Missed our Elevate 2019 virtual conference? All 15 sessions as full videos are now available!

Over 2500 tuned in live to hear from senior tech leaders & engineers as the Girl Geek X Community came together to celebrate International Women’s Day with over a dozen talks, interviews & panels at the Elevate 2019 virtual conference. Everyone at Girl Geek X had a blast learning, laughing and sharing with our speakers, and we’re excited to share the videos with everyone who couldn’t make it!

Transcripts will be released in the coming weeks, so if you prefer to learn by reading, be sure to sign up for the Girl Geek X Newsletter, where we’ll be sharing them as they become available. (And if you’re a reader, you’ll also want to check out our Spring Reading List & Book Giveaway!)

Enjoy the talks below! If you are looking for a new job or career opportunity, check out these open roles at our Girl Geek X Trusted Partners: Grand Rounds, Intel AI, Palo Alto Networks, U.S. Digital Service, Netflix, The Climate Corporation and Guidewire!

“Being Unapologetically You” – Sandra Lopez (Intel Sports Vice President) Keynote

Not only has Sandra Lopez been named one of the 50 most powerful women in tech by the National Diversity Council and one of Latina Style’s Top 10 Latina executives, she’s also the VP and GM for Intel Sports. In other words, #boss. In this Girl Geek Elevate 2019 session, Sandra Lopez shared the advice she shares with the women she mentors on being unapologetically you, being kind, and networking while prioritizing support over competition. Read the transcript or watch on YouTube.

“Always Ask For More” – Leyla Seka (Salesforce EVP) & Jennifer Taylor (Head of Product at Cloudflare) Fireside Chat

The driving force behind Salesforce’s $8.7M commitment to closing the gender wage gap, Leyla Seka built AppExchange from its earliest days, served as GM of Desk.com and is now EVP of Mobile and one of the most senior female leaders at Salesforce. Tune in to this rare interview along with Cloudflare’s Head of Product, Jennifer Taylor, and get Leyla’s advice on how to always ask for more, help others, and scare the crap out of yourself at least once a year.

“Building High Performance Teams” – Panel Discussion with Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds Vice President), Citlalli Solani (Palo Alto Networks Director of Engineering), Colleen Bashar (Guidewire Vice President)

You think the transition from IC to a manager is the hardest part of your career – until you become a manager of managers. From advancing your hiring skills to their worst hiring and management mistakes, join these amazing women as they share their learnings as they’ve evolved from managers to leaders.

Speakers include: Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds Vice President of Product Management), Citlalli Solano (Palo Alto Networks Director of Engineering), Colleen Bashar (Guidewire Vice President) and the talk is moderated by Gretchen DeKnikker (Girl Geek X Chief Operating Officer).

“Data Science & Climate Change” – Janet George (Western Digital Chief Data Scientist)

For the very first time in our history, we can collect incredible amounts of data at scale. Modern data infrastructure enables the documentation and recording of billions of species and data science allows us to collect, analyze, predict and slow down the speed of extinction. Western Digital Chief Data Scientist Janet George walked us through her extensive research and shared tips on infrastructure stacks and strategies for processing massive amounts of information.

“Tech Leavers and Tech Stayers” – Lili Gangas (Kapor Center Chief Technology Community Officer)

In 2017, the Kapor Center published the first-of-its-kind Tech Leavers Study why people voluntarily left their jobs in tech. In this session, Kapor Center Chief Technology Community Officer Lili Gangas will walk us through the findings, shattering the myth that women leave to spend time with their family among others, and will provide some ideas for how you can ensure an environment where all employees feel valued, appreciated, welcomed and heard.

“Intersectionality and Systemic Change” – Heidi Williams (tEQuitable Chief Technology Officer)

As we journey into fourth-wave feminism, join tEUitable CTO Heidi Williams for this important session on intersectionality and systemic change. Navigating the challenging terrain to ensure that as we gain seats at the table, that the voices of all women are heard. She’ll share tips on how to engage allies and advocates, recognize privilege, and lead both up and down the organization.

“The Gendered Project” – Omayeli Arenyeka (LinkedIn Software Engineer)

When you think of the word “superhero” what do you imagine? Language reflects and reinforces social norms; ungendering language is a vital part of interrogating sexism. However, there’s no dataset of gendered words. This tech talk is about data – where to get it and how to create it if it doesn’t exist. In her talk, LinkedIn software engineer Omayeli Arenyeka creates the dataset for The Gendered Project, showing how to view unavailable data as an opportunity rather than an obstacle to answering questions.

Grand Rounds Coffee Break Panel!

During this Grand Rounds Coffee Break at Elevate 2019, we heard from Jayodita Sanghvi (Director of Data Science), Megan Marquardt (Engineering Manager), Mary Reynolds (Senior Product Manager) and Stacy Vorkink (Senior Director, Employee Experience) about what they are working on at Grand Rounds.

“Office Manager to CPO in 1356* Steps” – Shawna Wolverton (Zendesk SVP Product Management) Keynote

Shawna Wolverton is a self-proclaimed nerd for good product design. Starting at Salesforce in 2003, Shawna worked her way up to SVP Product Management, influencing $30M/yr in revenue before she left to do it all over again as CPO at Planet and now SVP Product Management at Zendesk. Don’t miss this session as Shawna shares the lessons she learned both personally and professionally in her 25 year career.

“Every Day is Important in the Life of a Strawberry” – Sheri Bernard Trivedi (USDS Content Strategist)

Documentation is just a mirror held up to a product. If you think of government services as some of the most crucial products we encounter at the United States Digital Service, then user-centered documentation becomes all the more interesting.

In this talk, Sheri Bernard Trivedi tells a story about writing docs for farmers, one of her favorite projects in her career thus far. She is an Instructional Content Strategist at the United States Digital Service (or USDS for short). Watch on YouTube or Read the USDS Transcript.

“Creating an AI for Social Good Program” – Anna Bethke (Intel AI for Social Good)

Data scientist Anna Bethke had approached management with a new position – to become the head of AI for Social Good to bring in new positively impactful projects to the group and company as a whole. Since then, she has created the role at Intel and the AI for Social Good program ever since. Anna shares her story and lessons learned along the way.

“A/B Testing with Open Source” – Dena Metili Mwangi (Sentry Software Engineer)

Quick experimentation in your application can turn feelings-driven development into data-driven wins. Beyond blue buttons or red buttons, A/B testing can answer key questions on how best to serve your users by offering sometimes surprising insights into how they interact with your product.

In this talk, Dena Metili Mwangi will get the first experiment up and running with PlanOut, a Python-based open-source framework. It’s cheap & easy to begin A/B testing with open source.

“Unconventional Journeys in Tech” – Panel Discussion with Rosie Sennett (Splunk Staff Sales Engineer), Shanea Leven (Cloudflare Director) and Farnaz Ronaghi (NovoEd Chief Technology Officer)

The tech industry is full of misfits. Contrary to the myth, not everyone has a computer science degree and went to a fancy university. Hear from ambitious women who built tech careers on their own terms by leveraging their strengths and creating opportunities for themselves to succeed in roles from sales and engineering to product management, from entrepreneurship to corporate ladder climbing.

Girl Geek X CEO Angie Chang speaks with Farnaz Ronaghi (NovoEd CTO & Co-Founder), Rosie Sennett (Splunk Staff Sales Engineer), and Shanea Leven (Cloudflare Director of Product Management) in this exciting panel discussion at Elevate 2019.

“Coding Strong at Age 60” – Akilah Monifa (ARISE Global Media SVP)

At age 40, Akilah Monifa stopped practicing law to do what her younger self had wanted to do: become a full-time writer. She received an Amazon Echo as a gift and made another pivot at age 60. This time, she decided she would learn to build for voice. Her motivation: give voice to a subject dear to her heart and build an Alexa skill called Black History Everyday.

“Enterprise to Computer (a Star Trek Chatbot)” – Grishma Jena (IBM Software Engineer)

Personality and emotions play a vital role in defining human interactions. Enterprise to Computer (or “E2Cbot”) was created with the premise of adding a personality to a chatbot. This helps in making it appear human-like and contributes to a better and engaging user experience.

Developed as an Amazon Alexa skill, E2Cbot uses neural networks to capture the style of Star Trek by incorporating references from the show along with peculiar tones of the characters. In this talk, Girl Geek X CTO Sukrutha Bhadouria interviews Grishma Jena, a Cognitive Software Engineer working on IBM Watson and applying Machine Learning to chatbots.

Hungry for more great Girl Geek X content?

Subscribe to our YouTube channel to be notified when we upload new videos from our global and Bay Area events, or check out the latest episode of the Girl Geek X Podcast!

“Every Day is Important in the Life of a Strawberry: Finding the Users in Government Policy”: Sheri Bernard Trivedi with U.S. Digital Service (Video + Transcript)

Sheri Bernard Trivedi / Instructional Content Strategist / United States Digital Service
Gretchen DeKnikker / COO / Girl Geek X

Transcript from Elevate 2019 conference:

Gretchen DeKnikker: All right everybody, welcome back. Sheri, it looks like you’re muted, if you want to just get the audio going.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: Hi there.

Gretchen DeKnikker: So yes, the videos are being recorded. Go ahead and tweet and share with the hashtag GGX Elevate. Please submit your questions during the session in the little Q&A button down below if you hover at the bottom of your window. We’ll have more socks to give away in a little bit.

Gretchen DeKnikker: So I’m going to put a warning label on the next session and it’s going to be that, right now, you think you would never want to work for the government. And in 20 minutes, you’re totally going to change your mind because every time–we had Julie Meloni last year, from USDS speak, and this year we have Sheri Trivedi. And every time I hear them speak, I start rethinking, “Do I want to go do this?” So Sheri’s going to share part of her job. And by the way, they’re hiring, lots of companies are hiring, go to girlgeek.io/opportunities and check those out. Sheri is the Content Strategist for USDS and is trying to bring user centric design principles into the government. And today she’s going to talk to us about an incredibly interesting application of that. And so without further ado, Sheri, please.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: All right, let me share my slides here. Okay, all right, hi everybody. Thanks for joining me here today on the internet. I’m Sheri Bernard Trivedi and I’m a Content Strategist in the design community of practice at the U.S. Digital Service in Washington, D.C. At the U.S. Digital Service [inaudible 00:02:22] service for one to four years. We work to find ways to help our government partners deliver value to the people they serve using technology and user centered design. It’s incredibly important and fulfilling work and I’m going to pitch you more on why you should think about packing up your entire life and moving to Washington D.C. to do it, just like I did, in a bit.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: So before I was at USDS, I focused the 13 years of my post-college career on instructional content, mostly technical writing and UX writing at GitHub, Salesforce and AutoDesk, the makers of AutoCad. If you’ve even read the AutoCad user guide and thought, “Wow, I have such a clear understanding of parametric constraints and dynamic blocks and model space now,” then you have 2009 Sheri to thank. Ever since I was quite young, I was interested in government and how it works. I’m amazed and humbled every day that I’ve been able to take my experience helping people to understand how to use well-known Silicon Valley products and bring it to government work.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: If you’ve ever filled out a government form or tried to learn more about a government program from their website, then you know there’s often a lot of room for improvement. At USDS we work to create momentum and bring those improvements, no matter how small. We stress user-centered accessible design in all aspects of our work. And I’ve been thrilled to use so much user validation in all of my projects here. The thing about documentation is that it holds a mirror up to your product. You can’t get mad at the docs when they’re complex, you need to revisit what you built.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: So today I’m going to tell you a story about the latter part of last year when I swooped in at the end of thing and held up a giant mirror to the H-2A Visa Program. At the end of 2017, the Department of Agriculture asked USDS to help them improve the H-2A Visa process for farmers. At USDS, before we start working on a project at an agency, we start with what we call a discovery sprint. A discovery sprint is a two week period where a small team made up of product managers, engineers, designers, strategy experts, and sometimes a lawyer, goes out and researches the shit out of a problem at the request of an agency.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: The sprint teams talk to as many agency executives, stakeholders, and users as they can in that two week period. Then they write a report about what they saw. At USDS, one of our values is, go where the work is. So often the sprint team will travel to the middle of a field in North Carolina or to a VA hospital in West Virginia if that’s where the users are. Every project USDS has delivered started with a discovery sprint.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: So what USDA wanted us to do was to learn how they could decrease the burden on farmers who are trying to hire temporary agricultural workers under the H-2A migrant farmworker visa. The farmers themselves apply for the H-2A visas, then they find workers once the visas are approved. This is an important program for agricultural workers because it’s safer for them when they’re documented. When workers aren’t documented, they’re much more easily exploited. There are also a ton of regulations for farmers about providing workers with quality housing, meals, training, and tools at no cost to the worker.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: So the process for applying for H-2A visas has been around for many years and, as you can imagine, it’s been added over time and rarely simplified. First, farmers apply with their state workforce agency to get approval that the housing they’re providing meets the state standards. Then they apply with the Department of Labor to recruit domestic workers who get preference before foreign workers. Spoiler alert, there are very few domestic workers who want to do this farm work, it is really, really hard.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: Then farmers apply with the Department of Homeland Security to actually get the H-2A visas. And finally, the workers themselves apply with the State Department to get the visas the farmer was granted by DHS. The farmer needs to guide the workers through every part of this, from the time the worker is hired to the moment they arrive at the farm in the U.S., so farmers really need to understand what’s going on. But understanding the entire process is really onerous for farmers because it’s never been written down from beginning to end.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: For example, the Department of Labor has an overly comprehensive guide for the farmer describing how to apply. This is just a process flow from that guide, not the entire guide itself. And at the end of the guide, it says, “Congratulations, you’re done with our part of the process.” Each agency has a form that the farmer has to fill out. Of course, forms are the lingua franca of government. The first two forms, the ETA-790 and ETA-9142A, come from the Department of Labor. The third, the I-129, is 36 pages long, it’s the form all non-immigrant workers complete when they apply for a visa no matter what type of visa it is. And I bet a lot of you have filled it out yourselves. I know I helped my husband fill this out. There’s a lot of duplicate information across these three forms.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: Originally, the USDS team proposed that we create what we call the Superform that the farmer would complete online. The Superform would shuttle out the resulting information to the Department of Labor and DHS. I was going to design the Superform along with Kasia Chimielinski, an incredibly talented product manager at USDS who I spent of bunch of time researching the process with and … Sorry, I’ve lost my screen here. Okay, so we spent a month researching each field between the forms and designing a new one that used plain language and the U.S. Web design standards.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: After a few weeks of this research, Julie Meloni, who was just mentioned, the former Director of Product at USDS, invited us to a meeting at the Department of Labor with the person who leads the team of H-2A adjudicators there. I was really excited about this because I had a lot of questions about the intent behind some of the fields and also why they had two forms in the first place. So this was going to be a great research opportunity.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: I showed up and I opened my laptop to start taking notes and I began listening to a presentation about the new form the Department of Labor had created on their own, joining the two forms they were responsible for into one. I stopped taking notes. In the month between when USDS made their recommendations and when we’d started building the Superform, the Department of Labor had gone and done a fair amount of the work themselves. This probably sounds frustrating to you, but to me it was really beautiful to watch. At USDS we want to enable agencies to do good tech work themselves. We’d helped the Department of Labor to understand their users and work to make things better for them.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: The other agency hadn’t quite gotten there yet, though, and the Secretary of Agriculture really wanted to be able to point at a concrete way to help farmers. This is where my story really began. We told the secretary we’d build an educational tool for the existing farmers.gov website that asks a small set of questions about the farmer and the type of work they needed done. Then the tool would output a customized checklist, “checklist,” explaining how to hire foreign workers. I say checklist in air quotes because, my god, the sheer number of steps these farmers have to go through to legally hire foreign workers, the process spans 75 days. There was no single place where the entire process was written down from beginning to end across all agencies because each agency only described how to do their piece.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: I spent all day, every day, researching every last piece of information about the H-2A visa process. This slide actually shows a part of the mind map, it’s not the entire mind map that I used to organize the information and sources and it’s zoomed out to 5%, that’s actually writing in there. I read pages and pages of statutes and regulations spanning decades.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: One of the things the Department of Labor adjudicates is whether the work the farmer is seeking workers for hot falls under the regulations for temporary agricultural work. And the only place you can find that information is in Title 26 of the U.S. Code Subtitle C, Chapter 21, Chapter C, Section 3121. It’s one of the most unfriendly lists of requirements you’ve ever seen. And outside of the code, there are special rules for certain activities like itinerant animal shearing that the Department of Labor maintains on their own. This is a lot for a farmer in California just trying to get some help in harvesting their strawberries in the summer.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: The rules and procedures are so much for farmers that often they’ll hire someone to handle some or all of the process for them on their behalf. Whether it’s just someone who manages the filing ,or a farm labor contractor who handles paperwork, recruitment, transportation, and housing for the workers. Farm labor contractors aren’t doing any better at this than farmers would, though, and often they do worse. Last year, 70% of the Department of Labor’s notices of deficiency for incomplete applications came from farm labor contractors.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: Describing the process in plain language from beginning to end completely, we hoped we would not only help farmers to get workers on their own, but that maybe, if the agency saw this mirror of their own process, they would work to find ways to make it easier. In December, I delivered a mock up and first draft of content to the contractors who maintain the farmers.gov website. They immediately shifted gears and developed a high [inaudible 00:12:27] with nine farmers. This was actually something that the contractor had been wanting to do for a while. They had been wanting to do user testing, and they hadn’t been able to do it until we recommended it, so that was a big win. After they completed testing and incorporated feedback and recovered from the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, the team is ready to make the tool public on farmers.gov soon, not quite yet.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: So the H-2A educational tool isn’t the only thing I’ve been able to work on at USDS since I joined last June. I’ve shaped developer documentation for an open source react library used to develop government forms, called the U.S. Forms System. I’ve helped design a tool I can’t talk about at the Department of Defense at the Pentagon. And right now, I’m helping to develop a pilot to change the way the Federal Government hires for the competitive service at the Office of Personnel Management. My colleagues at USDS work with Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Defense. And we find new projects in other agencies all the time, even as we speak.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: There are a lot of stories to be told about helping the American people. You will never find a larger, more diverse user base. Last week we released an update to our website, usds.gov. At usds.gov, you can find information about the types of roles we hire for, including front end engineers, back end engineers, site reliability engineers, security specialists, product managers from all industries, interaction designers, service designers, user researchers, content strategists like me, and everything in between. You can also learn about some of our past projects and how we think about our work. And maybe while you’re there, you can click that apply now button up in the top right and join us. Thank you.

Gretchen DeKnikker: All right, thank you so much, Sheri. So if we decide to do this, do we have to move to Washington, D.C.?

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: Yes, we would prefer that you move to Washington, D.C. There are a few exceptions, but it’s not as hard as it seems to pack up your entire life, put half your things in storage, and, for example, drive your red Mini Cooper across the northern United States to show up in Washington, D.C. [crosstalk 00:14:57].

Gretchen DeKnikker: Did you get a new wardrobe?

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: No, not really. We like to keep it pretty casual around here. And actually, being able to stick out around the White House campus and all the government buildings around it, kind of helps. It throws people off a little bit and to listen to us a little bit more. We come as we are.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Right, like coats and winter clothes, though, right?

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: Yes, for sure.

Gretchen DeKnikker: And then, but then it is just for a certain period of time, right?

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: Yes, it’s generally for, like I said, one to four years. Generally the contracts are two to four years, it depends on what’s negotiated, but, yeah.

Gretchen DeKnikker: All right, well I am already excited again. I’m sure that there … Thank goodness your website got out last week because I’m sure there’s tons of hits going to it right now.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: I hope so.

Gretchen DeKnikker: All right, thank you so much for joining us today Sheri.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: Thank you.

Spring Reading: 20 Books to Help You Become a Better, More Self-Aware Ally & a Free Book Giveaway!

Girl Geek X Spring Reading List Giveaway and Top 20 Books to Help You Become a Better Ally

This is a selection of books from my personal reading list over the past few years, along with some old favorites. Though it’s admittedly unique to me and my experiences, I believe there’s something on here for everyone, wherever you are in your journey of self-discovery and allyship.

To understand the many feminisms, you have to look through an intersectional lens. We can’t talk about gender without talking about race, and we can’t talk about race without talking about class… and if that weren’t complicated enough, we can’t talk about any of those things without crashing into more -isms: ableism, hetrosexism, ageism, sizeism, so many -isms!

In our quest to be good allies, we must also take time to better understand ourselves. What biases and pre-judgments are you bringing to the table? In my experience, it’s a lot more than I thought, and the deeper I get on this journey, the more I uncover. It’s uncomfortable work, facing yourself, realizing you’re not quite the ally you thought you were. The good news is that once you begin to understand, you’ll be at least a slightly better ally tomorrow.

I tried to include a variety of options – funny, emotionally difficult, wide-ranging experiences, a few industry focused, and even some behavioral psychology to garner a better understanding of ourselves and others.

  1. The Loudest Duck: Moving Beyond Diversity while Embracing Differences to Achieve Success at Work – Laura A. Liswood
    • This is a must-read. I talk about it on our podcast all the time. The basic premise of the book is that In Chinese culture children are taught, “The loudest duck gets shot“ while many Americans are taught, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” This book explores how this and several other cultural dichotomies, none being “right”, manifest in the workplace in adulthood.
  2. Four Days to Change: 12 Radical Habits to Overcome Bias and Thrive in a Diverse World – Michael Welp
    • This isn’t the most well-written or polished book. I’d wager there are many that are better, I just haven’t read them yet. But if you want to build allyship, you need to start understanding where everyone at the table is coming from. This short and clunky book will help you start to understand the white male perspective (yes, you do have to understand it). I found the Four Paradoxes particularly insightful in framing the complexity of these issues.
  3. Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More – Janet Mock
    • Janet Mock unflinchingly shares her life growing up as a poor, multiracial, trans woman in America. Understanding how to support our LGBTQ+ colleagues begins with learning about their experiences. “Inspirational” might be the most common word used to describe Janet.
  4. Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman – Lindy West
    • This book holds the esteemed honor of being the only book that made me cry-laugh so hard I could no longer see the page to read. Lindy West, a self-proclaimed “fat feminist”, shares her journey in the world as she became the inadvertent voice for those impacted by fat-phobia and sizeism. This book inspired a new Hulu series by the same name.
    • For extra credit, read Roxane Gay’s Hunger, Jes Baker’s Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls, and follow Lizzo and Tess Holliday on Instagram.
  5. You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain – Phoebe Robinson
    • Phoebe Robinson brings her comedic roots to the plethora of absurdities that black women have to contend with daily. Have a laugh and get woke to these all-too-common faux pas. You can also check out Phoebe on the 2 Dope Queens podcast (the Michelle Obama interview is the best!) and new HBO series.
  6. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis – J. D. Vance
    • You can’t talk about feminism without race and you can’t talk about race without class. While I grew up in a trailer in Nevada and Vance in Appalachia, I feel like he writes about growing up in poverty in the United States in a way that both feels genuine to me as well as shedding light on the experience for those who grew up in more fortunate circumstances.
  7. Between the World and Me – Ta-nehisi Coates
    • This profound and beautiful book will change you forever. In a series of letters to his son, sharing the experiences of his life combined with history, Coates powerfully outlines what it means to be black in America today. This a must-read.
  8. Men Explain Things to Me – Rebecca Solnit
    • The name kind of says it all. Seven short, often funny, essays on feminism, inter-gender communication and, you guessed it – mansplaining.
  9. Bad Feminist: Essays – Roxane Gay
    • I bow before Roxane Gay. Her Twitter feed gives me life in these ridiculous times we find ourselves living in. As the cover says, “Bad Feminist is a sharp, funny, and spot-on look at the ways in which the culture we consume becomes who we are, and an inspiring call-to-arms of all the ways we still need to do better, coming from one of our most interesting and important cultural critics.”
  10. We Should All Be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngoz Adichie
    • This a great little gift book. Buy several and keep them around as presents for your besties. Or if you’re not into girl power gifting, you can also just enjoy her Ted Talk here.
  11. Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change  – Ellen Pao
    • Hopefully this one requires no explanation. We bow in gratitude to Ellen.
  12. Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate – Zoe Quinn
    • It’s one thing to follow the headlines for a few weeks, it’s quite another to understand the depth and breadth of what happens to oppressed groups online. As technologists, we further need to ask ourselves what responsibility we share to find the moral center of the tools we build and use.
  13. Tales from the Boom-Boom Room: Women vs. Wall Street – Susan Antilla
    • If you don’t understand history, you’re doomed to repeat it. This book spans the sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the financial service industry from the 80s to the early 2000s. The upside is you’ll see how far things have progress, the downside is you’ll see how far things haven’t come.
  14. Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age – Leslie Berlin
    • Though not specific to any of the -isms, knowing the history of tech is important. I particularly like this book because it’s about the journeys of lesser-known pioneers who aren’t Jobs, Gates or Zuck but had a huge impact on the industry (and it’s not all men.)
  15. So You Want to Talk About Race – Ijeoma Olou
    • This is truly a how-to book for all races. It’s an uncomfortable topic, rife with opportunities to step in it, so to avoid saying the wrong thing, we say nothing – and nothing changes. Olou covers intersectionality, affirmative action and the East Asian “model minority.” If you read one book on this topic, this should be it.
  16. Women, Race & Class – Angela Davis
    • The version of feminist history you learned in school left out a lot. Though women of color have played vital roles in every wave of feminism and fight for civil rights, they are often reduced to a sentence or two or left out of history entirely. If you consider yourself a feminist, especially if you’re not crystal clear on what white women keep getting wrong, this book should be on your shelf.
  17. Predictably Irrational – Dan Ariely
  18. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness – Richard H. Thaler, Cass R. Sunstein
    • As technologists, we all have at least a baseline understanding that interaction design strongly influences usability. How we architect choice can dramatically change the outcome of what is chosen. Think of this book as life design and how the choices we present (or are presented to us) are impacted by the way the are presented.
  19. Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
    • I won’t lie, this is a long book written in a primarily academic tone. I will also make you a promise – after you read it, how you see yourself and others in the world will never be the same. If you really want to start understanding yourself and others – from big things like racism to the smallest and most mundane – start here.
  20. Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success – Adam Grant
    • To understand others, you also need to understand yourself. Though this book is a little trendy, it will help you start to pay attention to yours and other people’s motivations. Hint: Everyone sees themselves as a giver.

Keeping it intersectional:

I’ve read essays from hundreds of authors through my studies, though most are only available through academic textbooks or websites. If you want to dive in, I recommend Readings for Diversity and Social Justice and Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives, as both textbooks have a broad selection of essays you can rent for around $20. Another great anthology is This Bridge Called My Back: Writings From Women of Color.

You may be able to Google a copyright infringed copy of some of these essays, but I strongly encourage you to support the hard work of these women:

  • Who Is Your Mother? The Red Roots of White Feminism – Paula Allen Gunn
  • The Social Construction of Gender – Judith Lorber
  • Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? – Lila Abu-Lughod (short video)
  • Decolonizing Culture: Beyond Orientalist and Anti-Orientalist Feminisms – Nadine Naber
  • The All-American Queer Pakistani Girl – Surina A. Khan
  • Feminist Theory, the Body, and the Disabled Figure – Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

It’s hard to pare down a list to just 20 books. I feel remiss in not including anything by Audre Lorde, bell hooks, or Patricia Hill Collins. I know there are so, so many that aren’t represented here. Let us know about your favorites by tweeting us at @girlgeekx #ggxspringreading. (You might see your recommendation here in the future!)


We’re giving one lucky winner a Spring Reading Prize Pack! We’ll send you 10 of our favorite books for Girl Geeks & allies from the list above. Enter to win via the widget below, and then refer friends or complete any of the various activities to earn bonus entries! (You can come back daily to claim a free bonus entry.)

Good luck and happy reading!

Girl Geek X “Spring Reading” Book List Giveaway

Headshot of Gretchen DeKnikker, COO at Girl Geek X

About the Author

Gretchen DeKnikker is COO at Girl Geek X. From founding employee to founder, she’s been launching and scaling enterprise software companies since way back in the last century. Most recently, she scaled SaaStr to the world’s largest global community of 100K+ B2B founders, execs and investors, and previously co-founded SocialPandas, backed by True Ventures. Gretchen attended DotCom University double majoring in Boom and Bust and holds an MBA from UC Berkeley. In her spare time, she’s a diversity and inclusion advocate who loves bacon, bourbon and hip hop.

“Building High Performance Teams” —  Girl Geek X Elevate (Video + Transcript)

Colleen Bashar / VP / Guidewire
Nupur Srivastava / VP, Product / Grand Rounds
Citlalli Solano / Director, Engineering / Palo Alto Networks
Gretchen DeKnikker / COO / Girl Geek X


Gretchen DeKnikker: So without any further ado, so this panel is on building high-performance teams, which is something we all need to learn more about, and we have an amazing set of panelists from different types of backgrounds, different team sizes, different company sizes, so there’ll be something in here for everybody. So without further ado, I want to welcome Colleen, Citlalli, and Nupur, and let’s maybe … Colleen, why don’t you kick it off? Let us know who you are, where you work, what you do, how long you’ve been a manger, how many people you manage, and one thing that nobody knows about you. And if you can’t remember all those questions, I’ll give them back to you again later.

Colleen Bashar: Okay, that’s great. So hi, everybody. I’m Colleen Bashar and I work for Guidewire Software. We specialize in providing property and casualty insurers with an industry platform that’s designed to really transform their business during this rapid period of change. Today I lead three different organizations that all specialize in solution selling of our applications. I’ve been a manager for nine years and I have about 125 people on my team. Something that nobody knows about me, after graduating from college, I drove across country with one of my best friends. We stopped in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. We fell in love with the town, canceled all our plans, got an apartment within 24 hours and stayed for two years as professional ski bums.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Where were you going to go?

Colleen Bashar: We had plans to travel Europe, believe it or not, and we canceled everything.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Slight detour.

Colleen Bashar: Yeah.

Gretchen DeKnikker: That’s awesome. How about you, Nupur?

Nupur Srivastava: Hi everyone, my name is Nupur Srivastiva and I lead product here at Grand Rounds. So Grand Rounds is this awesome company that is trying to improve healthcare outcomes for everyone everywhere and our basic premise is we try and remove pain and sufferings from patients, and we do that in a couple of ways. We spent a ton of time trying to understand what makes a high-quality doctor and we match patients with the right high-quality doctors for them and we also give them tons of navigation support so that we can help them with any medical questions that they have. So I’ve been a manager for about six years, and in my career, I’ve managed teams that were sizes of five people all the way up to 50, and currently I lead an awesome product team of about 20 people, and that’s predominately product management and design. So something that not that many people know about me, so I was actually on a national basketball team, but the nation was one of the smallest nations in the world. It was Kuwait and there weren’t that many women that played basketball in the first place so it was like being the tallest midget, but I was on a national basketball time, and that was really exciting.

Gretchen DeKnikker: We need to have a three point contest or something. You’re going to win because I don’t think any of the rest of us can play so that’s awesome.

Nupur Srivastava: Yeah, to be honest I don’t think I’ve touched a ball in 10 years so I think you guys would win.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I still think you’re going to beat me. Great. Welcome, Citlalli.

Citlalli Solano: Hi. So my name is Citlalli. I am a senior manager here at Palo Alto Networks. At Palo Alto Networks we develop software for security for enterprise, so our mission is to protect our digital way of life by preventing successful cyber attacks and very much on that mission. I have been a manager for five years, currently manage the backend team, so we develop all the software that supports the platform for public cloud. The size of my team right now, it’s 25 distributed in four teams and as Nupur’s mentioning and Colleen that I’ve been managing teams very small, little, big. Something that people don’t know about me, so I love figure skating and I used to do figure skating. I am from Mexico and you wouldn’t match Mexico with-

Gretchen DeKnikker: So much ice, yeah.

Citlalli Solano: I know. Exactly. Right. It’s so cold and so yeah, so that’s not something typical but I love it. I haven’t done it in decades probably but I love it.

Gretchen DeKnikker: So we’re going to have a figure skating basketball competition in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, right after Elevate ends, right. All right. So we here at Girl Geek X like to talk about the real stuff, the actionable stuff, not the high-level, fluffy whatever, so we’re going to get right into it. So first thing we’re going to talk about is the worst hire you’ve ever made, how you made it through, what you learned, what you do different now, and in the interest of transparency, I will say the worst decision I ever made was in the .com boom, we had to do a whole bunch of layoffs, and I decided that we should keep someone from my team and put them on someone else’s team, and get rid of someone off of that team because in my head, of course, it was the boom, and it wasn’t really over, and we were going to start rebuilding the team, and we shouldn’t lose this amazingly talented person from my team. And it turned out to be awful, which you guys are probably already like, “Yeah, that was stupid.” But it seemed like such a good idea at the time, and what happened is a person who was really good at their job didn’t have their job anymore. Someone who was really good at one job had a job they hated and a manager had a resource that they hated, and that was entirely my fault.

Gretchen DeKnikker: So now that I’ve bared my soul and my horrible things, how about we start with you, Nupur?

Nupur Srivastava: So one of the worst hires I ever made was probably my first hire and I think I made a lot of classic mistakes that you make while hiring. So I was at a small startup. We were really strapped for resources. We had a lot of work to do and I hired very quickly out of desperation. Basically the first person who I thought could do the job from a technical standpoint, but one thing that I didn’t focus on was whether there was a strong value set and whether this person was actually aligned with where the company was growing, and unfortunately, a year after, I actually had to let this person go because it was a mismatch, and I should have really spent some time trying to understand. My biggest learning from that is there is a classic saying that you need to hire slowly and fire quickly, and really take your time to make sure that the person you’re hiring in addition to being technically competent is really the type of person you want to bring in the company, and their longterm goals are aligned with where the company is going.

Gretchen DeKnikker: So how did you figure out–What were the clues? There was something along the way that you could’ve maybe picked up sooner or that you looked for in the next person, right?

Nupur Srivastava: Yeah, for sure, and I think a lot of it comes down to the types of questions you ask in the interview process as well as what you get from the references. So it’s less about, “Hey, do they know how to write a PRD and do they understand how to do user stories?” The types of things you really need to figure out is, “How have they made their decisions in their career in the past? What drives them? What motivates them? What wakes them up in the morning? When they were put in difficult situations, what is the value system that drives who they are?” So a lot of what I’ve learned is really focusing on getting to know the person and what drives them, and what’ll keep them happy, and specifically trying to even ask that questions of the references that they provide, so that in addition to the technical skills, you make sure that they’re someone that’s truly open to where your company’s at and what you need from them. And I think it’s different for different stages of the company. It’s different for different values that the company has, and I think very important to draft the clarity in addition to the technical skills.

Gretchen DeKnikker: What kind of questions do you ask to sort of suss that out?

Nupur Srivastava: So there is an amazing book that our CTO recommended that has a great question set, so it’s called Ideal Team Player, and it focuses on this notion of hiring people that are hungry, humble, and smart, and it’s something that has really resonated with me. So with hungry, there’s tons of questions that the book actually offers. You don’t even have to buy the book. You can google The Ideal Team Player interview questions and you’ll get a list of really good questions, and it really tries to suss out, “How do you make sure that this person that’s joining your company is hungry for impact?” [inaudible 00:09:20] very much driven. We really want to impact the quality of healthcare all over the world so we need to make sure that people are hungry for that impact. The humble component is self-explanatory. People that are low ego and humble are incredibly important. Actually, if you’re having someone work for healthcare, you need to make sure that patients are suffering through things that you may not totally understand, and humility to emphasize with that and build the right products for them.

Nupur Srivastava: And then smart is actually interesting. It’s not the IQ smart, but it’s people smart, so there’s a base level assumption that obviously, you’ll be able to do the job, but it’s incredibly important that you do it in a way that brings people along, that makes you a teammate that people actually want to work for, and it’s one of the best interview set of questions, and I use them time and again, and it’s a long list. Really interesting questions. One of the things that I’ve been using in my recent interview is simply asking everyone, “What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever worked on in your life? What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?” And it gives you a sense of their work ethic and what they consider hard. Sometimes they even answer on personal questions, and it just gives you a good window into who this person is, and whether it’s a person that you want on your team.

Gretchen DeKnikker: All right. Good suggestions. I know that there are people who are writing down the name of that right now, so thank you for that.

Nupur Srivastava: Yeah.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Okay, Colleen. Deep breath. Now let’s go down that path and relive your worst hire.

Colleen Bashar: So saying this out loud actually sounds awful, but it was giving someone a second chance. That was a very big mistake and I can explain that, so a lot of the roles that I hire for require a presentation, so they go through multiple regular full interviews, and we love them, we think they’re going to be great, and then they come in for their presentation, and the presentation was a disaster. And so my gut feeling is this person isn’t going to work. They have to present for a living. We should just cut them, but there’s something there. They’ve shown a personal side and I have this feeling. Let’s just give them one more chance and give them a redo, the opportunity to completely redo it. I’ve actually made this decision three times. I did not learn the first time and every time I make it, we end up hiring the person, and within six months, it’s super clear that they’re just not a fit, so you really have to trust your gut. I think that’s the biggest thing that I do with hiring is trust your gut.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah, good. I would say if they’re five minutes late for the interview, I’m not going to interview. This is your best day and it seems really harsh, but if you can’t be on time for this, if you couldn’t plan for this, you can’t. You’re not going to be able to exist in this super high-paced intense world. If you can’t plan that far in advance, you should be at the coffee shop a half an hour early down the street just to make sure that you’re not like whatever. So what do you do now? Obviously, not giving the second chances, but what is it that you feel in your gut that you ignore now or you know it’s the wrong feeling?

Colleen Bashar: Really, now within the first five minutes I can make a determination if this is going to work or not. Personality is a really important aspect of it because values at Guidewire are extremely important, and you have to be a specific individual to make it work, to fit in and know that you’re going to thrive in this type of environment, so it’s actually pretty quick now that we can filter in and out. The unfortunate part is I can’t do that until we’re face-to-face, and so a lot of times, we go through a lot of phone interviews where everything seems great, and then the face-to-face is the deciding factor.

Gretchen DeKnikker: All right. All right. Last confessional coming up with Citlalli.

Citlalli Solano: So I think in addition to that, something very, very important for me, and I made that mistake a couple times a few years ago, is setting very clear expectations. Of course when as people are coming, they’re motivated, they’re excited generally because you get some surprises sometimes. But in general, they wanted the job. They’re like, “Yeah.” You ask them all these questions and they’re like, “Yeah, I want to do it. This sounds great.” But also when people come in, and of course, life is not perfect. We have inefficiencies in engineering. Sometimes you don’t have the documentation you would want or you have processes but they’re not perfect, and then you get the victim. You get people, “Oh, I cannot do my job because this or because that.” And yes, it’s true. They have a point where obviously things are not perfect and that’s] why we’re hiring people to help us together build this, but then when people go into that victim mode over and over, there’s really nothing. It’s just a sink hole that you keep … okay, what do you need? How can I help? How can I enable you? How anything? So those have been, I would say my worst hires, and the lesson I learned in the interview, just paint a very realistic picture.

Citlalli Solano: “I think you’re a great fit. I really want you to work for us, but you’re going to face this, this, this, and that,” and even in the questions ask them, “How have you dealt with this type of situation?” So, “Tell me the worst mistake you’ve made and how you came out of it.” And you can tell when people have done it and when people also, that reflects their own transparency. So one of my values that are very much in sync with our values here is transparency, so as a leader, I would rather know the good, the bad, and the ugly because then I can do something about it. If somebody is just pretending, “Oh, everything’s fine. It’s okay.” And then there’s a lot of stuff happening underneath. That’s a big problem for me and outside that-

Gretchen DeKnikker: Are there questions where you feel like, “Oh, when I ask this, I can kind of get to it?” Because I think you can ask these direct questions, but there are other ways that you probably have of getting to that.

Citlalli Solano: It’s a lot. Also, I think as Colleen was mentioning and you were mentioning, the interview, one piece is the content, like the question and answer, but a lot of it is on how people behave. You can tell when somebody is kind of making up something. You can tell when it comes from reality versus this very happy story that I’m telling. Also, the way they reply even if they’re late to the interview, or as you are messaging back and forth with your recruiting team, some people get back to you really quick. That shows how motivated they are. Some people are like … or lots of excuses sometimes. Of course, we’re all humans and maybe you have emergencies, but if this keeps happening, and happening, and oh, interview reschedule, and oh, this that. I have seen generally that reflects … I have hired people with all these and they come here and then same story.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Right, yeah. Yeah. This is the best impression you’re ever going to make on me, and here’s how we started off and I can only kind of expect it to go downhill from there. Yeah, for sure. Okay. So now that we’ve all bared our souls, we can talk about some more fun stuff. So the other end of the spectrum is you get these top performers and then how do you retain them? Have you lost one? What did you learn from that? Balancing all of those things. So, Colleen, advice there for everybody?

Colleen Bashar: Sure. I think the most important thing you can do with a high performer or with anyone, for that matter is to individualize your relationship, figure out what it is that motivates them, that makes them tick. It doesn’t have to necessarily be something professional. It could be recognition. It could be praise. It could be individual one-on-one attention or it could be a small gift. And if you focus your area on providing individual attention, for instance, because you think you’re doing the right thing, making them feel special, they might not care about that, and really all they want is a little plaque on their desk that says Guidewire. And you have to be able to adapt to that and make sure that you’re providing each individual person with a different level of attention.

Gretchen DeKnikker: And then when you do have a top performer on your team, how do you keep that going? I had someone really early in my career and I was just shocked when she left, and really had to spend a bunch of time sort of figuring out what I could’ve done differently, and really having honest conversations with her about what would’ve needed to change so that she wouldn’t have left. Do you have advice on how you keep those people, particularly on your team while obviously caring about their career advancement too?

Colleen Bashar: Right. So I think everybody has career aspirations and sometimes they’re hesitant to tell you what they are because they may not be on your team. It may be an aspiration outside in a different organization, and creating an environment where people can feel comfortable being vulnerable and telling you that can change the game because now they feel like there’s a special relationship between them and their manager where they can be honest upfront, and their manager can help them develop skills that will get them to that next step, and in that skill development, they might find that the relationship they have with their manager has made them grow so much that they no longer want to leave the organization. They want to stay within. But it was the willingness to have that conversation of, “I don’t care if you want to go to a different org within Guidewire. Please let’s just talk about what makes you challenged, and happy, and inspired.”

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah, great. So, Nupur. Advice there?

Nupur Srivastava: Yeah. So this may be slightly controversial, but as painful as it is, top performers will leave you at some point, and the thing that I try and do with all members of my team, definitely the top performers included, is develop a close … similar to what Colleen was saying, develop a close relationship with them and truly understand where they want to go long term. Just that when the opportunity arises and you know that there is something else that is drawing them away from you, you’re at least doing it in a way that doesn’t surprise you. So a recent example, I actually just last week had somebody leave the company and she and I had worked together for four years, and she was definitely an extremely high performer, but she gave me a four month warning because we were actively talking about where she wants to go and what drives her.

Nupur Srivastava: And one of the reasons she wanted to leave is she joined this company when were were like 50 people. We are 500 now and she’s just ready to try something different. I think that the most important thing is to have that level of trust with a lot of your team such that you understand what their career goals are and you’re together making the decision on when it is the right time for them to leave so that you’re not surprised and you can prepare for their departure in a way that is not disruptive. So they are going to leave you, and it’s painful, and all of us have been through that, and it’s like a punch in the gut that it’s so painful, but I think the least we can do is just not be surprised by the decision. And almost, at some point, maybe for the sake of their career, you want them to leave because you know where they’re trying to go, and you do believe that they’re at a place that they should just opt to go elsewhere. And as long as you’re doing it in a joint manner, and there’s trust and transparency, and openness in the conversation, it’s not the end of the world.

Nupur Srivastava: I think what’s hard is when you’re surprised. That’s the worst. And [crosstalk 00:22:04]-

Gretchen DeKnikker: You’re like, “I’m not going to cry right now. I am so not going to cry right now.”

Nupur Srivastava: Or you just cry. That’s okay.

Gretchen DeKnikker: That’s okay. I’m not going to make you feel bad. I’m going to go in the bathroom and cry.

Nupur Srivastava: Yeah. Yeah, or go home and cry and drink for several hours, not that that happened to me, but-

Gretchen DeKnikker: No, never.

Nupur Srivastava: No, never. Exactly. But I think my general philosophy is everyone has different goals in life and the most we can do is try and do your best to not be surprised, and if anything to help influence what they do next.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah, absolutely. All right, Citlalli.

Citlalli Solano: So I think a lot of it, it’s … and that’s the main thing. So it’s a matter of fit, so in the end we’re all human. We have a journey. We’re going even in our own careers. We have left a team. We have joined a new team. We have grown and we have outgrown in a sense. So try to not be surprised but also kind of be prepared for the worst. It’s not that you’re going to be super worried all the time, and, “Oh, my God. What if they’re interviewing? What if they’re trying to leave?” Just organize your teams and give this advice to your own managers. Have the processes. Have the succession plan. Make sure nobody … if somebody gets sick, let alone if they leave the company or your team, if somebody is sick and they are out for a week, make sure you can still operate. Make sure that you can still make progress, and it’s just a matter of when people are going to leave. And again, I love my team and I don’t want anybody to leave, but it’s just part of life. Eventually us, we are going to move on to the next and we are good team players. We better set the plate for the people that are coming, the new blood, the new ideas.

Citlalli Solano: So I think that’s my approach. Now, kind of shifting it a little bit, on keeping people happy, I have a thing for justice and equality, so whenever … in a team you always have your top performers, kind of like the general, and kind of people that are struggling. So for me it’s kind of a big deal to make sure not only you’re rewarding appropriately, but make sure people are at least holding theirselves and they’re pulling their weight, because it’s also a drag for and very frustrating. I have been an engineer myself and I used to get very frustrated, like, “Oh, my God. I’m working so hard. I’m producing all these results and somebody’s just not quite doing that,” so that’s why turning it back to the previous question, I think it’s important for the team, and for the morale, and for the efficiency of everybody to make sure you are not staying with people that don’t fit in for too long, and don’t fit in not because of any personality or anything. Just for the culture, for the type of work, for the skillset, for the attitude, and it’s even better for them as well.

Citlalli Solano: So you’re setting everybody for success. You’re setting everybody to grow and to even prepare them for the next. Hopefully, within your company, but even if it’s not within your company, I get very satisfied when I see people grow. I hire somebody out of school and I see how they’re growing, and yeah, eventually they will leave my team and go somewhere else, but I have that fulfillment that, oh, my God, I contributed a little bit to that.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah, no, I love it. I always call them my babies, but then I’m like, “But I’m not your mom.” So the analogy only goes so far. Okay. We should do Q&A in a second. I did want to talk a little bit about leadership style, and something we’re going to touch on in the next set of sessions also on … there’s a lot of hiring for diversity and sort of talking about that, but also once we get people with at least some level of cognitive diversity, ideally some racial, gender, and other diversity as well. But how do you, as a manger help create that environment where these people who might be the only in the room feel a sense of belonging. Sorry. Colleen.

Colleen Bashar: Sure. So first of all, before you even get into that room, I think in general with your entire organization, you have to talk about it. It can’t be something that people talk about in the hall. It has to be very open and very public. We held a gender diversity column in my specific team, and it was amazing to hear the stories that people were sharing from their past, and how just bringing visibility into our organization about this. People started to act and to think differently. But I think one thing you can do is try to learn about that individual. So something that I appreciated from my manager was that they really understood different personality, and gender, and racial differences, introvert versus extrovert, visual learner versus thinker, man versus woman, and really adapting that to a meeting and making sure that everybody has a fair voice, I think is incredibly important and it makes the meeting so much more beneficial and productive.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Right. Right. Citlalli.

Citlalli Solano: So I agree with Colleen. It doesn’t have to be the elephant in the room. It has to be something that we all talk about. Fortunately, nowadays it’s become more common. It’s part of the conversation. Make sure not only diversity, but inclusion for everybody because in the end, we’re all different. We all have … even we may be the same gender or the same country of origin, or whatever, but we’re also very unique, and it’s a matter of setting that tone, and keep talking about it, and even when you’re in meetings, not necessarily force, but kind of facilitate because it’s not only about … you have to talk to both parties. So perhaps, one person doesn’t talk too much and in your one-on-ones you can say, “Hey, by the way, maybe I can help with this.” Some people also don’t like talking and then I think you should not force them to talk. Maybe different channels of communication, but also on the audience, because if people are too used to your same profile, your same ideas, everything is just cookie cutter, then we’re just … it gets boring even. So it’s more on preparing and keep saying this, and explaining it because right now it’s also inclusion and diversity is the thing, so everybody’s like, “Oh, yeah, I’m a woman.” But that’s not what it means.

Citlalli Solano: It means be open to all ideas from everywhere. Let’s say for us, if we are a security company, hire people and take input from people from totally different company. Sure they have fresh eyes so it’s more on the setting the tone, day-to-day, and modeling with your own. So if somebody comes and gives you feedback, don’t shut it down, but take it into consideration. Encourage feedback and just be humble, and say [inaudible 00:29:37]. “Oh, I was doing this but somebody gave me this idea. Why don’t we try it?” And if we fail, also be humble and say, “Okay, it didn’t work out. Let’s try it a different way.”

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah. Nupur?

Nupur Srivastava: Yeah, so maybe I’ll share something tactical that has been really interesting. So one of my biggest learnings as a leader over the years has been … this is going to sound really silly, but outside of the diversity based on race and gender and what have you, there’s tons of diversity in personality types and the way people are, and the way people like to do work, so we’ve tried to use different frameworks, so the team recently … our head of data science made a bunch of us do this StrengthsFinder gallup. Each of us did this questionnaire and we identified as different types of people. Like are we activators? Are we deep thinkers and what have you? She put us in different groups of people that are alike and we all just discussed things that we may want to teach other groups that have types that are opposing to us or different than us. And it’s really interesting, whether you use StrengthsFinder. Another thing that we’ve used is DiSC. It’s super interesting, like we put the entire product team on a DiSC and what it gives you empathy for is how different people want to show up, different people want to debate ideas. Not everybody is comfortable being presented a problem and immediately jumping in and giving their thoughts.

Nupur Srivastava: Some people want to think about it, spend a day, come in with their thoughts prepared, and I think for me, the first step is just awareness. Where do people fall either in the DiSC profile or with StrengthsFinder? What do I need to be aware of as their leader or their leaders need to be aware of so that you’re creating a comfortable environment and creating a space for them to actually speak up. I can remember the first realization I had when I was like, “Oh, everybody doesn’t like coming in a room and talking loudly about their ideas? That’s interesting. I thought everyone was exactly like me,” and that’s obviously not the case. And there was actually someone on the team who gave me feedback on, “Why don’t we do a silent brainstorm? Why don’t you give us papers and put the questions and we would be better to write them down, and then take turns speaking up?” And so diversity comes in many ways. Obviously, the most obvious ones that we talk a lot about are gender, race, sexual orientation, and what have you, but I think the biggest learning I’ve had [inaudible 00:32:08] is creating the environment to welcome diversity, whether you call it personality, or the way we engage, or the way we do work.

Nupur Srivastava: I think using some of these frameworks has been incredibly important because it not only helps you understand and put a cross check around someone, but it also helps you realize how your type may be showing up for that person and what things you may need to temper, especially as a leader, because you’re setting up the tone for the team and that’s been quite interesting.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah. You’re making me think I want to recommend one more called the Basadur profile. It’s B-A-S-A-D-U-R, and it puts you in four quadrants of your problem-solving style, which I find especially when you’re working in teams, it was incredibly useful. And also to think about the quadrant that I’m in, there are these people that scare me because they just take something and they do it, and it doesn’t seem like they stop and think about it, and then I guess I appear to stop and hesitate too much. And so you freak each other out and it was really good to know that because suddenly, you feel like, “Oh, okay. Maybe their style isn’t totally ridiculous,” but I think-

Nupur Srivastava: Well, I would definitely be someone you would be freaked out by, but the realization [inaudible 00:33:24], oh, my God. I will be freaking out members of my team so I need to make sure … I literally have someone on the team that’s a polar opposite to me in the DiSC profile, and I will literally run ideas by him and make sure that he can beat it down before I take it to the team because I’m … learned that I’m just hyper-excited and trying to tell everybody everything.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah, yeah. And I like that it’s also not like a … and it sounds like that one is also that they’re not personality profiles because I feel like that’s interesting for learning, but I think when you think about how people’s styles of problem solving in a team, I think is more important than …

Nupur Srivastava: 100%

Gretchen DeKnikker: … whether or not I’m an introvert.

Nupur Srivastava: Yeah, 100%. You’re absolutely right. Yeah, it’s less personality. I think it’s more of working styles, or team interaction models and what have you.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Okay, well we have a ton of questions that we just have a few minutes, so let’s see. Well, the most popular, I will ask is, how to get to a management role when you have all the requirements except for previous management experience. So do one of you want to take that?

Nupur Srivastava: I can try, yes.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Okay.

Nupur Srivastava: So I think it’s a tough question because it depends on the situation you’re in, but I think the most important thing is to make your manager aware that you want to be a manager, and work with your manager, to the point you were making earlier, to make your goals explicit, and the best way to be, if there’s someone that wants to be a manager, you need to make sure that there’s an opportunity and a business need, and an opening in the company for a manager. And the manager knows that that’s something that you want to do. I would have open conversations and realize and just make sure that you have the skills, or you have the training, or you have the support of your manager. And the biggest thing is raising your hand, making it clear that that’s the path you want to go, and then hopefully if you have a good manager, they’ll make that opportunity for you. Yeah.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Citlalli, I’ll do this one for you. What do you suggest interviewers do when they’re experiencing the worst interview? The interviewer doesn’t listen and ask the right questions, or comes unprepared. So the flip side of our earlier discussion.

Citlalli Solano: From a interviewee point of view?

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah.

Citlalli Solano: Like were they prepared? Doesn’t do anything. Yeah, there have been those as well, but I think that also gives you the opportunity to shine because generally the interview panels are made of people that are in the company and potentially even in the team that you are going to join. So even though, yes, it’s true. Sometimes people are busy. They don’t do their homework. They don’t even read your resume. They may not pay attention to you, but that’s also … I’m not a fan. I know I have heard some people or teams do that. I don’t play games, but let’s say I’m interviewing for a position and I’m being ignored, or I have the worst interviewer. Then look at the positive way. Okay. What value can I provide? Try, but again, if that’s the culture of the company that you are going to join, if it’s not only one interviewer, but the panel, you’re getting that vibe, then it’s probably not a good fit for what you are looking for. Of course I would continue. I wouldn’t leave, storm out of the room, get frustrated, or anything. But again, that also gives the opportunity to evaluate the company.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah, as an interviewee, you are interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing you, and to not forget that power of, if this is how I’m being treated here, it’s the same as if they’re late for the interview, how important are you to them? It’s all kind of all in this evaluation. Okay. So we have time for one more. We’ll do it for Colleen. When you realize post-hire that someone isn’t the right fit for the team, how do you prepare them for the reality that they may need to be looking for a new position?

Colleen Bashar: I think the best thing that you can do is to set really clear expectations on the role that have very specific milestones that they will be measured against, and what that does is allow their manager to have very open, transparent conversations with them about how they are doing at the role, how they are fitting into the company so that it almost seems like it’s a joint decision that this person really isn’t a good fit for the role. I think that’s the most kind way to point things out instead of just all of a sudden surprising them one day and saying, “This isn’t working.”

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah, I think that should never be a surprise conversation. When you get to that final conversation, if you don’t both know in advance what the conversation’s about, then you, as a manager really failed that person, to give them sort of, “These are the things that you need. Here’s the checkpoints that we’re going to have,” and to sort of .. you never feel good about getting rid of someone either, and so also making sure that you’ve minimized your guilt and thought through all of the ways that you could save this or change it in some way, and make sure that you feel like it’s the best decision also, I think.

Colleen Bashar: Yeah.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah. Okay, ladies. This has been amazing. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Colleen Bashar: Thank you.

Gretchen DeKnikker: So we are going to take a short little break, but before that, we offered to give away socks, which there should be a pair here, yes, somewhere. Girl Geek socks. They’re so cute. Can you see them? Okay, so we’re just going to … whoever is attending live, we are just going to pick a name, any name, if I can get the Q&A out. Okay, so I’m going to spin. I’m going to close my eyes. I’m going to stop and I stopped on Susan … Susan with a really cool last name. And she is … I’m going to chat you right now and you will get these socks, and so stay tuned throughout the day, and we will keep giving away socks, and we’ll be back, I think at 11:20. So see you in a few, everybody. Thanks, again.

Colleen Bashar: Thanks.

Nupur Srivastava: All right. Bye.

Citlalli Solano: Bye.

Episode 8: Here To Stay


Angie Chang: Welcome to Girl Geek X podcast connecting with insights from women in tech. I’m Angie, founder of Girl Geek X and this podcast brings you the best of Girl Geek X events, dinners, and conferences. We’ve been elevating women in tech for over 10 years.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I’m Sukrutha, CTO of Girl Geek X.

Rachel Jones: And, I’m Rachel, the producer of this podcast.

Angie Chang: And, normally we would have Gretchen, our COO, but she’s out sick this week. So, onward.

Rachel Jones: Today, we’re talking about leaving tech. Is this something that’s been asked about a lot or something that you think is a conversation in the tech world?

Angie Chang: I think we’ve definitely heard a lot in the news about people being unable to survive in the San Francisco Bay area with the rising rents and inability to afford living here. And, part of that, fingers have been pointed to tech as the dominant industry. So, I’ve definitely heard a lot of news about people leaving the area and leaving the industry, especially women.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, I remember I was talking to a CTO of a company who happened to be female and she said something like, every day it feels like a battle to stay in tech, and it’s been so difficult for her to stay motivated and she just powered through it, tried to build her army around her, as she called it. Basically, other women in tech and her network around just so they could bounce ideas off of each other. This is something that happened at work. How do I respond to it? I was called angry, or I was called aggressive. What’s the best way to respond to it? So, I don’t think it’s lost on anyone that the more senior people get, the fewer and fewer women there are in those roles. Well, we should definitely start to notice when it’s happening around us and try to do what we can to resolve it.

Angie Chang: There’s definitely been a lot of women finding community and support outside of their jobs, online. And, I’ve heard great things about the Women in Product group. There’s an Executive Women in Product group, there’s a Female Founders group for women that want to start companies. As we know, two percent of venture capital goes to women-backed startups, and that is an incredibly low number when you think about women being half the world. So, there’s definitely a lot of noise, especially this year. It’s so important to find your community, find your flock, and find people that you’ll talk to, whether it’s at your jobs or outside of your jobs, meeting up over dinner or having phone conversations. But, definitely getting out there because there is, I think, support that we all need to reach for and remind ourselves that we are worth getting that help and reaching out for that help, and starting those lines of conversations so that we can find the best way forward. Rachel, what do you think?

Rachel Jones: Yeah, so thinking about this issue as someone who’s not in the tech space and just observing it from the outside, I definitely have seen a lot of people I know, if not leaving immediately, definitely expressing frustration with things that they’ve experienced in the tech world and thinking about, yeah, making a transition out to have a more supportive kind of work culture.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Angie, have you ever felt like dropping out or leaving? I ask this question to everyone.

Angie Chang: Absolutely. So, I don’t think about dropping out because I’ve been here for almost 20 years now, so I have a different perspective. I’ve been kind of entrenched in another stage, but I do see more possibilities “to stay in the arena.” People say, stay in the arena, stay in the game. What is the game? Does that mean you have to work at a big company? Does that mean you have to work at a fulltime job? Does that mean you could be a contractor and still work in tech, and I think all these things are possible. There’s different ways to look at how you make this work for you, I think.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, I know there have been times that I found it really, really difficult when I felt challenged or taking things very personally at work. I felt like, oh this is just so hard. You know? It wasn’t the job itself, but it was sometimes dealing with personalities that made it a difficult situation. So, I feel like that’s probably why a lot of women end up wanting to leave because you already feel marginalized. There’s not too many people around you that look like you, and then when it gets stuff with personalities around you, then you feel like, is this even worth it?

Angie Chang: I think that’s the part, is this worth it? And, right now, it’s at a very interesting point because it is super notoriously expensive now to be in the Bay Area where the tech is happening. And, the question is if you, for example, aren’t the super type A, graduated from a top university, you may not be able to sustain more than five, ten years in the Bay Area, and then you might want to move to Austin where it’s perfectly a great place to live and work in tech as well. If I had come out of college now, versus 20 years ago, I probably would move to Austin, or move to a more sustainable place where it is not so exorbitantly expensive and continue to work in tech there. I think there’s ways to get around.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, there’s a few reasons people end up leaving besides the cost, right? It feels very high pressured around them and they are not getting time to do anything else. But, I guess when we’re hearing this conversation quite a bit about leaving tech, it ends up being a conversation more about women leaving tech, right? So, do we think it’s only a women’s issue?

Angie Chang: I think we would like women to be around us more day to day, right? There’s already so few to start. And then, as the years go, we find them falling out for various reasons. And, that’s why we notice it. You have more?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, totally. I do think that we internalize as women. We internalize a lot of what’s going on around us and we tend to take things more personally. And so, while someone else might brush off a difficult situation at work, I think we need time to think about it more, and then it ends up affecting our careers one way or another.

Angie Chang: So, this leads well into our quote from Claire Hough. Claire was a Senior Vice President of Engineering at Udemy and Tapjoy. And, she’s currently the Vice President of Engineering at Apollo GraphQL. Last year, Claire spoke at the SquareTrade Girl Geek dinner, sharing stories of grit and pushing forward for all women in tech.

Claire Hough: 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. And, statistics say that lot of women get out of engineering much at a faster rate than men, right? So, that these are all very disheartening statistics, and I think we’re trying to turn it around. So, during my career, of course, like every job I go to, I have to reprove myself. Although my resume is very long and has a 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 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: Very male dominated.

Claire Hough: … largely male, right? So, 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. And, 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 is good, therefore you should do it. It’s there are statistics that better products are built, better companies come out of having more diverse workforce.

Claire Hough: So, we need to be constantly educating, but also being empathetic to learning about each other’s background. When I actually talked about imposter syndrome with my entire engineering team, which is about 80 percent men still, actually all men also raised their hand when we asked, do you have an impostor syndrome? Right? So, 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.

Rachel Jones: How does what Claire says compare to what you’ve seen in your own experience?

Angie Chang: I think what Claire said was interesting in that she pointed out that there are times when she was underestimated by a manager who thought she may not want to, or couldn’t put up with an incredibly male team that was…was engineering. And, that sounds really unfortunate because I can think of a lot of other situations with a lot of men. I like to think that when people underestimate you, you kind of smile and you’re like, oh, I’m going to prove you wrong. And I wish, and I know sometimes that happens where I do, where I’m like a-ha, I’m going to prove you wrong. And, sometimes I get really insulted and I’ll get really angry. But, hopefully, more times than less I wind up on the better side of being like, I’m going to prove you wrong, and not take that personally or as a way to put you down. But, instead to show people that you can actually do it and you’ve proved them.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Claire’s talking about being asked, would she be able to handle a team of male engineers. Initially, earlier in my career I would have thought, oh yeah, if someone is difficult with me, I’ll just respond and I’ll give it back or respond in a way that they wouldn’t do it to anyone else, or they wouldn’t do it again with me. But, I think there’s, like you said Angie, smiling, be thinking in your head, I’ll show you is a better, much better, much healthier way because you don’t want to add to the aggression and what you might think is assertiveness, you don’t want to add to it and then make a difficult for someone else while trying to make it easier.

Angie Chang: I think that’s definitely the ideal scenario is to be able to show people what’s up. But, I can definitely see how I do snap sometimes as well. And, I can imagine people, women and underrepresented groups might also have more history with it and be snappier for sure.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I think you’re snappy when you reach your threshold, right? And, sometimes you come into work where you’ve already reached halfway through that point because of just everything else that’s going on around you that not everyone gets to see.

Angie Chang: Absolutely.

Rachel Jones: I definitely see how this could be overwhelming or burdensome for women and make them feel like they do want to leave the tech space. Thinking about how much women internalize these things and think, oh, I just need to not respond in this way, or I need to rearrange how I feel about it. I think it’s just a lot to take on, and so it’s interesting thinking about whose responsibility it is to actually make these things better for people. Is it about women thinking of how they approach the work and show up every day, or is this something that should be on the other people who are making these spaces what they are?

Angie Chang: I definitely think there’s a lot for managers to do and stick up for, and help advocate for their reports and their teams and make sure that everyone feels like they are being supported and coached and getting feedback and helping other team members understand each other’s intentions and, as Sukrutha pointed out, having to make sure that her manager was actually doing their job. That’s a lot of work for her. So, in an ideal scenario, the managers would just do that. But, as we see in places like “tech,” you get a lot of hypergrowth companies with lots of new managers who are going to take a few years getting to be the best managers.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I think a lot of the times I assume that I can let my manager handle things behind the scenes because they don’t know every cultural nuance or they don’t know everything about what various minority groups might go through, right? I truly have felt most of the time that I have to fight my own battles. Now, there is a gracious way to do it. And, there’s other ways, various ways, to do it. I don’t think I’ve really found exactly what works because it’s different with different people, right?

Rachel Jones: I think we’ve started to kind of touch on reasons besides gender issues that people might leave tech. So, what are some things that you’ve observed?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: So, I think nobody likes to feel like a minority, right? No matter what they look like or what gender they are. When people have not felt like they’re flourishing in their career, they’re not getting the attention they need, they’re not getting their due, they’ve wanted to leave. When there are really capable people who have low confidence, then they sort of tend to think that the role or the industry is not for them, and then they just leave it all together.

Rachel Jones: This relates a lot to our quote from Lili Gangas, the CTCO of Kapor Center. She shared research that they had done on this topic. The findings dive into why people leave, and how we can help level the playing field.

Lili Gangas: We found that 37 percent of the surveyed professionals left because of unfairness. Some kind of mistreatment in their role was really what turned them over to leave. This is actually the highest reason why people leave and it’s not rocket science to be able to say, if you’re not treating me fairly, I’m not going to stay. And so, it just permeated across all the different groups as well. Specifically, underrepresented people of color were more likely to be stereotyped. Some surveyors responded that they were actually mistaken. If I was the only Latina, they were mistaken by the other other Latina in the room, and so little things like that really started adding up.

Lili Gangas: Out of 30 percent of those underrepresented women of color, they shared that they were actually most likely passed for a promotion. LGBTQ also had some of the highest rates of bullying and hostility. One out of ten women reported unwanted sexual attention and harassment. And then, lastly, looking at some of these areas, some of the women reported really others taking credit for their work in addition to being passed over for promotion, and sometimes even their ability was questioned at much higher rates than men. The part of that was interesting in all of the survey is that actually white and Asian men and women reported observing a lot of these biases the highest, and they actually also attributed them leaving because of this reason. And so, it’s not just impacting the underrepresented groups. It is really impacting the entire company.

Angie Chang: It sounds like a thousand paper cuts are definitely reasons why people decide to leave their job, and that job might be in tech, and hopefully they will be able to find a better workplace. That is where they’re not the minority, as Sukrutha mentioned. It’s often when you’re different.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I think the generalizations that people feel are being made about them and they also sometimes when you feel like you’re being passed over for no reason for salary increases or promotions. That also seems like, from this study, reasons why people might want to leave.

Angie Chang: I think it’s interesting that the Tech Leaver Study pointed out that people are leaving because of feelings of unfairness and really driving that home. I hope that the Tech Leaver Study is able to highlight to employers how much emphasis needs to be placed on inclusion and diversity in the workplace. And, as companies have HR, part of HR being dedicated to ensuring that their employees are feeling like they’re invested in, and invited to dance is something I’ve heard. You don’t want to just be invited to the party, but you want to be invited to dance and have a good time. So, whatever we can do to help, I always look for the thing to do. I’m like, what can we take away and do? And, I hope that people are able to be a good employee to other employees. I think that’s all we can really do at this point. But, besides changing things from the top.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: There’s so many things that when I dug into the Kapor Center Study more, I noticed that they called out what companies can do to sort of give people the environment that makes them feel like they’re being heard, and that they’re getting fair treatment. For example, they talked about improving your company leadership, making sure that no one’s making comments or making generalizations that they shouldn’t. Making sure that they do a full sweep of the salaries and show that there’s fairness in pay. A lot of companies, larger companies, have committed to doing that. The smaller companies generally explain it away saying that they don’t yet have the size or the HR department they would need to be able to do things like that. So, I’m hoping to see it expand to smaller companies as well. And then, things like schedule flexibility, allowing people to work from home, work from anywhere. They don’t have to be in the office between certain times or too late as long as they can get their work done, and generally providing more respect.

Rachel Jones: Yeah. One thing that stood out for me is the importance of having opportunity for advancement. As a lot of these findings point out, people feeling like they’ve been passed over for a promotion, and obviously if you’re in a career and you feel like you’ve gotten as far as you’re allowed to go, then you’ll have to go elsewhere to feel like you’re still advancing in your career. A lot of underrepresented groups feel like there’s a ceiling, or how high they can get in the tech world when the leadership roles and CEO roles, a lot of them still look like the same kind of person. They’re still reserved for white men, so if you see that you can only go so far, I think it makes a lot of sense to jump ship.

Angie Chang: Absolutely. I think if anything, all these topics of not getting the pay and the promotion just signals to me that people should be looking for a new employer. And, I don’t mean to say that because we run Girl Geek dinners and we offer these opportunities for women to go to a different workplace every week and hear from the women there, and talk to recruiters, but I think it really is a big world out there and there are literally thousands of places that you can possibly work at, and hopefully people don’t feel like their job is the only place that they can work.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I want to urge people though, when they’re feeling like, oh, this is too tough, this is not worth it, I have so many other things going on with my life, I need to leave the tech industry. I would say sometimes people also think that they’re just not cut out for the role. Change your environment before you change you, first. And, changing your environment could be a variety of things. What’s a good culture–company culture for one person could be awful for someone else because sometimes it’s team specific. It may not be company specific. You could go to a completely different org within your company. If it is a medium to large size company, try that out. Seek out people through your network first. Of course, build your network and then seek out people through your network that you think you’d want to work with and pursue that opportunity. Do everything you can to find a different environment before you leave tech.

Angie Chang: I think it’s kind of funny when people talk about women in tech, it’s such a big umbrella and hopefully there are still very technical things we could do in places that people didn’t expect. You don’t have to work at Facebook, Google, Apple, et cetera. I think there’s so many companies that are places for women to get jobs at that have more flexibility and offer hopefully opportunities for advancement in these smaller companies where you are able to climb the ladder faster than you can at a bigger company, and feel like you’re getting your promotions and you’re being respected. Get on that rocket ship like Sheryl Sandberg.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Rija Javed shared her own thoughts on how to help people stay in tech. She was a Senior Director of Engineering at Wealthfront and is now CTO at MarketInvoice in the UK. She spoke at Elevate, our virtual conference, last year, and gave some amazing gems of wisdom.

Rija Javed: I think in terms of that 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.

Rachel Jones: So, what do you think about Rija’s solution for tech leavers?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: This is a big one that I think about a lot. I guess my challenge always has been, as I grow in my career, how do I get people to advocate for me? Right? Being able to manage up and manage upwards and outwards has been something that I had to deliberately do, and not everybody is coached or trained and knows automatically how to do things like that. If you’re a mid level engineer, how do you get the VP to endorse you? It’s really hard.

Angie Chang: When I heard Rija speak, I thought about how one thing that I hear a lot from women is that they enjoy finding sponsors and mentors, but in their company and outside their company. So, they hopefully find some people in their company as well as people outside the company through mentorship programs or through their own means, and kind of diversify their options for when they do demonstrate their competence by succeeding at their projects and keeping people updated so that you are able to widen your net of people who are impressed with your skills, who will be able to give you a promotion or another meaty project when the opportunity comes.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I was talking to a mentee of mine just two days ago and she just transitioned into management and I was asking her, has she been connecting with other managers, new managers around her, and she said no. And I said, “What’s the reason that you haven’t been trying to network a bit more?” And she said, “Because I have until now always focused on getting to work, do my work, and go back home.” And I said, “This is work too.” Networking, finding people who will be there to support you from your peer group and offer support to them. Later, when you know you need a favor, you’ve already been that person who has given a favor so you feel comfortable to ask someone. There’s going to be people who are going to help you.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: So, while I don’t yet have a good example for myself where advocacy at the higher levels worked for me, when I deliberately made it happen, I have had a lot of positive experiences where I’ve had my peers be supportive of me and advocate for me. And, that’s worked really, really well. And, it wasn’t with that intention necessarily, but it started off with me wanting to be supportive of other people. And then, in turn it worked in my favor for sure. Things like that have helped me want to stay even in difficult work situations and power through it.

Rachel Jones: I think that advocacy piece is really big because then it takes the burden off of the person who’s experiencing the unfairness. Claire mentioned that earlier, and I think if you have someone who’s in a leadership position who’s actually setting culture and they’re advocating for you, then it does take that burden off because then they understand these issues and they can approach it from this more decision-maker perspective instead of someone who’s experiencing things also having to explain why they’re wrong. Any final thoughts on staying in tech?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, I want to say that there’s this quote from Obama where he says something like, how can you win a game when half your team is not allowed to play? When he was talking about increasing the representation of women. Be a part of change and don’t let external factors allow you to doubt your abilities and make you feel like you need to leave the industry. There are different stages where you can, like I was saying, you can cut out aspects that make your work situation difficult before you even say it’s not for you.

Angie Chang: I would recommend and request women who are thinking about leaving to come to a season of Girl Geek dinners, and see different workplaces and talk to different women and find a way to make everything work out. And, it doesn’t necessarily have to mean that you have a 40 hour job at a big company. It can look like a lot of different things.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, I feel inspired every time I attend a Girl Geek dinner that I’m lucky to have so much access to … if you have access around you, then take advantage of it. If you don’t, then there are avenues that you can find. Keep looking and it’ll be better.

Rachel Jones: I think it’s worth thinking about this issue as bigger than just a tech thing. I know we’re a podcast about tech and that’s why we’re approaching the conversation this way, and also there’s just a lot of thinking about the tech industry as kind of an engineering boys’ club, but there’s definitely mistreatment and unfairness across industries. I know personally I’ve thought so many times to myself that I’m ready to leave the nonprofit world because of things that I’ve seen there. So, I definitely think, yeah, before your answer is just leaving and trying something new, really try to think about, yeah, where you are, how to make it work, how to find people to advocate for you, how to find peers who support you.

Angie Chang: I think there’s so many amazing people out there who are amazing managers and entrepreneurs and engineers and you will find those people. It just takes some time. You’re not necessarily going to be so lucky as to have them as your employer after college. But, after four or five or six jobs in your decade or two of working, you realize that you, by changing teams or companies, are able to find the best fit for yourself. And, if you keep looking, you’ll find a place.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. And, encourage other people around you, encourage the women around you, because you don’t want anyone else to feel self-doubt. And, another thing I want to say, just because something feels difficult doesn’t mean you’re failing.

Angie Chang: That’s a good point. That’s a very good point. Thanks for listening to this episode of the Girl Geek X podcast. We’ll be back soon with more advice for women in tech.

Rachel Jones: This podcast is produced by me, Rachel Jones. To learn more about Girl Geek X or buy tickets to our next dinner, visit girlgeek.io. You can also find videos and transcripts from our events. If you’re interested in hosting a Girl Geek dinner, email sponsors@girlgeek.io.

Angie Chang: This podcast was sponsored by SquareTrade, a top rated protection plan trusted by millions of happy customers and offered to top retailers, including Costco.

Girl Geek X Okta Lightning Talks & Panel (Video + Transcript)

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

Jade Feng, Angie Song, Helen Chen, Mindy Lieberman, Sara Daqiq, Maggie Law

Okta girl geeks: Jade Feng, Angie Song, Helen Chen, Mindy Lieberman, Sara Daqiq and Maggie Law at Okta Girl Geek Dinner in San Francisco, California.

Mindy Lieberman / VP of Enterprise System / Okta
Maggie Law / Senior Director of Product Design / Okta
Helen Chen / Software Engineer / Okta
Angie Song / Staff Software Engineer / Okta
Jade Feng / Product Manager / Okta
Sara Daqiq / Developer Support Engineer / Okta
Angie Chang / CEO & Founder / Girl Geek X
Gretchen DeKnikker / COO / Girl Geek X

Transcript of Okta Girl Geek Dinner – Lightning Talks & Panel:

Angie Chang: Hi, my name is Angie Chang and I’m the founder of Girl Geek X. I want to thank you all for coming out to Okta tonight. How many of you here it’s your first Girl Geek dinner? Oh wow. How many of you here have been to more than five Girl Geek dinners? Six? Seven, eight, nine. Okay. Ten. Oh wow, we have a few. Okay. I was going to say, the last one standing will get a pair of socks. But, how do we pick this?

Gretchen DeKnikker: Why did you play that game? Say 11.

Angie Chang: 11? All right. I’m going to have to find you and email you, mail you a pair of socks. Really? Oh my God. Thanks for coming. Find me afterwards.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Or we can just come up with two pairs of socks.

Angie Chang: I want to tell a story about why these dinners are important to have week after week at various companies up and down the San Francisco Bay Area. So, for example, I’m really thrilled when I hear about successes as someone got a job from a Girl Geek dinner. And I’m going to be having lunch next week at Stripe with a girl who’s working as a data scientist there, and she said, “I got my job here because of a Girl Geek dinner a year ago.” And I was like, “Wow.” And she’s like, “Yeah. So I went to the dinner because I had just finished a coding bootcamp, and then I talked to one of the speakers, because she inspired me, and then we grabbed coffee. And then we were grabbing coffee back at the office, and I asked her for an internship, and she said, ‘Let me ask this guy right here since he runs the data science team.’ So he said, ‘I don’t have internships. I have jobs. Send me a resume.'” So now she works there.

Angie Chang: So the things that will happen when you talk to people. So I encourage you to make friends, make connections, talk to recruiters, and make the most of this night. Thank you for coming.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Hey. I’m Gretchen. Definitely, if you have got a job through a Girl Geek dinner, come tell us because we love to promote those. If you come and tell us it helps people who are trying to organize a dinner at their own company like walk in with a little more like heft of like, “I have all of the stats, and you must do this because it will be amazing.” And obviously it will be, right? Like look what a nice job. Do you guys love this office?

Audience: Yeah.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Like I want to come work just to be and have that awesome view. This is amazing. Yeah. So, we do have a couple other things going on right now. We just launched a podcast like, I don’t know, two months ago. Maybe. And like episode six just came out and it’s on becoming a manager. So they’re every two weeks and the next one is on bias in hiring, which is my favorite one that we’ve done so far. And I think a really awesome one. So definitely subscribe, check it out, tell us what you think, because we’ve never done a podcast before. So it might suck. And it would just be cool to know that sooner rather than later. So we can make it better!

Gretchen DeKnikker: All right. And then soon we’re going to have a monthly webcast. So I don’t know if you guys got to come to our International Women’s Day Elevate event last week, or a week before? Week before. We had like 2,500 people sign up and 1,000 came. And we had these amazing speakers. We’ll put out the videos soon. So, keep an eye out. There’s like lots more content and lots more ways to engage with us other than coming here. But please come to these because we love meeting you all in person. All right, so I’m going to hand it over to Mindy. Thank you guys so much.

Mindy Lieberman speaking

VP of Enterprise System Mindy Lieberman welcomes sold-out crowd to Okta Girl Geek Dinner.

Mindy Lieberman: Welcome everybody. I am Mindy Lieberman. I am the vice president of business systems here at Okta. And I am here to welcome you as your emcee to tonight’s Girl Geek dinner. I cannot believe the turnout. This is so amazing to see. And we have a fantastic event lined up for you. We’ve got lightning talks from women from Okta for some fabulous women representing customer … Excuse me. Developer support from product management, from engineering, and from the usability team. My role here tonight is to ease you in gently. I’m going to talk a little bit about Okta, about Okta’s product, about Okta’s culture. I’ll share a little of my own story. Because the great thing about these Girl Geek dinners is they’re not just about learning something new, but they’re about meeting each other, networking, and feeling that Girl Geek power.

Mindy Lieberman: I cannot believe this room is standing room only. That is just like such a fabulous thing to see. So, let’s start with learning about Okta. Just show of hands, how many of you have used Okta or use it now. Whoo!

Audience: Whoo!

Mindy Lieberman: Well, you are in good company. Because millions of people use Okta every day. Okta is the leader in identity, and that means that we securely connect customers to the apps and the technology that they use every single day. We have a workforce branch, and what that means is that we’re connecting companies. We are their front door to the apps and technology that they use. So for example, if you’re from Nordstrom, you come in in the morning and you are using Okta to get to your own apps and stuff. And when we say workforce, we’re not just talking about employees. Because we know that increasingly it’s a complicated fabric and network of people who support a company. So it’s partners, it’s contractors, it’s the whole shebang. And that is true not only for Nordstrom but for all of the logos around that circle.

Mindy Lieberman: The Okta experience is you sign in, you authenticate securely, and then it is available through any device, through any browser. And of course we’ve got some really, really rich APIs.

Mindy Lieberman: But wait, there’s more. We also do customer identity. And what that means is we securely authenticate our customers’ customers. So, example, how many of you maybe JetBlue, are in their loyalty program? Okay. Well, if you’re authenticating into JetBlue, guess what’s powering you underneath the covers? Okta. If you have booked a doctor’s appointment on Dignity Health, Okta. If you are logging into the Adobe Creative Cloud, Okta. Right. So we are all about identity.

Mindy Lieberman: And this is a really interesting time. As an IT leader, I mean my role is business systems where we enable internal users with technology to support marketing, customer success, et cetera. So identity really does enable modern IT. Especially now in this era where we’re going wall to wall SaaS. But as well, identity defines the customer experience, because it has to be personalized. And in the middle, of course, is security. And Okta is the vector to enable all of these things.

Mindy Lieberman: But what makes Okta great for me is not just the product, it’s the culture. It is just a fantastic place to work. And one of the things that make Okta so great is our commitment to diversity, inclusion, and belonging. I just want to recognize Madhavi Bhasin. Can you raise your hand in here. Where are you Madhavi? Okay. She’s someplace.

Female: She’s trying to get one last person in here.

Mindy Lieberman: She’s trying to get one last person in here. Okay. So Madhavi is our program manager of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, who recently joined us. And she’s–and her team have a vision about creating this culture of diversity and inclusion. She’s got initiatives to support it, including growth paths for everybody. But I just want to focus for a second on the Okta-spin on this. Because there are lots of companies who are committed to diversity and improving the stats. But the whole notion of belonging, when I first heard that it felt very personal to me. You know, belonging is making sure that no matter who you are you can bring your full identity to work. You can be the same person at the office that you are in your living room, and you can bring with you your gender identity, your ethnicity, your heritage, you know, whatever axis you fall on, you are that whole person, and you come to work and you belong here. It is your family.

Mindy Lieberman: And that is what makes Okta unique. Not only are we committed to diversity and inclusion by hiring the program manager. There’s one more piece of evidence. We have representation here tonight from a whole bunch of our executive staff, who may not be listening at this moment. But I’m going to … Could you please raise your hands. I want to … Ryan Carlson, CMO, in the back, an Okta supporter. Rick-Jean Vecchio, Okta supporter. Krista Copperman. Head of Customer First. Right? Our executives could be anywhere tonight, but they are here supporting the women of Okta with our event. So, special place, I’ve been here for two years. Thank you. Thank you. Because it’s not just talking the talk. It’s walking the walk, and showing up is one of the ways you do that. So, if this all sounds good, which is a really great product at a really great time in the technology history, and a really great culture, well, we want to talk to you. A lot of the women you’re about to see have openings in their group. Okta is growing like gangbusters. We have a recruiting table with schwag over on the side. And the schwag is pretty good. And we’d love to hear more from you. If you’ve got any interest you can find us.

Mindy Lieberman: After the talks we will be mingling, and we’re happy to answer any questions. Before I get to the talks, though, I just want to mention that you should be thinking not only about who these women are, but whether you want to see them as colleagues. Because lots of our women have openings in their own groups. So not only can you maybe picture yourself doing what they’re doing, but you might be able to picture yourself at the desk next door. Okay. Tonight is not just about information, entertainment, technology. It’s also about women, networking, and sharing stories. So to that end I thought I would tell you a little bit about my own. This is one PowerPoint slide of how I got here. And I got to say, like if you look at it in one slide in retrospect it looks like it’s a career journey that kind of makes sense. But it’s only in retrospect. As I stood on every lily pad and jumped to every other lily pad, I promise I was terrified and I did not feel like I knew what I was doing.

Mindy Lieberman: But I do want to share with you one story between Cisco and Salesforce, because I think there’s some lessons that I learned. It was a surprising thing, and I could share that with you guys as well. So Cisco is a place where I spent nine years and change. I came in as an engineer in IT, writing code, and in the course of my nine years just to like keep it interesting I cycled through every single job in IT. I wrote code, I managed people who wrote code, I did architecture, I managed people who did architecture, I did business architecture, I did project management, program management. And I did it across departments.

Mindy Lieberman: So after nine years of sort of going through the circuit I realized I wanted to get back to my engineering roots. And so, resume in hand, I got a 30-minute meeting with my old boss’s boss, who is the ex-CIO of Cisco, who had left Cisco to join a venture capital firm. And I went in there, you know, very sheepish, and I put my resume in front of him and said, “What would it take for you to take me seriously as the VP of engineering?” And I was expecting that he was going to give me, “Well, you need that, this, that, and the other thing, blah, blah, blah, blah.” But to my surprise, and I’m still gobsmacked today, he said, “You know, I’d take you seriously right now. I actually don’t have anything, but I got this friend Bob down the hall and he just opened a new fund and he’s got a Series A company that needs somebody. I think you guys should talk.”

Mindy Lieberman: And so like the story earlier, right place, right time, but also asking the question. I had psyched myself out before that meeting thinking that no was going to be the answer, because I didn’t hit all the criteria. But Pete knew me. And he knew that I had grit and I was smart and I worked hard. And no wasn’t the answer. But it was not the answer partially because I asked the question. So my call to action here to you all tonight, is don’t assume it’s a no. Ask the question. The worst you can hear is not now, or later. But you, also, it could be a yes.

Mindy Lieberman: I heard some statistic once that women won’t apply for a job unless they feel like they meet 80% of the must-have criteria. Men, not so much. So, maybe we can take a page out of that book. So, that’s about me, and about Okta. And now it’s time for the main event, which is our Okta lightning talks. Now, how we’re going to roll tonight is going to bring up our speakers, who will give their talks in succession. After that we will all come back for a panel Q&A. And following that we will be mingling. So we will answer any question, either about the talks or whatever you want to talk about. Career stuff, good places for lunch around here, what do we think of that view, how creepy is it to look across and see everybody like in the Salesforce building. Whatever it is that you feel like talking about we’re down for that plan, okay?

Mindy Lieberman: So thank you so much for showing up. Thank you so much for being Girl Geek X. You are our people. And with that, I will hand it over to Maggie Law.

Maggie Law speaking

Senior Director of Product Design Maggie Law gives a talk on “If It’s Not Usable, It’s Not Secure” at Okta Girl Geek Dinner.

Maggie Law: Thank you, Mindy. Let’s see here. You’re going to have to remind me to remove that at the end of this, because I’m going to forget. Hmm, wrong direction. Hi. I’m Maggie Law. I’m director of product design here at Okta. And I’m the colleague that you want at the desk next to you. So, I’m going to talk about usability and security tonight. But I thought first I’d give you a sort of meandering tour through my career. I started out in college as a word nerd. I was a classics major. That’s Greek and Latin. And I also took classes in Egyptian hieroglyphics and American sign language. Which prepared me really well for a series of meaningful, sorry, menial jobs in offices for a number of years after that. So to keep it interesting I joined a rock band and I dreamed every day that I could just quit this job and go on tour. But after a few years that didn’t happen.

Maggie Law: So I kind of accepted, all right, I have to get a real job. And around that time actually the web was ubiquitous. It was mainstream. And I started picking up HTML and CSS, a little bit of JavaScript. I started taking some classes in databases, and object-oriented programming. Got really interested. So I went back to school. And since I got my masters degree I’ve put it into practice at companies that largely focus on enterprise-scale problems. And in recent years it’s been more focused in the security domain. And that’s what I do here today at Okta, and as Mindy said, our recruiters are over there. And we are hiring on the design team, so I’m happy to talk to folks.

Maggie Law: There’s one more chapter I’d like to share about my career journey, and I think it will connect with this audience and the Girl Geek X community in general. I volunteer for a local non-profit called the Women’s Audio Mission, WAM for short. So I mentioned earlier that music played a big role in my career in my early days. And now I have a career in technology. And WAM kind of taps into both of those for me. So that’s very exciting. I’m probably preaching to the choir here when I say that it’s really important to expose women to technology and opportunities in technology, to recruit them into tech jobs, to support them and retain them throughout their long careers.

Maggie Law: But how many of you know that there’s been a 70% decline in young women entering college STEM programs? Science, technology, engineering and math. And I’m not talking 70% decline since like the 60s or the 70s. Actually just since 2000. And even more alarming, within the audio industry less than 5% of all the people who hold technical jobs, like audio producers and sound engineers and mixers, are women. These are the people who shape and define how we hear and what we hear in media every day. So WAM exists to solve that problem, training 2,000 women and girls every year in the only two audio recording studios in the world that have been entirely built and are run by women.

Maggie Law: For the women who go through the WAM program, they’re directly going into pipeline for audio professions, and working on that less than 5% statistic. But for the girls who go through the program, these are middle school and high-school-aged girls, mostly girls of color, most from families that are low or very low income. And WAM has a broader plan for them. It’s not necessarily that anyone expects them to grow up and be audio engineers, although that would be great. But it’s really about using music and creativity to expose them to engineering concepts, to STEM principles. And as you can see from this quote they get pretty cocky. And it’s awesome to see, especially at this formative age where they’re sort of deciding whether this is something that’s available to them. So it’s about opening doors for them.

Maggie Law: I’m currently the president of the board of Women’s Audio Mission. So if anyone’s interested in learning about being on the board, come talk to me. So that’s who I am. But how did I get interested in design and user experience specifically? Well, what hooked me in was human-computer interaction. So, the way I think about this is it’s this magical, mysterious, sometimes very awkward zone in which people and computers stare face-to-face and have a conversation. So, the thing is that computers and people are extremely capable. But we’re fundamentally wired differently. So there’s some things that we’re good at that computers are bad at and vice versa. People are emotional, judgemental, rational. We have empathy. And computers are excellent at crunching numbers and regurgitating really complex long strings of characters.

Maggie Law: So that kind of gives you a sense of how that human-computer interaction conversation can be awkward. And so it really federal into my thinking about what usability means. Because it’s when that conversation goes smoothly. So for me as a user, as I’m using something on a computer it’s easy to learn … Oops. I always do this. It’s easy to learn. It’s familiar, and it supports my efforts in performing my tasks.

Maggie Law: Okay. So let me pause for a second and share with you a story that goes back 15 years. It’s something that was really formative for me as a designer. I’ve tried to keep it with me throughout my career. And I think it has an important lesson. So it’s about my aunt Mary. She’s my design muse. She’s my father’s sister. She’s a professional potter. And she’s one of the smartest people I know. And about 15 years ago … Oh. She also wears the label Luddite like a badge of honor. She’s not an early adopter at all. But she will use technology when she has to. We probably all know someone like this.

Maggie Law: So about 15 years ago I helped set her up with a new computer. It was actually an old computer. It was my old computer, a hand-me-down that I sold to her for pottery credit. And I set it up on her desk. We were sitting side by side. And I booted it up. And what she said as it booted up really surprised me. She said, “Wow. Just look at that pretty blue.” And I’d seen that pretty blue however many millions of times in the years that I had this computer. But it never really occurred to me that this was a moment of delight. For her it really was.

Maggie Law: Also, I’d forgotten to take some of the files off of the computer. And one of them was a picture of cows I guess that I took with a digital camera called cows.jpg. And she saw that and she said, “Cows jumping!” And she also saw some web files, probably from my website at the time. And she saw HTML. And she said, “Hate mail?” So this was actually a really important moment for me. It was an aha moment, because it made me realize that here we are sitting in front of the same computer having an interaction with it, but we’re bringing completely different perspectives, expectations, levels of computer literacy, and mental models to this UI. And there’s a team of experts who put together a UI that needs to talk to both of us and however many millions of other people.

Maggie Law: So that was important, and it really drove home for me how challenging usability can be. So I’ve talked about usability. Let’s talk about security, and how it’s actually really tightly intertwined with usability. Okay, so first, a security primer. There are three basic concepts that you should know about security: identification, who you are. Authentication, a confirmation that you are in fact who you say you are. And then authorization, what level of access that you’ve been granted.

Maggie Law: So, put in another way, if you think about this as that conversation, it’s as though I could sit in front of a computer and I can say, “Hi, I’m Maggie Law.” And it says, “Oh. Are you? Okay Maggie Law. Prove it.” “Sure, here’s my proof.” I might type in my password or maybe put my finger on a scanner. Yup. Checks out. “I’ll unlock the orange door for you. You can go on.” So this is how we walk through the front door of all kinds of systems, multiple times throughout the day. And it paints our impression of that experience. And these front doors are so prevalent, actually, that a famous UX researcher named Jared Spool once observed that probably the most common Agile user story is: “as a user I want to log in.”

Maggie Law: And so I thought, “That’s really interesting.” I went to Google just to kind of check that. And I typed in, “As a user I want to,” and sure enough it auto-prompted two user stories that were exactly that. And he also added a really helpful, important truth here, which is that no user actually wants to log in. It’s really tedious. It’s friction. And it’s annoying. So, let’s talk about these front doors. Because these front doors are everywhere, as I said. And oftentimes when we think about these front doors the first thing we think about is username and password, right?

Maggie Law: So this is an interesting table. This table shows you the most common passwords eight-years running, right? So remember what I said earlier about how there’s certain things that humans are really bad at, and one of those is regurgitating really long, complicated strings. And it’s why password managers are really important. It’s why Okta’s really important. I see something like this and I think, “This is people desperately trying to make security usable.” And in doing that they’re compromising their security. So it doesn’t help also when you get these convoluted rules that try to force you to make your password more complicated. This is actually taken from a real example. Probably two weeks ago I had to change my password on a local utilities website. And I could not for the life of me figure out why this password was breaking that requirement. At least one of the following. It’s like, it’s got a plus and it’s got a little up caret.

Maggie Law: And I called the technical support. I spent 10 minutes. The two of us took that much time realizing, okay, it’s that hyphen. But nowhere … That rule does not say you can’t use a hyphen. Nowhere does it say you can’t use a hyphen, so.

Maggie Law: This sucks. So, needless to say there’s an enormous cost to when security is not usable. So for example in e-commerce. Oftentimes today, it’s kind of normal that you’ll see guest checkouts. That’s because they’ve learned that if they put all this friction in front of your shopping experience they’re going to lose a customer. Costly tech support. See earlier memo about my experience, 10 minutes on the call. In fact, there was a survey done in 2014 that estimated the cost to businesses for password problems only, just password troubleshooting, was 420 dollars per employee per year. Just passwords.

Maggie Law: And then it gets even worse if the UIs that admins who configure these policies that define how end users get in through these front doors, is not usable because they might make a policy that’s weak, or broken.

Maggie Law: So, I’ll just end by saying is anyone surprised? And this is the sort of thing that Okta focuses on every single day. We are making it easier to get through these front doors, but not compromising on security by taking the burden off of users. So thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Maggie Law: Okay. So next in line. The next lightning talk, Helen Chen and Angie Song.

Maggie Law: [inaudible]. I’m remembering to take my …

Helen Chen speaking

Software Engineer Helen Chen gives a talk on “Engineering Balance: Security, Usability, and Building Multi-Factor Authentication” at Okta Girl Geek Dinner.

Helen Chen: All right. Well, let’s get started. Hi, I’m Helen Chen.

Angie Song: And I’m Angie Song.

Helen Chen: And before we get started on our talk just a little bit … Oh. I pressed the back button. I just want to start by giving a little bit of an intro on us. So for me I had a little bit of an unconventional path to being an engineer. Oh, wait, first. I’m a software engineer here at Okta. I have an unconventional path of coming to here as an engineer. So I actually started off as an inventory planner. I was an inventory planner for a women’s dresses and outerwear at Old Navy and then women’s accessories. And it was while there that I had to do this very time consuming and repetitive task. Hold on one second. Hmm, that was interesting. Oh, [inaudible].

Helen Chen: Something’s telling me my Old Navy experience was kind of sad. Anyways, just kidding. No. I had a great time there. No, I actually really really start heart Old Navy. I’m wearing Old Navy jeans right now. But I had to do this very time consuming and repetitive task. And my manager was fine with me taking time to do it. But I wasn’t. I was like, “I can automate this,” right. “I’m better than just doing a repetitive task.” So I decide to learn enough Visual Basic to be able to automate some of the data cleanup I had to do. And I had so much fun writing code that I quit my job. And went back to school to get my second degree in computer science. And then I came here as an engineer working on our Okta Verify product, which is our version of the Google Authenticator, is a multifactor authentication app on iOS and Android.

Angie Song: Oh. [inaudible]. Hi. My name is Angie and …

Helen Chen: Maybe you can use mine.

Angie Song: All right.

Helen Chen: There we go.

Angie Song speaking

Staff Software Engineer Angie Song gives a talk on “Engineering Balance: Security, Usability, and Building Multi-Factor Authentication” at Okta Girl Geek Dinner.

Angie Song: Hi. My name is Angie, and I’m a software engineer here at Okta as part of the sync team, which builds and develops and maintains the infrastructure that’s used to provision and synchronize the data between Okta and other third-party services behind the scenes. I initially got interested in coding when I was in junior high school, because I wanted to make my Myspace profile pretty. I was entirely driven by my vanity. That’s how I started learning HTML, CSS. And I also picked up a little bit of JavaScript, because I wanted to make those little sparkles right on my profile page. Yeah.

Angie Song: I eventually went to Berkeley, but not as a computer science major. I started with chemical biology but I decided that I did not want to wait around for four-hour lab classes and compilers run much faster. So I eventually switched over to computer science, graduated with a computer science degree, and I have been an engineer since, and I really like where I am right now.

Angie Song: So today I am going to talk about the principles of creating a secure system and give you some examples. Then I’m going to hand off this talk to Helen who is going to talk about how we balance usability and security at Okta in the context of MFA, or multifactor authentication.

Angie Song: So, the first principle of creating a secure system is that security is like a chain. It is only as strong as your weakest link, so that is where you should focus all of your attention on. Though techers will always follow the path of least resistance. If it is easy to get around they will get around it. So there is absolutely no point in installing top-of-the-line deadbolts on a screen door. Because why would I bother picking the lock when I can just bust through the door. Or maybe just punch through a wall.

Angie Song: In this example, which is my favorite from my college computer security class. A ring of California art thieves completely bypassed the security system that’s installed on doors and windows by taking a chainsaw to the wall. And they just walked right through. And this is not an uncommon attack. I found at least two other examples, one in Chicago and another in Tokyo, where the thieves don’t even bother with the locks and just go straight for the wall. And they just steal everything. So there is absolutely no point in installing a steel fireproof door if your walls are made of brittle plaster.

Angie Song: Which brings us to our next security principal, design security in from the start. At Okta we always ask questions about security in the beginning stages of development, and this is because it is much more difficult to retrofit security into an existing system. A great example of this is actually the internet. In the early days of the internet the only people who had access to internet were researchers from trusted organizations like government organizations or universities. Because of this a lot of the networking protocols that were designed during this era were built on an assumption that everyone on the internet was trustworthy and cooperative. Now that we have four billion users on the internet of varying characters we are now suffering from the consequences of this early naivety. Spam is a very good example. Due to the fact that early mail server architecture was based on open relay model, which meant it required all the servers to accept email from anyone from anywhere.

Angie Song: DNS spoofing is also a very good example, if you’re familiar with it. You go to Facebook.com but you land here instead. It is as if you looked for the Okta office’s address on Google Maps or Yelp, but it just gives you the address to an abandoned warehouse that’s across the town.

Angie Song: It might be because you maybe accidentally opened the wrong map thinking it was Maps, but it was something else. Or maybe the listing, like Yelp listing, was actually compromised at one point. But either way, you go, because you’re the product of early internet era, you have too much trust. Even though the possibility of a map being wrong never occurs to you … Also, since you have never been to Okta’s office, you cannot verify whether this is the right address. So you happily waltz into the abandoned warehouse and it’s not a good day.

Angie Song: And this is exactly why Okta is pushing zero trust. Never trust, always verify, and enforce least privilege. Do not trust someone just because they are inside the building past the security gate. This guy, this 19-year-old, squatted in the AOL office for two months before he got caught. He initially came into the campus for an incubator program that was hosted by AOL. But then he realized his badge still continued to work even after the program ended. So he decided to stay around for the free food and the internet.

Angie Song: In order to avoid getting caught he worked until everybody had left the office. He slept in couches that were outside of the patrol area. And he went to the gym at 7:00 a.m. every morning. Everybody thought that he was an intern with a great work ethic. Never trust. Always verify. And enforce least privilege.

Angie Song: Least privilege isn’t bulletproof, but it does dampen the effects in case of a security breach. But it doesn’t matter how secure your system is if your users are not using it, or even worse, if they’re like using it improperly. So let’s say your company decides to be secure and they decide to start using Okta. But at the same time, they also decide to implement this password policy. Your password needs to be a automatically-generated 17-character-long password with uppercase, lowercase all of the numbers and hyphen and everything. And it needs to be changed every month. What is going to happen is people are going to start writing down their passwords on Post-it notes and then start sticking it out on their monitors because they can’t remember it.

Angie Song: So, you need to make sure that this example illustrates the importance of psychological acceptability. In order to make sure that your secure system is effective you have to make sure it is accepted by your users. Another example that this highlights is that human factors matter. And security systems must be usable by non-technical ordinary people, because it will be used by ordinary people. An average person is not going to remember a 17-character-long password with uppercase, lowercase, numbers, hyphens, everything that changes every month. So when you’re building a security system you have to take into account the roles that humans will play when they are interacting with your secure system.

Angie Song: So. Oh, whoops. So just to recap, security is like a chain. You have to design security in from the start. Enforce zero trust. Never trust. Always verify. Enforce least privilege. Make sure you are thinking about psychological acceptability and human factors, because human factors and usability matter. And with these principles in mind I will now hand off this talk to Helen.

Helen Chen: Thank you. Thank you. Okay, so … Can you guys hear? Yeah. So with zero trust where we never trust and we always verify, it’s crucial that during the verification process we get a very strong assurance that the user’s identity is actually who she says she is, right? And so username and password alone oftentimes can’t give us that strong assurance. What would be ideal is if this user can present multiple different pieces of information to verify her identity. And that is what multi-factor authentication, or MFA for short, is all about.

Helen Chen: So, I log in by giving my username and password. Then I need to give a one-time password that I can get from my SMS message or from Okta Verify, that generates the code. And that is an excellent security practice because in case of compromised credentials your protected resources cannot be assessed by an attacker unless they also steal your second factor. So, it’s a great security practice but only if your human factors actually use it.

Helen Chen: In a 2017 survey only 28% of the participants reported that they use MFA. 2% percent reported that they don’t use it, but they used to use it. Now, over 50% of the participants said that they’ve never heard of MFA, which is why they don’t use it. But that means over 15% of your users have heard of MFA and are saying no to it. All right? So, well, it’s not a secure practice if people aren’t using it. Why?

Helen Chen: The problem is users can think of MFA as friction, right. I already gave you my username and password. What more do you want from me? This is really annoying. In fact, someone was so annoyed by the Apple’s MFA experience that he’s suing Apple over it. I am not kidding. So usability really matters, right? MFA is only going to be a good secure process if your human users use it. It needs to be usable. And if you look at his description of the MFA process from Apple you can tell that he … It doesn’t matter if this is actually the experience. He saw it this way. He found it not usable. So, we need to make sure when we design an MFA experience it needs to be smooth.

Helen Chen: Okay. Let’s say we took care of that. We have a really good MFA process and no one’s going to sue you over it and they like it. But you still have this problem that if you don’t have to factor you can’t use it. So let’s say your company enforces MFA and you have chosen to use Okta Verify as your second factor. So you go to work and you realize, “Oh, I left my phone at home. And now I can’t log in. I’m going to have to tell my managers [inaudible].” It’s okay. You can go home and get your phone.

Helen Chen: But what if you lost your phone, or it got stolen, or no, you didn’t lose your phone but you bought a new phone. But you already traded in your old phone? Now you can’t log in. You can’t even go in and reset your factor. You’re going to have to call your IT admin. That is the opposite of frictionless. And it’s costly for the company. So that is definitely a big problem with MFA.

Helen Chen: Now, people might say, “Look, if you had used SMS as a factor this last case of no longer having your phone is not going to be a problem because you can port your number to a new phone and you’re good to go.” Problem is SMS is actually not a very secure factor. It is susceptible to social engineering and SIM hijacking. An attacker can pretend to be you, call AT&T, and port your number to their phone. Now you’re pretty much hosed. But SMS is easy to use because you can see in the same survey, of all the people who use MFA, 86% use SMS as a factor.

Helen Chen: So here’s the problem with MFA, right. It is a good secure practice, but only if your human users use it, and that means it needs to be usable. But it can’t be so usable that it’s no longer secure. So we have to delicately balance usability and security with multi factor authentication. So, what are some ways we approach this problem here at Okta?

Helen Chen: So, first of all, MFA is better than no MFA, right? It’s still that extra step that you have to take to log in and to verify your identity. So, with that in mind, we do offer all the factors, even if they’re not all created equal, right. The idea is if you get your users used to MFA, even if it’s SMS, right, once they are used to this concept of MFA they are more likely to accept a more secure factor such as not just a authenticator app, but also a U2F key. And we do see promising data here.

Helen Chen: So this is from our businesses at work report, where we aggregate all the usage data of Okta customers. And we do see that for our customers who start off implementing less secure factors, like SMS, within three years over 70% of them have started implementing the more secure factors. So that’s good news, right? So start them off and then ease them in.

Helen Chen: And one other way we help with that easing in is we do have grace period of factor enrollment. So, again, we can slowly ease people into different types of factors, get them to adopt other forms and more secure forms. So you sign up for SMS, and your admin can set a policy that gets you to enroll in another factor. But you’re not forced to right away. Like your user can actually defer it, and when they’re ready they can … Like within the grace period they can sign up for like a U2F key or Okta Verify.

Helen Chen: And the other added benefit of a grace period in encouraging people in enrolling like not just one or two, but two or three factors, is you’re less likely to be locked out. If you got a new phone but you have your U2F key then you’re okay, because you can log in with your username, password, give the U2F key, and now that you’re logged in you can reset your factor and now install Okta Verify on your new phone. So no friction there.

Helen Chen: But one caveat is by having multiple factors, your weakest link will be your weakest factor. And also, having a grace period mean you also allow users to enroll in your factor when it’s a good time. Like for example, if I’m a student who needs to log in to turn in my assignment, which is due in one minute, and all of a sudden a popup comes up saying, “You need to enroll in a factor,” I am probably going to be a very unhappy student. So having a grace period will allow the student to log in, turn in homework, and then will prompt them again to sign up for a factor.

Helen Chen: But, let’s also think about the necessity of providing a second factor, right? What if there are certain situations where we deem it is less risky, and we can actually just be okay with username, password. It all depends on context. So, we do want to match the amount of authentication we have to do based on your risk profile. So let’s say you’re a known user, you’re logging in from a device that we’ve seen before. It’s in a location that … You know, because you’re at work it’s the same location. Everything looks checked out. Then maybe we are okay with just username, password, because it’s a low risk.

Helen Chen: But let’s say it is still you, it’s still on the same device, but it’s not a location like your work. Like maybe you went to a coffee shop to work or something. So it’s a new IP. And you’re also accessing, I didn’t mention this earlier, but before you were accessing like let’s say your email, 0365. But now you’re accessing like AWSS3 so it’s a little bit more sensitive app.

Helen Chen: So now we’re going to challenge you with Okta Verify with Push. Because it’s a slightly higher risk situation. But, this is possibly a sign that someone is actually trying to compromise your account, because there’s like a lot of login, a lot of repeated logins from a new device. All these signals are showing high risk. In that case we’re going to challenge you for two factors, right. Not just username, password. You got to do Okta Verify, and then you got to do your [YubiKey 00:48:26].

Helen Chen: So, that’s MFA in a nutshell, and also how we approach it. I hope the takeaway from my talk is you will all use MFA, even if it’s painful. But it definitely will protect your account. And with that, I’d like to pass it off to Jade.

Jade Feng speaking

Product Manager Jade Feng gives a talk on “Accessibility and You: What Is It, and Why Does It Matter?” at Okta Girl Geek Dinner.

Jade Feng: Thank you. Hey, good day. How are you guys going? I realize you guys have been sitting around listening to people talk. But hopefully this is something that might be interesting. So, good day. I’m Jade. I’m from the product management team at Okta. And my team actually owns end user experience. So all of you folk who put your hand up earlier, if you have complaints on the product or suggestions, like please come to us afterwards, but not really. I’m kidding. I’m kidding. I’m kidding.

Jade Feng: No, no. But to be real, we’re doing a lot of usability tests. So if you’d like to give out your feedback please come to me afterwards, or Maggie. And we’d love to chat to you.

Jade Feng: So, cool, cool, cool, cool, cool. Let’s talk about accessibility and this new hot topic on design or product that keeps going around. But like what is it? Like who knows what inclusive design is? Cool. So about 70% of you didn’t put your hand up. And that’s okay because I was in your shoes a year ago. So I would like kind of give a one-on-one on what accessibility is, why it matters, and things that you can take away today, after this 10-minute conversation, tomorrow. Or tonight if you’re feeling really ambitious.

Jade Feng: So, a bit about me. I’m Jade. Hi. I’m Australian, hence my strange accent. From Sydney specifically. And when I was in college I actually had no clue what I wanted to do as I guess most of us feel. So I tried all sorts of things from like investment banking to actuarial consulting to market to … Yeah, so on so forth. So I was like, “Oh, what’s this tech thing?” Mind you, I’m from Australia, okay? So the whole, the kind of like prevalence of tech was really not there. So I ended up starting a couple of startups. Not all of them were fabulously successful like Okta is. And I kind of realized that to build a really well-changing, like world-influential company, I have to come to the Valley.

Jade Feng: So I came out to San Francisco. I became a product manager for an API product in a consumer tech startup. And now I’ve been at Okta, and I love it. So if any of you are looking for product management careers we’re hiring. Please come talk to me afterwards. It’s awesome. Cool.

Jade Feng: So, let’s start with this. What do Beyonce and Harvard have in common? So, some suggestions out there. But they were both sued for non-accessibility compliance. Yeah. No way you guys were expecting were you? So, yeah. Yeah. So accessibility, not to stand on this kind of foot, but it’s really important for our businesses, right. So it’s not just about the sexy new design buzzword that’s going around. It’s really critical. It’s really critical for our customers and our users, and also for not getting sued. So let’s look at these three people. We’ve got Stephen Hawking with ALS, this nice-looking kid with a broken arm, and Naomi Watts walking out from Whole Foods with a month … Like maybe like two days worth of groceries.

Jade Feng: So out of these three, which one do you think has limited mobility? So who thinks it’s Stephen? Who thinks it’s the kid? Or who thinks it’s Naomi?

Audience Member: It’s all.

Jade Feng: Or who thinks it’s all of … Brilliant. Awesome. I wish I had more prizes to go around. I’ll come up something later. So yeah, exactly. So like our relationship with disability is more deeper than just like, “Oh, she has a broken arm,” or, “Oh, you were in unfortunate circumstance.” All of us can benefit from the products that we use to think about these moments of need. So, the cool thing, if you guys take one thing away from this talk, is that the idea of disability is more deeper than just what we thought about on ramps or elevators. The idea of web accessibility is that people with disabilities, both permanent and temporary, can use the web equally.

Jade Feng: And when we actually think about it in terms of numbers, if you want to look at that: 15% of the world’s population has some form of disability. Now, think about your users. For 100 users, 100 users that you have, 15% of them, 15 of them, need you to think about this for them, right? To be successful with your product.

Jade Feng: So, why is it important if you have to show about numbers. Well, if you are in enterprise or government or governance or education-based industries, or financial as well actually, this is kind of critical for you to even be considered for those deals, or even be considered by your customers. And you’ll also [inaudible] for lowering your support cost, or in our case our customers’ support cost.

Jade Feng: It’s important for your brand image and doing the right thing as society and as people in our positions who are building products in service of other people. And of course, avoiding lawsuits. So to give you an idea of scale, there were over 8,000 lawsuits on ADA, accessibility compliance, just last year alone. And that has grown significantly year on year. So cool.

Jade Feng: So, again, the one thing, the really one thing about inclusive design that if you want to have a conversation or coffee with your colleague tomorrow, is that the idea is that everyone, everyone will have a better experience with thoughtful design, with thoughtful layout, and thoughtful consideration of other use case and users’ needs. That it’s not just about those with disabilities or those kind of circumstances.

Jade Feng: So, cool. But about those people, how do they currently like get around and use the products that you build today? So, if they have a visual disability they can use things like screen readers, which can be built into the device or purchased on top. Zoom capabilities to make the text more readable, or physical magnifiers. If they have hearing disabilities then they can use hearing aids or implants, or things like closed captions and subtitles. And people with mobility disabilities, then they can use things like track pads, special keyboards, hand-free interactions like things that track your eyes, or head and mouth pointers.

Jade Feng: But here’s the thing, right. Here’s the thing. These don’t just benefit people with disabilities. When’s the last time you’ve seen like, I don’t know, a news document that had really small fonts so you like zoomed up the page, right? When’s the last time that you were maybe watching Netflix at 4:00 a.m. in the morning and you didn’t want to annoy your roommates so you may have turned on the captions? I don’t know. Who does that? So yeah, closed captions as also like something that we all benefit from. Or things like who uses Slack at work and like uses all the little keyboard shortcuts and scrolls through to like quickly access and chat to your designer because you need help and don’t know where to go, so please help me. So you like try and like use keyboards or little shortcuts that you know to work faster.

Jade Feng: So, cool, cool, cool. So now we talked about why it matters and how it not just benefits people who need your help, but also the majority of your users. So then what are the standards? What does it actually even mean to be accessibly compliant? Like what does that mean, right? So the great thing is that there’s a lot of people who have kind of done that work for us actually. And around the world there are all these different laws which sometimes you have to practice, or like sell in these countries you need to think about these laws. But the great thing is that they’re all kind of based on the same guidelines, which is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines or WCAG 2.0, upgraded from 1.0.

Jade Feng: And this was a set of guidelines built by the World Wide Web Consortium, which is a great breakdown on like what are the things that you need to think about. And the kind of like … And I’ll kind of talk through some of them later. But it’s a great framework to look through on like really basic things that kind of make sense to you once you read them.

Jade Feng: But the core pillars of them are around these four key principles on perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. So, those are nice words. What does that mean? So perceivable means that it’s something that a user can see or listen, or listen on the product that you provide. Operable means that they can interact with it. So things like the keyboard shortcuts, things like being able to work with voiceovers and so on and so forth. Understandable. So, things like if they see it can they comprehend what the intent of this product is meant to do, right? And finally robust. So it has to be able to work with multiple devices and multiple platforms, right?

Jade Feng: So these are the core things that like when they think about these standards that we want to think about. And I think anyone who builds products or cares about delivering things for your users, the protocols are just general design principles of building good things, right? So, again, good accessibility is an extension of good user experience. It’s not a extra cost on top. It’s an extension of building the right thing and building good products.

Jade Feng: So, cool. Now what? Great, great, great, great, great. Inspire. Let’s do this. There are some things you can just take away from this. Like, one, if any of you are front end engineers, if you guys are using basic semantic website architecture, keep it up, great work. I know it also makes your life easier, so just keep it up. And the reason is because like this is kind of how things like voiceovers actually are able to like read your page, or read your product really quickly and hop through it.

Jade Feng: Other things which was new for me, actually, was think about using accessible colors and contrast. So there’s a thing when you think about the background color and the text color, there are a lot of great tools online which like help calculate the contrast ratio. And if someone who has other colorblindness, which is like 8% of the population, will make their life so much easier. And also just makes it more readable, right. Because not everyone’s screen is LED perfect. So, yeah. Which kind of on the same thread, try not to use color alone to make critical information understandable.

Jade Feng: So when you’re making spreadsheets, when you’re making charts, right, color alone is actually really hard. And I’ll kind of show you why. So here you can see someone, like the normal sign-in form and somewhere like, oh, you screwed up your password or something. Or your email. For someone who’s red-green colorblind, where do you even start there, right? So for the few things like text for error messages, or like dive-ins for the user to be able to figure out, oh, like this is where I should go fix it, don’t just depend on color to convey that message.

Jade Feng: And then on that thread of like just using color, like you can see between these two charts, if you’re colorblind it’s kind of really, really hard to do your budget there. So not exactly sure what’s going on. So, yeah. Another quick win is something like using alternative text for images and non-text content. And it’s easy. You just like add an area label or a tag to the HTML doc just saying, “This is a horse that eats hay.” Or, “This is my avocado toast.” And all that does is it get rid of our screen reader. But also people who are in places with low bandwidth, or if hypothetically I’m on the BART home and I’m in a place with low wifi and everything’s not swirling fast enough, the text gets released, which means that I can still see and interact with that content without needed the high connection.

Jade Feng: And things like typography. So even basic things like basing on serif and sans serif fonts really helps with people understanding legibility and the content, without having to think about it. And there’s no great guideline on font sizes, but just aim for like 16 pixels plus. It’s just a good framework to go. And lean towards leveraging line heights. It just helps with comprehendability and quick reading. So it will help you get your message across more clearly. And also design with focus [inaudible]. So when a user is tabbing through a product, like let them know where they’re tabbing. Let them know they’ve used a keyboard and how we can get them through. And make it keyboard navigable. So, yeah. Cool.

Jade Feng: So, again, building an accessible product really benefits everyone. And what can I do now about it? So there’s some really great, if you guys use Chrome, there’s some really great plugins that you can just like download really, really … well, for free really. And you can just like use that on your own websites, or the websites that you like to use. And just see how you go. And that’s kind of how I actually got started with my own journey with accessibility. Just seeing what’s out there, and seeing how are our products doing, and what could we do better. And going from there.

Jade Feng: So the journey, if there’s one thing I would like, one more thing to conclude, the journey towards accessibility is a journey, right. You’re not going to be compliant from day one. And even for us at Okta, it’s really hard. Like there’s things that we miss all the time, and there’s considerations that we learn along the way with our users. But the one thing is that if you’re mindful of it and you understand at least the problem, and you kind of consider it, at least, that’s one step along the way. And the rest of it will just follow. So, thank you. Hope you learned something from that. And I’d like to pass on to Sara.

Sara Daqiq speaking

Developer Support Engineer Sara Daqiq gives a talk on “Starting with Secure Access: OpenID Connect 101” at Okta Girl Geek Dinner.

Sara Daqiq: Thank you. Hi everyone. My name is Sara, and my last name is Daqiq, and I’m a developer support engineer in here in Okta. What that means is that if you’re a developer and you guys are using our API or any of our platform product, you guys have question [inaudible] and say, “Hey, Okta. I found out that you have a bug in your STK.” I’m like, “Oh, do we?” And then I look at it and see, “Okay. We have a bug in our STK.” And then I communicate it to our product manager, or vice versa. I’m from Afghanistan, hence my strange accent. I’m going to talk to you guys about what we do when we talk about identity, and how we securely transfer identity between platforms. That’s what Okta does, right? Most of you use Okta. When you log in through Okta there’s a chiclet. You click in that chiclet and it goes to whatever app that you want to go. So in the backend there is some communication that’s happening. That’s why we say, “Never built OAuth. We will build OAuth for you,” right? What that means? What do we do in the backend?

Sara Daqiq: And this is just one way of us doing it. There are other ways as well. But we are going to just cover one of those. So the problem that we are trying to solve is that in today’s increasingly SaaS space society, we need to transfer identity information or any information securely between sites. How do we do that? How do we transfer that data? And from UI perspective, how do you, when you click on a chiclet in your Okta dashboard, how does it go to a different app?

Sara Daqiq: So by the end of this talk I’m hoping that I can convey what an OAuth is, what is an OIDC, and what is JWT. You will know hopefully by the end of this talk. So, around 2007–this is Yelp. Yelp is trying to get you to get to your friends. They want your friends to convince your friends to sign up with Yelp. And they’re asking you for your email address and explicitly for your Gmail password. What could go wrong with that? Can you guys guess? Right? Yeah. So I guess everybody got that.

Sara Daqiq: So they were asking … The problem with this is some of the problem that I can, just off the top of my head, is that they can even revoke your access by just changing your password. Year can store your password in plain text, and you cannot revoke their access unless you change your password.

Sara Daqiq: So people came up with different solution, different ideas. Different companies had their own solution. And then at the end they … So fast forward to OAuth1. OAuth1 we don’t care about it because we are not using it anymore. So what is OAuth2, right? OAuth2 is transfer dependent, and like OAuth1 it’s much easier to work with. And it supports native app. Who can tell me how many apps were in App Store around 2007? Zero. Because smartphone came out around 2007 and for a while they had their own apps only in the App Store. So there was a new problem to solve and that was native applications, right?

Sara Daqiq: And so OAuth2 stuff solved all of it. The cool thing about OAuth2 is … Hmm. I fixed this font. I don’t know why it didn’t get fixed. So the cool thing about the OAuth2 is that it’s transfer dependent. That means that it relies unto https to securely exchange data. And it’s good as a foundation. So on top of that you can use JWT or JSON web token. On top of that you can use OpenID Connect or an identity layer on top of OAuth. And on top of that you can use native applications. Please excuse my formatting here. Okay.

Sara Daqiq: So, let’s look at what that means, right. So let’s, in real scenario I’m a hotel manager. I delegate access to a handyman who can get an access key from the hotel receptionist to go clean the house, or my hotel room. So how does it look in an app form is that I’m a user. I delegate access to Yelp so Yelp can go get my token or information, my key, from Google, so Yelp can change content in my Google calendar. So imagine I’m subscribing to an event. Yelp can now create an event or block an event in my Google calendar.

Sara Daqiq: So in the UI it looks like this. You guys have always seen this right? Sign up with Google. Sign up with Facebook. When you click on that it’s basic, what you are saying is that I trust Gmail. Gmail has my data. And I want Gmail to send my data that he has to Yelp in this scenario. Okay, so what happens in the backend when you click on connect with Google, or sign up with Google, right. Let’s say in this scenario we’re asking this Google to just give us the profile information and the contact information of a person. You can limit it to however much you want. However access you want for a person, right? Either read or write or whatever.

Sara Daqiq: And then it redirects you to a Google page. Google says, “Okay. Put your username and password so I know you’re the right person.” And Google says, “Okay. Are you …” When you put your username and password Google is going to ask you, “Are you sure to give your data to Yelp?” And I’m going to say yes. And then it gives me a key. And then I can use that key to go to Google and get the contacts from that Google, the Google profile, right. Or Google API.

Sara Daqiq: So the key is given in this scenario. So it’s basically a redirect URL, so when you’re trying to code it it’s just a redirect URL that you need to configure. And you will have a Google URL. You will have a client ID which is an app ID in Google. You will have a redirect URL. That means that when you get the key or the token where do you want to send? Where does Google want to send that information? And then you will have the scope. You can limit it. You can say, “Okay, this person can have read scope. That person can have write scope only.” And then you’re going to say response type. Do you want just the token? Do you want ID token? Things like that.

Sara Daqiq: So before we see what the response to this will look like we need to know what JWT is. Because the response to this is going to be in a JWT or JSON web token. And [inaudible]. So what is JWT? JWT is just a JSON object. It’s digitally signed and it can be encrypted. So the format looks like this. There is a header and then you have the payload, which gives you the data information that you have. And then there is a signature.

Sara Daqiq: Okay. So there is a header, payload, then signature. There is supposed to be an encrypted string here. Okay. So when you decrypt that string though, this looks like this. You have the user information and you have the key and just a JSON object, right? In reality it’s like your ID or a driver license. You have the name, you have the expiration, you have the header and the signature that proves that you are the right person. So that’s JSON object, right.

Sara Daqiq: The token life is [inaudible] cable. So, just so I am clear, if you go here this is the response to that URL that we created earlier, the URL that we created with the redirect and everything, right? So it’s just an ID token in form of … Or an ID in form of tokens.

Sara Daqiq: The cool thing about this token is that you can revoke it anytime. If you don’t like it, tomorrow you change your mind about giving somebody access, you can revoke it. You can extend it if you like. We can extend our token unlimited time. And you can separate the rows. So you can do read access, you can do write access, or all access if you would like.

Sara Daqiq: So answer to our question is, what is OAuth? OAuth is how you delegate authentication to another site. What is OIDC? OIDC is information about the person that you get. So it’s the identity layer on top of OAuth. And then JWT is just the way that the two formats communicates. It’s a JSON object which is encrypted.

Sara Daqiq: These are the information that you can learn more about, about these authentication methods. And we are also hiring in my team. My manager’s promising a lot of money for referrals. So please do me a favor and talk to me so I can refer you guys. All right. Thanks.

Mindy Lieberman: So I want to thank all our speakers. Were they not fantastic? Yay! And come on up here for Q&A. Okay. We’ve got one right here.

Maggie Law: Jade might be outside.

Mindy Lieberman: Like this. Okay.

Audience Member: So, kind of as like security experts, OAuth experts, all of that, I wanted to ask for advice. I find myself trying to kind of try to balance these days between having a set of passwords that I know and can remember and follow a pattern that I can keep track of, versus just kind of delegating everything to password managers. Both scenarios make me feel vaguely uncomfortable and seem vaguely insecure. So like what’s your advice, just as consumers for balancing those security-like approaches, or any other suggestions you have.

Mindy Lieberman: Who wants in? Oh.

Jade Feng: Yeah. Absolutely relate. Like totally relate. There’s a few things on the thread of password managers that there’s some password managers which have some protections built in that help protect your data from even getting breached in the first place. So like one passwords for example where they allow a device level … What’s it called? Zero. Not zero trust. Awkward. Sorry. Look at the password managers that you use, and what are their security policies. And how like [inaudible] all white papers out there can talk about that. But this will only solve your problem of like how do you manage it. I can say that all of us kind of have our own patterns. And there’s a lot of suggestions online on how you can do that. The iterations of like tier mentally, like the kind of accounts that you have and kind of use and customize the password according to that and things that you can remember. Something else is about how we think about it at Okta is that we’re actually trying to move away from passwords, right. Our vision for user experience and security is like passwords, again–It’s something that you know, and something that someone can steal. So we’re trying to find solutions in the market and in the product to like help you and also other companies be able to find better ways to authenticate you and move away from that altogether.

Angie Song: I’m just going to add to that, if you’re particularly concerned about your own security, there’s this website called haveibeenpwned.com. It’s by a security researcher called Troy Hunt. So you can subscribe for alerts there and see if any of your accounts have been compromised. So, first of all you should not be reusing your passwords. But it’s a good idea to subscribe to, I would suggest in case like one of your accounts become compromised then you can just go ahead and change the password.

Jade Feng: Sorry. The thing I was talking about, check out something called Trust No One. That’s a thing that a lot of password managers like follow, which is the idea that if they even get broken into your passwords will be safe. So at that point, yeah. So that won’t be compromised.

Helen Chen: I mean, just to go back kind of what we present. Remember like the weakest link, right. So if you choose your password manager, don’t just choose any of them. Make sure you research them, right? Because that is going to be your weakest link. If they have something that is … If you have a password manager solution that is device specific … Because anything that goes to a Cloud, that is your weakest link, right? So I know my husband has like his password on like his own USB key that is also requires like encryption to get in. Like that’s going to be safe. I mean, you better not lose that key, but that’s safe. But also, because I’m an MFA girl, have MFA, right? Seriously, have MFA. Let’s say you’re lazy and you just use the same password for certain things, and it got hacked. But you feel better if it’s like your banking account and you have MFA on it. You should be good to go. So use MFA.

Mindy Lieberman: Okay. One more in the front.

Audience Member: So, I’m not a huge fan of MFA because we have so many devices that are linked to the phones, to the iPads, to the Apple computers. I’ve lost my phone but still been able to use my devices because I’m receiving all my messages on my phone or my iPad. So my question is is like, even though I’m using MFA and I can receive texts, are you using any kind of AI or machine learning to detect security penetrations once you’re already in whatever system you’re logged into?

Jade Feng: I feel like that’s a roadmap conversation. Yes. Absolutely. So something that we’ve been … Developed from the perspective of Okta or is it something like the industry in general? Because I think I’m … Okay. So there’s a lot of things all companies can do, which is like device-based trust. So there’s things about the device sort of ID or characteristics on where you’re logging in, the device you’re logging in, what is the behavior logging in, that can like determine whether or not you should even get prompted for MFA. And also something about MFA is that it’s not the push side of things or tech side of things. Only one way in which you can MFA. There’s other things like a YubiKey, which is this token-based device that is also becoming a lot more popular, where if you have this thing plugged into your computer, seamless, you don’t even notice it. It just knows that it’s you. Or things like biometrics, right. So on your phone, Touch ID, exactly, Face ID. That’s enough. That’s all we need to be able to verify that it’s you. And that’s kind of what Maggie was saying about the layers of verification. We just want to know that it’s definitely you, and not just someone who stole your password from a Post-it note you left on the door. So yeah.

Mindy Lieberman: One more.

Audience Member: Thank you.

Mindy Lieberman: Okay.

Audience Member: One thing about accessibility that occurs to me is we think about how to make sure a differently-abled person can use a website, but as regards security. Have people thought about how to help a differently-abled person prevent being scammed, prevent being like when they open an email maybe the email is reading them the URL. Like, “Oh, your account’s compromised. Click here.” Is that something that’s been thought about for accessibility issues?

Jade Feng: I want Maggie to answer that. As I’ll be [inaudible].

Maggie Law: Thanks for the promotion. I actually, I haven’t really explored that topic. It’s an interesting one to think that there might be some way to spoof that maybe from a screen reader’s perspective there’s a different message than the one that you see. So, yeah, it sounds like a fascinating topic. It sounds like it’s absolutely something worth looking into. Thank you for raising it. I have nothing of substance to add, except that that’s a really-

Audience Member: It’s one more thing to think [inaudible].

Maggie Law: Yeah. It’s one more thing. And it’s actually … I mean, it kind of underscores the sort of black swan problem, which is like you have to constantly be trying to think of things that never occurred to us. What are the things that we haven’t yet anticipated. It’s an impossible thing to do but we can’t stop doing that, so thank you for asking the question.

Mindy Lieberman: Last question.

Speaker 14: So, I have a question, but before I ask the question I wanted to say that I really … This is my first Girl Geek dinner, and I really appreciated the fact that you guys told your personal stories before you told the rest of the story. But the question that I had is, I did a very short project on disability adaption and … Adoption. And one of the things that we had to go through was make sure that it passed the test. Like there was a third-party vendor that kind of did the test. So did Okta also do the test, and like … Oh yeah. Is that like a standard that’s set? I mean, at the time when I was doing the project I wasn’t sure of it, but is that like a worldwide standard or is it like a U.S. standard?

Mindy Lieberman: Do you want to answer that? [inaudible]. Thanks.

Jade Feng: So, there are … You know the slide with all the full flags on the screen? So, a lot of countries have different standards around ADA. But they’re all kind of based on these core standard, which is called WCAG, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which if you just Google, it comes up with this PDF document. So those are the standards that have been set by the World Wide Web Consortium, which just comes up with like best practices on what you should do. So when things about accessibility and how we build into it, also answering your question earlier around security versus accessibility. Yup. There’s no good answer. But I think what we try and do is that we actually … I mean, because we’re a bit bigger and we’re a security company, we do have a security team. So we work with the security team to estimate like some of these things, like if … I’ll give you an example. So there’s a feature that we’ve released called Show Password Toggle, which like shows the password. Shocking. So like if the user entered their password you can fat finger, right? And then you like, with this button you would be able to see it briefly.

Jade Feng: And this went through a very quick security review. And kind of what the balance between security and usability is is that there’s like a seesaw. Because the risk of someone … Like where do most compromises come from? It’s actually from like when someone like hacks you from a different account, and then like uses it on your work email because they found they found out your email through like LinkedIn, right? And then like uses that to try and penetrate you. So it’s not really like people like watching you over your shoulder or while you’re like typing in your password at work.

Jade Feng: So at that point, like that’s kind of what you can do. Like think about what is really the biggest point of risk in my product. What’s the biggest point of risk for compromising my data, my users. And think of like how much of this particular feature really solves for that, if at all. And in that case, it’s more of a usability benefit that a lot of our people can make their lives a little bit easier.

Mindy Lieberman: And with that thanks to Girl Geek X. This is our Okta-style version of Girl Geek X dinner. Thank you so much for joining us tonight. And let the mingling begin.

Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

Dr. Katie Bouman developed an algorithm known as Continuous High-resolution Image Reconstruction using Patch priors (or CHIRP) which allowed for the first-ever picture of a supermassive black hole to be rendered

As the first ever picture of a supermassive black hole circled the Internet on April 10, 2019 – Dr. Katie Bouman now has a Wikipedia page. She is notable because her computer science work helped contribute to the imaging of the black hole for the first time – a feat previously thought impossible.

She developed an algorithm known as Continuous High-resolution Image Reconstruction using Patch priors (or CHIRP) so Earth could see its first supermassive black hole.

Here’s the moment when the first black hole image was processed.

Katie’s algorithm was used to image the black hole inside the core of the galaxy Messier 87 from a ton of data from the Event Horizon Telescope:

At MIT as a postdoc fellow, she was responsible for an algorithm to create the first images of a black hole, published in April 2019, providing computational support to learn about general relativity in the strong-field regime. Her research focused on using emerging computational methods to push the boundaries of interdisciplinary imaging – to fantastic results:

Scientists have obtained the first image of a black hole, using Event Horizon Telescope observations of the center of the galaxy M87. The image shows a bright ring formed as light bends in the intense gravity around a black hole that is 6.5 billion times more massive than the Sun. This long-sought image provides the strongest evidence to date for the existence of supermassive black holes and opens a new window onto the study of black holes, their event horizons, and gravity. Credit: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

Katie had theorized that black holes leave a background shadow of hot gas; the machine learning algorithm fills in gaps in data produced by telescopes from around the world. She led efforts in “the verification of images and selection of imaging parameters” for the Event Horizon Telescope.

Katie developed “a new algorithm to stitch together data collected across the EHT network. She went on to lead an elaborate series of tests aimed at ensuring that the EHT’s image was not the result of some form of technical glitch or fluke. At one stage, this involved the collaboration splitting into four separate teams which analysed the data independently until they were absolutely confident of their findings,” reported The Guardian.

In 2017, she gave a TED talk on “How to take a picture of a black hole”.

On the recent black hole image release, Katie is quoted: “We’re a melting pot of astronomers, physicists, mathematicians and engineers, and that’s what it took to achieve something once thought impossible.”

Dr. Katherine L. (“Katie”) Bouman is now a professor at Caltech.

Comparisons are already being made of Margaret Hamilton of NASA to Katie Bouman of Caltech.

We can’t wait until we can buy the Lego kit commemorating this computer scientist’s contribution to the imaging of the first black hole! Super inspiring work, Katie.

Status of Women in Engineering – “Who Will Push Back?” – 2018 SWE Report

Society of Women Engineers (SWE) review research in 2018 for insight on the status and trends for women in engineering. Here are the highlights:

“Leaky pipeline” / interest in engineering:

“Women offered less-positive estimates of their own intellectual abilities than men, and were more likely to endorse the view that engineers and computer scientists possessed stereotypical (strong) intellectual abilities, which predicted lower female interest in these disciplines.” Bian et al. (2018) “found that messages indicating that a university major, internship, or position involved brilliance lowered women’s interest in those opportunities and were less likely to see themselves as similar to the typical person in those roles.”

Women in academic engineering:

“Griffith and Dasgupta (2018) report on a survey of 383 STEM faculty members at a public research university in the northeastern U.S. They found that female STEM faculty were less satisfied than their male colleagues where women were a minority, particularly in departments where women represented less than 25 percent of the department. In departments with more balance (close to 50 percent women), these differences in satisfaction disappeared.”

“One familiar theme in analysis of female academics in general, and STEM faculty specifically, is the greater burden of service work that falls on women.” Research by Pedersen and Minnotte (2018) contributes to this ongoing discussion: “They viewed service obligations as onerous, isolating, a hindrance to research, and detrimental to family responsibilities and their own health. Women who had already achieved tenure resented being asked to take on additional service responsibilities to shelter junior colleagues, since no such protection had been extended to them.

The male culture of engineering:

“Several of the studies reviewed here note that women who experience a hostile environment often either try to ignore it or rationalize their experience and are not inclined to report their negative experiences or to use existing legal tools to effect changes.”

Later leaks in the pipeline:

Cardador and Hill (2018) examined how career paths affect attrition: “Women were overrepresented in the managerial and hybrid paths, with the latter being the path most associated with intent to leave the profession. Those on the technical path reported lower levels of intent to leave…”

“Another study we reviewed this year points to an additional possible ‘leak’ in the pipeline — the interview process that mediates between school and work.” Wynn and Correll (2018) report on their analysis of observational data from recruiting sessions by technology companies at a prominent West Coast university (this study is particularly interesting because the companies involved were actively trying to recruit women engineers and computer scientists). Wynn and Correll found that interviewing practices put women off. Most of the presenters were men, with women in marginal roles. Question-and-answer sessions were dominated by men and tended to turn into opportunities for ‘display.’ Some of the interview presentations made use of sexualized images of women and there were a number of references to gendered pop culture images and a tendency to describe the workplace as having fraternity-like qualities. The sessions emphasized technicality above all else, which tended to put women off…”


“New research on income inequality also came from Europe this year. Career-satisfaction data from Spain revealed that income plays a larger role in women engineers’ career satisfaction than in men’s (Martínez-León, Olmedo-Cifuentes, and Ramón-Llorens, 2018).”

“Women were as likely as men to negotiate their salaries, but men were more likely to receive a greater increase in salary from negotiating. Furthermore, men who negotiated with men were more likely to receive a greater percent increase in salary than women who negotiated with women.”


“The study compared and contrasted differences in instrumental versus advice-giving professional networks, and found that men have larger instrumental networks, whereas women have larger advice-giving networks. This is a concern because the study also found that instrumental networks increase scholarly productivity, while advice networks decrease it. In other words, women’s professional networks are less likely to contribute to their scholarly productivity. White men had the highest levels of productivity out of any group.”


“It appeared that 2018 was going to be a breakthrough year for women in STEM when it was announced that Donna Strickland, Ph.D., had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. She was only the third woman ever to receive this distinction, and the announcement of her award brought a great deal of public attention to the issue of gender in science and engineering. The story took a different turn, however, as it developed. Many were astonished to learn that Dr. Strickland was still an associate professor, even though she was a Nobel Prize recipient well into her career at age 59. Despite her accomplishments, no Wikipedia page on her or her work existed. In fact, one article we reviewed this year noted the general absence of Wikipedia pages on female scientists (White, 2018). Dr. Strickland herself expressed surprise at the focus on her gender and said she preferred to think of herself as a scientist, not a woman scientist (McBride, 2018). When asked why she was still an associate professor, Dr. Strickland answered, ‘I never applied.’ (Crowe, 2018).

Dr. Strickland’s puzzlement and reluctance to engage actively with the politics of gender in science illustrates a dilemma confronting those who seek to increase the numbers of women in engineering and science and promote gender equity in STEM. As we have noted in previous reviews, many female engineers and scientists share Dr. Strickland’s avoidance of gender politics and tend to see the underrepresentation of women in STEM not as a structural problem but as a matter of individual choices and abilities.

This was made clear by an important article we reviewed this year titled ‘I Am Not a Feminist, but … .’ Seron et al. (2018) conducted research at four engineering programs in New England (MIT, Olin College of Engineering, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst). At each school, they tracked a cohort of female students over a four-year period (2003-7), asking them to complete diaries about their experiences. The results of the study showed that respondents generally were aware of their marginalization as women in a male-dominated field, but they rejected a feminist critique of the discipline, tending instead to embrace an individualist account of their own success. Respondents associated feminism with a demand for preferential treatment, something they rejected because they saw themselves as having succeeded on their own merits. The underrepresentation of women in engineering, to them, was unfortunate but natural — the only solution was better-prepared women.

Seron et al. say of their respondents: ‘While providing clear and strong criticisms of their experiences, they rarely recognize structural inequities, or translate these matters and their own marginality, either individually or collectively, into a commentary on the engineering profession itself.’ (p. 133) Seron et al.’s conclusion that many women engineers accept the meritocratic ethos of the profession with its emphasis on individual achievement makes it seem unlikely that organized pressure to change the gender balance in engineering will arise from within. But, in the absence of such a critique, where will the impetus to change come from? As the research we reviewed this year (and in past years) has shown, women have greatly increased their performance on objective tests of math and science ability, but this has not yet translated into significant increases in the numbers of women in engineering, computer science, and related fields. The literature we have reviewed points to the existence of powerful structural and cultural barriers that continue to push against gender equity in STEM. The question is, who will push back?”

About the SWE report authors:

Peter Meiksins, Ph.D., is vice provost for academic programs and professor of sociology at Cleveland State University. He is co-author (with Stephen Sweet) of Changing Contours of Work: Jobs and Opportunities in the New Economy, 3rd edition (Sage, 2017), and serves as an advisory editor of Engineering Studies.

Peggy Layne, P.E., F.SWE, is assistant provost for faculty development at Virginia Tech. She holds degrees in environmental and water resources engineering and science and technology studies. Layne is the editor of Women in Engineering: Pioneers and Trailblazers and Women in Engineering: Professional Life (ASCE Press, 2009). A Fellow of the Society of Women Engineers, Layne served as SWE FY97 president.

Kacey Beddoes, Ph.D., is founding director of the Research in Sociology of Engineering group. She holds a Ph.D. in science and technology studies from Virginia Tech, along with graduate certificates in women’s and gender studies and engineering education. She serves as deputy editor of the journal Engineering Studies and as chair of the European Society for Engineering Education (SEFI) Working Group on Gender and Diversity. In 2017, Dr. Beddoes received an NSF CAREER award for her work on gender in engineering. Further information about her research can be found at www. sociologyofengineering.org.

Marc Lewis is a Ph.D. candidate in the higher education program at Virginia Tech, while serving as a graduate assistant on the faculty affairs team in the office of the provost. His current research interests include access to higher education and equity in the college experience for low-income students.

Adam S. Masters is a graduate student at Virginia .Tech, currently pursuing a Ph.D. in engineering education and a master’s in mechanical engineering. Masters researches and advocates for access and equity in engineering; current research explores inclusive practices with partners from diverse, liberatory makerspaces. Masters has served as a SWE counselor twice and is a recipient of the SWE Ada I. Pressman Memorial Scholarship.

Jessica Deters is a Ph.D. student in the engineering education department at Virginia Tech. Her current research interests include access, engineering identity, interdisciplinarity, and experiential learning.

Read the full report at SWE.org

Girl Geek X Blend Lightning Talks & Panel (Video + Transcript)

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

Laney Erokan / Internal Communications Lead / Blend
Priya Nakra / Product Manager / Blend
Ashley McIntyre / Manager, Sales Engineering / Blend
Eunice Noh / Product Design Lead / Blend
Crystal Sumner / Head of Legal & Compliance / Blend
Angie Chang / CEO & Founder / Girl Geek X
Gretchen DeKnikker / COO / Girl Geek X

Transcript of Blend Girl Geek Dinner – Lightning Talks & Panel:

Angie Chang: Hi, I’m Angie, founder of Girl Geek X and welcome to Girl Geek Dinner at Blend. I’m really excited to be here. I’ve always walked by on Kearny and wondered what Blend was so I’m really excited to be in this space and hear from the amazing women here at Blend.

Gretchen DeKnikker: All right. I’m Gretchen. How many of you guys, this is your first Girl Geek Dinner? Oh, good amount, so we do these every single week at a different company obviously. We’re also doing on Friday, which is International Women’s Day. If you haven’t figured out a way to make your company buy you lunch, you have less than 48 hours to make that happen. We’re going to do an all day virtual conference. It’s going to be awesome, like amazing topics, technical talks, things on intersectionality, and systemic change, building high performance teams. All the stuff that you love from the Girl Geek dinners that will be personally curated. It’s like a Girl Geek dinner on steroids. You definitely want to come, and there’ll be video later. We also just released episode 5 of the new podcast, which is on … No, just like every channel.

Gretchen DeKnikker: It’s on mentoring or imposter syndrome or something. Anyway. There’s five of them now and so, check them out because we take stuff from the dinners and then, we add our opinions, of which we have many, onto them. They’re fun and give us feedback too because we’ve never done a podcast and they might totally suck. It’d be really cool if we learn that fast. All right, so we started doing this new thing. This will be the second week and who won last week cannot do it again. Okay, so if you’ve been to five Girl Geek dinners, raise your hand. Six, seven, eight, you can’t win again, nine. All right, you win. You get Girl Geek socks. Hold on. I have them right here. Oh, shit.

Gretchen DeKnikker: All right. We’ll get the other one. We have more socks but don’t kill Angie on the way out for them. Okay, so we’re excited for this especially the food, the dumplings were amazing. We ate them all. Thank you for coming and enjoy.

Laney Erokan speaking

Internal Communications Lead Laney Erokan welcomes the sold-out crowd to Blend Girl Geek Dinner in San Francisco, California.

Laney Erokan: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Clicker. Hi, everyone. How you doing? I have something really exciting news to start with. There are two seats right up front. If you want to sit down way up close. There’s two seats and one there. Feel free to mingle around. My name is Laney Erokan. I run internal communications here at Blend. We are thrilled to have you here this evening. You’re going to hear some really great stories from my lovely ladies up here who I’ll get the pleasure of working with. If you don’t know Blend, we’re a software company that we partner with some of the world’s largest financial institutions like Wells Fargo and US Bank. We make it easier for people to get loans. That’s Blend.

Laney Erokan: I joined Blend two years ago this month. I wanted to come somewhere where I could build something special and I was ready in my career to go to a place where I could build out what I was going to do. I wanted to find out a way to help this really cool company work on their internal communications and the opportunity was too good to pass up. I made some errors. I had some wins but there was a really cool thing that I got to be a part of, which I think you only get to do when you’re at a company of about this size. I got to work with our executives and our founders on creating this cool book, called our Beliefs Book. When I joined, we had just rolled out our principles for the first time.

Laney Erokan: The company was four years old. I was the 120th employee. I just happened to get here right at that time. They said, “Well, you know how to write. You know to talk. Let’s take this and do something with it. Over the course of two years, we took our company principles and we refined them over and over. We did that in a couple different ways. We took input from employees. We had focus groups, had a Slack channel called Principles where you could drop in ideas or articles. You could create a web form where you could put any suggestions you might have about our principles of how we work together. Every quarter, I sat down with our founders and we reviewed the changes and we implemented them or we said, “Well work on this.” It was a really cool process.

Laney Erokan: Then, last year, they said, “Let’s make this a book.” I spent the last year sitting in a conference room with a variety of people, taking our principles and making them into a narrative. It’s called our Beliefs book. It was a really cool opportunity that if I was at a much bigger company, I wouldn’t have been able to touch them because they would’ve been written in stone on a wall somewhere. I got this really cool opportunity. That’s cool things that we get to do here at Blend. Anyways, this is a great place to be. It’s a great place to work. You’re going to meet some of my favorite women tonight.

Laney Erokan: A quick housekeeping note, we would love for you to ask questions but I ask that you hold them to the end. We’re going to have microphone runners and all of that at the end, but please hold them until all four people are done speaking. That’s it. On with the show. I would like to introduce our first speaker, product manager, Priya Nakra to share some experiences from the many different hats she’s worn here at Blend.

Priya Nakra speaking

Product Manager Priya Nakra gives a talk on making the case for the work you want to do at Blend Girl Geek Dinner.

Priya Nakra: Awesome. Can everybody hear me okay? Good. Great, great, great. Cool. Thank you. When I was first asked to speak at this event and by the way, I think other people are starting like that but since I’m first just to pretend I trademarked it. When I was first asked to speak at tonight’s event, I was shocked and honored but also incredibly terrified. Not incredibly terrified in like the typically sense, “Oh, I’m scared to talk in front of a big group of people.” It’s more like terrified that on this panel of illustrious women, I would definitely be the speaker who was definitively less qualified. That’s the thing about imposter syndrome is that it hits you the hardest when the proof is literally right in front of you that you don’t need to feel like an imposter.

Priya Nakra: Still, it retains. It persists and it haunts you. Between this and having to write a blog post for the Blend website, shameless plug, it goes up next week. I even asked our content marketing team. I said, “Isn’t this too much? Isn’t this too much me talking about myself, my career? Aren’t people going to think I’m really full of myself?” I asked myself why am I doing this? Aren’t I opening myself up for scrutiny that I don’t really want? Isn’t everyone going to realize I don’t deserve to be here and that I’m a fraud?

Priya Nakra: My career at Blend has been a total whirlwind. Full of ups and downs, total roller coaster, full of moments and memories where I felt like the most qualified person in the room to when I felt like I could be fired tomorrow. All in a day, by the way. There are days when it feels like success just means survival. Just getting through the day. There are days where success means winning the competition and exceeding your own expectations. Then, there are days when you realize how much you’ve grown, how much you’ve learned, and proven to yourself that you are capable and worthy. Those are the days when I remind myself of where I started here at Blend.

Priya Nakra: The feeling I have on those days of accomplishment, and hope, and growth. That feeling and that realization is one of the reasons I’m really excited to speak to all of you today. How many of you have ever heard this phrase by show of hands? Anyone? How many of you have told yourself this phrase? Cool. Something in common. See that’s shared interest here. Okay, it took me a while to understand but being called technical is a spectrum. It means completely different things to completely different people all across industries. I had taken coding classes in school because my major was industrial engineering, but when I went to my first job in corporate consulting, you are either marked as functional or technical.

Priya Nakra: There wasn’t really anything in between. I was told by my manager several times that if I wasn’t learning how to code or actively with the engineers looking at code and debugging things or drawing systems architecture diagrams for our customers, I wasn’t technical. After four and a half years on the functional project management track, it was too late to try and be technical. That’s what I told myself when I joined Blend as well. Much to my initial chagrin and eventual appreciation, the deployment lead job that I took at Blend almost two years ago led me to our largest enterprise customer, which is Wells Fargo, who also happen to have the most complex and antiquated integration points.

Priya Nakra: I didn’t really have a choice but to at least learn the basics of how Blend could talk to other systems and their architecture in general. I started with a bare minimum. Understanding what systems Wells had. What systems we had. How we pass data from one system to another in order to support the process of the cycle of a loan. Then, I dabbled a little bit into air handling, alerting and monitoring, debugging some critical issues. It was essentially the equivalent of me tepidly dipping my toes into the really vast seat that is the technical world. It was at this time and during this project that our head of technical integrations, Irsal Alsanea, who’s also our only female engineer and group lead. She and I were sharing a glass of wine in sunny Des Moines, Iowa when we were at the Wells Fargo office.

Priya Nakra: We realized that we have these really symbiotic complementary strengths. She had a team of integration engineers who needed a lot of structure and I could provide that with my functional project management and in turn, I could learn a lot about what it means to manage technical products. It’s because of this and because of where Blend was as a company, she and I created together this enterprise integrations program manager role where I could, again, learn more about being technical and also provide a lot of structure for engineer. I’m extremely grateful that she took a chance on me on this and elevated me to the next level.

Priya Nakra: As the program manager for Blend’s enterprise integrations, I was managing all of our productized integrations with loan origination systems and CRMs. As well as managing any customer request. I know this is really riveting, bear with me. It was the first time I had any experience managing a technical project but I really did rely on my functional experience to provide some structure to the engineers. Things like helping them with capacity planning, getting better requirements on their tasks. As well as fielding any questions from customers and customer facing teams, so that they could focus on the actual code and development. During the initial stages of the role, I was pretty consistently overwhelmed every time I had to get on the phone or talk to a customer, partner and explain to them what it was like to build against our APIs and all the requirements that they needed.

Priya Nakra: I was pretty well prepared. I was doing my research on the side. I made a running list of engineering terms and added to it every time I heard a new one. Still haven’t quite figured out polymorphism. Don’t worry about it. It’s fine. Stack Overflow and Techopedia became my best friends and confidants. In the real time pressure of talking to engineers who at least acted like they know more than I did, it was really easy for me to doubt myself and shut down a bit throwing all my confidence I had and my skills out the window. It was at this time I again had a really lucky opportunity to work for Kelli Scott who is our head of services and support. She runs our professional services division. She was the perfect manager for me at the time because for every customer conversation that went awry or any bad experience I had with an engineer that made me feel less than, Kelli was always there to illustrate to me that I was capable.

Priya Nakra: That really, I just needed to focus on those muscles that I hadn’t been flexing before. Muscles like empathy for the end users and the developers who are building against our APIs. The folks who I was interacting with when were building these tools and also a keen eye on business process optimization. Most importantly, the muscles she encouraged me to flex was patience and empathy for myself. I remember a moment when during a particularly horrible partner call, after I admitted to the engineer on the phone that I’m not an engineer and don’t have quick access to the code. He stopped talking to me and calling me essentially a useless middleman, refused to speak to me any longer. Demanded to speak to one of the engineers on my team.

Priya Nakra: I was crushed, understandably. All this hard work had come to a halt. With Kelli’s help and mentorship and the lessons that she gave me, I put myself in the shoes of this particular engineer who himself was on the hook for delivering something to his boss. I also gave myself the time and the patience to ramp up on concepts I hadn’t been familiar with. Hopefully, the pattern is becoming clear in my career that with every new opportunity, every open door, I had a chance to learn something and push myself out of my comfort zone and prove my capabilities to other people and most importantly myself.

Priya Nakra: As I started gaining more confidence in the program manager role for integrations around Q3 of 2018, Blend’s first female product lead, Blair Martin also joined the company. She managed all integrations-related product builds. I remember even the first time we met, and I walked her through what I did on a day to day basis, how many customers I was the main point of contact for, how many integration patterns we scaled from one to many customers. Even on first meeting, just that first interaction, she said, “You’re already doing the job of a product manager, why aren’t you one?” I remember being really surprised but also quietly validated. The term product manager is a highly coveted position in the tech industry.

Priya Nakra: In the back of my mind, I was always wondered, could I be a good PM but surprise, surprise didn’t have the confidence to actually campaign for that position. I also told myself it was a far departure from what I was doing, I again wasn’t technical enough. Didn’t have the engineering resources or the chops, had never shipped a product. The excuses were endless as were the reasons to doubt myself. Between Blair’s product management leadership and her passion for growing PMs, especially new PMs and the work I had already done, managing multiple integrations and creating tooling and processes for other engineering teams to leverage, it became clear that the next step for me was to make my case to join the product team officially.

Priya Nakra: With Blair’s help and the consistent advocacy from people like Kelli, Irsal and other folks in the engineering and product org, I was able to step in to the PM role officially in September of last year. Since then, I’ve been able to launch internal and external tools, and truly build products that were API first. During my career at Blend, I’ve been incredibly lucky to find a circle of women who empowered me and believed in me, even and especially when I don’t believe in myself. This feeling and realization is also one of the reasons I volunteered to be the chair of our employee resource group, Women at Blend.

Priya Nakra: I realize if it hadn’t been for the people at Blend and primarily the women at Blend who believed in me during my time here, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m at today. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to grow exponentially throughout my career. This made me really want to create these opportunities for other women at Blend and starting ERG-led initiatives like cross functional development, and mentorship sessions, I hope that I was able to help other women in Blend find another person or another circle to empower them. At the risk of sounding basic AF, the power of a girl squad is real and I wouldn’t be here without mine. Thank you.

Laney Erokan: Thank you so much, Priya. I love that story. Our next speaker is sales engineering manager, Ashley McIntyre. She’s going to take you through how she defined her career path and some counterintuitive lessons she learned along the way.

Ashley McIntyre speaking

Sales Engineering Manager Ashley McIntyre gives a talk on finding your niche by identifying your strengths at Blend Girl Geek Dinner.

Ashley McIntyre: Thank you, Laney. Nervous. As I started preparing and really thinking about this event, and once we got the marketing material out there and I sent the Eventbrite link to a couple friends in the last two days. I didn’t want to advertise it too much lest they make too nervous. I kept coming back to what I had helped write in the description, which was Ashley’s going to talk to you about how to be what you … or how to figure out where you want to be when you grow up. Then, I realized I actually have no idea how to answer that question. Maybe I signed up for the wrong thing. The last time, I knew what I wanted to be when I grow up, I was five. I wanted to be an engineer.

Ashley McIntyre: Starting out an engineer, became an engineer but I wanted to be an astronaut. How do you tell that face that she’s not actually going to know what she wants to be when she grows up, but it’s going to be okay. Well, jump to the end there, I don’t know what I want to be and I have never had a dream job that I’ve been aiming towards as I go towards this path. I realize that a lot of times, people come to events like this and you hear these amazing stories of all the successes people have had but it’s hard to relate to those. It’s hard to say, “Oh, yeah. I can probably get there one day.” When I thought about this question and what I wanted to talk about, I realized that it might be more interesting for you all to hear about all of the nos. When I look at what actually ended up stringing my career path together, it is those nos that had a profound and positive impact on me but I didn’t realize that at time.

Ashley McIntyre: I want to share a couple stories with you all tonight about what that means and how I got here. To go back, my final year in college, I was coming out of an engineering degree at Berkeley and I couldn’t get a job. I went through on campus recruiting along with all of my peers and especially in that fall semester when you’ve got all the big companies who are hiring. I was in all of those meetings. I went to the career fairs. These jobs sounded amazing but I applied for all of them, and I got one call back for which I went to one interview, for which I got zero response. I didn’t even get a no. To the recruiters in the room, when you say no and actually formally end that relationship, it is so much better than you never getting back to us. I can tell you that.

Ashley McIntyre: That was hard. It raised a lot of questions for me as my peers were going into their spring semester with a job and I was trying to figure out if I’d ever be able to live in San Francisco and move across the bay, and achieve this dream. That question of am I capable? Do I have a path? I’m standing here at the edge of this cliff, what’s going to happen when I jump off in May was really hard to answer. I get to the very end. I get to April. I’m graduating in May and I end up taking the only job for which I got an offer. Hey, at least it was money. What that job was is I was commuting from Berkeley to San Francisco for a 6:00 AM shift to cold call people in New York and Pennsylvania, who would hang up on me if I couldn’t articulate myself in 45 seconds or less.

Ashley McIntyre: What that job turned into was something I never thought, especially at that time, that I’d be able to achieve, which was I ended up running one of the largest, most complex projects at that consulting company. A funny little side story on that is when I ultimately did decide to leave and I told that client that I was leaving, they’d actually almost forgotten that I didn’t work for them, that I work for the consulting company. They tried to hire me on the spot. We just heard about Priya’s experience with imposter syndrome. That’s one of the things honestly that I think back on when I feel that, which is still daily today, which I had a company that I didn’t even work for try to hire me because they didn’t want to lose me. Sometimes you need those boosts, especially when you’re coming from a job paying you $40,000 and you’re barely making a living to live in the city.

Ashley McIntyre: How did I get there? When I got to the consulting company, I leaned in. I worked hard. I did a lot of extra work and I made sure people knew Ashley’s name. I really try to do that by traveling and spending time in other offices. As I started working my way through the ranks, people started saying yes to me. There wasn’t that silence. There wasn’t that no. There was people who wanted to invest in my path. For me, that was one of the things that stands out as my first piece of counterintuitive career advice, which is sometimes, it’s better to stay than it is to go. A lot of times, you see people who are moving around from companies. There’s so many cool tech companies in the Bay Area and people tend to job hop a lot. A lot of times, maybe to increase their salary.

Ashley McIntyre: If you’ve got a company that’s investing in you, you’re never better set up for success than you will be with the rapport and the trust that you’ve built with them. Don’t underestimate those opportunities if they’ve shown that they’re willing to do that because every company is going to have their issues. In those four and a half years, I rose to a level that I didn’t predict that I’d ever have been able to and I don’t think I would’ve gotten those chances coming in without a record of trust. Coming out after that time, there did come a time when I wasn’t as excited about my path upward anymore. Then, I said no to the company. I decided it was time to look for my next job.

Ashley McIntyre: What I didn’t realize was that it was going to be back at the edge of that cliff. Another demoralizing seven months before I started that next job where I was sending out cover letters and resumes after my full time job, getting no responses. I had no idea if people were going to hire me for a job that I didn’t have. I was successful in my current role but I wanted to move to something else. That wasn’t defined at that time and nobody would even call me back for that. Where I struggled with that is I didn’t know how I was going to get my in. That came to my second piece of counterintuitive advice, which is sometimes that close work friend or your work wife leaving to go to another company can be one of the best things for you because that network may bring you on to that next challenge or that next role.

Ashley McIntyre: That ended up being how I got that next role. I’d sat down and started thinking about what I loved about my day to day job. I found that my planning sessions with my customer at the end of each year where we talk about the next contract, educating them as to the vision and how we could actually deploy these features and these products that they could use was one of my favorite things to do. That to me started pointing me towards sales engineering, sitting at the crossroads of people and technology. Then, when my friend reached out about the open sales engineer role, I went in there. I was so excited. I think both that warm referral and my interest helped lead me to get that job. Then, that company said yes to me.

Ashley McIntyre: I started at that job and a similar story here. I leaned in. I worked hard and I started seeing success. A year and a half in, I was gaining traction. I was put in a leadership role. I was going to have the opportunity to build a team for the first time, which was I so nervous about but excited about. Then, one day, I made a mistake. I made a huge mistake that ended up losing the trust of my colleagues and it ended up costing me my job. My company was going through some layoffs at that time and my mistake caused them to say, “You know what, you’re no longer a part of this team.” What have I done? The questions immediately sprung up, the shame, the embarrassment, the confusion, can I do this? Am I following a path? Did they just blow the bridge in front of me? What have I done and how am I going to get through this?

Ashley McIntyre: If anybody knows that feeling in the pit of your stomach after your breakup, when you hear your former partner’s first name and that knot opens up into a bottomless pit, that’s what it felt like for about a week. It was not pretty. I was scared. I did a lot of crying and I was really ashamed. It was really hard telling people that I actually had a role in this. I was really upset with myself. Then, one day about a week later, I woke up and realized I’ll be fine. I’m not going to let this be the reason that I say no to myself. I’m not going to cut off my own path here and I’m not going to let this lapse in judgment but learning experience stop me from continuing to learn from it. What I realized in that time and as I move forward is I realized that this time I actually had all the time in the world to find my next job, to find the next right thing. That’s what I started doing.

Ashley McIntyre: I sat down and I thought, and a couple things started coming to mind. The first was that I needed to capitalize on a job that had both a combination of strengths, and my interests where it played to those things, I knew that I would be the most successful, so I wanted to hone in on those roles. The second was even though I don’t think I am sometimes, I’m pretty darn smart and capable but my resume and my profile may not be what the sexiest, highest valuation tech companies or the biggest brand names actually want. That’s okay. Ultimately, I feel more at home as a big fish in a small pond rather than the other way around. Realizing that and really embodying it was one of the first times I actually felt the power of that because I kept judging myself when friends would talk about the coolest companies that they’re at.

Ashley McIntyre: Really, that didn’t mean they necessarily liked the culture of that company or felt motivated, or felt that they were in a place that they could grow, but they just had the brand name. I realized that that was going to be enough for me. I realized every time I saw rejection come up, it was quick to follow when I was focusing on other people’s strengths. I needed to focus back on my own. Ultimately, the challenges best suited to me where the ones in the environments where I was happiest and so, I started using those things as my guiding star throughout this job hunt. That’s not to say that that job hunt was easy either. There was 35 conversations that I had over two months as I tried to really expand my network and give it a chance. Then, one day, I found Blend.

Ashley McIntyre: I’ve been here for about two years now, which is crazy to me because as I look back at my opportunities here. I came in as an individual contributor on a small team of two people. Blend gave me a chance as a new manager last January and I now have a team of six that report up to me. I’m learning these new challenges as a new people manager but also in a growing company that you’ve heard a little bit about here. The reason that I came here was not because I thought Blend had a chance of being a name brand. It wasn’t for any reason other than when I interviewed with this team, I thought I saw those core values of mine reflected back at me. That wasn’t something I wanted to ignore. I leaned in and even though each time, I left the interview process asking is mortgage even interesting? Do I want to do this for another five years? Because that’s what I wanted. I wanted to go somewhere where I could be there for five years.

Ashley McIntyre: Ultimately, even though I wasn’t sure if everything was going to be perfect, those values and the people were what I knew I needed to invest in this time around, which brings us here. In summary, I wanted to go back to the woman standing at the end of the cliff when she was leaving college, and not sure what she was going to do. If I had to summarize a couple things for her to take with her on this journey from what I’ve learned, what I’d try to say, though I honestly don’t think she’d listen to me knowing her insecurities as well as I do. The three things are there are benefits to be had personally and professionally to grinding it out at a company for a few years. Getting a lot of experience, taking roles that you didn’t think you would take when you first start at that job.

Ashley McIntyre: Invest in those companies when you can because they’re investing in you. Second, is embrace every no along the way and cherish those yeses. When you hear the yeses, celebrate them and keep working your ass off. Third, just because you may not feel like you have a path today, you may not have a dream job. You may not know where you are in your journey, doesn’t mean that somebody won’t one day ask you to get up in front of a large group and have you fail miserably at answering the question, what do you want to be when you grow up? Thank you.

Laney Erokan: Thank you, Ashley, so much and I’m so glad you said yes to Blend. All right. Next up, I like to bring up our product design manager Eunice Noh, who not only is going to talk to you about her career choices that she’s made along the way, but she also was the third woman hired at Blend. I think that’s really cool. About four years ago, she joined the company and she’s learned a lot in the meantime so here we go.

Eunice Noh speaking

Product Design Lead Eunice Noh gives a talk on how thoughtful design can drive collaboration throughout company stages at Blend Girl Geek Dinner.

Eunice Noh: She’s going to help me progress my slides because I have notes in my hand. Well, I’m grateful to be able to be up here sharing my story. Honestly, if you asked me 10 years ago, if I would be up here and have the opportunity to speak to all of you, I would not have thought this would be a reality. Thank you all for being here. Different from Ashley, from a young age, I knew I wanted to be a designer. I probably did not know what that actually entailed and one of my school assignments in middle school, and I’m sure if any of you had this as well was to write a letter to your future self. That letter would actually be mailed to you after you graduated high school.

Eunice Noh: When I received mine after I graduated, I’d completely forgotten what I had written and was pretty surprised that I said I wanted to be a designer. Not pretty surprised that I wanted to have two dogs so two out of three so far. Working on the second dog, trying to convince my fiance right now to get one. He’s not down. One of the things that stuck out to me most in that letter was the last thing I wrote to myself, which was don’t be too hard on yourself. I think I was a pretty wise kid actually. It made me realize that I struggled with self criticism at a very early age. When I was preparing for this talk, there’s about four moments in my life that stood out that I realized that the common thread in each and every moment was that I was really out of my comfort zone while still struggling with self doubt and self criticism.

Eunice Noh: The first one I’m sure most of us have gone through is going to college. There were a lot of thoughts leading up to that day, that first day. Am I going to like my roommate that I’m sharing a boxed room with? Am I going to make any new friends? How am I going to do this without my parents? Am I majoring in the right thing and so on. I was really nervous and scared already to start this venture. This is … actually, go to the next one sorry. This is a photo I actually found on my Facebook that while I was watching the news with my dad before starting college, it said top five useless majors. Just to clarify, I majored in fine arts with an emphasis in graphic design at USC. Not only did I have one but I had two up there.

Eunice Noh: Going into that, I was even more scared to start school. I really didn’t want to mess it up. School isn’t cheap. I really didn’t want to disappoint my parents and so, I definitely was in a little bit of a panic when I started. Reflecting back, I think I took a lot different, non-traditional path from most of my classmates and friends. During finals week, most of them were huddled in libraries studying for exams and I was huddled in the studio with paint all over my hands trying to finish my final art project in time. I think also too, a lot of them were getting internships to secure their careers. For me, I had … it wasn’t really that clear for me. Product design, how many people are designers out there in the room? Woohoo, okay. Just a few. Yeah, let’s stick together.

Eunice Noh: I think product design hasn’t been around for very long. It started in the ’90s but there’s so many titles. UI, UX, interaction, web design, and it didn’t really become well known until more recently. Also, in school, there wasn’t really a curriculum or a major that was really teaching us this experience as well. So I knew that I had a lot of work cut out for me to figure this out. I used internships mostly to figure out what I didn’t like. I actually had about six to eight internships while I was in college. Anything from fashion design, wedding event planning, and working for free for a lot of small startups. When I was going to school, free internships was a very common thing for most of us.

Eunice Noh: It wasn’t until I worked at a small startup as a web designer that I was really intrigued by the startup culture so I started spending a lot of my nights, instead of going out partying, drawing mocks of fake websites that I would come up with so I definitely don’t want to share with you those concepts that I actually worked on. After that, my final leap to my junior year, I heard about this new incubator program in New York that was hosted by General Electric and OMD, which is a small … I mean it’s not a small … an advertising agency. It’s a 10-week immersive program for 20 students who are aspiring to be entrepreneurs. I thought it wouldn’t hurt to apply. I honestly did not think I was going to hear back from them at all. I got selected so I packed my bags, moved to New York for three months before my senior year.

Eunice Noh: Again, so many self doubting thoughts the entire time leading up to the program. I was a broke college student in New York, barely turned 21 and this was the first time I had to interact with anyone that was over the age of 35. Now, that I’m older, 35 is very young. I didn’t know how to carry myself, what to wear, how to sound when talking because I thought my voice was too high. What to eat in front of them during lunch? I was honestly really nervous and frankly really scared. I woke up every day with butterflies in my stomach but also this uncomfortable pit in my stomach. You know, there was only one other woman in the program with me out of 20 and so, when I looked around and saw the men walking around, they had such confidence. Joking around with the execs, like seeming to have a really great time and not afraid to show their personalities. For me, I didn’t even know if I deserve to be there.

Eunice Noh: At the end of the internship or the actual program, there was a demo day where you had to pitch your idea. It was in front of the group of execs from GE and OMD. One of the requirements was that everyone had to talk. I wasn’t going to get out of that. My partner and I before we’re about to present, I threw up in the trashcan outside of the room. That was a really great start. To be honest, I really don’t remember how the presentation went because I’m pretty much sure I blacked out the entire time. But you know what, it was an exhilarating rush and I knew that I loved what I had and it was like a glimmer of hope for me that I deserved to be there. I realized though that I had one more year in school.

Eunice Noh: I decided at that moment that I wanted to graduate early. I’m sorry. I keep missing the slides, sorry. I knew I wanted to graduate early so I did everything I can to make sure I graduated in one more semester. After I graduated, I joined an accelerator program that led me to receive a seed round for my startup. They gave us the stability to build out our business. We hired two engineers and moved to San Francisco, which is where we are today. To be honest, I had a couple of years that I was in a very, very, very scrappy startup. I’m sure a lot of those few folks out there have experienced this. I found myself … actually, I missed a lot of Coachellas, a lot of Vegas trips. The struggle was really real.

Eunice Noh: At the time, that was really important to me. I was really, really bummed out that I wasn’t able to go on those trips. There was also a lot of really late nights till 4:00 AM but we were just figuring it out as we went. I was working on handling customer service, designing the product, teaching myself how to code so that we could have a working website. It was really hard to see if I was growing because we were learning on our own and everybody else that was around me was going through the same thing. We were just honestly just a group of new grads with zero experience running a business trying to run a business.

Eunice Noh: At the same time, still trying to figure out who we were outside of school. We were fortunate enough that we started to do pretty well, started to grow the team and we were profitable in two years. At that point, I was exhausted mentally and physically. At the time too, design didn’t really have a seat at the table. I find myself fighting for the value and importance of design and because I was the only designer, I felt like I was fighting for myself. Even though I co-founded the company, as well, I started to doubt myself and I convinced myself that I wasn’t right for the team, and ended up deciding to leave the company.

Eunice Noh: I wanted to make an impact, so again, having that seat at the table…. At the time, I thought product management was the only way you’re going to get that seat. I started to look for jobs in product management. Without even really thinking about if that role was right for me. Reflecting back, I learned two things. First, PM-ing is very, very hard, so shout out to all the PMs out there. I really appreciate everything that you do. Second, I realize that now I was trying to make myself right for this role for the wrong reasons. I wasn’t happy. I really enjoyed the parts of product management that was more around the experience and design. I thought if I just stuck it out that it would get better but it didn’t.

Eunice Noh: Also, in hindsight, the culture at that company felt like everybody was fending for themselves rather than working together. About after two years, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to look around and do what I love, which was product design. That’s when I was fortunate enough to work, come here, and work at Blend in the beginning of 2015. I’ve been here for about four years now. I remember my onsite at Blend, I thought I totally bombed the interviews so I called my boyfriend being like, “Well, that was terrible.” Had ready have made up my mind that they weren’t going to call me back. I ended up getting the job. When I joined, the company was still small. There was only about 30 people and I was the first woman hired in all of the EPD, which is engineering product and design team.

Eunice Noh: At first, it felt like everyone in this company really cared about what they were doing and the mission. It wasn’t just a job for them. Honestly, that was truly intimidating and motivating at the same time but I knew I had a lot to prove. People were taking so much time out of their day to onboard me and to make me feel part of the team, which is up here. This is actually a little bit further along when we’re about 60 people. Part of that was requiring us to run meetings on our own and to lead discussions. That was really scary for me. I was in fear every day that I was going to get fired, similar to Priya. I guess we’re all in it together.

Eunice Noh: One of the things that we had every Thursday was to do a design review in front of the entire company. Every morning on Thursday, I would wake up sick to my stomach knowing that I had to present in front of 50 people, which is now I’m presenting in front of more of you. This is … you know that I’m nervous. Speaking up in meetings was really hard for me. There is an analogy I like to use. I’m not sure if everyone feels this way but when I’m on a plane and I’d like the window seat, I think the entire time on the plane wondering when I’m going to use the bathroom. I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to go now. Should I wake up my neighbor? Am I going to get stuck in front of the beverage cart?”

Eunice Noh: By the time I convince myself that I’m ready to go to the bathroom, they’re like, “Seat belts, please.” You got to hold it for another 30 minutes. It’s not a good feeling. It’s really not. I think that’s similar in meetings. I work myself in my head and I’m trying to figure out exactly what I’m going to say and making sure that what I say is not stupid and should I talk now? Should I wait till the person’s finished his talking and a million other questions in my head. By the time I get the confidence to actually say something, the meeting has ended. Everyone’s already moving out of the room. It’s very vulnerable. I was very, very, very vulnerable. Luckily, different from any of the past companies I worked for, I had a great support system through my manager and then an outlet to talk to a lot of women during our Blend ladies’ night out. Having people to help build that confidence and give you those light nudges and support from people around me.

Eunice Noh: I’ve been a manager at Blend now for about two years and did not previously think I wanted to be one. I told myself that it wasn’t for me, that I wanted to be an IC and my manager really told me multiple times to give it a shot and that I would make a great manager. That was I was the right person for the role. I didn’t believe in myself at the time but I’m so grateful that I had someone that did. I find it truly rewarding now to work with incredibly amazing talented designers and see them grow. As manager today, I strive to be like my manager to give support and help build confidence for every single person on my team. I’ve realized that building confidence differs per person, that being thrown into the deep end might not always be for everybody.

Eunice Noh: I still struggle with self criticism and self doubt. I know that it’ll be something that I deal with for the rest of my life. It’s really easy to be your own biggest critic and when in the moment and working but looking back at the past 10 years, I’m grateful for all the experiences and people that had been part of my journey that have shaped who I am today. To end, if I were to write a letter to my future self today, I think I would remind myself of a few things. First, you can’t do it alone. We need to support one another. I see it time and time again, women being more harsh to other women but it’s a responsibility for us to support each other. Second, vulnerability is a strength and not a weakness.

Eunice Noh: When you hear that voice of insecurity in your head, just tell them to shut up. Vulnerability might make us feel less confident but I actually believe it’s our greatest mark of confidence. Third, simply do what you love. We’re fortunate enough to live in a world in the tech industry that people support what you want to do and your actual development as well. Fourth, I’ll take from my eighth grade self, don’t be so hard on yourself. Thank you.

Laney Erokan: Thank you, Eunice. Is it good? [inaudible]. All right. Well, I’m getting on a flight in a couple hours and I’m definitely going to think twice about where to sit because I don’t want to wake up my neighbor. Our final speaker of the evening is Crystal Sumner, who’s our head of legal and compliance. She’s going to come up and talk to you a bit about her career in the legal profession.

Crystal Sumner speaking

Head of Legal & Compliance Crystal Sumner gives a talk on taking action to create a more balanced workforce at Blend Girl Geek Dinner.

Crystal Sumner: Hi everyone. Super thrilled to be here tonight. To start the same way that Priya did, when I was asked to speak to everyone tonight, Sarah came up to me and she’s like, I really want you to say … give the inspirational ending. She’s like, “You’re one of two female execs at Blend. I’m sure you have lots of words of wisdom for people in the room.” Maybe it had been a really long day, maybe another depressing news cycle, I turned to her and I was like, “Can I just talk about why we’re not there yet?” She was like, “Sure.” I sat down and when I went to write this speech, it was like, “Well, that’s really A, not very inspirational and two, not very helpful.”

Crystal Sumner: When I started thinking about where there was lots of things basically where I grew up, the steps that I’ve taken, the mentors I’ve met, my support system that I actually do think have helped me get to the place I am today. While, I will always say there’s still a ton of work for us to be doing to advance women and represent minorities in the workplace. I think there’s definitely some tools–very practical as a lawyer–that we could all have to help us progress in our career. I grew up in Texas and very traditional Texas. They care. They make up. We’re talking Dynasty, not the remake, like the 1980s Dynasty type Texas where again, make up, hair, and women should know their place.

Crystal Sumner: By that, I mean that you don’t interrupt the men. The men are having conversations and women should sit in the corner and listen. I think that type of environment can do one of two things. You can either mold to it or you can completely reject it. If anyone knows me today, they will know that I very quickly rejected it. At a pretty early age, I mean I was pretty much a terror as a child but I remember telling my father’s male friends that adults, you needed to earn my respect. I wasn’t just automatically going to respect you. I remember seeing the little girl standing up to the Wall Street bull, that’s how I remember feeling as a little girl just because I felt very much like this wasn’t who I was supposed to be.

Crystal Sumner: I put my head down, I studied hard. Played sports, got a full ride. I was a first generation college grad. Set me up for success and being able to go to law school. I still think back and I still tell my father that that experience really set me up for being successful in what is a very male-dominated field of both law and tech. Because very early on, I found my voice. I think people find it at different times and people can figure out the right ways to find their voice and express their opinion. I do think finding your voice is so fundamental to being successful in the workplace because so many people are afraid and I think that’s totally natural but that is what’s going to help build that foundation for success.

Crystal Sumner: After leaving Texas, I ended up going to Berkeley. Talk about culture shock. I immediately ended up in Walnut Creek because I wanted fast food and malls, and everything that felt like home. I also very immediately found that this was my vibe. Partially because at Berkeley and this was one of the first years that there were actually more female law students than men, which was pretty awesome. I was also finally surrounded by a bunch of smart, motivated, just kick ass women who were leading the pack. While I learned a lot of things in law school about how to become a lawyer kind of, the biggest thing that I found was my support system. These women behind me, originally was talking about outlines, dates, those types of things. As soon as we graduated and to this day, I texted them last night this picture. This is my system that I lean on.

Crystal Sumner: Whether we’re talking about should we take that next job, how should I’ve taken that feedback that really sounded gendered. What do I do to my next step? These are the people that I turn to. That doesn’t mean and you’ll see my next part that you won’t have mentors. I think having that group that it could be men, women, whoever that is the people that you can rely on. For the past 11 years, it’s definitely been this. I feel like I couldn’t be where I am today without having this support system. Find your support system.

Crystal Sumner: After I graduated, I actually went to a top law firm in California where again, very similar to law school, 50-50, a lot of women entering just as much as the men but I very quickly saw that while there was a lot of female associates, there was not a whole lot of female partners. In fact, out of a law firm about 1000, 10% of these partners were women, which seems pretty crazy. I was like, “Well, it takes a long time to be partner. Maybe it’s like systematic that back from the old days, I’m sure it’s going to change.” Again, I put my head down. Found eight mentors, a junior male partner, a senior female counsel, who helped open doors and got me on some of the best cases.

Crystal Sumner: Then, when it was time for me to find my next job, they were the references that helped me in that next step. Again, this is my first job in corporate America but I very quickly realized that finding your mentors and advocates could be whoever it is. That is really going to help open the door, not only for that job but for your next position. After a couple of years, you see every three years I’d like to mix it up. I decided to go to a government startup, which sounds really weird because government startup just aren’t things that go together. At the time, after the 2008 financial crisis, there was a new agency being started by this Harvard professor that I’ve kind of heard of, Elizabeth Warren. It was really cool because she was still there at the time before she ran for senate.

Crystal Sumner: When I applied and got the offer, I remember very distinctly my hiring manager at the time, which was Richard Cordray, who went on to lead the bureau said, “Your offer seems really low. I’d really negotiate it.” I had never negotiated a salary because when you enter a law firm, it’s just fixed, flat. Everyone makes the same thing. You don’t have to worry about is someone making more or less. It’s just everyone starts. I was really proud of myself because I negotiated a $12,000 raise, like additional 12% I think at the time or 10%. I was one of those things where I was like, “Oh, I’m glad he gave me that advice.” Why would I not do that? What’s interesting and again, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the whole mission of this is transparency and fairness in consumer finance.

Crystal Sumner: Fast forward a couple of years, everyone’s salary is actually public and you hear rumblings when you started looking at people’s salaries. This person same years experience makes more. There actually was … I love the bureau but there was an investigation. The office of inspector general report that showed that women and minorities had actually statistically been paid less at the bureau. They didn’t find there was a discriminatory intent, but it just went to show you that even at these government agencies, that are really focused on protecting consumers than have been at the right moral compass, you still have this disparity in pay. My takeaway was negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. All the studies show, the 20%, 30% less women and just generally negotiate less.

Crystal Sumner: Studies have also shown that you could be leaving up to $2 million on the table by failing to negotiate. It was so eye opening to me and ever since then, every job I’m probably a huge pain in the ass because I essentially in the back of my mind, I refuse to make that 80 cents to a dollar of my male colleague. I’m going to push as hard as I can. I don’t need to make more … I don’t need to make more but I definitely need to be equally paid to my male colleague. I just encourage everyone when you’re applying to negotiate, I tell every person on my team, I’ve had a couple that didn’t negotiate as soon as I started. Next time, please negotiate for your salary because it’s expected.

Crystal Sumner: When I moved back to San Francisco, I was actually still working for the government. I decided that instead of suing people, which is fun at times. I really wanted to build something. I went in to tech. You think San Francisco, super progressive, but you do realize that not all tech companies are created equal. I really wanted to identify companies that cared about culture, cared about diversity, belonging, and inclusion. I joined Blend similar to my other colleagues quite early when it was about 50 people. It was lovely because as soon as I started, they actually had around 60 people, hired a Head of People and at 100 or 200 they hired a diversity, belonging, and inclusion leader.

Crystal Sumner: I’ve worked at two tech companies both actually who had a strong focus on this. What I saw was that, if you’re not working at it and thinking about it, it’s not actually going to get better. That also even in companies like that, there is still so much room for improvement. One of the things that I talk with the women here and we’re actually doing a listening sessions are how we hold each other accountable. It shouldn’t just be on women and underrepresented minorities to drive that path, it should be an every person at the company and especially the leaders of the company. I just want to encourage everyone because I do think we’re not there yet to really use your position to drive influence and change to help make it a better workplace.

Crystal Sumner: For me, I actually had really fortunate, unfortunate for this picture, an opportunity this year when a law firm, Paul, Weiss, which is a very large international law firm announced their partner class, which as you can see is 11 white men and a white woman. I’m on a general counsel network thread that blew up. Fast forward, it had been almost 10 years since I had started a law firm thinking, “Oh, the reason why there’s 10 percent women is just because it was back in the old days. There are women not starting but no, 10 years later, nothing had changed.”

Crystal Sumner: What I did with 170 women and men general counsel was write a letter. It was talked about in New York Times, talked about on law.com that said, “Embrace diversity or lose our money.” I have a half million dollars in budget that I can spend. If you law firms are not actually making this an effort, and not trying to make a more inclusive place to work, I don’t need to work with you. I’ve received probably 30, 40 letters from law firms talking about what they’re trying to do. It was one of those fortunate and unique positions that I could be in and use this position to try and drive change. Not only in my company but also hopefully with all the other law firm that they’re working.

Crystal Sumner: It’s one small area to drive change but I think if everyone is using their position to try to do that, that we can try to make a difference here. I’m out of breath because I’ve been talking all day [inaudible]. I think what I just want to leave you with is we all have a place and role in this. Drive towards that and hold the people that you’re working with accountable. I’m happy to answer questions as we wrap up.

Laney Erokan: Thank you, Crystal. That was awesome.

Mariam: Hi. My name is Mariam. Thank you so much for all your stories and vulnerability. It was really relatable. I know it’s not easy to get up in front of a group and just share vulnerabilities and stories where you haven’t done great and awesome. That’s really helpful. My question was actually coming off the heels of Crystal’s talk and how equal pay day was on the 8th or was it … my days are off. I think there was a recent policy that got passed that on a Monday that companies that have a hundred employees or more are now required to report to the EEOC gender and race pay, basically how much they pay all their employees based off of gender and race. That was awesome and a great victory.

Mariam: I was wondering, there’s certain companies like Blackrock and others that take this incumbent on themselves to go ahead and take the data, and analyze it and see where they’re at as a company. Are there initiatives like that at Blend and do you see more popping up and what are your thoughts on that?

Crystal Sumner: It’s definitely a conversation that we have had and I think there’s two different things that you can do in this space. One, we have very rigid bands that we look at to make sure that people that are in the same roles are being paid the same amount of money. I’m a lawyer and so there’s a lot of statistical reasons why larger companies actually have a better way of doing that but it’s something that I think as we’re now hitting more than 350-400, you have to have the right data points and the right number of women and minorities across subsets to make sure that you can be assessing that there’s actually equal pay being going on. It’s definitely something that as we’ve had listening sessions and it’s an ongoing conversation that we have had specifically because it’s something that we care about. I think again, as a smaller stage company because you didn’t … would have one person in design and one person here, it was harder to do that.

Crystal Sumner: We try to make sure that we had bands because I think that is the fairest way when you don’t actually have a bunch of different people within a particular role. It’s something that I clearly am very passionate about. It was very eye opening at the government, everyone was being … you could see literally every person’s salary. Very clearly, there were people who just made drastically more and it was very unclear as to why.

Audience Member: Would you say that white privilege has helped you in your career path and if so, how?

Crystal Sumner: Of course, I mean … sorry. Do you think white privileged has helped you in your career path and why? I’m like 100%. I definitely … I think that I would be completely missing the point to not understand that there is privilege associated with being a white woman. I would even just saying always as a white woman and I grew up in a very lower middle class family but especially now as like a wealthy, white woman, it is something that … I’m so cognizant of sometimes that just … I think especially from where I grew up that it’s something that I definitely think helps me in my career and it makes me want to do more and give back. Also, be sure that we’re creating an even more inclusive and diverse environment as we work.

Ashley McIntyre: I would agree 100%. I’m incredibly lucky for that privilege but also have tried in the last many years to really recognize that. You look at all of the research and if you do all the reading on diversity and biases, nobody can really be bias-free. When you start acknowledging them and working with them, that’s when you can start combating a lot of the unconscious biases. Especially now as a manager, I am lucky that I do have the position to interview broad swaths of people. I coach people on my team and I’m really trying to learn about them and especially based on their backgrounds and all of the influences that put them where they are today, how I can help them get to their goals.

Ashley McIntyre: This is new for me in a leadership role but it’s something that I am committed to doing as I continue in my career because I 100% ended up in a lot of these opportunities because of that. That doesn’t mean other people can’t end up there as well.

Audience Member: Hello. [inaudible]. Hi everybody. Thank you guys for your talk. One thing that I wanted to talk about was it’s huge in the tech industry, intersectionality. How do you address that not only in the meetings that you attend but also with your teams because being leaders, you have to also push this message down to the other woman that look up to you in some respects. How do you address that? It’s kind of twofold, like yourself and then, within your team. How do you address intersectionality without being overbearing like I’m a woman, rah, rah, rah?

Crystal Sumner: I think there was some lack of clarity but are you talking about the intersectionality in terms of both women and other … go ahead.

Audience Member: Yeah. Okay, so I guess I didn’t clarify. Intersectionality just in general but also in the room with predominantly males. It’s not a secret that all of us are in this tech industry and it’s still mostly male dominated. I recently switched careers. I came from the IT background, so white male dominated. It’s like been my life. Then, now, I’m recruiting tech industry, same difference. Addressing in not only with the men that you work with like your peers up and down, but then also the people that you lead because that’s probably more important. A lot of the work that we’re doing now for diversity, equity, and inclusion probably won’t affect us but it’ll affect the people that we’re bringing up, our kids and our kid’s kids, et cetera, et cetera. I hope that that’s more clear.

Priya Nakra: I think the short answer is, at least in my stage here, I’m still usually the only woman in the room. It’s not like–there aren’t a ton of opportunities where you can–obviously if you’re with other women and you’re noticing that they’re getting cut off, you would want to say actually can we let Eunice speak or Crystal speak or something like that. There’s a lot of techniques around how to be an ally to women in the workplace. If you’re the only woman in the room pretty consistently, it’s hard to be … especially me so someone who has imposter syndrome, I’m not going to be like, “Hey can you stop talking until I can talk.” I don’t have the confidence for that. I will say if people have been … men have been really receptive sometimes, some men, not all men. Some men have been really receptive if you could just point something out.

Priya Nakra: Even in a Slack channel, like having a conversation with a male counterpart but then, having that male counterpart, put it in a public channel that … yeah, we can do this too and it’s like actually I told you that idea. Then, having calmly calling, not calling them out but being like actually we really would appreciate it if you gave me that credit or gave some other woman that credit because that was the idea. Obviously, a lot of people are more receptive to it than others. I would think it’s just a small things about … a lot of men in the workplace do want to understand how to be an ally especially when I was the chairwoman at Blend, the ERG group. We had a lot of people, a lot of men who were just quietly in the channels and wondering how they can be an ally and wanted to get those resources. You just have to find those champions and hope that those champions will permeate that message across their male circles as well. I don’t know if that really answered your question but it’s just like one tactic that I help promote intersectionality.

Crystal Sumner: Yeah. I would say that again, I’m one of two female execs on executive teams so I take that role quite seriously. I remember there was a week or two in which I had a lot of women. I think it just happened to come give me some feedback but I took to heart and Jonathan who’s back there on the executive team as well. I brought it up at the executive team. We can do better. What was so refreshing, again, I don’t even know if we still had our … we’d hired our head of product who’s a female at that time so I might’ve been the only female in that room was the number of men executives who echoed and talked about how we can improve as an executive team and be the leaders and examples of that. I think that again, I always go by using the position that you have. It could be in the executive team. It could be on the manager level as you indicated to just try and surface if you’re hearing messages. Also, pushing everyone to be better. It’s not for just women. Women or under represented minorities across the board.

Eunice Noh: Yeah. I think the last thing I’d add to is I’m used to being the only woman in the room as well. Then, that’s slowly changing over time. It’s just continuing education, right. A lot of these people in the room don’t even know those things that you feel and when you kind of be vulnerable and explain those things, they’re like, “Oh, my gosh. I had no idea.” I think instead of getting really upset like I used to be like that where I’d be like, “This is ridiculous. I’m being mansplained.” Knowing that we’re part of the movement right now, we aren’t going to make change by complaining and getting upset about it that it’s because they need to be educated and we need to continue to remind people that the first time you say it is not going to click.

Eunice Noh: We need to continue to let people know about how you’re feeling because again, their intentions are not bad at the end of the day. If they were, they probably shouldn’t be working there. Their intentions are good and so, if you just explain that and continue to educate, I think we’ll start to see some changes.

Audience Member: Hi. Thank you so much for your stories. I was wondering how did you know if you wanted to be a people manager versus an individual contributor?

Eunice Noh: I can share a little bit more color with that story. I did not want to be one at all. I had an opportunity here where the head of design had left and a new head of design needed to fill the role and really wanted me to do that. To be honest, I think it took me just taking a chance and a leap that I knew I could always go back to being an IC. I was just more concerned about my career. I was like I want to grow myself. I don’t want to have to worry about anyone else. To be honest, I’ve learned and grown so much more just being around other people who are even more talented than I am. To be able to have them look at me for advice or feedback. I actually just took as a leap of faith. Try it out and see if you don’t like it because you can always go back and you can always do what you liked before. You will never know unless you try.

Ashley McIntyre: I wanted to add to this because now that I’ve had a year plus in a people manager role, I have so much more context on what it is compared to what I thought it would be. The one thing that I would love to share with you all is just there’s no difference between … you can be a leader whether or not you are a manager with direct reports. That’s one of the biggest things that I would emphasize here is that having direct reports and being a manager comes with both driving vision and leading a team and coaching them. It comes with the responsibility to giving them the hard feedback. When they’re upset or when they’re don’t feel that they’re being paid equitably or something else, you’re also dealing with that side of things. Understanding and knowing that you want to practice that and work on that with people is important before you jump into those positions. I definitely thought a people manager role was just a leader role. I thought I was that head of this pack helping to set vision but you don’t necessarily plan for those other things.

Ashley McIntyre: Thinking about that is really important because people can still and this is something I really like about Blend is Crystal talked about those bands. We look at individual contributors and managers differently but they actually have scales that overlap where it’s possible for an individual contributor here at Blend to make more than a manager. We try to embrace leadership that actually fits the skill set and the role that you’re playing. The only way up doesn’t have to be acquiring a team of direct reports. I’d say think about a lot of those things. Think about if you want to be coaching and managing people. Really, if they’re unhappy and thinking about quitting or if they want a raise, is that a conversation you want to have or do you want to be a leader in another way? Those are some of the things that I’ve learned that have helped me get clarity on what it is and what it may not be.

Audience Member: Hi. I think Priya had talked a little bit about being at an early stage company and feeling like sometimes as part of your day, you’re just trying to survive the day. I think part of that chaos you can get stuck in just trying to survive over and over, and not taking a step back and thinking about your longer term career growth or what kind of skills you want to develop. Especially at early stage companies, there’s not always that clear mentor or person who can be an advisor to you about continuing to grow your skills. I was just wondering, sorry not to [inaudible] … I was wondering if you could give some advice as to how you found your mentors as you navigated these jobs. Especially at early stage companies where there isn’t that clear mentor or the company doesn’t always put as much focus on how can we develop you when everyone’s in this survival mode getting through the chaos.

Priya Nakra: Sure. The short answer is I got extremely lucky. Right place, right time a lot of the times. Especially when I first met Irsal and then, Kelli and Blair, et cetera. When I joined Blend, they did set me up with a mentor who’s an engineering manager now and he actually got to … he is working for Irsal. He’s also been a really, really incredible mentor. I think–I don’t know if this is going to help, but honestly, I never actively seeked mentorship. I just worked hard at my job and it presented me with a lot of opportunities to collaborate with other people. I think the most consistent thing about my career has been because I haven’t been searching for those roles and searching for those mentors, I relied a lot on just executing really well. Again, it doesn’t happen for everybody but I personally just got really lucky that I don’t know why I keep saying lucky. I talked to Ashley about this before too.

Priya Nakra: We both mentioned in our speech, we’re so grateful that somebody took a chance on us. That’s also self deprecating in some way but whatever, it’s the thing … what was I saying, something about mentorship. Yeah, I wasn’t like, I don’t think I was like, “Oh, I want Irsal to be my mentor. I want somebody to be my mentor. It’s more just like, “I’m going to work really hard, ask a lot of questions.” Then, again because I demonstrated some interest and also execution and that I could be heads down and get the work done. I think that that actually opened up a lot of opportunities for me, both at Blend and my previous job.

Priya Nakra: Yeah, structured mentorship is a really, really important thing for an early stage place. I would say if you don’t have that structured mentorship, just find someone else that you want to emulate. It doesn’t have to be like a formal mentorship thing, just like if you’re seeing someone in meetings, or having conversations in the hallway and you’re like, “Man, that person’s really knows what she’s talking about or has a very good way of communicating.” Just like emulating that person and having it be like an official someone to look up to inside of the company.

Crystal Sumner: I also think that’s where the external support system kicks in. There’s a lot of women here that finding people who are navigating this at the same time, I was lucky in earlier in my career to have mentors but especially, I’ve come in this role much less so and so, that group of women, I phone them to have coffee with them. We have mocktails all the time because they’re often going through the same thing. While I do think people are very lucky, it’s not always the case that you’re going to find it within your job. Having some external resource for you to go to is, I think it’s extremely helpful to help navigate often these difficult situations sometimes.

Eunice Noh: I think for me before Blend, I didn’t have anyone as a mentor and I think a lot of people look at their managers being the only person that can be your mentor. I think for me, I’m fortunate now at Blend that I do have a great manager that is one of my biggest mentors in my life. It’s finding multiple people who can fill that. Sometimes, it’s not just one person who can do that for you. I find that a lot of my peers or my mentors, the people that I’m working with, every day I’m just honestly lucky and grateful to be able to work with them. It’s finding a couple of things that you like in each person and creating a Megatron of a mentor for yourself. I think always people are looking for that one person to do it for you. To be honest, that person probably doesn’t exist or is a unicorn. Find those multiple people that you can lean on and it’s sometimes it’s not someone who’s in a manager position that can do that for you.

Audience Member: Hi. Thank you so much for talking tonight. You’ve all shared your stories about your various career paths and talked about culture at the various companies you’ve worked for. My question is if you see that you’re working at a company where the culture is less than ideal, how do you decide whether to stay and try to change it from the inside or to find a company that better reflects your values?

Ashley McIntyre: I had a mix of that at the second company that I talked about in my story. That was my first role as a sales engineer and as a sales engineer, you partner very closely with the sales team. That company had your stereotypical, bro-y, white guy tech sales culture. It was infuriating at times. For me, this is just a heuristic I used for myself is when I was at the consulting company, as I said, there’s always going to be detriments to being at a company. Nothing’s going to be perfect. Things are going to frustrate you but for me as long as the pros outweighed the cons, and I saw opportunity and it wasn’t as if I was uncomfortable on a day to day basis. I was maybe just aggravated or frustrated but I had other things I was excited about. Those are the ones that I wanted to lean in into and invest in. I think culture plays a huge role. If it starts getting into, you’re so stressed, you start clenching your jaw and grinding your teeth again.

Ashley McIntyre: Or if you don’t feel comfortable and accepted or included in that workplace, and the quality of your work starts to suffer and you don’t see the path upward, I think those are all incredibly valuable reasons to go. Weighing that impact on you is what I would recommend.

Eunice Noh: I’ll say one last thing. I think the thing for me is one of the things that I did was write down what’s important for you first, make it really clear about what you care about in the company and those are your principles and don’t stray from that. Don’t make exceptions for it. I think it’s really easy to … it’s comfortable to say stay at a company but if you follow those things, I think it makes it really clear if you should stay or not. I think also, too, because I’ve worked at companies where the culture was nonexistent to be honest and I think you just have to remember … sorry, I just forgot. I think you just have to remember that you’re learning when things aren’t going well either. I think people like to think about that is everything’s going wrong but you’re learning what you don’t like and you’re also learning what you know you would like to do differently somewhere else.

Eunice Noh: Take it as a learning experience and sometimes, sticking it out a little bit longer and seeing if things pan out. It goes in waves, startups especially some three months, six months, things are not great. Six months later, things are going to be at a high and that sometimes it’s worth sticking it through and we both have been here for quite some time. A lot of us here. There’s been ups and downs for sure. Katie, who’s my friend here has heard a lot of this stuff at Blend but sometimes, it’s worth sticking out because things can really turn out well.

Audience Member: Thanks.

Audience Member: Thank you so much for telling your stories this evening. It’s been such an amazing group of women and really inspirational. My question for all of you is how do you actually go about doing the due diligence on the culture. I think all of us have had that experience of talking to folks who work at the company, ex-employees, reading all the websites, Glassdoor reviews, and we think we know what we’re getting ourselves into and then, you show up and it’s some combination of what you thought you were going to get and a lot of stuff that you didn’t even know about. To the extent that multiple of you have changed jobs multiple times, what have you done that’s actually worked in your favor to actually figure out what you’re getting yourself into and what have been some of the surprises along the way? Thank you.

Crystal Sumner: I feel like for most the two tech jobs that I’ve gone, even before I interviewed, I tried … I did the LinkedIn stalking, which then identifies some person who works there, who then, I have multiple conversations with and try and do some diligence even before I apply to just get a sense. At that point, they’re not trying to sell you quite as much as to the job. You’re just getting a little bit of insight into the company. Then, specifically for Blend, I did have the luxury and this is when we were smaller and actually think we interviewed a lot of people. Had the opportunity to interview them and talk with the CEO and push him, and asked those questions. He, which I really like, was the interviewer that like to just go for a walk. You could get a sense and have a person conversation with him.

Crystal Sumner: You could see for me that the vision that he had for where he wanted to drive the company. Again, if you have the luxury and the ability to talk to people before you apply, I feel a much better real assessment at that stage.

Priya Nakra: I’d also say it changes … you could think the culture is one thing, and then you get there as you said, it’s completely different. Even if you get there and you think it’s going to be what it is, like Blend was a totally different company when I joined two years ago. It’s totally different now. Some for the better, some whatever. I think … yeah, I think talking to people as much as possible. In consulting we have this thing called the airport test. I don’t know if you guys have heard of this but as part of the interview training, they would say when you’re interviewing somebody who could join a consulting firm or treat your team, they would say, “Would you spend, if you were delayed at an airport … because consultants are traveling all the time, Monday through Thursday.” If you were delayed in the airport, would you spend three to four hours with them?

Priya Nakra: Would you want to hang out with them? I always took that with me even after consulting because ,I again, was lucky to have a bunch of interviewers at Blend who I would totally spend multiple hours in an airport with just hanging out. I was pretty lucky for that. Yeah, they stayed my friends throughout the company. That’s what I like to do.

Ashley McIntyre: I don’t think there’s a silver bullet. It’s hard to figure that out, especially as the interviewee because you’re going in and you’re being asked these questions and you have to show why they should continue progressing you through the process. One of the biggest things I’d recommend not being afraid to do is ask to come in for your interview maybe over lunch to see if you can have lunch there while the employees are having lunch. Especially if the hiring manager is someone where maybe you’re just not sure yet if this is someone you want to spend a lot of time learning from and working with. Once you’ve gotten far enough long, ask if you can just have coffee with them or a conversation to talk about some questions and concerns you have. As much as possible, use your gut to understand when someone’s being or to try to understand when someone’s being genuine when you ask about the culture or not.

Ashley McIntyre: Ask about the culture. You may get a lot of generic responses but you’ve met so many hundreds of thousands of people in your life and you get that gut instinct right away. See if that will lead you down the path. Don’t be afraid to ask for more information, to spend some time with people. As a hiring manager, especially once we’re excited with someone, we usually see that as a good sign but we just want you to start now. I think it’s very fair for you to evaluate us as much as you’re being evaluated.

Laney Erokan: Can I say something about that? Be authentic in yourself. I am a mom. I have two little kids. When I came to Blend, I knew that there weren’t a lot of parents here. I led with that. I don’t want you to hire me because I’m a mom or whatever but know that that’s important to me and you don’t have to hide yourself once you get here. Just be authentic and don’t hide who you are and they’ll respond to you. It’s a two-way street. This has been so cool. I’m so glad you guys got to hear my colleagues speak tonight. I’m inspired. I hope you are too. We’re hiring, so if you’re interested in making a move and working in this great culture, in this great cafeteria where we eat, lunch, and dinner every day. Come talk to us. There are volunteers around who work at Blend in Blend swag, so go find them. They want to talk to you. We want to talk to you. Email us at careers@blend.com. We have dessert, so grab something sweet. Make a new friend. Thank you for being here with us tonight.

Ashley McIntyre, Crystal Sumner, Eunice Noh, Priya Nakra

Blend girl geeks: Ashley McIntyre, Crystal Sumner, Eunice Noh, and Priya Nakra answering audience questions at Blend Girl Geek Dinner.

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Girl Geek X Realtor.com Lightning Talks & Panel (Video + Transcript)

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Pam Holmberg speaking

EVP Pam Holmberg welcomes the sold-out crowd to Realtor.com Girl Geek Dinner in Santa Clara, California.

Pam Holmberg / EVP / Realtor.com
Sarah Staley / Senior Director, Marketing / Realtor.com
Chung Meng Cheong / Chief Product Officer / Realtor.com
Nan Ke / User Experience Research Lead / Realtor.com
Heidy Kurniawan / Senior UX Designer / Realtor.com
Sam Weller / Senior Manager / Realtor.com
Sonali Sambhus / Engineering Leader / Realtor.com
Latife Genc Kaya / Principal Data Scientist / Realtor.com

Transcript of Realtor.com Girl Geek Dinner – Lightning Talks & Panel:

Pam Holmberg: Hello and welcome to our home tonight. We are so thrilled to have all of you here tonight and we are honored to be able to host Girl Geek and all of you at Realtor.com tonight. My name is Pam Holmberg and I am the head of HR at Realtor.com. And I am excited to just give you a little bit of information about who we are and I’m excited for you to hear tonight, from other people from our company, to hear more about what we do, how we service the market, and hopefully you all find the information really beneficial.

Pam Holmberg: Alright, let’s get started. Just to make it a little more fun. So at Realtor.com, home is everything to us. It is really what we focus on and we understand that owning a home continues to be one of the greatest dreams of many Americans across the country. For us though, home is much more than just a roof and four walls. It is the place where we have our families, it’s the place where we go for safety and for warmth, it’s the place where we create memories. And so, we recognize that, and we put that at the forefront of everything that we do.

Pam Holmberg: We also recognize it is the single largest expense that most people will ever … single largest purchase that most people will ever buy. And so, we recognize that there’s not just an emotional connection to it but there is a very large financial connection.

Pam Holmberg: What you probably all know is that the real estate market is massive. What you might not know is that over 6 million homes were sold in the United States in 2017 and it’s a total of $1.8 trillion in transaction value. It is a huge, huge opportunity. And for us, we really want to ensure that we do everything we can to connect the home purchaser, the consumer, with the right real estate agent and really it is one simple mission for us, and that is to empower people by making all things home simple, efficient, and enjoyable.

Pam Holmberg: Now how many of you have purchased a home? How many of you have purchased a home using Realtor.com? Sorry, I had to plug that. What you all know, except for Dottie who used Realtor.com, is it is not a simple process. It is anything but easy, it is extremely stressful, and time consuming, and scary and again, what we try to do, is take away some of that fear, some of that stress and create a product that helps, again, connect the buyer to an agent who can help walk you through that.

Pam Holmberg: And so, if you haven’t visited our mobile apps or our website, I highly encourage you to do so and I think what you would find is that there is a lot to what we offer. It is not just a connection to an agent, we offer information about how to plan on your first home mortgage, how to fix your credit, if you have a credit problem, what areas might be right for you and your family. So there’s a ton of information out there. So it is much more than just that connection. So hopefully you’ll take some time to take a look at our website.

Pam Holmberg: And as was mentioned earlier today, we’ve been around for 20 years. So we’re one of the original companies that have been focused on digital real estate. So we have a huge track record in this area and we have continued to transform our company as the real estate market has also transformed. We get 63 million visitors to our website every month, it’s an astounding number. And so, there are so many people who are out there looking for this information, and that continues to be our focus.

Pam Holmberg: We lead the market in engagement and really when a customer is ready to buy a home, we are the place that they come, and we couldn’t be more proud of that. And as I said, it is our number one focus to ensure we are helping to connect the buyer with the right real estate agent. Here are the company values, and really, I’ll let you read through these, but what the main focus is for us is, we don’t take this responsibility lightly. We want to ensure that everything we do to support this process, isn’t just focused on what we do but how we do it, because we really believe that that matters. So I hope that you enjoy this evening. I hope that you find the information beneficial and again, thank you so much for joining us tonight.

Sarah Staley speaking

Senior Director of Marketing Sarah Staley encourages girl geeks to learn something new about each other at Realtor.com Girl Geek Dinner.

Sarah Staley: Hi everybody, I’m Sarah and I’m here. We’re gonna get to know each other a little bit better. So I want to invite anybody who’s in the back, including my Realtor.com friends, to come forward and take a seat. Because we have … we’re gonna feel the love. So I want to see those seats filled, okay?

Sarah Staley: Hey everybody, I’m Sarah Staley and I’m part of the Realtor.com team and I’m part of our team that leads communications outreach and culture, so we’re really, really delighted that you’re here tonight. We’ve been looking forward to this for quite some time now. Having Girl Geek and any visitors to Realtor.com is just a joy because when you have a home, you want to welcome people into it. And so, we’ve got out the welcome mat for you tonight and we’re delighted.

Sarah Staley: So, I want to show you a quick picture. I’m going to take the non-working clicker, thank you, and this is Scarlett. This is my daughter and as you can probably sense, Scarlett was looking at me one day with that look. That look of like, I don’t know what you’re doing, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but she was definitely checking me out. Now, you were probably checking a number of people in this room out already tonight, it’s what we do. You decided probably before even getting that Girl Geek invitation, what Realtor.com was in your own mind. Maybe you’ve driven by a number of times this evening, or in your commute you’ve thought of Santa Clara, you’ve seen the Realtor.com sign, you haven’t really known what we do.

Sarah Staley: Perception is something, and stereotyping is something we do everyday. So, let’s do this. I want you to look at the people around you. People, look at the people around you. Jessie, Woody, look at the people around you. Alright, right? You’ve got a perception, you’ve been checking them out, you’ve been doing it all night long. Alright, alright. Don’t pretend like you haven’t, Jessie.

Sarah Staley: Alright, now here’s the deal. I want you to take a quiet moment and I want you to personally go somewhere and think about, what is something that has happened in my life that actually had a significant impact on who I am today? Okay? Maybe it was career wise, maybe it was family wise. Now I want you to look at a new friend next to you, maybe it’s an old friend, but it’s probably not a conversation that you’ve had before. And I want you to huddle up and I want you to share with them what that one thing was. Okay, go. Let it out.

Sarah Staley: What is one thing, one thing, that might have significantly changed and had an impact on who you are? Isn’t that fascinating, right? We have these perceptions and within one minute, you can create a personal connection that probably … the connection that’s now there is a story you may not have ever shared. People that you have worked with may not have ever known that about you and that’s all it took to get to know somebody better. It’s a conversation. It’s breaking down walls, it’s breaking down stereotypes, it’s getting to know one another.

Sarah Staley: I saw fists over here, Katherine was punching the air. I saw hands over here. I don’t know what’s going on but I intend to follow up because I don’t know all those stories but certainly, when we take the time to hear other peoples’ stories it certainly goes a long way.

Sarah Staley: You know, sometimes we’re right with our first impressions. The fact of the matter is sometimes we feel like we get each other. I even feel like I get people sometimes when I’m interviewing them for a job description, you just feel that personal connection, right? But honestly, what often will happen is that I get you, means more that I know more about myself than I know about you.

Sarah Staley: The fact is is that we live in a world of stereotypes. We’ve been doing this for ages but we certainly do it more than now. Whether it’s your Bitmoji, whether it’s your LinkedIn, whether it’s your Instagram, Musical.ly, whatever it is, I can’t keep up. You have a perception of me, you have a perception of my world, you have a perception of my work. And sometimes it’s harder for some of us because we use our voices more demonstratively. That can be at work, that can be personally, that can be in our families. But we’re really glad that you’re here today because for us at Realtor.com, it’s about opening up that door and wiping your feet on that welcome mat and coming in and being your authentic self.

Sarah Staley: You know, intersectionality, we often talk a lot about … you may not know what this means, but intersectionality is beyond inclusion, it’s beyond diversity, it’s when you really take time to get to know a person’s story, and that’s when the real color comes in. So we are so absolutely delighted that you are here tonight because we want to know your color, we want to know who you are, we want you to know more about us. That’s something that I think we all aim to be in our daily lives and it’s certainly a part of our fingerprint here. So we’re just truly delighted to welcome you here tonight.

Sarah Staley: You know, we all have a story, we all have wonderful people in our lives, we certainly do here at Realtor.com and we’re glad you’re a new part of our neighborhood. We welcome and hope that you’ll get to know more about our story tonight and more about one another. So welcome, I’m gonna introduce Chung.

Chung Meng Cheong speaking

CPO Chung Meng Cheong speaking about product and people at Realtor.com Girl Geek Dinner.

Chung Meng Cheong: Thank you. Hello everyone. This is probably the infomercial part of the session tonight so I appreciate you guys giving us about five, ten minutes just to kind of tell you a little bit about what our products are and kind of what we do around here. So I’ll try to be entertaining, because I don’t want to get between you and the wine that are back there. Thank you, a little bit charity laugh really, really helps.

Chung Meng Cheong: For those of us who love speaking, they dig this. For the rest of us, we kind of cringe up, so we’ll try. But thank you, welcome. As kind of Pam and Sarah said, we’re excited to kind of welcome you to our home and we really appreciate you taking a little bit of time out from your busy day, to come hang out with us.

Chung Meng Cheong: Special thanks to Girl Geek for this opportunity to host so many people. We’re really excited that all of you are here. The company has been around for twenty years and where we started from was around home search. And the pain point that we were solving for was, hey it’s kind of not easy. Right? Trying to figure out what kind of home to buy, where’s the right one for you, planting your roots down, those are not straight forward questions. And so, where the company started off was around kind of what we call home search.

Chung Meng Cheong: We have, you heard from Pam, 63 million people, they use our website, they use our mobile apps, and this is kind of what they do. They essentially come here because they’re looking for information, and we try to give them an experience which is easy to use, super helpful, and be as proactive as possible. Because sometimes you can’t always be checking for the right home, you really want the right home to tell you when it’s available. So that’s what we do.

Chung Meng Cheong: That’s kind of the UI or UX piece of it but sitting below it, as our kind of our engineers and our data scientists will tell you, there are very, very, very few things that you can work on that’s such a data rich kind of problem, a domain. And our data scientists geek out on all the crazy things they can do with kind of the rich data sets that we have, have written 25 million homes, computer vision or photography, trying to decipher kind of, matching algorithms between kind of what someone with the moderate interest could match about us. It’s not just an interesting consumer design problem, but it’s a really rich kind of machine learning problem as well.

Chung Meng Cheong: And what we do, is that then, we take all these consumers who, finding a home that they’re interested in, we encourage them to kind of say, well take the next step. You need a professional to help you figure out what you need to do to complete your home buying journey. So we make it easy for them to kind of reach out to an agent and we do some pretty nifty things in the background to route a consumer to an agent that we believe that can best help them. So that’s kind of what we do.

Chung Meng Cheong: And we do it really, really well. We’re really proud of all that we’ve achieved, 63 million users, rated by the industry as the number one most helpful tool or the app, to kind of help people do that. And as you saw from Pam, we’ve been growing quarter over quarter, year over year, for the last few years, so we’re super proud. And our PR team makes me put this in so that we can kind of go brag about it. So PR team, I did my job, thank you.

Chung Meng Cheong: But as the crazy product guy, I kind of feel, that’s not enough. We’re barely scratching the surface on what we can do. Because as a consumer, as a prospective home buyer, you’ve just kind of awakened to the need to buy a home. Really what you want to do is get to the far right, a house you can call your home. And this crazy industry of ours, makes you jump through all the crazy stuff in between. It’s like a gazillion things to do, no one’s really sure about what to do, and it kind of goes back, zig zag, left, right, up and down, go back and forth, it’s like playing Chutes and Ladders.

Chung Meng Cheong: And so we figure, there’s got to be a better thing. What we’re doing is good, but can we be better? And can we take inspiration from other disruptions that has happened? So take transportation as for example. In the old days, if you’re in a foreign city and you’re trying to get to the airport, you would try to get some information. You’re trying to figure out, hey I need to get to the airport. Who can help me get there and let me start pulling up the Yellow Pages and start calling things from kind of, AAA, Bob’s Taxi, Trump’s Car Service. Who does that anymore these days?

Chung Meng Cheong: Right? If you’re in a foreign city, you bring up your favorite app, Lyft or Uber or what have you not, and you don’t even think about, who’s gonna take you there, or how you’re gonna get there, you just start thinking about where you want to go. Right? So what these companies have done, is that they’ve taken what has historically been an information problem, and they’ve turned it into a service problem. How do they help people get to where they want to go, as opposed to giving them the ingredients of getting there?

Chung Meng Cheong: And so, where we are now, is that we’re thinking about well, can we do the same thing for real estate? How do we take something, which is what we do today, which is all about providing information to people, and how do we actually start disrupting the industry, and turning it into a place where we’re now the best place to find information about home, and turn it, take that crazy zig zag Chutes and Ladders thing, and turn us into the best way to buy a home? And that transformation is really what we’re up to. And it’s part of the reason why, even though it’s been 20 years later, the company is still re-inventing itself, and kind of why people like myself, who’s kind of done three startups, kind of here because there’s an opportunity to change, not just the company, but to change the whole industry.

Chung Meng Cheong: And so we’re up to crazy stuff. I promise you this was an infomercial. So if you know anybody, including yourself, or the person that you just created a connection with, who’s interested in disruption and changing the world, we will love to speak to you. Marketers, designers, product managers, engineers, data scientists, sales; we are really trying to do crazy things here and we will love to have your help and your friends’ help.

Chung Meng Cheong: Cool? Alright, that’s the infomercial. I’ve got one last one, and this is a personal one for me. That’s Alyssa, so she’s my 12 year old, or I guess as my wife would call it, our 18 year old trapped in a 12 year old body. I have no idea what she’s going to be when she grows up, but whatever it is, I know that she will be that little bit more successful because of what you guys do. I think enough of you guys are making the door just a little bit wider, the path just a little bit smoother, by you doing what you do. So, on behalf of Alyssa, and all the young ladies that are following you, I just want to say thank you for you being you.

Chung Meng Cheong: Thank you.

Sarah Staley: You awake now? You awake? Okay, good. Okay, nice. So I’m gonna invite up some of my colleagues so you can get to hear more about the true essence of what we do on a daily basis, here at Realtor. So I’m gonna invite up Nan, and Latife, and Heidy and Sam, and Sonali, and who else am I missing? Come on up, come on up. We’re gonna have a little Q and A. Anybody who’s a part of this discussion, please come on up and we’re gonna go through and talk to you a little bit about our unique roles and then we’ll have some time for some Q and A.

Sarah Staley: Alright, cool. So, welcome, welcome welcome, welcome. Alright. Alright Nan, so we were just talking about all the nature of roles. Chung was just saying, no matter some of your scope of work, we’re delighted to have you but, you have a wonderful perspective on how our consumers see Realtor.com and as Pam was saying earlier, buying a home is one of the largest personal investments that a family or person will make in a lifetime. So, your focus, we’d love to hear more about your role but, your focus is on the consumer insights and experience. So talk just a little bit about what your role is at Realtor.com and how you advocate for the consumer in all that we do.

Nan Ke: Sure.

Sarah Staley: Let me see, I’m gonna turn you on. Okie doke.

Nan Ke speaking

User Experience Research Lead Nan Ke talks about being a consumer reesearcher at Realtor.com Girl Geek Dinner.

Nan Ke: Magic. Thank you. So you probably heard the word consumer popped up many times, when Pam and Chung spoke. And then now, in the tech world, everybody says that consumer is the single, one single important person in the company. But I don’t know how many of you have noticed, actually, consumers, they never physically show up in our office and then when we’re making all these important decisions and then have these meetings, they’re not there. So my role really is to make sure that their voices are well heard, well studied, distilled, and actually taken into consideration in all the important decisions we make in everyday life.

Nan Ke: So from that, we all know that … so as a consumer researcher, I work in this industry for many years. So, to me, studying the consumer insights is really to understand the human mind and behavior. So, from my perspective, human mind is made of really, emotional and rational thinking. It’s a combination of emotional and rational decisions. And from all the industries that we work with, on the rational perspective, I don’t think that the making a purchase of home is that different with the purchase of the other every day life, for example, buying your car.

Nan Ke: So on one dimension of our research, is really based on understanding the functionalities, the functional part, of how people make their decisions. Like for example, what’s the basic needs? What information important to them? So that is the overarching foundation of how we build our websites, and then apps, to service important information to make sure that [inaudible], the information and filters are prioritized. And also, for example, people want to live in a safe neighborhood, so we provide a quiet heat map to them, we provide school information to them, so that is the functional part.

Nan Ke: But once it comes to the emotional part, that is, to me, far more important to understand than just to merely meeting their basic needs, right? And then on that end we actually found, making a purchase of home is fundamentally different from just buying a pair of jeans, or making grocery purchases. So for that, what we do is we follow consumers for days and even weeks, and even months, to observe what they do in their natural environment, in their daily life. All the decisions they make in their journey of buying a home, how they log their daily activities, how they record, their digital usage. What they do when you’re using the internet to search for information and we detail all of that into journey maps and experience map, and share that with entire company, to make sure that everyone has a line of understanding of what consumers are going through emotionally.

Nan Ke: So, to me, the home buying journey can really be described into three words; that is extremely stressful, it’s very emotional, and it’s very personal. So to say that it’s stressful because number one, it’s a big financial decision. It’s the one single biggest purchase that you’ll probably ever make in your life, so that means you can not make mistakes. If you make mistakes, you simply can not return it, or fix it. So, that creates a lot of stress and fear in the journey.

Nan Ke: And it is also emotional because it’s a long process, it takes from weeks, to months, and maybe years. So during that entire process, it’s just basically you don’t know what you want, you find out what you want, and you find out a house, and you find out that you can not afford it. So you find another house and you find out someone else has got it. So it’s kind of a rolling and constant emotional rollercoaster of optimism, pessimism, optimism, pessimism, just this process goes up and down for a very long time. It’s just very emotional.

Nan Ke: And it’s also personal because there’s no other commodity like houses, that is so unique. So there’s no two houses that are exactly the same and there’s no two families that have the exact needs to find out their dream home. So that makes this journey extremely personal so we have to be really careful when we’re using machine learning, for example, data science, to make recommendations. So we want to make the recommendations to the personal level, but we don’t want to make the wrong recommendation, because it’s so personal.

Sarah Staley: And those consumer insights must be incredibly critical in the role that we also then do, in all of our product designs. So Heidy, I know that you joined our company recently and come to Realtor.com with a truly seasoned eye and resume as it relates to design experience and the thoughtfulness from the user.

Sarah Staley: Talk to us about how that brought you here and how these insights inform your daily work.

Heidy Kurniawan speaking

Senior UX Designer Heidy Kurniawan talks about the design process and customers at Realtor.com Girl Geek Dinner.

Heidy Kurniawan: Yeah sure. So with my daily role is, Nan and her team has such a big part in the UX team because she provides us with a lot of insights from the real customers, from the [inaudible], the real problems. So, for our team we understand that buying a house is such a big decision and it could be a long process and it could be stressful and for our team, it is very important to relate with that emotional level and to understand what are the real problems our users are facing.

Heidy Kurniawan: So, because in our role, we want to make sure that we are solving the right problems and that we understand, what are the problems that we are trying to solve for our customer? Because we want to make their life easier, not making them more stressful in their home buying journey.

Heidy Kurniawan: So, it is part of our design process that we want to validate our design, so we work closely with the user researcher team. We do a lot of user testing to validate our design decisions, whether it makes sense to our customers or not, and also we partner with the engineers, early on in the beginning, to make sure that our ideas and our feature visual design makes sense for them to be build within the given timeline.

Heidy Kurniawan: So, in our company, we try to support each teams because after all, we work as one team and the engineering team, is where they make all the magic stuff happens, and they’re the one that ships the product. So we try to calibrate with as many team as possible and we try to support them.

Heidy Kurniawan: For me, I feel very fortunate to be a part of this team because we have 63 million visitors and really feeling fortunate to be a part of the home buying journey, and also to have a team that is very supportive and this is the team where I can make a huge impact, and I have a such an awesome manager, which is Sam.

Heidy Kurniawan: So, yeah I feel really grateful and fortunate to be a part of this journey and then to be the designer for Realtor.com.

Sarah Staley: That was well done, by the way. The kudos to Sam. Yeah, nice, she gets a job, spot bonus.

Sarah Staley: Hey Sam, so are you ever worried about for all of the work that we see your teams doing and all the emotion that comes with it, do you ever worry that the work that we’re doing doesn’t have a significant impact and that it’s not making a difference in the home buying journey?

Sam Weller: Never.

Sarah Staley: Okay, great.

Sam Weller: A little bit.

Sarah Staley: Alright, and then we’ll go to Sonali. No, I’m kidding.

Sam Weller speaking

Senior Manager Sam Weller speaking at Realtor.com Girl Geek Dinner.

Sam Weller: No, I’d just like to echo what Nan and Heidy said, and especially when you’ve got such incredible team and colleagues. We’ve got an incredible research team, an incredible design team, they really take the guesswork out of it. We have enough insights that we sort of do know what’s going on out there. They’re relentless in talking to people. Like, later on if you’re talking to Heidy, she probably gonna show you a prototype of something or do some user testing with you here in the corridor.

Sam Weller: But it’s that ethos, it’s that talking to people, you alluded to it before, Sarah, it’s conversations that’s really important. And in design, and a lot of that, and product, it’s really just about having that conversation. That classic Henry Ford quote about if you asked customers what they wanted would they say faster horses? Similar to that is we don’t ask people oh hey, how’d you go buying a house? Or necessarily, tell us about how we can make the house buying better. Because it is, it’s an awful process to go through.

Sam Weller: We really listen to tell us about what you went through. Tell us about the really hellish moments, tell us about the worst part of it, tell us about the best, the most euphoric part, and then we sort of listen to that and then we say, well, that really awful part? I think we can fix that. So it’s about conversation, it’s about talking, it’s about testing, it’s about always being on top of what’s going on in the market, what’s going on in technology, but most importantly, what’s going on with our actual users.

Sam Weller: I literally don’t do anything. All these wonderful people do all the work so, yeah, we’re just very lucky to have such a great team.

Sarah Staley: And then Sonali, you’ve got quite a portfolio that you’re looking after these days as it relates to our web based and mobile experience. So, what does that remit look like? What does that scope of work look like from an engineering and a tech direction, as it relates to Realtor.com?

Sarah Staley: You know, having been … we revolutionized digital real estate 20 years ago. How do you continue to innovate on that year after year?

Sonali Sambhus speaking

Engineering Leader Sonali Sambhus speaking about patent-pending technology at Realtor.com Girl Geek Dinner.

Sonali Sambhus: Yeah. It’s a great question, but before I answer that. I meet a lot of girls in the room, a lot of girls on stage, I did want to mention that at Realtor.com, we do foster a lot of inner women, leading women in the work force. Not answering your question yet, but I did want to bring that in.

Sonali Sambhus: So about two years back, we actually formed a group called Inspiring Women at Realtor.com. And really bringing all of the women community together, providing leadership and mentorship a part for these women. So just want to tell you out there, for those of you who are wanting to be part of our family, it’s obviously a great place to be for women and girls, and for great guys like Sam as well.

Sonali Sambhus: So that’s that, and now so to coming to your question, Sarah. I think in terms of technologies, in engineering at Realtor.com, we have a plethora of technologies. So starting from our back end, which is now entirely in the aid of [inaudible], are the machine learning data science as well as to our front ends, where we have totally native IOS and android apps, as well as the latest technologies and webs. So a plethora of technologies that we work on.

Sonali Sambhus: Just in the year and a half that I’ve been here, I wanted to highlight some wins that I see in engineering. So we put together a massive AWS architecture for which Amazon sort of gave us a pat on the back saying, “Guys, you’re solving complex problems at scale with the right architecture.” So I think coming from Amazon guys, that was a great certification. Not just that, a lot of my principle engineers from my team, is going to be presenting at AWS Re-invent and he was invited of Amazon to do it, in November. So I think that speaks of the engineering innovation culture that we have.

Sonali Sambhus: We also have a lot of patent pending technologies and some patented technologies at Realtor as well. So last year, we released on our Android apps, a technology for augmented reality, where you could really take your phone, point it at the street, and you kind of see like Pokemon Go like little carts, where you can literally … and you guys should try. You should download an Android app, and go out on the street where you want to buy a house and just point it out there, you will be able to see little cards with little home values on them.

Sonali Sambhus: So I think that just really speaks to the culture that we have in engineering, which is not just hey, let’s just develop software but let’s innovate and let’s bring in patent pending technologies to the company.

Sonali Sambhus: Hope that answers your question.

Sarah Staley: Absolutely.

Sarah Staley: Now Latife, you’re in this space of big data. Which is, really sort of the glamorous world out there. Certainly is, I go to sleep just thinking about big data. It’s certainly though, from a hiring standpoint and from the nature of our business, it’s frothy work. Why did you choose Realtor.com to come to and apply your expertise? What does that world look like here versus at others?

Sarah Staley: ‘Cause I think that that’s a very unique perspective, that often for many of us, rounds out why we landed here.

Latife Genc Kaya speaking

Principal Data Scientist Latife Genc Kaya speaking about data science at Realtor.com Girl Geek Dinner.

Latife Genc Kaya: Well, I went through the pain, the real pain of home buying and wanted to make use of the insights and domain knowledge that I gained through the process to help other people buy their dream homes. So I knew that I was gonna work in a digital real estate company in my next role. So given that, why Realtor.com but not other companies?

Latife Genc Kaya: There’s a number of reasons for that. One is in companies with large established data science teams, majority of the time goes into improving models that already exist. Right? Something is already solved and you’re just trying to make this much impact on top of that. Here, however, we have untapped opportunities to innovate. And every project comes with a significant opportunity to have impact to make to achieve that great user experience that Chung was talking about.

Latife Genc Kaya: So that’s one thing. Another thing is, in other companies, well, most companies, I’ll say, data scientists work in limited verticals. So if you’re working in image classification, that is only related problems that you’ll be working on but you’ll not be exposed to other type of problems. Data science is very broad, right? In our team, our team is working on a broad range of problems, from image classification to text mining, pricing, so…. Customized ranking of the home search results for example, for each user. So personalized home recommendations for each user.

Sarah Staley: So it’s meaty stuff? You’re not just making a small impact.

Latife Genc Kaya: No, no. And everyone in our team can work on different projects, right? Recently I’m working on pricing, but I’m not bonded with that. So it’s a great opportunity for a data scientist to be exposed to a wide range of problems, because your learning curve is always steep then.

Latife Genc Kaya: All these projects require strong computing power and Realtor.com is a power user of AWS, Amazon Web Services. So, these projects require a computing power but also ability to handle very, very large data sets. Which is what we use to build all these models and all projects. So we have access to AWS services and several powerful computers to both build and productionize our models, which is important and a very good resource for data scientists. It’s a dream actually, not every company has that.

Latife Genc Kaya: So, another reason is we have strong higher management support for us to be more data driven company. And last but not least, I have another reason, I work with a great team. Where it is very important for me. Work environment is very, very important and I feel lucky to be working with incredibly talented and nice, in capital letters, and friendly, in capital letters, people in my team.

Sarah Staley: Actually, I so appreciate that, thank you. Yeah, we’ll take the applause, right? For as much as we love the nature of our vertical and the expertise that we bring to work, it really is about the people that you share it with. I actually, can we just go down the row real quickly and you guys just give me a quick sound byte about why you came to Realtor.com?

Sonali Sambhus: So I think I can, so I’ve done a number of start ups before, I’ve done three startups for the large companies, a plethora of different companies in the valley for the last 20 years. I think what is most exciting to be with Realtor.com, if you go to a start up, you really in a very sort of small struggling environment, if you go in a large company, you’re a small fish lost in a very big pond. I think Realtor.com is special because we’re kind of a mid-sized company that’s on a scaling pad and it really allows you to create that impact without being sidled into a sort of small fish big pond problems. That’s why I picked Realtor.com.

Sarah Staley: Sam, what about you? It must’ve been very easy just to move down the street and head on over to Realtor.com.

Sam Weller: Yes, 8,000 miles across the Pacific. Yeah, a few years ago actually when I worked for a company in Australia, who bought into a [inaudible] move here. I remember my CEO at the time, came in and she actually stood perched on top of one of those wheelie desk chairs, and I was like oh my God, the CEO is gonna break her neck right in front of us. But no, she was quite poised and she said, we bought this company in the US, and I’m like, I know what I’m doing next year.

Sam Weller: I took a couple years of hassling with Ryan, our CEO, and I was badgering and emailing, emailing please, please can we come over. And then yeah, eighteen months ago, my wife and I packed a couple suitcases, literally crossed the Pacific, had no idea what was gonna happen. We rocked out the first day and here we are, and we’re sticking around another two years. That’s how much we love it.

Sam Weller: But, I just gotta cover all the points here. I think helping 60 million Americans make the biggest decision of their life, is super powerful and super motivating and driving. But also the ability to have an individual impact, like just recently, we relaunched a new redesign of the homepage. Heidy and I did that, and it’s like, there it is, it was just the two of us in terms of what it looks like and it was a great team who built it. But we got to have that direct impact and that’s quite incredible so … yeah. It’s great.

Sarah Staley: What about you, Heidy? You came recently.

Heidy Kurniawan: Yeah, so I actually use to live in LA. It wasn’t really an easy decision for me because I really, really love LA. I’ve come to this part of California a few times and I feel like, oh they don’t really have anything here compared to LA. But, I think for me, it’s more about the mission of the company. I think the mission is very noble which is to make Americans make one of the big decisions in their lives, so that is why I really love doing my job. That’s why I’m really passionate in helping to achieve the missions in the company.

Heidy Kurniawan: I feel really glad and I think I’ve made the right decisions moving here.

Sarah Staley: That’s fantastic, and what about you, Nan?

Nan Ke: So two things, first I want to echo what Sonali just said. At this company, it’s a really great combination of being big and being small. I say being small because here, it’s kind of small enough you can make a lot of personal relationships with your stake holders and then to everybody’s roll up their sleeves and get things done. Sort of feeling like a start up but it’s so bold and so excited about the latest technology.

Nan Ke: And at the same time, it’s big enough, so you get all the resources to get your job done. Like, we got you as a researcher at go around the country, to go to the research meetings that I’m interested in. Same for the data team, technology team, product team, and we all can go to the training and conference that you get to know what’s going on there. To learn about the most cutting edge technology.

Nan Ke: So I really truly appreciate that as a researcher. And then the second thing is that I have to do the plugging for researcher stuff. Who here is a researcher? User [inaudible] researcher, market researcher, oh wow, I see a few hands, hooray. So a lot of people tell me that you have the most exciting job in the company that you got to learn about what people do and learn about what’s going on in people’s mind, talk to consumers, and you get paid.

Nan Ke: So I have to say, ’cause I’m so obsessed with understanding human being, understanding human behavior. And I’m also so obsessed with some technology. I am married to a PhD in Mathematics. That’s how crazy I am. This is, I think here is the perfect intersection where humanity meets technology and science. I love working here.

Sarah Staley: We’d love to take a few of your questions. Monte, if you want to come up and get the mic from Latife real quickly. I’ll tell you guys, while she’s getting the mic, and raise your hand if anybody has a question.

Sarah Staley: The reason that I came to Realtor.com is I guess it was almost 20 years ago, I was working at Apple and I’ve work in a number of luminary brands across the valley and fast forward, the Chief Marketing Officer here and I worked at Apple then, and I was trying to figure out what I was gonna do next. And I think, we all get incredibly attracted to these brands that have this halo effect, where we hear about Metallica coming to play during lunch in the quad, or you know, the free lunches or all that stuff. And I actually went and talked to a lot of those companies, I even sat with a number of the CEOs because I wanted to know straight from the source, what those companies were like.

Sarah Staley: And I just, the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze every time I sort of went and had those conversations. And Nate, our CMO, was like, do you want to come work with us? And I got here, and the people kept me. And I couldn’t be more sincere about that. And I think the testimonies that we all shared here today, we wouldn’t be on stage if we didn’t believe that whole heartedly.

Sarah Staley: I love you, Tife.

Sarah Staley: And so, we’re just really glad you’re here and would love to take any of your questions because we think that this is a really special place and would love to hear from you.

Sarah Staley: Monte, we’ve got a question right back here, and we’d love to get a mic to you.

Audience Member: Hello, I don’t know if you can hear me. So you guys mentioned that, or you ladies mentioned that, you have a woman ERG, and you started that two years ago. I’m curious what prompted that and who kind of initiated that development? And why it took, ’cause you guys have been in business now for 20 years, why it took 18 years to do that?

Sonali Sambhus: So no guesses on who started it, it was women of Realtor.com, right? So it was all of us coming together. Why wasn’t it done in the past 18 years? I wasn’t here to witness that or answer that, but what I can say is I think, from an HR perspective, as the entire leadership perspective, there’s an immense support for charting that initiative. But really, we do a bunch of things.

Sonali Sambhus: One, we provide a platform for women to connect with each other. Second, we actually raise topics which are there through all of women at heart. Whether it’s work life balance, whether it’s imposter syndrome, communication, confidence, all of those issues that relate to all of us. And so really third is sort of one on one mentorship opportunity. So, don’t know what happened in the past 18, I can tell you what’s gonna happen in the next 10.

Sarah Staley: I can just add to that real quickly. You know, a couple years ago, there was that report that came out that shined a light on what a number of larger companies in tech space, how they were not coming up with the right numbers as it related to equality in the work place and I think that, that really put a spotlight on some of the more notable brands that we all thought would have been sort of, glowing in their numbers. And so, I think there were a number of companies at that time, that had to stop nasal gazing and come up with solutions quickly.

Sarah Staley: And I think that we, I think smaller companies often times, we just think, perhaps, that we’re okay and so we took pause in that moment, and also said, you know, we’ve really got to be thoughtful about this. And so, whether it’s in our Pulse surveys with our employees or in our surveying with our own women and people and diversity. We’re really committed to having the conversation.

Sarah Staley: So I don’t think that that’s any excuse for not having addressed it before, but what I can say is that we’re certainly a part of a family that wants to be our best, and we’re doing it for the right reasons at the right time.

Sonali Sambhus: Yeah, the other thing that I’d like to add is I think the gender ratio female to male at Realtor.com, I believe is around 30%, I’m not entirely sure. But I think I do know that we are better than most companies in the industry here today.

Sarah Staley: Any more questions? We’d love to have the conversation with you.

Sarah Staley: We have some questions up here.

Audience Member: Hi, so there’s a lot of competition in the real estate area. You know with the Zillow and Trulia. How do you compete with the other companies that are out there trying to sell real estate?

Sonali Sambhus: So one thing I’d like to add is I think at Realtor.com, we have a philosophy of not being a me too of any other sites. If you know it’s a crowded space, there’s a lot of competition, we aren’t striving, or in fact attempting to not copy any of our competitions. We believe we have our own unique strategies, to get there, where we want to get to.

Audience Member: Okay, since I’m closest to the mic, I will take the next question. Thank you for sharing your personal and professional stories. Since you’re trailblazing in the technology space and in the problems space, and understanding consumers, I was wondering, why only US? Do you have plans going global because this is a common global problem?

Sarah Staley: Do you want to address that, Sam? Anybody?

Sam Weller: That’s a great question. So we are part of a global property network in a way. Part of our company is owned by a large property portal in Australia, which has a footprint all across Asia, a part of Europe, and also India. I think we’re able to sort of share intellectual property, and ideas, and UX patents, and technology, and our approach to data science and things like that. There’s a lot of knowledge sharing, there’s a lot of random Slack conversations at 3 o’clock in the morning from Australia back to here and dancing around the world. So, I think being able to share that knowledge, certainly allows us to keep up to speed with what’s happening in other countries.

Sam Weller: But in terms of yeah, corporate strategy –

Sarah Staley: Yeah, no we were also talking yesterday about we were also, is employees talking with our CEOs yesterday about the attractiveness of both the Canadian and Mexican markets.

Audience Member: Oh thank you. Hi, I actually was in the real estate market and it’s very fresh in my head. And it moved really, really fast. And I was really hesitant to use an app because I knew it would probably consume me. But I caved in and I had to, because my husband was using it as well. So one thing I noticed was there were some differences between the various sites. And sadly actually, things move so fast that I could only, I mean it felt like I had a split second to choose which one I was going to use right away and Realtor.com was not one of them. And it actually didn’t surface.

Audience Member: That said, could you talk to me about how the MLS, or working with brokerages, how does it impede on information that you provide and actually providing best information and actually having the information that you provide, actually make the consumer decide that yes, I’m gonna use Realtor.com for that reason because you guys have that information nobody does.

Sonali Sambhus: Yeah, so Realtor.com has the maximum number of MLSs of all of our competitions, such as you spoke about. We have about 800 MLS listings that we have integration with and we have the maximum data available from all of these portals. Not only do we have the maximum, we claim to be the fastest in the industry today, to get the information to you. So that’s two.

Sonali Sambhus: Number three, besides the data that is published by MLSs, we are trying to generate value with what we call User Generated Content. So whether it’s about this is the most viewed property, is the hardest property in the market, whether it’s about this is the property which is distinguished because it has a pool or the largest backyard.

Sonali Sambhus: So, I think the short answer to your question and move on, we have the maximum number of MLSs that we integrated with. Two, we are trying to augment that with what we call proprietary data, essentially user generated content.

Audience Member: Follow up question. And how do you, one of the things I’m always noticing was how is my information being used and tracked on the back end?

Sonali Sambhus: Yeah, that’s a great question. Maybe we can take it offline and I’m happy to provide how we are actually anonymizing your information and your privacy’s protected.

Audience Member: Thank you.

Yvonne: Hi, my name’s Yvonne. Thank you so much for hosting this event. This actually is a question for Nan, I’m a user researcher too. With 63 million users per month, obviously there’s a lot of data, and with executives and high level positions, they are very data driven. So I want to ask you how do you … do you run into conflicts with the usability studies or the studies that you have and how do you convince them to believe in your findings?

Nan Ke: So this is a very good question. So actually, the straight answer’s that it’s not easy. It’s actually very difficult. So first of all, we want to work from getting alignment from all levels, right? We want to first make sure that not just revenue, not just [inaudible], not just page views, are our critical metric to define our success.

Nan Ke: We want to get alignment from higher up to everyone in the company that’s getting … customer satisfaction is also one of the critical metrics that defines our success. And the other way is to really convince everyone is to get them to the ground, to participate in all of the research and then when we talk to consumers, when we go out to Texas, to Sacramento, to New York, to observe how people do, get as much involvement as possible so they can actually see it and listen to what the consumers have to say. Sometimes they’re like, wow I had no idea that they feel this about our product. That’s actually changes a lot.

Nan Ke: And then, the [inaudible] just have to, you have to be really persistent and then sometimes repetition does work, and constantly appearing in meetings and then just running into people like, hey when you gonna get this consumer ask into your road maps? Just repeatedly and persistently do that, and that makes the difference too.

Sarah Staley: We’d love to answer more of your questions but we also want to enjoy some hospitality with you and get to know you more as well. So, we’re gonna step off the stage and hear a little bit more from Pam and hope we get spend more time with you in the back.

Nan Ke, Heidy Kurniawan, Sam Weller, Sonali Sambhus, Latife Genc Kaya

Realtor.com girl geeks: Nan Ke, Heidy Kurniawan, Sam Weller, Sonali Sambhus and Latife Genc Kaya at Realtor.com Girl Geek Dinner.

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