.

Rija Javed: And then in terms of mentorship within the industry and within the company that you’re working with, I think it takes on lots of different forms. There are, of course, more specific relationships like onboarding mentor relationships, but there’s also a lot of stuff that you learn more implicitly from people. And I feel like I’ve really benefited in terms of that. While people may not necessarily be doing it, but you find them to be inspirational people, and that’s how I carve out my career journey. I think about it. It’s like those are the traits or those are the experiences that I would like to have.

Rija Javed: I think in terms of sponsorship, I read a great article, which I think is probably one to two years old now on Medium. But that was talking about how mentorship is not the answer for why women leave tech. The answer is actually advocacy at the higher exec levels. And that’s actually one of the things that I’ve been more mindful of, given the leverage that I’ve had at the company and thinking more about that diverse group and how I’m able to speak up for them. Because I also know that I’ve been able to grow in my career because there’s been that one person for me that’s been speaking up for me at that high level E-staff and board level.

Laura Thomson: I really like what you said about the implicit mentorship. I always think you should watch what people do, and if there’s something they do that’s great, ask them how they do it and steal it. Make it your own so you can … It doesn’t have to be a Yoda-style relationship where they guide every action, and you’re running through the jungle and learning all these things in this really hard way.

Rija Javed: Yeah, exactly.

Vidya Setlur: And I think that also dovetails into the previous point I made about being a good listener, but also being a really good observer. Because what I’ve realized is the best advice I have given as a mentor or have been given from a mentor is stuff that just happens implicitly without any sort of descriptive advice. I’m not saying that there is no place for that, but sometimes watching situational awareness and how people react in various situations is a really great way of observing and learning and recalibrating ourselves as individuals. I think for all of us here on this panel, we have the responsibility of mentoring the upcoming generation and our peers as well as continuously observing and learning from other people that we look up to.

Vidya Setlur: And the sponsorship thing is really good. Both Rija and Miriam raise some interesting points on, yes, you always want to have someone who can advocate for you or advocate for certain values in place in addition to someone intrinsically motivated and mentoring and helping you grow as a career. And you need both, and there’re places for both in a company and situation.

Laura Thomson: I think that’s really true. Sponsorship is sometimes an easier model, too. And I saw that as a question that I’m not going to answer it particularly or directly about finding people to mentor you at the mid and senior levels, and sometimes sponsorship is a better model there. It’s okay to approach somebody and say would you sponsor me, but I think you need to figure out what you want to get out of it first and make sure that you identify somebody that has the skills or is in the position to help you. And be prepared for them to say no. But I think one thing you can also in those situations is if somebody says no, say, “Well, can you suggest somebody else that might be able to help?” So don’t be frightened to ask. The worst you can get is no.

Laura Thomson: Okay, I did want to mention there are a bunch of questions coming up. We’re going to do a few more questions that we prepared earlier, and then we’ll switch to doing questions from the group. So if you haven’t had a chance, if you’re in the audience, look at the Ask a Question section, vote up questions that are interesting, write your own while we’re talking, and we’ll look at them in a few minutes.

Laura Thomson: Next one I have… let’s talk about challenges, challenges or failures that you have faced throughout your career. They could be things you overcame or things that you don’t think you handled particularly well. Let’s talk about those. Who would like to go first?

Rija Javed: I can start off. When I joined my prior company, the company size was 20, and I was the only female, let alone female within engineering, and certainly people who had five to 10 years more professional experience than me. So I really had to show my value in terms of the work that I was delivering. But one of the disconnects that was there for some time was you might be acting within a role and delivering that impact, but not necessarily getting the title that’s associated with it. And certainly situations where there were people with me that were not necessarily as diverse — they were white / male — and the treatment that they got versus the lack of audience that I got in that situation and the answer that I was literally told were like, “Well, yes, for this very powerful person, you don’t look like the people that he’s used to dealing with, and you just look very different to that.” And I think that prior article that I mentioned of why women leave tech, that Medium blog post …One of the things that it did mention was if … sometimes there are stereotypes associated with women.

So, if you are this very strong leader, then sometimes in conflicts that can be viewed negatively, whereas potentially a white male, who people are more used to, can get more claps on the back of, hey, you’re a strong leader, and you stood up for those ideals. Those are certainly some of the challenges that I’ve had to work through. There’s certainly technical challenges as well, and that’s a conversation that I was having with one of my peers, as well, is I think especially as you go higher and higher, it’s more so about cultural challenges that you have to deal with, and I certainly believe like no situation, no company is perfect, there’s going to be politics everywhere but it’s like what level of politics are you okay with and at what level does it really start to get super toxic?

Laura Thomson: Yep.

Miriam Aguirre: I think for me personally, when I think about my growth in tech, when I think about failures and challenges, what really stands out to me is how much time I feel like I’ve wasted fearing to fail as opposed to overcoming the actual failures. They’re not that remarkable now that I think about all of those failures and some of them I can’t even remember but there’s been plenty of failure throughout my career. What I feel most bad about isn’t those failures themselves, it’s actually how much time it took for me to make those decisions and not be okay with taking that risk and that’s really what I would like to change, not the failure itself. I think failure is just part of our roles, part of our jobs. We have to be able to manage through that. It’s really the lack of decision making that I feel bad about personally. When I think about how I approach my work now, it’s not out of a place of fear, and definitely like I know how to get through failure, I’ve done it plenty of times now. It’s more like let’s be decisive, let’s make good decisions, and let’s do it quickly without wasting time around being afraid.

Laura Thomson: That’s a good one.

Vidya Setlur: Yeah, I think for me, I think the general thread of thinking whether you classified failure as challenges, that’s to be discussed, but I think this is just sort of reminiscent of women in tech who tend to overcompensate for the role that we have and you just talked about that too. I found that starting from grad school because I chose to have a kid in grad school and as it is being a woman in a computer science department pursuing a PhD has its own bias feed and that on top having a child leads to all sorts of assumptions and opinions that people, especially men tend to have, “Are you really cut out for grad school? Is this what you want to do?” Comments like, “I guess I’m not going to see you once you have your kid.” I think for me, the way to address those challenges has been to just overcompensate. Working really hard as a grad student, not playing video games like my male peers, right? Because you feel like you’re constantly judged based on what you’re doing and I think it’s a common thread for me as I have grown professionally. I mean Tableau has been a great company but just because I have been trained and sensitized to overcompensating, I realized that we all wear so many hats that are beyond our pay grade or job requirements and we just do it. I have seen guys saying, “You know what? You’re asking me to do this, you need to give me a salary hike,” but we dare not ask such a question, right? We just do it and we sort of underplay or downplay that overcompensation that we’re doing because we feel that we need to prove ourselves beyond this stereotype that is often there. To me, part of the undercurrent of challenges that I face and I feel that a lot of people can kind of relate to that as well.

Laura Thomson: That’s a good one. I know for myself, one of the biggest challenges I’ve had through my whole career is I have really bad imposter syndrome and I’m sure I’m going to learn that probably like 99% of the people on the call have this to some extent but it’s really frustrating. Like you sort of feel like you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I have this thing that I want to work on, if I talk about it people will think I’m an idiot, is it really a good idea? If we do it, what if I fail and I’ll look stupid and all this kind of stuff. Like it was a very strong problem for me.

One of the things that’s helped me a little bit with that is realizing that it applies in every aspect of my life. I’m also a parent and when I became a parent, I said, “I have no idea what I’m doing, but all of these other moms know what they’re doing.” I was like, “This is imposter syndrome again, I just can’t get rid of it.” It’s kind of good to know that’s just how my brain is. That actually helped me a lot with the career stuff, was it was like, “Okay, this is how it works, I just have to ignore it.” It’s super helpful.

Vidya Setlur: Yes.

Laura Thomson: What do we have next on the list? Okay, so what do you do, each of you, to develop and hone your leadership skills?

Miriam Aguirre: Sure, I’ve got a couple of networking groups. I participate in an engineering Slack group as well. I like to, on my very long commute, I listen to podcasts or catch up on blogs and kind of follow different leaders in engineering and just kind of catch up on articles and keep in touch with the community. I find that kind of research really helps me keep abreast on what other people are doing, what other companies are doing and if they’ve solved some problem that either we are facing or we’re about to face and I don’t even know it yet. I can stay ahead of that stuff and kind of really reach out and kind of get more information around like how they approach the problem and how they came to those solutions because even having the framework for solving those kinds of problems is really valuable even if the problem isn’t directly applicable. I like to read up on the industry and also leaders that I feel are really good leaders at really good companies and try and model after them.

Rija Javed: Yeah.

Vidya Setlur: Yeah, for me, I definitely lean towards honing my technical aspect of leadership. I found that in a meeting, if I’m having a conversation tying it back to something that’s technically grounded often helps me in my role because of the nature of the team that I’m leading. Since I came from research, I continue to be very active in the academic community. I publish at conferences. I do peer reviews with papers. I also, the Bay Area has a lot of opportunities to mingle because there’s so many meet ups on various technical issues, also kind of women in tech issues, so just socializing and being out there and listening and learning and just being actively learning and growing is something that I continue doing.

Laura Thomson: Yeah.

Rija Javed: I mean, I don’t necessarily do as much reading. I try to keep up with some of the stuff but for me, the value that I really place on is on the individual themselves, so I have this collection of people, not necessarily engineers themselves, but within the tech community and some a little bit outside that I very much respect. When it comes to some like high-level decision-making process that I’m going through, I tend to look at a lot of the metrics, like try to be data-driven, but then I also place a high value on the opinion and advice of those folks, and also try to — which I think kind of echos what Vidya and Miriam mentioned as well too — try to learn from the people around me and that doesn’t necessarily need to be like the people that are laterally above you, but people that are around you or below you because everybody has a different way of doing things, and you might be able to learn something from that.

Laura Thomson: Yeah. Yeah, and I think that’s not just learning what to do but sometimes you can learn things that you don’t want to do, right? We just started saying about work too, I mean reading blogs and whatever but I hope it will all work out but one of my awesome colleagues, Selena Deckelman has just started Management Book Club and when I was talking about this when we were preparing, someone said, “Did you actually read the book?” I think it was Miriam and it’s really well-structured for managers because it’s like a chapter at a time so you know, we’ll meet to discuss chapter four. That’s okay, I think everybody can commit to reading like a chapter. I’m hoping that works out really well, but I think the conversation is about it with the other leaders is probably even more important than reading the book.

Vidya Setlur: Laura, what’s the name of the book again?

Laura Thomson: We’re going to do different books, I can put a link to the one we’re doing first. Ask me again in six months if we kept it up. That would be a good question, but I really like the idea. Okay.

Tell me about a bright spot in your career. What was something that you think of as a highlight or a high point, something that went really well.

Miriam Aguirre: I’ve been pretty pleased the way we’ve approached hiring at Skillz and kind of some of the resulting stats from that. Deep down, everyone believes that diverse teams help a company perform better. I wanted to actually apply that and have some results come of it. When we were named the fastest growing company revenue-wise for Inc. 500, I was like, “This is exactly like the proof that people want to see, right?” Sometimes people do things the right way because it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes they want to see that the numbers look good and this is kind of a sweet spot where I feel pretty happy that we’ve got both those things and really want to share that success with other leaders and kind of help them achieve that same level of success because I do feel like at the end of the day, the diverse team really does help the company build a better product and if you’re in a business that wants to make money, that’s very important and you can’t overlook that. It costs money to overlook that.

Laura Thomson: Yep, that’s a great story.

Rija Javed: I think for me, the highlight of my career and the best project that I worked on, which has also been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was, I was managing that core business area for Wealthfront so we were trying to scale the existing platform but we also wanted to remove some of the middlemen that are associated with the brokerage and financial industry so re-architecting that whole platform and taking all that responsibility in-house, which was a massive undertaking but we didn’t also shut shop so we’re still delivering the new client facing features on top. We also went through like a massive hiring endeavor too as well with somewhere around like 40 or so people just within like a three to four-month span.

That six month period in terms of onboarding, that was like a net negative and a very painful experience for me, but I truly also believe that people are the most important part of any aspect so once they were fully onboarded, and this endeavor — I call it a project but it was a two and half-year endeavor — and it just kind of like really opened up the gates for my company in terms of the products and the areas in which we wanted to expand and also just the control we should take in-house. Then we decided to build while this was going on, a new client facing feature on top, which we knew nothing about and the timeline was compressed on us because our board financing the decision but because I had a great team. There were a lot of tough challenges both technical and to be honest, cultural as well too because we were working with 30 different vendors and hiring people from traditional industry who were just not used to tech at all, so for me to be able to kind of like onboard them and work with the different mental models, certainly the hardest thing that I’ve had to do but also probably the proudest thing because I was just humbled to have worked on it, let alone be able to lead and manage that whole thing of 80+ people, certainly something I’m proud of and a highlight.

Laura Thomson: That’s amazing.

Rija Javed: Thank you.

Vidya Setlur: When I joined Tableau almost six years ago, it was nothing about natural language. Tableau had been an analytics platform supporting visual analytics and I joined a research team but people would look at me oddly and say, “Oh, you have an NLP background, but I guess you also have a graphics background so it makes sense that you’re in Tableau.” I think what I’m particularly proud about is working on the research team on a bunch of prototypes, which focus on the research team, primarily women, I must say, and there was a precipitation point where it’s almost like you have to be at the right time at the right place, the stars need to align for a company to really buy into a research idea. It’s a multi-factor optimization. It goes with competitive landscape has to be just right, the idea has to be well thought through. It needs to excite the decision-makers in the company. It needs to make sense to the company’s business because there’s so much beyond just a good idea and we presented a particular prototype to the executive board where they got so excited that they started a seed engineering team with a female engineer, actually, and then Tableau acquired a start up and now NLP is a first class citizen at Tableau. Everybody talks about NLP. So it’s just exciting to see that technical shift and kind of the respect and the whole ecosystem that comes with that. You have sales people passionate about it talking to Tableau customers. There’s a whole body of work in the research community that’s looking at NLP with visual analytics. It’s just been remarkable and I would just say it’s been lucky I’ve just had a lot of good people working with me and just some good luck as well.

Laura Thomson: Yep. That’s amazing. For me, I think the thing I’m proudest of over the last couple years is actually more of a cultural change than anything. There’s a lot of technical change but mostly a cultural change and the program we have that I came up with, which is called, rather unglamorously, Go Faster.

I come from a web development background and when I moved to actually start working on Firefox, I said, “Why do we only ship every six weeks? Why don’t we just deploy this continuously?” I think I upset a lot of people by saying that. The nice thing about that is, I’ve always kind of thought with continuous deployment, the things that you do to promote that [inaudible 00:35:11] for your culture anyway. It means lots of tests, lots of sort of good data and experimentation and trying small incremental things and seeing if users like them and iterating quickly. We’ve historically been a risk averse culture, which might surprise you, and also a culture that is like allergic to collecting any kind of data because it’s sort of the clash point between Mozilla’s mission. We’ll respect user sovereignty but also try and deliver a good product. It’s like we’ve had to come up with sort of set of lean data practices so we can collect data about the product without invading anybody’s privacy to iterate quickly and make a good product. We can do that now. We can ship multiple times a day if we want to. We mostly don’t but we do a lot more experimental work. We do a lot more testing and experimental features and feature flagging and a lot of things that I am used to doing as a web dev. I feel really proud about that. I think it was sort of one of the key things that allowed us to ship Firefox Quantum last year, so it feels really good to have pulled that off and it kind of surprises me still.

Rija Javed: Nice.

Laura Thomson: It was fun.

Rija Javed: Yeah.

Laura Thomson: Okay, so I have one more question from our prepared ones then I’ll go to the audience questions. This last one I think is a really good one for this audience, which is what do you do to promote inclusive leadership and make people from diverse backgrounds feel welcome in your team? That includes intentionally including people that have a various sort of intersectional differences.

Rija Javed: I think, sorry, I can get started unless-

Laura Thomson: Yeah, go on.

Rija Javed: I think one of the things that I really try to focus on is like the different level of diversities. Like it’s not just, and a lot of companies tend to focus like oh race, gender, and now like maybe thinking about like say sexual orientation or socioeconomic background, but there’s also different personalities in that mix and one of the things that I have been very much cognizant of, especially in the last six to eight months, is some people are more outwardly and happy to speak up for themselves and also opportunities that they would want, which kind of works well within the startup’s culture, as well too, where you almost don’t have like a whole lot of hierarchies associated. Other people are just as impressive, they’re just more behind the scenes and not necessarily super comfortable about even expressing their wants about which project they want to work on and what opportunities they’re next looking for.

One of the things I’ve been cognizant of like trying to really assess the team that I have in terms of, like it’s that whole ecosystem as opposed to the individuals associated with it, and how they’re kind of contributing and working together. First off, as soon as I start mentoring or managing somebody, it’s trying to figure out what their motivations are to like really grow, like why are they even an engineer? Not just working within in this team or within this company but what they want to achieve? Then within that set of how they compliment each other’s skills and the opportunities that are available, try to kind of give them those prodding or those opportunities even if maybe it’s like, “Oh, Julia, you had this great idea, or Bob did this thing over the weekend that actually was great results, or as somebody else mentioned this article.” Yeah, it’s not necessarily super concrete because I think it just depends on the team that you’re working with.

Laura Thomson: Yep. Great.

Vidya Setlur: I would just say just responding to that, I love the word ecosystem and for me, it feeds into kind of a broader philosophy that I have for my team that everybody needs to be in this [inaudible 00:38:44] mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset. In order to achieve that active learning mindset and growing from other people on the team, you need people from different backgrounds, the typical ones that we often see but also more nuanced as we just said. Introverts, extroverts, different skills.

If I have a team that is all highly-functional with superstars and all senior engineers and no junior engineers, people can get cocky. They’re like, “No, we all know what we’re doing,” and there are no opportunities for mentoring and helping junior engineers or even interns [inaudible 00:39:30] and at the same time, interns or junior folks have an opportunity to be mentored and learn and ask the right questions of more senior people. You can slice and dice these across different types of diversities, right, but at the end of the day, you have a puzzle, they’re not all going to fit perfectly. I mean there are going to be bumps, that’s how we are as humans. It’s not perfect, but in that process, you learn, right? Everybody learns and constantly recalibrates and figures out, what can we do to make this situation better?

Laura Thomson: That’s great.

Miriam Aguirre: I feel like this is one of those things that if you start out with a non diverse team it gets harder, and harder to fix that problem. But if you start with a very diverse team it lends itself very well to continuing to promote diversity; from the hiring decisions, the recruiting, how it’s done, how we present ourselves. But very hard to fix later on. You can start by doing the right thing, and things will be kind of steady state and not that hard to fix later on, or you can be in a situation where you’re like a Google or a company like that, where you just have a ton of work to do there. I think for us, because we’re in this situation where what we’re trying to do is to continue to promote that. We’re more open to different backgrounds, we’ve got objective testing that can help us suss out whether or not you’ve got the technical skills to succeed here and we don’t really look at that CS degree as a bar that that’s the first barrier to entry.

We feel good about processes downstream being able to inform us whether or not we think the person is going to be successful on the team. Then once they do join the team we make it part of multiple peoples goals to have that person succeed here at the company; so it isn’t just that individual out there floating by themselves. Multiple people are responsible for the success of that person; and they know it and everyone is aware of, okay you’re this person’s tech lead, you’re this person’s mentor, you’re this person’s … All of those pieces of the onboarding that we try to ensure that once they’ve joined the organization they’re going to have the support framework to succeed here. That really helps us, all of us, be invested in the success of any one individual; just at the end of the day just fixing hiring isn’t going to fix the other problems.

Laura Thomson: I want to pick up on one thing you said that I absolutely agree with you that it’s so much easier to have an inclusive environment if you do that from day one, right? To use a terrible engineering analogy you don’t build the product and then try to tack on security with duct tape, because you’re doomed to failure. It’s so much easier to start from a diverse, inclusive place and just build on that. I suppose it can be done, but it’s always going to be an uphill battle. For us, I really want people to be able to bring their whole selves to work. A couple of things I try to do to help with that are to talk about like, this is a really really basic example, you know if I am sick, or I’m taking time off because I need to do a parenting thing or whatever, I tell people about that. I know some people might feel like they have to hide that they have to take time off work because they have children or whatever. They can feel embarrassed, like oh I’m a mom and therefore I’m unreliable, blah, blah, blah. I always say, I’ve got to take off early today because of this child-related thing, because I want other people to be able to be free to do that. I talk about it because it’s a way of sort of making it clear that that’s okay. Using the privileged position that I have to establish that that’s a good baseline.

There’s just more basic things, like making sure quieter people get heard in meetings and not having every team building be about drinking beer and riding ATVs, and all sorts of … There’s lots of really basic everyday things. I’ve learned a heck of a lot from our head of D&I Larissa Shapiro was on this call and she’s awesome — so can’t say enough good things about her, how lucky we are to have her working with us. I am going to jump to the audience questions. Top of the list is, how do you find mid to senior career mentors? I feel like every time I look at a mentoring group they only want me to be a mentor, which I’m happy to do, but I want both.

Rija Javed: The approach that I’ve taken is just kind of really seek out, and to be honest, kind of like grab the opportunities and just go and ask the people myself. I try to … I like my prior opportunity just because I think it truly attracted top talent from various … Not just within engineering, but seeing the people that I respect, who have delivered and are able to inspire people. Not just given the past work, and what it says on their CV, and on LinkedIn, but the value that they’re delivering right now and you’re able to see. Then just kind of literally go and seek out those relationships. Be like, hey would you mind going on a coffee, or whatever. What I’ve actually found is people are more than happy to provide that mentorship and that advice to you. I’ve had the reverse happen to me as well too, but I’ve seen that people have been shy about it, so I’ve literally kind of taken them out and then once you’re there, then a whole bunch of both hypothetical and actual, real practical life questions come out that they just want your advice and feedback on.

Laura Thomson: That’s great. Anyone else on that?

Vidya Setlur: I would add that at least a couple ways one could possibly find these mentors is, what I found helpful is finding a mentor that would sustain a long term relationship. When I started as fresh out of grad school I had a mentor and both of us have sort of grown professionally over time. There’s still an interesting relationship in terms of the types of experiences that person can relate back to me, as well as growing in my professional career and exchanging notes. That relationship has changed over time, but it’s sustained because the underlying theme is trust and context. I don’t have to give my whole dump of where I am every single time, because it’s sustained. I would say those type of mentors can be rare, because we move, and switch companies, or people get busy, so things happen that way.

Another piece that I have found useful is, especially for people like us in senior levels, we probably have changed companies a few times, or changed management lines a few times. I have found, personally, that some of the best mentors that I’ve come across have been people who were my managers in the past, maybe at a different company, or in a different line, who I have respected, trusted, but because they are not my manager anymore there is a different type of relationship where they can be more mentors. Mentoring as opposed to managing. There’s a lovely reflection there that happens. Kind of seeking out into your network and finding those [inaudible 00:47:28] examples of people that you’ve worked closely with, or that managed you, whether that be directly or indirectly, and seeing if they can help mentor you in your next path, or next endeavor.

Miriam Aguirre: I would reach out to executives, especially if you want to meet someone at that executive level. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a person in your company’s executive team, but they will probably know other executives and can maybe recommend someone. If you’re specific enough about what you’re looking for, what problems you’re looking to solve, or what kind of mentorship you need, I feel like reaching out to your execs, or having them reach out to their board is not out of line for this kind of mentorship. A lot of people are very interested in sharing that women in tech stay in tech. I think that expanding your search and having other people who are already in those positions help you with that search can also be beneficial.

Laura Thomson: That’s great. Okay. I don’t I have much to add, so we’ll go to the next question. If know you’ve undervalued yourself in terms of salary how do you approach your manager to correct it so you’re paid fairly on par with your peers?

Rija Javed: I think the way to look at it is more objectively. I think companies, especially startups, kind of go through various different phases of that, but hopefully there’s some sort of engineering, or within whichever function, some levels associated it. Which is like, hey this is the roles and responsibilities that come with it, and that there’s advance associated with that level in terms of the compensation and various different rewards that go with it. I think having a very open and honest conversation in terms of the value that you are delivering; both objectively in terms of what you’ve delivered in the past, and making sure that you are prescribing and delivering on that particular metric, and hopefully by going through that feedback assessment, or whatever feedback loop that you have, your peers both within engineering and depending on the level that you’re in you’re probably working cross-functionally with folks as well too that can kind of really attest to that in a way.

The worst way you could potentially go about it is the compare and contrast approach, which as human beings, however much you try both preach and try to do, it’s just really hard to get out of. It’s like, oh hey I’m doing this, but this other person is doing that, and I think that’s how much their level, or title, or what they’re actually being paid is. I’ve seen both, me myself potentially being in that situation, or somebody having that conversation with me. Compare and contrast is usually, I think, the bad way to go about it. You want to look at it more objectively in the value that you yourself are bringing.

Laura Thomson: That’s great. One thing I would recommend is go with data. If you can collect any data points, and also it’s really good to rehearse any kind of those awkward conversations where you’re asking for more money, or you’re asking for a promotion. Rehearse it, practice it on a friend, a coworker, a spouse, whatever, so that when you actually go to have the awkward conversation with your boss … Because none of us like to talk about these things, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s like giving a talk; if you’ve done it before it will be easier.

Miriam Aguirre: Yeah, actually I feel like if your friend is up for it, they would really do you a favor by saying no and then that way you get that shock out of your system and you don’t freeze, because that is a potential outcome of this conversation. If you can practice that no with a friend, have your points, and your follow ups ready to go I think that will go much smoother when negotiating in person. I definitely agree with that practice the negotiation in advance.

Vidya Setlur: Yeah, just adding to that. Getting a friend who can play devil’s advocate is good.

Laura Thomson: Yeah, and never work for somebody like that. But yeah, absolutely. I think it’s really important. One of the things that I have done, more on the asking for a promotion than asking for a salary, is to say, what’s the gap? If you’ve said no, what do I have to change? What are the things that you need to see from me in order for me to get this and will you help me work on those things? Make them invested in your success, because it’s their success too.

Rija Javed: Yeah.

Laura Thomson: The next two-

Vidya Setlur: We complete goals, right? What is the delta? This is what you’re expecting of a promotion and just articulating the action of the item. That’s also useful as being a manager of individuals on a team. When you give them feedback and helping them identify learning opportunities, coming up with concrete actions that [inaudible 00:52:09]. Obviously to have data, have points of view that are more concrete.

Laura Thomson: That’s great. Okay, the next two questions are related. I’m going to read them both and then people can tackle whichever part of them they want. The next one is I’d love to get more details on the managing up questions from the panel. The second one is, leadership has two roles, managing those in the organization, but also managing and leading up. As leaders in tech, what advice can you offer for influencing company values to be more inclusive towards diversity, and other values that are meaningful to employees who aren’t white men, especially when there might be resistance to that.

Rija Javed: In terms of just managing up, one of the philosophies that has been one of my go to things and that I actually tell people within my team to do as well too, is over communicate versus less. If you think this information might be useful, even if you don’t think it is. I have literally kind of like — we used to use HipChat as opposed to Slack — but like literally spent selling spam messages almost, I like to call them, just because you don’t know what their filter might be and you always want the information to be going up as opposed to, like I had this one odd case. I was on vacation and got a text later on at night because of it, where the information because of the cross functional group went all the way up, down, and then… It was just this weird thing where you always want it to be going up. And to one of Vidya’s points much earlier, which was in terms of what your leadership skills are, I think both over communicating versus less, because people as you start to go higher up, they tend to lose context.

Maybe this is a bad example given the current tech world that we are in, but people love information, right? That is power. As leaders, you also want to be leading from the front. Having that social capital, and that social equity of the people that you are actually leading, because you are actually able to deliver, or have delivered in the past as well, and you know what you’re talking about. Then that’s also going to speak volumes at the higher up levels, because you have that social capital to back you, as opposed to just this potential — as organizations sometimes scale there’s this different perception; the upwards and the downward perception, and you want to keep that consistent. If you’re able to deliver, then the team itself is going to be kind of speaking for you, and the higher ups are going to believe more of what you say versus like no this is more of a middle manager, and maybe the team is feeling differently.

Vidya Setlur: I think for me there is a certain craft in terms of … kind of going back the point that communication is really important. I think there is a certain craft that comes with communication depending on whom you’re talking to, whether it’s managing up or down. For instance, there needs to be a way for me to articulate what our team is doing, or what it’s focusing on, and the customer value in a way that folks above me can either understand, or be active, but given communication that comes from upstream, downstream, or the way I need to communicate it with my team, you have to be more nuanced, or filtered, or updated based on how people are going to perceive that communication. I think getting more skills in terms of how one crafts communication, and the nuances of that based on who the target audience is, is definitely something that helps someone grow as a leader.

Laura Thomson: We are getting low on time. I think we can try to do these next two questions, because they’re both, I think, really quick to answer, then we’ll wrap up.

The next question is how many of you are still coding on a regular basis while being managers. I’m going to go first, which is I don’t code at work. I don’t code for work because it’s not my main job and I would just be blocking somebody else from getting something done. When I code these days it is like on a side project — on a plane is a great time to be writing code, I spend a lot of time on planes, that’s awesome — but yeah, I don’t want to be on the critical part for anything, because that’s a huge mistake in my mind. Anyone else?

Miriam Aguirre: Same for me. I don’t actually code anymore. I do on occasion peek into pull requests, and drop in some comments, but no, they don’t let me check into the repos anymore.

Rija Javed: Yeah, I’m on a similar path as well, too.

Vidya Setlur: I actually actively code.

Laura Thomson: Yeah, that’s fine.

Vidya Setlur: I review code, I write code, I look at the engineers. Yeah, I figure out which projects I work on… For me, being technically hands on is important.

Laura Thomson: Yeah, for me I think the crossover point is somewhere between being a line manager, and a manager of managers. About when you become a manager of managers it stops being a good idea. Anyway. One other question, I noticed all of you went to grad school, do you feel it made it easier for you to become a director or VP, or that it’s necessary to become one. I’ll start by pointing out I dropped out of grad school as is quite traditional in this industry. You don’t need it.

Miriam Aguirre: I didn’t go. Yeah, I didn’t go to grad school.

Rija Javed: I didn’t find it useful.

Vidya Setlur: I found it useful, especially with something as specialized as NLP. I’m kind of the black sheep.

Laura Thomson: Yeah. I think there are exceptions to that. If you want to be in research, if you want to be in data science, it doesn’t hurt. I’m sure there’s other things where it’s obvious, but it’s never going to stop you from getting a job, I think, at the end of the day, not at this point in our industry anyway. Okay, any last words? Anyone have anything else that they want to add that I should’ve asked? We have one minute.

Vidya Setlur: I should just say the questions that were coming in, I’ve been watching them, I’ve been really awesome.

Laura Thomson: They were great questions, yeah.

Vidya Setlur: Thanks very much and I hope the audience found this useful.

Laura Thomson: Thank you all for coming today. I had a lot of fun. I hope you did too. Thanks.

Miriam Aguirre: Thank you.

Rija Javed: Yeah. Bye.

“The Hardest Job I’ve Ever Loved“: Julie Meloni on Building Solutions with the US Digital Service (Video + Transcript)

Julie Meloni / Engineer / United States Digital Service
Gretchen DeKnikker / COO / Girl Geek X


Gretchen DeKnikker: I’m super excited to introduce Julie Meloni. She works with US Digital Service, yes, the government. She is going to tell you about the hardest job she has ever loved, working with USDS. Welcome, Julie.

Julie Meloni: Thank you so much. I hope you can all hear me. I am really excited to be here. I love talking about USDS. Every time I do, I am confused because I never thought I’d work in the government, who would love working in the government, certainly not me. But it’s the hardest job I’ve ever loved, and it’s hard for a lot of reasons that don’t have anything to do with technology. It has everything to do with people.

The technology is the easy part. Complex systems are hard. I’m going to talk a little bit about the types of work that we do, who we do it for, and how we do it. The funny thing is — spoiler alert — the things that we do and the way that we’re successful isn’t really unique to USDS.

You can all do it in your own organizations. While I would love for you all to come work at USDS and do it, as a takeaway, I’d like you to think about how you too can use all of your knowledge and expertise and your entire whole selves and bring it to your own work because sometimes it’s all we have.

If you’re looking behind me, this is the fancy digs we have here at Jackson Place for the US Digital Service. I am indeed in a basement. I am in the fancy room in the basement. That just gives a little bit the sense of just how we work. Scrappy is how we work at the US Digital Service. What are we? We’re about three and a half years old. That means that we were started in the Obama Administration. We’re still here in the current administration.

We’re a bunch of very passionate nerds, who use designing technology to help the government deliver better services to the public.

Very specifically, we don’t say the American people because we also serve people who want to become American citizens, and we still do that work today. We’ll talk a little bit about that as well.

What are our objectives at the US Digital Service? One is to transform critical public-facing services. That means anytime that a citizen, or a person wanting to become a citizen, interfaces with the government, it’s probably digital or should be digital. Those are two very different things. If it is digital, we try to transform those services into circa 2010 technology would be really awesome. 2017, 2018 technology is an amazing achievement and sometimes we get good partners in agencies who are amenable to that. That is amazing. But really, we’re trying to bring interfaces from the ’80s, ’90s, and sometimes the ’70s into the 2000s, 2010s. That is hard. It’s hard for a lot of reasons, and we’ll talk through that in a little bit.

We also want to help agencies figure out how to buy better services. That means really digging into what people are trying to do because they’re usually trying to do the right thing and helping them weed through bad contracts, bad requirements, bad everything, and trying to get them to a better place where they can buy better services that are maybe modern and don’t lock them in, maybe, sometimes uses open source, and maybe, sometimes uses new things like agile. We help them buy better services and save money, and that’s a big deal. If we can keep someone from spending $500 million on something that should have been $5 million, we’re going to take that win for us and for you any day of the week.

Another thing that we do is making sure that we’re expanding the use of common platform services and tools, and that could be tools that we help build such as login.gov, which is a joint effort between the US Digital Service and our partners in the technology transformation organization, 18F. That is meant to be a government single sign-on solution at a very high level of authentication.

We would love to be able to roll that out across agencies. Wouldn’t it be nice to sign in to do your taxes with the same user information that you used to fill out your FAFSA at the Department of Education?

What path can that bring? Even if it’s not a specific tool that we build, it might be a common platform. It might be the use of the Cloud. It might be the use of, I don’t know, some sort of, any sort of continuous integration and build system. It could be a lot of things.

We try to make sure that what we use can be used in other places as well because, if we don’t, we’re just as bad as the contractors who lock agencies into one thing.

Finally, we want to bring hot technical talent into public service, and that’s all of you and your friends who are probably too busy working to be here today, get them too. If you are super experienced, especially in complex organizations, if you have a very high EQ, and if you want to give back in some way, *especially if you never thought you would work in government*.

Take a look at US Digital Service or 18F and see what might fit for you.Not knowing all 2,000 of you or whatever it is watching this today, I can guarantee that we need all of you. I’d be happy for five. We need the help.

Who are we helping? That’s the fun part, right? We help as many people as we possibly can and this is why it gets hard because we can’t help everyone. We have an agency team at the Department of Homeland Security.

We work to create tools that help asylum officers adjudicate their cases quicker, which means they can help more refugees come into the country, more asylees come into the country.

We are trying desperately to make the immigration form process better. Generally, in all the situations that I explained, what we really do is we try to unfuck the government that is really fucked, from a technology perspective.

We have a team at DHS working hard for immigrants and refugees and working a little bit now with FEMA to try to make the grant system not suck quite as much as it does especially for people who have just lost everything in fires and floods. They shouldn’t have to go through as much paper as they do.

We also help veterans. This is one of our favorite stories because there is so much that we owe to our veterans and so little that we do well for them from a technology perspective. There are 598 distinct websites where veterans go to get information about how to get the services they’ve already earned like healthcare and education — 598 different websites is like 597 too many.

We have been working with the VA to make all these websites at least flow through one kind of interface like a portal, very cutting edge portal technology at vets.gov, and trying to make the paper forms not paper anymore, so incrementally taking bad things and making them better in terms of interfaces. You’ll notice a common theme as we go through here.

Military service members — We work for them. One of our teams at the Pentagon, the Defense Digital Service, they’re working on a better platform that helps active duty service members and their families move. The moving process which hundreds of thousands of families do every year, all at the same time, is a very antiquated computer system that usually goes down and results in people not being able to move and so we’re making a better one because that sort of cognitive load. You don’t want to think about how you’re going to move your family from one end of the country to the other while you’re sitting in Afghanistan getting shot at. That’s the last thing that you should be thinking of, so we try to make sure that you don’t have to think of that.

We also help students — In 2015, USDS and 18F worked together to create the new version of the college scorecard which focused on actually listening to students and their families, really figuring out what it is that they wanted to see, and then making that so.

Medicare/Medicaid recipients — We work with the team at Health and Human Services at the centers for Medicaid and Medicare services and we’re working on opening data basically providing APIs for third parties to access Medicare clean data so that doctors and other third parties can work with that data and present it to patients in a better way, make sure that they’re sort of looking at their trends and how can that help provide better service for seniors and anyone, actually.

Farmers — this is my personal favorite. There is a process that we went and discovered. We do discovery sprints here at USDS. We get a bunch of people together like four, five, and we go out for a couple weeks and we learn everything we can about a topic. We interview people, we ask the question, “You know if you had a magic wand, what would you change?” Then, we come up with a report that says, “Here are some things that we think we should change,” and then, if we’re lucky, we get to work on enacting better legislation or even building a better technology system.

With farmers, we found that farmers have a really hard time getting guest workers to pick the crops. This is a food security issue for all of us. If you can’t pick the crops, the crops die, and then you have to plow them under and we have no food. Farmers often have to single handedly manage hundreds of pounds of paper in order to get their guest workers into the country because there’s nobody domestically that wants to do the work. There are five different government agencies that they have to work through to get the workers. Farmers need to farm and not do paperwork for five different agencies, so trying to help people figure out how maybe not make that what farmers have to do. Also, that’s a lot of paper.

Finally, small business owners — I say finally only because that’s the last icon on the screen, not because that’s the end of the people that we help or that we are working for. We have worked with the Small Business Administration to make the application process for certification smoother, much easier, less burdensome, also for the analysts inside the SBA who are adjudicating cases.

Again, we’re using paper and working through nice, clean, modern technology with a UI that makes sense to just to do their job so that small business owners can do their jobs and their families can survive. That’s a lot of stuff right through there. One of the reasons that I worked really hard there to do that quickly was because if I pause, I cry because this is really hard work. There is literally nobody that we could walk past in the street who isn’t served by some of the work that we’re trying to help our agency partners do. That can be really emotional, and that is hard to do sometimes.

Actually, the number one reason that we choose projects, is this project the one that has got the greatest impact for the greatest number of people? If it doesn’t, then we have to prioritize it a little lower. Is the likelihood of success high? If so, awesome, so far so good. Can we scale it across government?

If it’s some really great project that has a high likelihood of success, in time, and we can take something from it and teach others across the government or implement technology somewhere else, even better. That’s when we will choose that project to do. That was a lot.

How do we do it? This is where the takeaways come in for you guys because the values that guide our work, you can use these in your jobs too because they’re very simple and they’re not prescriptive. Hire and empower great people. It’s as easy as that, right? Super easy. No. It’s very hard. Our talent team works tremendously hard to recruit and find the right type of people. Type doesn’t mean the most super senior person in the world. It doesn’t tend to be senior, but it also means someone with a really, amazing upside and high EQ and a high ability to get shit done in a mission driven and complex environment.

If we hire you, you are automatically empowered to go do whatever needs to get done and we’re going to do our level best to support you in that process. Find the truth and tell the truth, this is my favorite value.

We don’t pull any punches. If something is messed up in the government, we will tell the cabinet secretary in charge of it that your thing is messed up. We’ll probably use fancier words and be a lot more technically detailed than that, but generally, we need to find the truth and tell the truth because we don’t have time not to.

Similarly, optimize for results, not optics. We don’t have shareholders except for everybody that pays taxes. We don’t even make fancy presentations to the Board of Directors or whatever. We just need to show our results. If we’re showing results, that is the biggest optic that could possibly be. Let the results speak for themselves.

The minute we do something because someone on the Hill wants us to, it would look good, whatever the case may be, the President thinks it’s cool, then we’ve lost our reason to be here. We are here for results, whatever that means. Sometimes the results are not good ones, sometimes we fail. We learn from them and move on. Sometimes, we succeed, and sometimes, we learn about a lot more stuff that needs fixing.

Sometimes, we have to go where the work is because sometimes that stuff that needs fixing is in Afghanistan and sometimes it’s in Southern Illinois and sometimes it’s in Lord knows where. Especially when we work with military families, those military families are stationed at bases in remote places. The people that are doing the work supporting our deployed troops are in Afghanistan or other remote areas. We have to go there to work with them to figure out what it is we’re designing because we’re designing it for them and we’re not going to make it up just because it’s scary to go to Afghanistan.

We do everything with passion. “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm,” so says Ralph Waldo Emerson and so say we all. If we’re not making momentum in our projects, if we’re not helping our agency partners move forward, we’re not doing a good job.

Finally, designing with users and not for them. Users are at the core of everything that we do. We have to work with them and not make things up. The minute we stop designing for our users, just like the minute you stop designing for your users, the minute you’ve lost the reason for making your product. All of that having been said, join us, please. Any questions, I’m happy to take them here offline, online, on the Internets, wherever you want… I’m here for you.

Gretchen: Great, Julie. People are so inspired and a lot of thank you’s for doing this work and an empathy for how hard it is. Most of the questions that we got, we just have a few minutes, so I want to kind of paraphrase.

Julie: Sorry, I went long, my fault.

Gretchen: No. Just listening to you is so awesome. If you click this, thanks to our sponsors, you can learn more about jobs at US Digital Service. On that page, you’ll find a list of the types of roles that they’re looking for.

I did want to ask you, Julie, there was a question around, “What special skills? Are there part time things available?” Maybe if we could do that one.

Julie: Sure. We’ll do part time, first. The answer is “No.” Also, we don’t even do remote because it is very difficult to work on the ground with users who are in DC when you’re not in DC. If you really want to work in a modern digital services type of environment and give back to the government and you cannot move, do look into our friends at 18F. They allow remote work.

In terms of skills, if you’re an Engineer of any flavor, please join us. If you’re a Backend Engineer, a Security Engineer, an SRE, a Front End Engineer, we work a lot with React, join us. If you are a Product Manager with technical chops, you’ve led and deployed technical products with a team, join us. If you are a UX Designer or Researcher of any flavor of UX because UX contains multitudes, join us. That should cover all of you.

Gretchen: [laughs] You probably inspired a lot of people to think about this in a way that they never would have. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Julie: Sure. Also, remember, you can do all those things in your own company. You don’t just have to join USDS, but again, we’d love for that.

Gretchen: They’ll all want to come and work with you [laughs] .

Julie: You could all come work with us. There’s only 175 of us. Like 175 is not enough to do all the work that we have to do.