Win FREE Girl Geek X Dinner Tickets for a YEAR!

Win FREE Girl Geek X Dinner Tickets for a Full YEAR!
women in tech - diverse group of women sitting in the audience, clapping and laughing during a tech talk at the Aurora Girl Geek Dinner in the San Francisco Bay Area, July 2019.

What’s better than a free Girl Geek Dinner? A whole year of free Girl Geek Dinners! And that’s exactly what’s in store for FIVE lucky girl geeks next month!

We’re super excited to announce that we’re giving away an entire YEAR of totally FREE Girl Geek Dinner passes in our August contest — which we’re launching a couple days early since so many girl geeks are on vacation next month!

The first prize (2 tickets to every dinner for a year, so you can always bring a plus one!) will go to the entrant who has referred the most friends to enter the contest & sign up for the Girl Geek X weekly newsletter during the contest period, which ends on August 30, 2019 at 11:59pm PST.

The next 4 winners (of 1 ticket to every dinner for a year) will be selected at random.

To improve your odds of winning, you can earn extra entries for every person you refer, or for sharing the contest with your Bay Area friends & colleagues via the widget below!

Women in Tech networking at the Aurora Girl Geek Dinner

Girl Geek Dinners are hosted throughout the Bay Area year-round, and winners will have the opportunity to attend as many as they want — you can come to just handful, or you can make a bunch of new besties and attend them all!

Good luck, and we hope to see you at a dinner soon!

Win Free Girl Geek X Dinner Tickets for a YEAR!

Episode 14: Advocating For Others


Angie Chang: Welcome to Girl Geek X Podcast. Connecting you with insights from women in tech. This is Angie, founder of Girl Geek X and Women 2.0.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: This is Sukrutha. By day I’m an engineering manager.

Gretchen DeKnikker: This Gretchen, I’ve been working in tech for over 20 years.

Rachel Jones: This is Rachel, the producer of this podcast, and we’re the team behind Girl Geek X. This podcast brings you the best of Girl Geek X events, dinners, and conferences. Where we’ve been elevating women in tech for over 10 years.

Angie Chang: And today we’ll be discussing ally-ship.

Rachel Jones: So in our last episode we talked about how to advocate for yourself in your workplace. So this time we’re kind of reversing that and talking about how to advocate for others.

Angie Chang: To be honest, mostly we hear about girl geeks looking to advocate for themselves, but I think this message of advocating for others is really important for allies in the workplace. And also a really good reminder for people who are really feeling like they’re going into the arena every day to fight for their careers, but also they should be advocating for others around them. And I think people who are managers would be especially interested in this topic.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. I think when you are someone who already has a seat at the table, it’s a good idea to look around and see how you can be an ally for someone else because you’re already in the room. And so, if this topic has come up at the Girl Geek dinner, it’s usually I’m the context of how can I find an ally. But a lot of times the answer does lead to how one can be an ally.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: So that’s been interesting to hear both perspectives. What do you think, Gretchen?

Gretchen DeKnikker: I think you can hone your skills on how to advocate for yourself by advocating for others. Sort of figuring out what is it that I can do for this other person? It’s sort of that same thing. Like when you sit and you’re like, “Okay, if I were sitting down with me right now, what advice would I give myself that I’m completely not taking right now?” And then how would that work?

Gretchen DeKnikker: And I think it’s very similar to that. And I agree with you, Sukrutha. I think, once you do have a seat at the table, you really need to be looking around and outside of the room of what other voices could be added to the mix of this table and how can we bring more marginalized voices to the center.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I think that if we want to see more diversity in the room, we need to do our part, wherever we can. And if we see people who have a tendency to want to help us out, we should engage with them and ask them, like requesting someone to be an executive sponsor of your specific ERG. Or asking another ERG that’s made more advancements in terms of recruiting and diversity efforts. Asking them to support your ERG efforts.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: And on an individual level, I do think that I’ve gotten a lot of help from a variety of people who’ve been allies to me, and I’ve found that to be super useful. Just identify those people who are in that position and ask them for advice and ask them to vouch for you. What do you think, Angie?

Angie Chang: I do think in this kind of dog eat dog world that we feel like exists today, it’s really important to reach out and advocate for others. In doing so, you are kind of checking in and making sure that you understand what other communities’ needs are, desires, ways to grow, ways to help. And really listening to them and creating that line of communication and then advocating for them when you’re able to do that correctly, in the spheres that you can operate in.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I mean, I think when we think about ally-ship, right, it’s the key to lifting everyone up and to go back to something Rachel was saying in our intersectionality podcasts, which was great, you should listen to it, is when you lift up the most marginalized, when you solve the problems of the folks at the margins, you’re lifting up everyone. You’re solving the problems for everyone. So rather than solving the easy problems for the majority, solving the harder problems is actually the way forward.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Last episode we heard from former Salesforce EVP Leyla Seka on how to ask more for yourself and today we have a quote from her about showing up for others.

Leyla Seka: The reality is for a lot of women, the generation before me, specifically, they really yanked the ladders up after them. Because in lots of ways they were forced to make decisions like not having children or not having relationships or not taking care of aging parents or not doing these things in order to have a career, which, that’s a really terrible choice to have to make. And I am truly grateful to all of them because I didn’t have to make that choice and I credit them with a lot of that. But that mentality existed a lot throughout my career, just women not helping women as much as they should.

Leyla Seka: I’m now the executive sponsor of BOLDforce at Salesforce, which is our black employee resource group, so I spend a lot of time trying to understand what it feels like to be black in technology and black in America.

Leyla Seka: I don’t understand it, but I try to be an ally. So look, for me, and I think a lot of people said it in a lot of ways, but if we don’t help each other, a lot of these things aren’t going to change. And I think that for us, making time to mentor people and help people. Man, I wanted that going up, you know? Man, I wanted someone to talk to, that was a woman that could sort of empathize with being a mother and wanting to be very professionally successful.

Leyla Seka: And you have a platform, whether you think you do or you don’t. And I would actually even challenge you further to say like, how are you using your platform to help people? Are you sponsoring a woman of color? Are you trying to mentor a woman of color? Or are you thinking, even beyond just our own plight, the most important, equal pay, all of this was super important, but the work I’ve done with BOLDforce, in many ways, is probably some of the most cutting edge and interesting stuff we’re doing because we’re really trying to tackle the notion of ally-ship inside of corporate America. And we all can be allies. There’s always someone that can use your help. So it’s important to give that forward. I think that really helps you find your path as well.

Angie Chang: That just reminds me of how we have seen ally-ship from top company executives. Executives often being the white men, sure, but the best allies to sponsor women and other under-represented groups, ERGs, efforts such as Girl Geek dinners and Salesforce’s group. The best allies don’t necessarily come and talk, and they’re not necessarily speakers getting the limelight. But I feel like, I remember back to one of our earlier Girl Geek dinners and we had the CEO of Pinterest speak. And sure, he spoke for like five minutes in the beginning, but that wasn’t the important part. The part that really, I think, resonated for all of us who were there is that he stayed and listened and talked to people in the room until the very end of the event. He was there actively listening to the Girl Geeks and talking to them and mostly just listening and just, that participation, that kinda support just, felt was like really resonating to Pinterest. And I think they made at least one hire that for their engineering team that night, from that event, as a result.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I do resonate really well with what Leyla brought up about how sometimes we feel like it’s really hard to challenge the patriarchy. I, myself, with situations that I’ve been, I’ve heard people say things and do things that have made me uncomfortable, but I don’t feel comfortable to bring it up right away or be an ally right away because it feels like I’m ruffling too many feathers too quickly, too soon. And so I also ease into it a bit. However, sometimes when you don’t act or you don’t step in when needed and you don’t support when needed, that’s another missed opportunity.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Have you all been in situations where you’ve had to deal that problem of the discomfort of challenging patriarchy or making changes to what’s already out there?

Gretchen DeKnikker: Well, first, ally is a verb and not a noun, right? Like you can call someone an ally, but if they’re not like practicing ally-ship, then they’re just sort of a figurehead. And so I think the way Leyla was speaking about her involvement with the Black ERG, I think that she’s definitely taking that as a verb.

Angie Chang: I think one thing that I’ve been working on is to just have a … So when someone does something say, patriarchal or sexist or racist is just react quickly. And so like anyone can just open their eyes more. Just like cough or hopefully give a signal to that person that doesn’t quite yet realize what they’re doing is not really okay.

Angie Chang: And hopefully, and then there’s like a lot of studies that are starting to trend toward, I believe, that previously for the last five years, we’ve thought that diversity inclusion training was going to be the salve to solve all our problems.

Angie Chang: And then more recently, I’ve heard a lot about training coworkers and people in the workplace to step in for others and react and defend underrepresented groups when they are being … Those thousand cuts that you receive in the workplace and helping make sure that someone’s stepping in for them. So just reacting in a small way at the very least, and then not necessarily saying we’re going to go protest on the streets tomorrow, but like sure. Like, start now by letting someone know that this, giving them a signal that this is not okay.

Rachel Jones: Yeah, I definitely agree. And I think it relates to how Leyla says anyone can be an ally. We all have a platform. Because I think sometimes when people hear ally-ship they think, yeah, it means they have to be on the front lines protesting or they have to be in a position where they can give someone a promotion that elevates them in their career. But it can definitely look like smaller ways that you’re supporting the people around you. And it can be something like language like we discussed or just speaking up if someone gets interrupted or seconding someone’s idea in a meeting to make them feel supported. There are just so many different ways that you can practice ally-ship.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: The other thing Leyla brought up, which I’ve felt personally too is you know, previously women wouldn’t show up for other women like they should have. How do you feel like you face that challenge? Because I know I’ve had to deal with situations where I don’t know why that would happen, but we weren’t really supporting each other enough at work.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: And sometimes I’d look around and be like, we’re just, we’re the only two women in this room, we should be helping each other out a little bit more instead of competing against each other. Has that happened to either of you?

Rachel Jones: Yeah, that’s definitely something that I’ve seen. Not even just with women but with race also. This is a conversation that happens a lot in the black community. This idea of like crabs in a barrel, where instead of lifting each other up, people can climb over each other to get to the top. But I think what’s really behind this is a sense of scarcity. When you feel like there’s only so much space for women or only so much space for people of color, then seeing another woman or another person of color can be like a threat to your own success.

Rachel Jones: So sometimes, yeah, you don’t want to reach out and see how you can lift someone else up because there’s only so much room at the level that you’re lifting someone to. And that’s definitely a sad reality. And I think a lot of the reason why the situation looks so different now than it was at the time that Leyla was describing, is because women still chose to lift each other up. And by doing that, it created more space. But I definitely can see, just that feeling of threat that can motivate someone to not want to do that work of being an ally.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Well, I think–Leyla and I are very close in age and, what it felt like at the time that it doesn’t anymore, I mean, I totally agree with the scarcity, but it was also like we were just trying to quietly be in the room. And it felt like if there was a woman that was going to come in and she was going to act more, I don’t know what, but like be more female in some stereotypical way, that had been somehow made us feel like we couldn’t behave in that way, that she was gonna make it worse for all of us.

Gretchen DeKnikker: And then also that idea of like, every single day, I need to not be any of those things. I can’t be emotional, I can’t be whatever, because I’m also representing all women on some level, was very much what it felt like. I mean this is like over 20 years ago, but I think that’s sort of what she is alluding to.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: That’s so fascinating to hear. I mean, luckily I’ve been experiencing the positive side of things when people are a bit more comfortable to be noticed as the woman in the room. But I do see traces of what you’re talking about still linger even now.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah. And I mean I think it’s almost a reaction. Like, Leyla and I are similar in many ways, but definitely I think women our age were like, “You know what, I am so sick of this.” And so we did a 180 and were like, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. And, once there were a few more of us that were there, it was a little bit easier to do.

Rachel Jones: I think it’s great just hearing from this discussion how important ally-ship is, but what does it actually look like in practice? Have any of you seen examples of this in your careers?

Gretchen DeKnikker: At my last company we booked–we did a really large 10,000 person event and learning how to get more women on stage, more people of color on stage was a process. But I think like the proudest moment I had was when there was this very high power panel, like very, very important people in the Valley speaking on this panel and my boss insisted that, like he said that there would be no panels that didn’t have at least one woman on them. And this panel and he, because it was such a large conference, he would task the people on the panel with finding a woman to speak on the panel. And these people were like, “Nope, we can’t find one. We can’t find one, we can’t find one.” And I could hear this guy was like very pissed on the other end of the phone and he’s like, “Well then I’m going to cancel your panel.”

Gretchen DeKnikker: And this is a couple of days before the event. But my boss held his ground and they actually did find an amazing, amazing woman to speak on this panel. But for weeks and weeks before that, “Nope, there’s no one, there’s no one,” until their own egos were on the line. And if this had gone south, if they hadn’t found it, it would have been not good for my boss. Like, it would have really hurt some critical relationships that he needed. But he was willing to do that and I was like, “I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder,” like sitting and witnessing that because he was using personal capital along with his career capital to stick by something that he felt was right.

Angie Chang: I imagined, when I was previously working at a women’s coding bootcamp and helping women get hired by companies and them celebrating that they have hired, say this woman and potentially women from an underrepresented group. And then sure they’re hired, but sometimes they don’t get cultivated. And I think something’s really lost there when you hire and you celebrate that hire, but then you fail to actually develop that woman in her career, so she stays. That’s been a huge opportunity lost, in my opinion.

Angie Chang: So a few years ago, the Kapor Center had done a study on thousands of people that have left tech, and they found that the number one reason for people leaving the workplace is a perception of unfairness. This can be that they were passed over for a promotion when they saw other people around them, probably the male counterparts, white male counterparts, getting promoted. And so, just addressing this perception of unfairness in both the promotions and pay can really help retain women and underrepresented groups in tech.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah, I mean, I think if you fail to foster a sense of belonging, particularly in this phase that we’re in right now where there’s actually a phrase, diversity hire, that’s a pejorative term of, “Oh well …” and taking away from people and being, “Oh well she was promoted because she was a woman.” Or, “That person was the less qualified candidate, but they were a person of color, so they got the role.” And there’s this whole sort of backlash that, whether or not that was the case in anyone being hired or whether or not that’s even something that should exist. Once you have folks there, if you don’t foster that sense of belonging, plus they’re already fighting this idea that maybe they didn’t earn their seat at this table, you’re going to lose people.

Gretchen DeKnikker: So it can’t just be getting more underrepresented candidates through the door. It’s how long can you keep them there? How do you change your workplace in a way where everyone is comfortable and feels valued?

Angie Chang: Yeah, I think belonging is definitely not any of the things that recruiters try to sell you. Like, we have foosball tables, ping pong tables, we have, what is that game, corn hole, super popular here and I don’t understand why.

Gretchen DeKnikker: It’s the worst named game ever. So bad.

Angie Chang: Belonging is about involving and inviting people to the table, to projects, to dinners, to enjoy their lives and learn from each other. I feel like yes, we definitely need to do more, all of us, to help people feel included and that they are really rewarded and learning and contributing to what we’re working on.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Rachel, I’d love to hear your thoughts on belonging.

Rachel Jones: So we’ve talked about this in a lot of different ways, in episodes that we’ve had, like with tech leavers and with inclusion and our intersectionality episode. I think doing that work just to listen to people and find out what they need and then challenging yourself to do the work. I think that’s also the difference between yes, celebrating a hire versus celebrating someone staying. It’s easy to get people in, but making them stay takes more than just talking about it. You have to be ready to make that systemic, hard change within your institutions to be able to create a place that people want to stay in.

Angie Chang: So from the intersectionality side, I think when we talk about women and then we talk about women of color and how, as I mentioned, I’ve heard more than one story of a woman being hired to a top tech company and then just being left to sit there for years without proper management and then expecting women to just rise to the occasion or advocate for herself, I think, is an unfair expectation. And people around this woman, women actually, there’s quite a few of them, should definitely speak up and help people get out of that situation.

Angie Chang: Erica Weiss Tjader, VP of Product Design at SurveyMonkey, shared an example of a male ally she had during our dinner with SurveyMonkey.

Erica Weiss Tjader: Unlike mentors, allies are not big investments in relationships over time. They are episodic, they are based on a specific purpose at a specific place in time. And as a result, they can have a really, a much bigger impact on something you’re trying to achieve at the time.

Erica Weiss Tjader: And so a good example that I thought of is in a previous role I was the design leader of a smaller team and one of my biggest challenges that I was facing was making inroads with our engineering leadership around the notion of the importance of front end development, design systems, some of the topics that design leaders and engineering leaders often talk about. And I was having a hard time getting traction and it was one of those tough problems because it was probably the most important thing to my team, and yet the thing I had the least direct control over. This was an example, like I have to influence because I don’t own the answer to the problem.

Erica Weiss Tjader: And so this particular ally was a new engineering manager that joined the organization. And in my initial meet and greet with him, I learned that he had some expertise around developing front end teams and design systems and sort of an interest. And perhaps most importantly I learned that he had a personal relationship with our CTO, who was the person I was having the hardest time making inroads with [crosstalk 00:22:44], that they were personal friends. [crosstalk 00:22:45] It wasn’t, no, it’s a different story. I’ve got a lot of stories.

Erica Weiss Tjader: And so what I did is, like I really just started out by befriending this guy. I’m like, I’m going to make your transition into this company really easy. I’m going to introduce you to people. I’m going to tell you all the secrets. You know, we had lunches, we had coffees, we started to build a relationship and in a very short period of time, we were able to transition that relationship into finding a mutually beneficial place where he was able to leverage his expertise and his influence in the engineering organization to start a front end team. And I was able to give him disproportionately more resources and support from the design team to really prove the value and success of that.

Erica Weiss Tjader: I think it’s just a great example of an alliance that was very intentional but looked very different than a mentorship relationship, because it was really about a place and a time and a need and a relationship, right in that moment.

Rachel Jones: So I think this is interesting. This is the discussion of ally-ship is different than the rest of our conversation. What do you all think about that?

Angie Chang: I think what I got from that is thinking about things more episodically than long term. And we’ve definitely also talked about mentorship and sponsorship, well mentorship, as something that can be episodic where you are just asking questions of a person and and gaining knowledge and finding micro mentorship. So I think she’s talking about micro ally-ship, and how you can find your answers and make those relationships work for you. What do you think?

Gretchen DeKnikker: You know, she figured out a way to not only sort of leverage that, but also a lot of times in our career we find ourselves having to influence without having any authority. And particularly in the middle of your career, you’re going to spend a lot of time trying to sort of leverage the people around you, figure out what their interests are and figure out what you can do in exchange for them, so that you can sort of get them in your camp to help you with your things that you’re trying, your particular initiatives.

Gretchen DeKnikker: And I think hers is a great example, particularly where she had a weak tie to someone, the CTO, that she needed a stronger tie with, but was able to sort of offer a lot in return.

Rachel Jones: I really liked this quote because I think somewhat in our conversation and a lot of times when people think about being an ally, it gets framed and people think it’s about like making someone feel better or like feel included or feel supported. But I really like what Erin says, because it’s not just about how people feel in a space, it’s also about being strategic and getting things done.

Rachel Jones: And I think, yes, thinking about ally-ship in terms of how can I do my best work and really make what I’m doing the best it can be, you’re thinking about forming alliances not just in terms of identity but in terms of skills and roles and influence and what people can really bring to support your growth and yeah, the projects that you have going on.

Rachel Jones: So I think, yeah, that’s an interesting way to think about this topic.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I genuinely like how she called out the importance that she saw in befriending someone who she was having the hardest time making a connection with. And I’ve found that when people start to view you as a person, not as an employee or as a team member or as head count, they are more likely to then listen to you and discuss ways where you can have a mutually beneficial relationship.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: And then you can make changes and be a better ally or get the ally-ship aspect from that other person. If they continue to view you as a number, there’s no chance of that happening. I think that regardless of whether you want someone to be an ally to you or not, or you want to be an ally to them, you have to have some sort of a common ground with them and do what she did, where she said she had lunches and coffees with the person and worked on building the relationship, and very quickly you’ll see results I bet.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I really liked that you picked this one, Rachel, because it’s sort of an example of, it doesn’t have to be a hierarchical power structure for someone to be an ally and to be able to sort of open doors, that it can be your peers from a reporting hierarchy standpoint, but that there’s still a lot that you can get, even if the power dynamic doesn’t seem to be what you would think of, in this sort of traditional ally-ship.

Rachel Jones: So what advice would you give to someone who’s trying to think of ways that they can be an ally?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I feel like when we’re considering what our goals are at work, we should also consider in those goals what are the wins that we want to see in someone else that we influenced. And so, something like that would then, or just to look around, find people that need allies, find groups that need allies and actually help out.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: If, in your regular goals and accomplishments, you also considered how you are making other peoples’ efforts better and how you are helping someone else’s success as part of your success, I really feel like it can go a long way.

Angie Chang: I think back to when I was in the workplace, what are things that made me feel like people were being allies? It’s the little things, like who you ask to go to lunch or happy hour with. For some reason it always made me feel really butt hurt when people were inviting other people to go and I was not part of that crew. So I think just … And then now everyone goes to soul cycle together or … I just feel like there’s so many ways to leave people out and if we want to keep people in this industry for the long run, we have to be more inclusionary in who we make friendships with over time really, and kind of like involved in these little things.

Gretchen DeKnikker: That’s a great lead into our next quote from Erin Dees who’s a principal software engineer at Stitchfix. She did a talk on Dossiers of Awesome, one way to help folks get the recognition they deserve, which honestly you guys should go watch it. It’s probably one of the best Girl Geek presentations that we’ve ever had and she gave some tips on supporting others and here’s what she had to say.

Erin Dees: How many of us are in a job where we are expected to give feedback on our peers regularly? It’s exhausting. It takes forever to write and by the time you’ve done your fourth or fifth one, it’s hard to come up with something that is unique and that could only apply to that engineer. It should be something that we keep up with in little increments throughout the year, instead of having a big deadline dropped on us. And again, it should be actionable. It should give our peers information that they can use to grow their career.

Erin Dees: So one idea had been sitting right in front of me this whole time, which is an engineering journal. So in addition to what I’d worked on, I might add a couple of bullet points that a teammate worked on and tag them with a hashtag which comes in handy later.

Erin Dees: So then, if you’re in a culture that does sort of quarterly feedback cycles, when it comes time to do this, I can click on that person’s tag in my journaling software. Now then what you do with this information depends a lot about your feedback culture. If you’re in a place where you’re expected to write your own review for starters, a self review, you can give your peers the ammo, the raw material that they can use to write their self review. So here’s what that might look like. You can compose an email and if your manager is someone who is supportive, write it to them and cc your friend. And this now tells them a story. If they’ve been waiting for like a great opportunity to write a promotion pitch for this engineer, you’ve just given them all this ammo. There’s a lot of cultural pressure on us not to brag and we should fix that too. But if this is all stuff that happened, this isn’t bragging, it’s data. So it’s a good idea to share it with, again if you have a supportive manager, and with your peer.

Erin Dees: So how to make this feedback actionable so that somebody can act on it and grow their career. One way to do this is to work these data points into a story so it’s not just data, it’s a narrative. And what this looks like, for example, if you start noticing this person developing or showing an aptitude and interest in tech leadership, is to call that out and say, “Hey, maybe it’s maybe it’s time to start handing this engineer larger projects and have them run bigger initiatives. They seem to have a knack for it.”

Rachel Jones: What do you think of Erin’s advice, to use peer feedback as an opportunity to lift others up?

Angie Chang: Feedback is such a gift. I think, definitely if you are able to give actionable feedback to help people grow, it’s a great thing to do.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I think what makes it so powerful is, it’s this very simple way of keeping track of your own accomplishments and other people’s, but also being able to see that over time in this way that isn’t super cumbersome, and I love, oh, I can’t, what’s the exact quote? This isn’t bragging, it’s data, which I just think is so amazing, especially given how women sort of have a hard time … I hate making those sweeping statements, but how often women feel like talking about their accomplishments is bragging, and sort of brings this full circle back to what I was saying earlier, that it’s often easier to be an advocate for someone else than to be an advocate for yourself. But what’s so brilliant about Erin’s little system that she has going, is that it allows you to do both.

Rachel Jones: This makes me think back to our last episode where we had the quote from Arquay Harris, encouraging you to keep a record of what you’ve done, your accomplishments big and small. And I really like this idea from Erin, that it doesn’t just have to be yourself that you’re doing that for, but you can provide that for other people and that can be a tool for them to advocate for themselves. I think that’s really powerful.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. So when I’ve had consultations with people to help them advocate for themselves, I’ve asked them what is it that they want to be known for? And through that, we then come up with ways in which they can, if they find that there are areas of improvement for them, they could focus on that. But if they find they’re already doing what it is that they want to be known for, how they can find various forums to advocate for themselves. Are there show and tells where they can present what they’ve worked on? Are there meetings where I can pull them in and have them speak about what it is that they worked on, instead of me representing them?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: So we come up with various ways where they can be recognized for what they want to be recognized for. Where, when someone thinks about a particular area or a particular feature, this person is who comes to mind. I don’t need to take all the credit and be the face of everything, and there’s no benefit in doing that. And so that’s how I … If I have control over it, if they’re working on a team of mine, that’s where I pull in other people to speak as opposed to me representing for the whole team. I know I learned this from my boss because he always gave me opportunities to come in and speak, no matter how senior the rest of the audience was.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I think that’s like the perfect definition of ally-ship. First listening, but then also not, if you have the mic, not speaking on someone else’s behalf, but handing the mic over and creating that opportunity for that person to speak for themselves.

Rachel Jones: Just be the advocate that you would want for yourself if you find yourself wishing you had someone to speak up for you or shout you out. Or wishing you had a little help, think about that next time that you have the opportunity to do that for someone else.

Angie Chang: Great reminder to continue to speak up and think about ways to help others in your career. Whether your title has manager in it or not.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, give other people a chance to represent the work that they’ve done, help them be better at speaking for themselves about themselves.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I think keeping in mind that that ally is a verb, it’s an action, it’s listening and it’s creating opportunities. But it’s also understanding that doing nothing is doing something. That if you’re not actively trying to break down some of the patriarchal and racial and the endless list of issues that we have, that you are participating in it continuing.

Angie Chang: Yes, complicity is not great.

Angie Chang: So thanks for listening to this episode of the Girl Geek X podcast. We’ll be back soon with more advice from women in tech. Please rate and subscribe to Girl Geek X podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and Google Play.

Rachel Jones: This podcast is produced by me, Rachel Jones with event recording by Eric Brown and music by Diana Chow. To learn more about Girl Geek X or buy tickets to one of our dinners, visit where you can also find full transcripts and videos from all of our events.

Angie Chang: This podcast is sponsored by SurveyMonkey. SurveyMonkey is a leading global survey software on a mission to power the curious. The company’s people powered data platform empowers over 17 million active users to measure and understand feedback from employees, customers, website and app users and the market.

Angie Chang: This podcast is also sponsored by Stitch Fix, the online personal styling service for men, women, and kids, that is blending art and science to redefine the retail industry, with a mission to change the way people find clothes they love by combining expert styling, proprietary technology and unique product to deliver a deeply personalized shopping experience.

16 Female Infosec & Cybersecurity Executives To Watch

Get inspired by these privacy and information security experts who are leading Fortune 100 companies, running health and non-profits, and impacting the field of infosec today.

Dr. Alissa Abdullah, Chief InfoSec Officer, Xerox

Dr. Alissa Abdullah is Xerox’s Chief Information Security Officer. Prior to Xerox, she was Chief Information Security Officer at Stryker. She served as Deputy Chief Information Officer for the White House Executive Office of the President during the Obama administration. She started her career as a Mathematician for an Intelligence Agency —  a certified cryptologic engineer at the U.S. Department of Defense.

Anne Marie Zettlemoyer, Vice President of Security Engineering, Mastercard

Anne Marie Zettlemoyer is Mastercard’s Vice President of Security Engineering. She was Director of Information Security Architecture and Engineering at Freddie Mac, and Director of Information Security Analytics at Capital One. She has worked in various positions, as a Director of Business Analytics at FireEye, Senior Consultant at Deloitte, Special Advisor for the United States Secret Service, and Principal Strategy Analyst for DTE Energy. Follow her on Twitter at @solvingcyber.

Arlin Pedrick, Chief Security Officer, Accenture

Arlin Pedrick is Accenture’s Chief Security Officer. She was at Disney as Director of Global Intelligence & Threat Analysis, and Director of Global Security at Walmart, and held various positions in the U.S. Government for 32 years.

Coleen Coolidge, Chief InfoSec Officer, Segment

Coleen Coolidge is Segment’s Chief Information Security Officer, having built the Security, GRC and IT org from scratch at the startup. Previously, she was Twilio’s Head of Security and Core Logic’s Director of InfoSec. Earlier in her career, she was at First American Title as an Infosec Project Coordinator, at New Century Financial as an InfoSec Specialist/Engineer, and was a Tech Writer in her early career. Follow her on Twitter at @coleencoolidge.

Flora Garcia, Global Chief Privacy Officer & Security Attorney, McAfee

Flora Garcia is McAfee’s Global Chief Privacy Officer, Privacy & Security Attorney. She discovered privacy law in law school when she read the case of Bodil Lindqvist, a Swedish woman who was the first person charged with violating the EU Privacy Directive. Flora is a graduate of the evening program at Fordham Law School,and Duke University, where she majored in computer science and economics. 

Jacki Monson, Chief InfoSec Officer, Sutter Health

Jacki Monson is Sutter Health’s Chief Privacy and Information Security Officer, where she’s been for six years at the nonprofit health network. Previously, she was the Mayo Clinic’s Chief Privacy Officer, and worked in compliance for healthcare companies. She began her career having earned her JD in health law and healthcare compliance certificates. Healthcare runs in her family — her mom worked at a hospital for 43 years in administration. Follow her on Twitter at @jackimonson.

Lakshmi Hanspal, Global Chief InfoSec Officer, Box

Lakshmi Hanspal is Box’s Global Chief Information Security Officer. She advises, CipherCloud and HMG Strategy. Prior to Box, she was SAP Ariba’s Chief Security Officer, and a senior leader in information security and risk management at PayPal. She was Bank of America’s Chief Information Security Strategist and Leader for the mortgage line of business, and began her career at Novell as a Senior Security Architect. Follow her on Twitter at @LakshmiHanspal.

Maria Shaw, Chief InfoSec Officer, Varian Medical

Maria Shaw is Varian Medical System’s Chief Information Security Officer. Prior to Varian, Maria worked at McKesson, where she was a Vice President of IT Risk Management & Compliance for over a decade. She led the information security and risk professionals across McKesson’s distributed business units, as well as the enterprise IT risk program (HIPPA, PCI, training, IT Vendor Assurance). She began her career as a Senior Manager at Deloitte.

Mary Prabha Ng, Chief Security Officer, AXA

Mary Prabha Ng is AXA Equitable’s Chief Security Officer. She’s been at AXA for over 7 years. Previously, Mary worked as Vice President of Risk at financial firms and banks. She started her career in security as a computer engineer for the Department of Defense’s Undersea Warfare Center where she led several multi-million dollar government projects through various states of project development.

Mary Welsh, Chief Security Officer, UnitedHealth

Mary Welsh is UnitedHealth Group’s Chief Security Officer. Prior to UnitedHealth, she worked at St. Jude Medical in Minnesota for over 8 years, leading security and strategic projects. Prior to that, Mary spent 9 years working for the U.S. government, from domestic assignments in Washington, D.C., to residing overseas in Europe and Southeast Asia on national security issues. She began her career at Arthritis Foundation working as Director of Health Education.

Noopur Davis, Chief Product & InfoSec Officer, Comcast

Noopur Davis is Comcast’s Chief Product & Information Security Officer. She was Vice President of Global Quality at Intel for over 4 years. Prior to Intel, she spent 11 years at Carnegie Mellon University supporting the Software Engineering Process Management program. She worked at Davis Systems as Principal for over 6 years, and began her career at Intergraph as a Director of Engineering. Follow her on Twitter at @NoopurDavis.

Parisa Tabirz, Senior Director of Engineering — Chrome (Security & Privacy), Google

Parisa Tabirz is Google’s Senior Engineering Director, responsible for the security and privacy of the Chrome browser. At Google, Parisa’s business card has read “Security Princess”, and she’s been promoted several times since joining the company over 12 years ago. She began her career as a security intern at Google after being inspired to pursue infosec from a campus club at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne. Follow her on Twitter at @laparisa.

Reeny Sondhi, Chief Security Officer, Autodesk

Reeny Sondhi is Autodesk’s Chief Security Officer. Prior to Autodesk, she spent a decade at EMC, where she co-authored SAFEcode Security Engineering Training — A Framework for Corporate Training Programs on the Principles of Secure Software Development. Prior to that, she spent a decade working in product management before moving into information security where she has been for the past 13+ years now building enterprise scale security programs. Follow her on Twitter at @reenysondhi.

Sherri Davidoff, Chief Executive Officer, LMG Security

Sherri Davidoff is LMG Security’s CEO and co-founder. Her infosec consulting and research firm, based in Montana, specializes in network penetration testing, digital forensics, social engineering testing and web application assessments. Sherri is the co-author of Network Forensics: Tracking Hackers through Cyberspace and is working on another book (coming soon). She studied computer science and electrical engineering at MIT. Follow her on Twitter at @sherridavidoff.

Tarah Wheeler, CyberSecurity Policy Fellow, New America

Tarah Wheeler is New America’s Cybersecurity Policy Fellow, where she is leading a international cybersecurity capacity building project. Tarah speaks frequently on cybersecurity, Internet of things, and diversity in tech, having been the lead author of Women in Tech: Take Your Career to the Next Level with Practical Advice and Inspiring Stories. She has been advising / consulting on enterprise infosec thru Red Queen Technologies for over 17 years. Follow her on Twitter at @tarah.

Window Snyder, Chief Security Officer, Square

Window Snyder is Square’s Chief Security Officer. She is a security industry veteran and former Chief Security Officer at Intel, Fastly, and Mozilla. She previously spent 5 years at Apple working on security and privacy strategy and features for OS X and iOS. Window was a founding team member at Matasano, a security company, acquired by NCC Group in 2012, and co-authored Threat Modeling, a manual for security architecture analysis. Follow her on Twitter at @window.

Raising Up The Next Generation of Women In Security Engineering

Girl Scouts offer 9 cybersecurity badges for girls learn about the inner workings of computer technology and cybersecurity, applying concepts of safety and protection to the technology used. Sponsored by Palo Alto Networks, the cybersecurity badges activities range from decrypting and encrypting messages, to learning proper protection methods for devices, to exploring real-world hacking scenarios every day.

Women in Security and Privacy is a 501(c)3 group creating pathways for folks to get into the field. OWASP has a lot of in depth knowledge and the “Top 10 list”, suggests Salesforce Senior Application Security Engineer Aisling Dempsey.

Conferences include The Diana Initiative (August 9-10, 2019 in Las Vegas).

Books to read include The Web Application Hacker’s Handbook and The Tangled Web – Add a copy of each in your library, or as a coffee table book!

What are some resources we can add to this page for folks who want to get into cybersecurity as a career? Please tweet @GirlGeekX and share – thank you!

“Enterprise to Computer (a Star Trek Chatbot)”: Grishma Jena with IBM (Video + Transcript)

Grishma Jena / Cognitive Software Engineer / IBM
Sukrutha Bhadouria / CTO & Co-Founder / Girl Geek X


Sukrutha Bhadouria: Hi everyone, I hope you’ve been having a great day so far. Hi, Grishma. Hi, so yes, we are ready for our next talk. I’m Sukrutha and Grishma is here to give the next talk. Just before we get started, the same set of housekeeping rules. First is, we’re recording. We’re gonna share in a week. Please post your questions, not in chat, but in the Q and A. So you see the Q and A button at the bottom? Click on that and post there. If for some reason we run out of time, and we can’t get to your questions, we’ll have a record of it and it’s easy for us to find later and get you your answers later.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: So please share on social media #GGXelevate and look for job postings on our website at We’ve also been having, throughout the day, viewing parties at various companies. So shout-out to Zendesk, Strava, Guidewire, Climate, Grand Rounds, Netflix,, Blue Shield, Grio, and Salesforce Portland office.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: So now, on to Grishma. Grishma is a cognitive software engineer at IBM. She works on the data science for marketing team at IBM Watson. So today her talk is about Enterprise to Computer: a Star Trek chatbot. I’m sure there’s a lot of Star Trek fans out there because I know I am one, and I can’t wait to hear about your talk, Grishma.

Grishma Jena: Thank you, Sukrutha.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Go ahead and get started. You can share your slides.

Grishma Jena: Okay, I’m gonna minimize this. Alright, can you see my slides? Okay. Hi, everyone, I’m Grishma. As Sukrutha mentioned I work as a cognitive software engineer with IBM in San Francisco. So, a lot of my job duties involve dealing with a lot of data, trying to come up with proprietary data science or AI solutions for our Enterprise customers. My background is in machine learning and natural language processing which is why I’m talking on a chatbot today.

Grishma Jena: I’ve also recently joined this non-profit called For Her, where we’re trying deal with creating a chatbot that could act as a health center, as a resource center for people who are going through things like domestic abuse or sexual violence so I’m very interested to see you know, a totally different social application of chatbot. But for today we’ll focus on something fun. And before I begin, a very happy Women’s Day to all of you out there. So, yeah.

Grishma Jena: When was the last time you interacted with a chatbot? It could have been a few minutes before, when, you know, Akilah was talking and your Alexa probably got activated by mistake and you had to be like, “Alexa, stop.” It could be with Siri. We interact with Siri every day. It could be on a customer service chat or it could be on a customer service call.

Grishma Jena: Basically, there are so many different avenues and applications of chatbots today that sometimes it’s even hard to distinguish if are we talking to a human. Is it a chatbot in disguise of a human? And it’s quite interesting to see where chatbots have come in the past few years.

Grishma Jena: So, this was a grad school project that we did. Our idea was, okay, chatbots are amazing. We really like that they help take some of the workload off humans, but how can we make them seem a little more human, a little less mechanical? Could we give them some sort of a fun personality?

Grishma Jena: And we brainstormed for a bit and we finally came up with the idea, hey, why don’t we, I mean … Well, to be honest we weren’t that big fans of Star Trek, but we did become one during the course of this project and we were like, “Okay, let’s think of Star Trek”. It has a wide fan base and let’s try to not pick one single character from Star Trek but let’s take all of the characters and make this huge mix of references and trademark dialogues and see what kind of personality the chatbot would have.

Grishma Jena: So, like I mentioned, the motivation was to make a chatbot a little more human-like. And we wanted to have a more engaging user experience. So the application of this could be, it doesn’t have to be something related to, you know, like an entertainment industry. It could be also something like a sports lover bot so that would be very chatty and extroverted and it would support your favorite sports team. Or it could be something a little more sober like a counselor bot who is very understanding and supportive and listens to you venting out or asks you about how your day was. So yeah, we chose Star Trek infused personality.

Grishma Jena: So our objective with Star Trek was wanted it to incorporate references from the show. [inaudible 00:05:17] wanted to [inaudible 00:05:20] Spock and live long and prosper. We wanted it to be data driven model, we did not want to feed in dialogues we wanted it to just feed in a corpus and have it generate dialogues on its own. We obviously wanted it to give interesting responses and to have the user engaged because that is one of the things that a chatbot should do, right? So in really simple words, just think of a friend of yours or it could be yourself who is this, you know, absolutely big fan of Star Trek and just transfer that personality to a chatbot.

Grishma Jena: So this is what the schema of our bot look like. We had the user utterance which is basically anything that you say or that you provide as input to the chatbot. And then we had a binary classifier. I’ll delve deeper into why exactly we wanted it, but the main point is that we wanted it to be able to distinguish whether what you’re saying to the chatbot is it something related to Star Trek or is it something a little more general conversation like, “How are you feeling today?” Or “What is the weather like?” And depending on that we had on that we had two different routes which the bot would take to generate a response.

Grishma Jena: So before we begin, we obviously need some sort of data and we decided that we would take all of the data that was available for the different Star Trek movies and the TV series. You’d be surprised at how little data is available, actually. We initially thought of just doing a Spock bot, but Spock himself has very limited dialogues so we just expanded our search to the entire Star Trek universe. And that’s why we took dialogues from movies, TV series. We didn’t want to have any sort of limitations as far as the data was concerned. We ended up with about a little over 100,000 pairs of dialogues.

Grishma Jena: Then we also went and got this database, which is known as the Cornell Movie Database. This database was created by Cornell University, which has a collection of raw movie scripts. It’s just a really good data set to train your bot on, the way how humans interact and what kind of topics they talk about, what are the responses like.

Grishma Jena: And finally, we also had a Twitter data set because we wanted some topics that were related to the ongoing affairs in the world, the current news topics. Because we envisioned that if you had a chatbot then people do like to talk to the chatbot or ask for the chatbot’s opinion on something that’s happening in real time.

Grishma Jena: So the very first component of a chatbot was having a binary classifier. Like I mentioned, we had two different routes for our chatbot. One would be the Star Trek route and the other would be a general conversation route. So we had the binary classifier that would help us distinguish whether whatever the user is uttering or whatever the user is giving as an input is it related to Star Trek or is it general conversation which was getting handled by the Cornell Movie Database. So we used an 80:20, that is the training data set and the testing data set split. And the features that we used were we took the top 10,000 TF-IDF unigrams and bigrams.

Grishma Jena: TF-IDF stands for tone frequency and inwards document frequency. Tone frequency is nothing but how many times a given word occurs in your corpus and inverse document frequency,, it’s kind of a weight that is attached to a word. So think of a textbook or think of a document that you have. Words like prepositions, like the, of, and would occur multiple times. But really words that would be important that would have some sort of conceptual representation, perhaps like the topic of it. Compared to it would be a little rare in occurrence, compared to prepositions, compared to commonly used words, and that’s why they should be given more weightage. So that’s the whole idea behind TF-IDF.

Grishma Jena: Unigrams and bigrams are nothing but you divide the entire document that you have into words. An unigram would be one [bit kilo word inaudible 00:09:17] bigram would be a set of two consecutive words that occur in the document. There’s an example later on in the slide to explain it better. Stop words, when consider stop words are just filler words like I mentioned similar to the prepositions. And we were very happy with the performance of the binary classifier. We were able to get a 95% accuracy on the test set, and we decided that is good enough, let’s move on to the next one.

Grishma Jena: And finally, this is the main core of it, where deep learning comes into play. So with deep learning, we used a model called a Seq2seq which is a particular type of recurrent neural network. So if you can see the image on the right, it is a simplified version of a neural network where you give it an input and it gets an output and that output is also the input for the next cycle, so it’s kind of like a feedback looping mechanism.

Grishma Jena: First, the specific type of neural network that we use, Seq2seq. It was just two recurrent neural networks so just think of a really big component that has two smaller components, which is an encoder and a decoder.

Grishma Jena: So the encoder actually takes in the input from the user and tries to provide some sort of context. What do the words mean? What exactly is the semantics behind the sentence that the user has given? And the decoder generates the output based on the context that it has understood and also based on the previous inputs that were given to it, which is where the feedback mechanism comes into play.

Grishma Jena: So just to go a little deeper into it. This is a representation of what a Seq2seq with encoder and decoder would look like. So the input over here would be, “Are you free tomorrow?” and the encoder takes in that input and tries to understand what exactly is the context or the meaning of this sentence. And finally the decoders understands, okay, this is something someone is asking about either they want to take an appointment or someone’s availability or someone’s schedule. And that’s where the reply is something like, “Yes, I am. What’s up?”

Grishma Jena: So these are some statistics about how exactly we went on training this on AWS. We used a p2.xlarge instance with one Nvidia Accelerator GPU and then we had the Star Trek Seq2seq. So we had one Seq2seq for just Star Trek dialogues and we had another one, the Cornell Seq2seq which is on Cornell data, which is more for just a general conversation purpose.

Grishma Jena: So we went ahead, we generated some sentences, but then we realized that the ones for Star Trek were really good because you’re giving it Star Trek as input so obviously the output is also going to be Star-trekky. But for the general conversation ones, for things like, “What is the weather like?”, “How are you doing today?”, “What is the time?” it was a little difficult for us because obviously the input is not Star Trek related, right? So the output also wouldn’t be Star Trek related, but we wanted this to be a Star Trek chatbot.

Grishma Jena: So we brainstormed a bit and we thought, “Hey, why don’t we try something called a style shifting?” Which is basically like you take a normal sentence, a sentence from the general conversation, and you try to shift it into the Star Trek domain.

Grishma Jena: And the way we did this was, we went through the entire corpus, the data set for Star Trek, and we created a word graph out of it. A word graph would be, just think of it as you pass different sentences in the data set and each of the words would form a node and the edges between them would tell how they occurred in relation to one another. So if they occurred right next to each other or within the same sentence.

Grishma Jena: And along with the words in the node we also had a part of speech tag. So we indicated whether it was an adjective, or a noun, or a pronoun or a conjunction. So let’s say for example our sentence was, “Live long and prosper.” You break it down into four words which are the four different nodes and then we label them with a different part of speech tag and we connected them because they come one after the other in the sentence.

Grishma Jena: So what we did, was after we built out this really huge word graph, we looked it up to insert what could be appropriate words between two given words in the input. So once we had the sentence we would check for every two words in the sentence and see what are the words that we could insert in between to give it more of a Star Trek feel to it to just, you know, shift the domain into Star Trek.

Grishma Jena: We went ahead and we did that and these were the kind of results that we got. “I am sorry” was the input and then the word graph went ahead and inputted “Miranda” at the end. “I will go” and then it inputted “back” at the end of the sentence because “go” and “back” kind of occur very commonly with each other. And similarly for the start of the sentences, it tried to input names like “Uhura” or “Captain”. So one thing we noticed was it really good at inputting names at the start and the end of the sentence and using the character names from the show did end up giving it a slightly more Star Trek feel than before.

Grishma Jena: So we went ahead and we just randomly tried to insert words that occurred more frequently between two words but then we realized that some of the sentences were ungrammatical. So what do we do? We came up with this idea of let us use the word graph as it is and then let’s take some sort of a filter to our responses. So, like I said, we realized that the word graph was giving a few incoherent and incorrect responses. What we did was we went ahead and constructed an n-gram model.

Grishma Jena: So n over here would be unigram, bigram, trigram. You can see the example over here if n is equal to one, which is an unigram, you break down the sentence into just different words so “this” would be one unigram “is” would be another unigram. If n is two, which a bigram, you would take two words that co-occur together. So in this case the first bigram would be “This is,” second one would be “is a” and then similar for trigram it would be “This is a” and then “is a sentence”.

Grishma Jena: So we created an n-gram model which was just to understand what exactly is the kind of dataset that Star Trek has. And then finally we wanted to get a probability distribution over the sequence of words that we have had.

Grishma Jena: So once we get this, we start to filter the responses and we ran the sentences using the bigram models that we trained on the Star Trek data set. Because of this we kind of got a reference type for seeing that what structures are grammatically correct. We went ahead and we get them and the ones that were a little odd sounding or that didn’t really occur anywhere in the data set we went ahead and removed them.

Grishma Jena: Another metric that we used for this was perplexity. So just think of perplexity as some sort of an explainability metric. We went ahead and used that which would help us tell how well a probability distribution was able to predict it.

Grishma Jena: Finally, we have all of the things in place and we have to evaluate the performance of the chatbot. So we came up with two categories of evaluation metrics. The first one was quantitative metrics where we used perplexity, which was mentioned on the first slide. And the second one was we wanted to see often was it using words that were very particular to Star Trek that you don’t really use in normal day life, you know, like maybe spaceship or engage.

Grishma Jena: And the second category was human evaluations where we got a bunch of, user group and we asked them to just read the input and the output and see how good it was in terms of grammar. If the response actually made sense, if it was appropriate. And finally, on the Star Trek style. Just how Star-trekky did it sound?

Grishma Jena: And, we also came across another bot online which is called as a Fake Spock Pandora Bot which was contrary to the way we had. Our bot was data driven this was rule based so it was actually given an input of human generated responses.

Grishma Jena: We wanted to see how good would a data driven model perform as compared to a human generated one. So this is just what the Fake Spock Pandora Bot looked like. And these were the kind of responses that the Pandora Bot gave. If you said, “I’m hungry, Captain” it said, “What will you be eating?” So it’s giving really good appropriate responses because humans were the back end for this.

Grishma Jena: And then, what we did was we went ahead and evaluated the results. And we saw that our bot was performing better for Star Trek style and it also was a little more coherent. For grammar, Pandora Bot was much better and that’s not surprising because humans were the ones who actually wrote it out. For perplexity, the Star Trek perplexity started dialogues were 65, so that was our baseline number and we figured out that the kind of responses our bot was generating that are 60, 60.9 was a little closer compared to Pandora was like, way far off at 45.

Grishma Jena: So we were pretty happy with our performance. I’m just gonna give you a few examples of what the different bots generated. So the yellow ones are the Pandora Bot and the blue ones are the E2Cbot. So let’s see, if the user says, “Beam me up, Scotty” the yellow one, that is the Fake Pandora Bot, gives, “I don’t have a teleportation device” which is a good answer. And the blue one is, “Aye, Sir” which is also a good answer. A little curt, but nothing wrong with it.

Grishma Jena: In the second example if you see our bot answered, “Bones, I like you.” So the “Bones” part is actually come from the word graph which gives it a little more of a Star Trek feel. And the last one over here is the Fake Bot, the human generated one, just says, “I am just an AI chatting on the internet” which is kind of not the response that you are looking for.

Grishma Jena: A few more examples over here. The user says, “My name is Alex” and then the Fake Spock Bot says, “Yes, I know Christine.” I just told you my name was Alex, why would you call me Christine? But our bot says, “What do you want me to do, Doctor?”, which is a better response. And, yeah, these are the kind of responses.

Grishma Jena: I think some of our human focus group people said that they might be correct, appropriate responses, but they might not be factually correct, which was a challenge for us, as well as for the Fake Spock Bot. We didn’t really delve deeper into it because that would kind of dive more into having a question answering system and trying to check if it’s factually correct or not but we tried to make our focus group users understand that it’s just a bot at the end of the day.

Grishma Jena: So finally, we were able to generate Star Trek style text. We were very happy with that, we were able to use the data driven approach which meant we could automate it. And we did figure that it performed better than the human generated responses that Pandora Bot would give, at least on style and at least on the appropriateness. It still needs a little bit of improvement in grammar but we were pretty happy with it.

Grishma Jena: So that’s me. Live long and prosper. And feel free to reach out to me on Linkedin or on Twitter if you have any questions about this. Thank you.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you, Grishma. This was great. So just to close I just wanted to mention to everybody that you actually sent your speaker submission to us and that’s how we got connected. So thank you for doing that. We got a lot of comments from people who are Star Trek fans, but yeah, what inspired you to build this project?

Grishma Jena: Yes, so this was actually a grad school project. We were taking a deep learning course so all of us had to build a chatbot as an Alexa skill. We brainstormed a lot, and we actually thought that Spock because Star Trek has a really huge fan base so Spock would be a good idea to do. But Spock had very little dialogue in all of the movies and the television series and then we were like, “You know what, let’s not stick to just one character, let’s have the entire Star Trek universe.” And, the bonus was that during my semester, I could continuously binge watch Star Trek and say that, “Yeah, I’m doing research because I want to see how well my chatbot works,” but I was just binge watching to be honest.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Nice. That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much, Grishma, for your time. We really appreciate it and for your enthusiasm in signing up through our speaker submissions.

Grishma Jena: Thank you so much, Sukrutha.

6 Ways You Can Be A Stronger Leader and Make Better Hires

Nupur Srivastava, VP of Product at Grand Rounds

Long before she ever started obsessing over product features and worrying about design deadlines, Grand Rounds Senior Vice President of Product Nupur Srivastava spent her days — and evenings, weekends and holidays — obsessing over her jump shot and running drills in her hometown of Qurain. Her hard work and dedication to the sport took her all the way to the Kuwait National Basketball team, where she played from 1999-2002 and learned the value of teamwork and how fun it is to win!

After earning her Electrical Engineering degree from the University of Michigan, Nupur began her tech career as a Wireless Hardware Design Engineer at Cisco. She then pursued an MBA from Stanford and transitioned into product management, finding her passion in the health tech space. Over the past eight years, she has managed teams ranging in size from 5 to as many as 50 people. Driven by her upbringing and desire to help people, she also co-launched Impactreview (acquired by MaterNova), a community for reviews of maternal and child health products for the developing world.

Today, Nupur is the VP Product at Grand Rounds in San Francisco, where she leads the company’s product management and design teams. As Nupur explains, “the company is on a mission to raise the standard of healthcare for everyone, everywhere. The Grand Rounds team goes above and beyond to connect and guide people to the highest quality healthcare available for themselves and their loved ones. By leveraging the power of data and technology, Grand Rounds creates products and services that make it easy for everyone to get the best possible healthcare experience.

When the Girl Geek X team sat down with Nupur during our Elevate 2019 virtual event on International Women’s Day, we wanted to pick her brain and hear her biggest mistakes and learnings as a health tech product leader and people manager. She shared some great advice:

1. Hire slow and fire fast.

Nupur confessed that she made a lot of classic hiring mistakes with her first hire. She was at a small startup, strapped for resources (we’ve all been there!), and there was a lot of work to be done. Feeling stressed for help, she hired very quickly without thinking through the long-term impact.

“Basically, I hired the first person who I thought could do the job from a technical standpoint,” she shared, “…but one thing that I didn’t focus on was whether there was strong alignment with the company’s values and where we were  growing. Unfortunately, a year later, I had to let this person go because it was a mismatch. I really wish I had spent time understanding upfront whether they were a good fit for what the company needed at the time.”

The classic saying that you need to “hire slowly and fire quickly” rings true here.

2. Ask the right questions.

“A lot comes down to the types of questions you ask in the interview process as well as what you get from the references.” Finding the right fit is less about technical proficiency, and more about who they are as a person, why they have made the decisions they have in the past, and what they are optimizing for in their upcoming role.

You want to ask questions about how they’ve made decisions in their career to date, what drives them, what motivates them. What wakes them up in the morning? When they’re put in a difficult situation, what value system is driving their decision-making?

Nupur stresses that what you’re looking for in a team member will be different for different stages of the company, and for each company’s unique values and mission.

It’s important to tailor your approach to your individual situation, because the perfect hire on paper might actually be a perfect hire for a different environment, but a poor hire once your own values and needs are considered.

3. Hire for impact: seek out people who are hungry, humble and smart.

Many of Nupur’s favorite hiring and interviewing strategies came from a book that Grand Rounds CTO (Wade Chambers) recommended, called Ideal Team Player. “It focuses on this notion of hiring people that are hungry, humble, and smart, and that concept has really resonated with me.”

“At Grand Rounds, we want to raise the standard of care for everyone everywhere, so we need to make sure that people are hungry for that impact,” she explained.

“The humble component is self-explanatory. People that are low ego and prioritize the company above self are great to have on the team. In addition, if you’re hiring someone to work in healthcare, you need to be sure they appreciate that the patients we serve are suffering through things that we may not totally understand. They need humility to empathize with that struggle and build the right products for those patients.”

“And then smart is not actually what you think it may be. It’s not IQ smart, but rather people smart. There’s a base level assumption that 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 with.”

One of the things Nupur has been using in her recent interviews is simply asking everyone, “What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?” Their response typically gives you a sense of their work ethic and insight into what they consider difficult. Sometimes they’ll even answer with a personal response, and it offers a good window into who the person is, and whether they’re someone you want on your team.

4. Accept that your top performers will always eventually leave.

“As painful as it is, top performers will leave you at some point. With all members of my team, I try to develop trust, care deeply about their career, and truly understand where they want to go long-term. This way, when they eventually decide to pursue another opportunity, I’m not surprised because there’s openness and transparency in the relationships.”

The week before we sat down with Nupur, someone she’d worked with for four years left Grand Rounds. She was an extremely high performer, and she let Nupur know of her intentions to leave four months in advance because they were actively talking about where she wanted to go and what drives her. The team member had joined when Grand Rounds was a 50-person company. They’re now over 500, and she was ready for something different.

“I think the most important thing is to have that level of trust with your team members, such that you understand what their career goals are and you’re together making the decision about when is the right time for them to leave. If you adopt this approach, you can prepare for their departure in a way that is not disruptive.”

“It can feel like a painful punch in the gut when someone tells you they’re leaving,” she lamented, “but I think the least we can do is just not be surprised by the decision. At some point, maybe for their own career growth or evolution, or other things that they are optimizing for in their lives, you want them to leave. And as long as you are open and honest with each other and there is trust and transparency, it’s not the end of the world.”

Nupur’s general philosophy is one we could all benefit from adopting: “Everyone has different goals in life. The most we can do is be an advocate and great manager for our direct reports when they work for us, and help influence what they do next, so that you and the business are prepared for employee departures.”

5. Create an environment that welcomes diversity of thought and personality types.

“One of my biggest learnings as a leader over the years has been … beyond diversity based on race and gender, there’s tons of diversity in personality types and the way people like to do work.”

At Grand Rounds, the Head of Data Science asked various team members to take a StrengthsFinder questionnaire, then put everyone into groups of people that are alike so they could discuss things they wanted to teach other groups who were different from them.

The entire product team has also used the DiSC assessment to better understand their behavioral differences. “This exercise gives you empathy for how different people want to show up, and how they want to debate ideas.” 

“Not everybody is comfortable being presented a problem and immediately jumping in and giving their thoughts. Some people want to think about a problem, spend a day organizing their ideas, and come back with their thoughts prepared.” 

“For me,” Nupur admitted, “the first step in improving my communication and collaboration with others is simply awareness. Where do people fall either in the DiSC profile or with StrengthsFinder? What do I need to be aware of as their leader so that I’m creating a comfortable environment for them to speak up?”

“I can remember the first realization I had when I recognized, ‘Oh, everybody doesn’t like coming into 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.”

“Using some of these frameworks has been incredibly important because it not only helps you understand others, 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 the tone for the team.”

Nupur has a team member opposite her on the DiSC profile, and she’s started running ideas by him to make sure that he can offer feedback and criticism before she takes it to the team, because as she says, “I’m just hyper-excited and trying to tell everybody everything as soon as the thought occurs.” And that freaks some people out. It is important to understand where others in your team sit in the DiSC profile so that you can personalize your leadership style with them.

6. Let people know where you want to go!

One of the questions we hear asked at Girl Geek X events time and time again is about how to get ahead or move into a management role when you don’t have previous managerial experience.

Nupur’s advice is to make your manager aware that you want to be a manager, and make your goals explicit. “If someone 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. Have open conversations, and make sure that you have the skills, training, and support of your manager.”

“The biggest thing is raising your hand and making it clear that that’s the path you want to go. Then hopefully if you have a good manager, and you are ready, they’ll make that opportunity for you.”

If you’re having open conversations about your goals regularly — say once per quarter — and you find yourself in a situation where the promotion doesn’t feel like it’s ever going to happen, or you start to feel like you’d be better off somewhere else, you’ll be in a better position to move on gracefully and with a reference you can count on time and time again.

Want to work with Nupur?

If Nupur sounds like someone you’d love to work with, you might be in luck: she’s looking for a passionate Sr. Product Designer to join her team, and Grand Rounds is hiring for dozens of other roles across a wide range of functional areas!

For more hiring and people-management advice from Nupur Srivastava and other Girl Geeks, check out the full video & transcript from her panel on “Building High Performance Teams” at Elevate 2019, and subscribe to the Girl Geek X YouTube channel!

About the Author

Amy Weicker - Head of Marketing at Girl Geek X

Amy Weicker is the Head of Marketing at Girl Geek X, and she has been helping launch & grow tech companies as a marketing leader and demand generation consultant for nearly 20 years. Amy previously ran marketing at SaaStr, where she helped scale the world’s largest community & conference for B2B SaaS Founders, Execs and VCs from $0 to $10M and over 200,000 global community members. She was also the first head of marketing at Sales Hacker, Inc. (acquired by Outreach) which helps connect B2B sales professionals with the tools, technology and education they need to excel in their careers.

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

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

Gretchen DeKnikker, Sukrutha Bhadouria

Girl Geek X team: Gretchen DeKnikker and Sukrutha Bhadouria welcome the crowd to Zendesk Girl Geek Dinner in San Francisco, California. 

Shawna Wolverton / SVP, Product Management / Zendesk
Swati Krishnan / Software Engineer / Zendesk
Erin McKeown / Director, Engineering Risk Management / Zendesk
Alethea Power / Staff Software Engineer, Site Reliability / Zendesk
Eleanor Stribling / Group Product Manager / Zendesk
Sukrutha Bhadouria / CTO & Co-Founder / Girl Geek X
Gretchen DeKnikker / COO / Girl Geek X

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

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Welcome to the Zendesk sponsored Girl Geek dinner tonight. I’m Sukrutha. This is Gretchen. Thanks for joining us. I love all the color around. I love your hair, lovely lady. Anyway, a little bit … you also, all of you. I quickly want to recap what Girl Geek X is. So why you see that up there, Girl Geek X is an organization with Angie, Gretchen, and I working to make it easier for women and people who identify as women or anything you want to identify yourself as, anyone, to come and network outside of work, find out more about other companies that have a great culture and have really, really innovative products, such as Zendesk. At dinners like these, you have the first and the third hour reserved for networking, so I hope you’ve been chatting away and making connections so when you actually want to work at the company or apply there, it makes it easier. It’s like you have inside information.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Zendesk has sponsored a few times before so they’ve been such a great ally and with Shawna working here now. We used to work together before. Not directly but in my head we did work directly. So when she reached out to us we were super excited that we’d have another Zendesk dinner coming up. Today, we do not just dinners. Once we hit the 10 year mark with Girl Geek X, we started doing virtual conferences, which we’ve had two so far. We also have a podcast so search for Girl Geek X and we’re looking for more ideas on topics so listen to what we have and suggest topics. Sign up for our mailing list through our website, We also launched our swag store today so–

Gretchen DeKnikker: Did you guys see it?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: You did?

Gretchen DeKnikker: That’s so cute. It’s one of these little guys.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, so Gretchen’s nicknamed those characters pixies because they’re pixelated.

Gretchen DeKnikker: It’s a great name so it’s not just that I nicknamed [inaudible].

Sukrutha Bhadouria: So please share on social media tonight everything that you see here, eat, listen to, learn. The hashtag for tonight is Girl Geek X Zendesk and that’s enough from me. This is Gretchen, like I said.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Okay, Sukrutha said everything we always say except for, please join me in welcoming the amazing Shawna Wolverton.

Shawna Wolverton: Thank you. I am just so incredibly impressed with what these women have built over 10 years. I was looking at their site today. Over 200 dinners. This is an amazing organization and we’re incredibly honored to host tonight. A little food, a little networking and hopefully, maybe, you’ll even learn a few things. We have an agenda because this is what we do at Zendesk. Everything starts with an agenda. We have checked in. That’s good. We ate. We all successfully avoided the caution tape, so it’s a classy establishment here at Zendesk. And we’re going to do some lightning talks and then stick around, we’re going to do a big group picture and then, there’s a whole other hour after we talk at you for a while with dessert and some more chatting.

Shawna Wolverton speaking

SVP of Product Management Shawna Wolverton emcees Zendesk Girl Geek Dinner, stating “it’s amazing to get a seat at the table and to look around and see people who look like you.”

Shawna Wolverton: I am Shawna Wolverton. I am the SVP of Product here at Zendesk. I joined about six months ago and it has been an amazing six months. I feel sort of corny a lot. People ask me all the time, how’s the new job? How’s the new job? I feel like a little bit of a Hallmark card. Like it’s so great. But what’s been amazing and I really just sort of figured this out is that I was trusted right out of the gate, right? I was able to go out and be competent. At week 2, I was on stage. In month 3, I’m in front of investors and in front of the press. And it’s just been so amazing to be given that trust. And I was incredibly lucky to join Zendesk in a cohort of women executives. We hired a CIO, as well as our chief customer officer, onto the executive board when I joined and then I looked up and we already had women in our CFO seats as well as in the head of people.

Shawna Wolverton: And it’s amazing to get a seat at the table and to look around and see people who look like you. So you did not, though, come here to listen to me jabber around on about how much I love my job. But we have four incredibly accomplished speakers tonight and we’re going to start with Swati who’s going to talk to us about metaprogramming. At the end, we’ll have some time for Q&A so definitely stick around for that. Swati.

Swati Krishnan

Software Engineer Swati Krishnan gives a talk on “Code that writes code: Metaprogramming at Zendesk” at Zendesk Girl Geek Dinner.

Swati Krishnan: Hi, everyone. Hi, everyone. I’m Swati. And today I’m going to be talking about code that writes code or metaprogramming here at Zendesk. So first, a little bit about me. I’ve been a software engineer in the code services organization at Zendesk for around two and a half years now. In this time, I have learned and contributed to many projects. But of the cooler and fun things that I got to learn here was metaprogramming and I hope that I can share it with all of you out here.

Swati Krishnan: So first of all, what do you mean by metaprogramming? Well, most programs are built on language constructs. These language constructs could be classes, methods, objects, et cera. Metaprogramming, basically, allows you to manipulate these language constructs at run-time. So why is Ruby as a language particularly suited to metaprogramming? Well, that’s because Ruby’s a dynamically typed language. What this means is that it allows you to access and manipulate these language constructs at run-time. This is a difference from what statically typed languages would let you do normally.

Swati Krishnan: So how do we leverage metaprogramming here at Zendesk? So Zendesk is like a Rails shop. So this basically means that we have a lot of products and apps that are built on Rails. For those of you that don’t know, Rails is a Ruby based web framework. Web frameworks have to be pretty flexible so this means that a lot of modules and libraries in Rails such as Active Support, Active Record, et cera, heavily leverage metaprogramming. So by using Rails, Zendesk by proxy, uses a lot of heavy lifting that comes from metaprogramming.

Swati Krishnan: This talk is not going to be about rails. This talk is about account feature flags at Zendesk and how we use a bit of metaprogramming magic to add some more fun and color to them. So before I launch into that, what exactly do you mean by account feature flags? Here at Zendesk, when a developer ship new code, we do so behind … I don’t know why this is so … okay. So whenever developers … that’s better. I’m just going to leave it. So here at Zendesk, whenever developers ship new code, we do that behind something called feature flags. So whenever a feature flag is down to 0%, that basically means that that feature is not available on any accounts. Is this fine? Are you sure? Okay. When it’s done to 100%, that means that it’s available on all accounts.

Swati Krishnan: So this basically gives you mechanism to roll out a feature slowly so it can go from 0 to 100% and you could also roll it back quickly so that if things go wrong, if there’s a bug in the code or if customers aren’t really appreciative of the features–which doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen, but there’s a slight possibility so you should always [inaudible]. So basically this feature flag framework allows developers to ship code in a more reliable way.

Swati Krishnan: So the way that this is built, it basically means that developers now have a method called has feature name question mark available on the account object. So that whenever they’re trying to ship this new feature, they can just basically go if your account object has … they can basically just go that if and say that if your account object has this part of the feature turned on, that means that we can now execute the new feature’s specific code. If it doesn’t have the feature turned on, that means that we can just fall back to our old non feature specific code or just execute old code.

Swati Krishnan: So how can we simplify the existing account class structure so that we can basically add this feature so that developers can by proxy enable new feature specific code? So one way to do that would be basically to just open the account class to add your has whatever your feature name is, question mark, method inside that. All that this method would be doing would just be checking the database to see if the feature flag is turned on for the specific account or not.

Swati Krishnan: So when a developer has a new feature to add, what they’ll basically do is just go into this account class, add a method called def has feature XYZ question mark and it’ll do the exact same thing, which means that it’ll basically call the database and check if the feature flag is turned on for the account.

Swati Krishnan: But there are also several problems with this sort of an approach and you should not be doing this. And that’s because it encourages repetition a lot so whenever a developer wants to add their own feature, they’d basically be like going to this class, adding their method, making that database call to check if the feature flag is turned on. In coding and in Ruby in general, we try to discourage repetition, because if there’s a way to get something done with as few lines of code and concisely as possible, then it should definitely be trying to use that.

Swati Krishnan: The other kind of obvious disadvantages that means that every developer, whenever they want to write this particular has their own feature method on an account object. But how could I get [inaudible] implementation off fetching from the database so this is just encouraging reinventing the wheel, which is something that we don’t want developers to do because that’ll just add potential for more bugs. Because if everyone gets to write their own implementation, then you can have more bugs pop up from that.

Swati Krishnan: And last but not least, why should we do it in this brute force driven way when metaprogramming gives you more cleaner, elegant ways to solve the same problem? So the metaprogramming solution to this is basically just adding list of features. So over here I added a couple of features, but you can increase this with how many ever features you want. And then in these six magical lines, we’ll just be iterating over this features list. And we’ll be calling the Ruby metaprogramming magical method … actually the Ruby magical dynamic generation spell which is basically just going to define a new method based on that item that it’s picked from the list. It’ll just interpolate that in the method name and then, voila. I don’t know if I said that correctly. And then you basically get a method which will then make that database call with what it’s picked up from the features list.

Swati Krishnan: So this basically means that all that a developer now has to do to get the has feature available method is to just add their feature name to this features list and then whenever the Ruby app will boot up and start, it’ll automatically create the has their feature name available method on the account object so they don’t have to write their own implementation. They don’t have to repeat themselves. They don’t have to do anything much.

Swati Krishnan: So this was just one of the benefits and applications of metaprogramming. There are several others, such as the open class implementation, which will basically let you add your own functionality over any method in the class. So you basically even go and open up like the [inaudible] method in the ink class which is a code Ruby library class. And you can add your own functionality, like logging or benchmarking, to it. Another kind of interesting one would be the Active Record library in Rails. So Active Record for those of that don’t know is object relation and mapping. So basically if you have something like user dot name in your code or user dot name equal to Swati in your code, Active Record will magically figure out that this call response to the user’s table in your database. If that user’s table has a column called name, then it’ll automatically create the [inaudible] methods for you so user dot name and user dot name equal to will already be created for you so you don’t have to define it yourself.

Swati Krishnan: So yeah. These [inaudible] the applications of metaprogramming. This is just a glimpse of all that it can do. But I hope that you found this informative and will probably use it in your own work. Thank you.

Erin McKeown speaking

Director of Engineering Risk Management Erin McKeown gives a talk on “Staying Cool Under Pressure – Lessons from Incident Management” at Zendesk Girl Geek Dinner.

Erin McKeown: Hello, everybody. My name is Erin McKeown. I just want to first say welcome. I’m so excited that Zendesk is hosting this event. I’m even more excited to share with you guys a couple of lessons I’ve learned through managing incidents throughout my career. To quickly introduce myself, like I said, my name is Erin McKeown. I’m the director of engineering risk management here at Zendesk. I have the great pleasure of leading a team of–a group of teams, actually, that I like to think of in three different categories, which is really our first line of defense, threat prevention, and recovery. When I say the first line of defense, we have what we call our Zendesk Network Operation Center. We actually have Kim Smith here with us who leads the ZNOC. Hello, Kim. Everybody say hi. She’s visiting from Madison. So Kim has the pleasure of running a very, very awesome team that takes–monitors and takes care of our systems 24/7 365 a year. Like I said, they do all kinds of monitoring. They put out fires. They escalate to different engineering teams when there’s something that is a little bit larger that they need help with.

Erin McKeown: In addition to our ZNOC, we also have our incident management team. They partner very closely with our ZNOC, and they’re responsible for running all of our response and coordination of any service incident that we have here at Zendesk. On the other side of that, we have our business continuity and disaster recovery. These are really the areas of which we focus on planning for training employees and testing on how we can recover from business disruptions. So that can be anything from a natural disaster that impacts one of our office facilities to a natural disaster that may actually take out an entire AWS region. Everyone cross your fingers that that does not happen.

Erin McKeown: So this is one of my favorite quotes. It’s a little nerdy, but Franklin Roosevelt said, “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” Disclaimer, I’m not a sailor, but stick with me here. I think what Frank is trying to get at here is that no matter what, there’s always going to be challenges that come up and we are going to have to deal with adversity and we can plan and we can do all kinds of things to get prepared for events to take place but at the same time, we need to take these as an opportunity to continue to learn and to grow. And so, I’m just going to share with you guys two events that I’ve actually been a part of and two important lessons I’ve learned from them. I really wanted to dig in and give you guys a real technical incident type of conversation but I didn’t want you to fall asleep.

Erin McKeown: So the first event that I’m going to talk about is from 2011. Back in 2011, there was a 9.1 earthquake off the coast of Japan and it actually was a mega underwater earthquake that took place. As a result of that, there was a tsunami that then hit a nuclear power plant and caused a meltdown of the Fukushima power plant. This is considered the second biggest radioactive event accident to have happened to Chernobyl. I don’t know if you guys are watching the HBO series, but kind of along those lines.

Erin McKeown: So a very, very devastating event. We actually had an office in Tokyo with 250 employees on the 50th floor of a high rise building when the earthquake happened. You can imagine how scary that would really be. That was the first wave of it. And then the tsunami hit and there was devastation across the entire the eastern side of Japan. And then this huge threat of radioactivity that was potentially threatening Tokyo. These employees went through the ringer. I mean it took us about a week and a half to confirm where all of our employees were, make sure that they were safe, make sure that their families were safe, that they had what they needed. All the work that was going on in Tokyo completely stopped. It’s fine. There was other people that picked it up and things to do.

Erin McKeown: I think that what we learn from this type of an event is no matter what, people are our most important asset. As a company, you consider it family and I think one of the challenges that companies do have is really understanding that line between responsibility and just doing the right thing for their employees. In this particular event, we actually considered chartering planes to get our employees out. We didn’t have to do that because it turned out everything was going to be okay, but, yeah. So bottom line from this experience, to highlight that despite the fact that the office was unoperationable for weeks at that point, everything was fine business wise. All we cared about was the employees being safe and their families being safe.

Erin McKeown: So this is another event that took place in 2012. Hurricane Sandy. It actually impacted the eastern seaboard, caused over an estimated $70,000,000,000 dollars worth of damage. Another very, very human wise devastating event. I’m not going to talk about that one. Part of this in this one, a startup that became … well, I wasn’t working there but partnered with them on some things. I wasn’t responsible for their DR. They actually had their data center in downtown Manhattan. I don’t know if you guys know that there’s data centers in downtown Manhattan but from a risk standpoint, I would not be having my data center downtown Manhattan.

Erin McKeown: Anyway, they completely lost power. They lost backup generator power. They didn’t have a disaster recovery plan. They didn’t have their data backed up. So they were pretty much dead in the water. They had to sit there and wait and see if everything would come back or if it wouldn’t. So the big lesson from them here is luckily, the services came back. They were able to continue their operations, but they quickly implemented a disaster recovery and backup data … sorry. Data backup policy.

Erin McKeown: So I think one of the things from this experience is really understanding again, first and foremost, the people aspect is the most important, but when you start thinking on the business side of things. Especially for a company like Zendesk, that our data is our bread and butter, that’s where you want to be putting some focus and making sure that you’re considering that and making plans for it. So yep. Just kind of the takeaway from that is we do consider people. Again, I think about it from a Zendesk standpoint because like Shawna, I absolutely love it here. I’ve been here for four years. They’re going to have to drag me out kicking and screaming. Again, I do believe that we’re a company that … you know, people first. We do believe that also our data’s pretty important too. So thank you so much.

Staff Software Engineer, Site Reliability, Alethea Power gives a talk on “Computer, Heal Thyself: Automating Oncall, So You Can Sleep Through It” at Zendesk Girl Geek Dinner.

Alethea Power: Hi. This is my talk. Computer heal thyself: automating oncall. So you can sleep through it. My name is Alethea Power. I’ve worked in auto-remediation, which is what I’m going to cover, and I’ll explain that term in a minute. I’ve worked in auto-remediation for about 10 years. I built one of the world’s first and largest auto-remediation services. And now I’m building an auto-remediation service in conjunction with Kim and the ZNOC team here at Zendesk.

Alethea Power: So what is the purpose of auto-remediation? Well, tech companies have been finding through the dev ops revolution, not revelation. I mean I guess it’s kind of a revelation. Over the past number of years, that they can get better product quality, faster product development velocity, and higher service reliability if they give product engineering teams both the responsibility and the authority to manage the full life cycle of the software that they’re writing. So that means not just writing code but the engineers who write the code also push the code out to production. They operate the code in production. And they respond when there are outages in production.

Alethea Power: So this causes a virtuous tight loop. The engineers who are writing the code are best equipped to solve problems when they occur and when those problems occur, it gives those engineers a lot of extremely useful information about how to change that code or repair it. So quality goes up, speed goes up, et cera, et cera. But this introduces a whole new set of responsibilities for software engineers that they have not traditionally had to take care of which means we have to provide them with tools to make these jobs easier so that they can focus on the part they understand and not have to worry about lots of things that distract them from the focus of the code.

Alethea Power: So auto-remediation is meant to be a tool to help address with your mediation of outages. And I’m not talking about the Fukishimas of the world. I’m talking about much more frequent outages. The kind that happen 20 times a day. The kind that happen at 4 A.M. and at 4:45 and at 6 and at 5:30 A.M. So what does this look like in practice? Traditionally, you have a monitoring system that detects when you have outages in your infrastructure with your services. That monitoring system gives alerts to engineers. Now this could be in the form of engineers sitting in front of a dashboard of alerts 24/7 watching it. It can be in the form of alerts paging engineers in the middle of the night and waking them up. Yeah, et cera, et cera.

Alethea Power: And then engineers take their own knowledge and documentation recorded in what’s frequently called runbooks to execute various commands in the production environment to try and solve these problems. So these commands can be things like, if you have an application that’s wedged, maybe you’ll restart it. If you have a hard drive that’s full and maybe it’s full because there’s a bunch of errors spewing into a log. Then maybe you truncate that log. If you’re in the middle of being attacked. If you’re in the middle of a DDoS attack. Maybe you changed some routing rules to black hole incoming requests.

Alethea Power: So these are the kinds of things I’m talking about. So in auto-remediation service replaces these two components. The engineer gets replaced with a service and the runbooks get replaced with remediation code. So instead of having human readable documentation about what to do, you have blocks of code. And the auto-remediation service goes and executes this code in response to alerts in the monitoring system. And then engineers can sleep through the night. Their talents are better used for, for instance, instead of waking up to restart a service that has a memory leak, they can be well rested in the morning and figure out why it has a memory leak and fix that.

Alethea Power: And in general, we can take better advantage of the knowledge that we have across all of our engineers. The engineers that are being woken up and the engineers that are watching these dashboards. We’ve got a lot of really knowledgeable, talented, intelligent people. And we want them to be able to use their skills in the most sophisticated and interesting ways possible. So we’re trying to automate as much as we can.

Alethea Power: So I’m going to look at an example here. This is a configuration file for the auto-remediation service that we’re building. I tried to design the configuration language to be as simple as possible while also being flexible enough for what we’re trying to accomplish. So let’s walk through it. This file says if you have this issue on these hosts, then it should run this job in response but don’t run it more often than that. So specifically if the osquery agent is busted, web servers in us-west-1, then you want to run this block of remediation code but don’t do it more than five times per hour per cluster. Make sense?

Alethea Power: So let’s go look at this thing right here so we can understand how that looks. So we’re also building an SDK, mostly built by engineers on Kim’s team. And this SDK includes a lot of convenience objects and convenience methods so that the people writing remediations can focus just on the logic that they care about and they don’t have to worry about things like SSH authentication and properly rotating keys and how do they get authentication into AWS so they can reboot EC2 hosts and stuff like that. We abstract all that away for them and we do it in ways that make our security compliance team happy. Every remediation uses a different SSH key magically.

Alethea Power: So this remediation you can see in four lines of code. It could fix this problem. So let’s walk through these lines. First, you import our SDK so you get all of these convenience objects and methods. Then you subclass our remediation class and override the run method and inside of that, you get this convenience object. If it’s an alert on a host, you get The remediation doesn’t even have to know what host it’s working on. It can if it wants We’ll tell you a host name but you don’t have to. And you get this method,, which magically does lots of SSH things in the background and can run this command to go restart that service.

Alethea Power: So it’s that straightforward. We’re trying to make it as simple as possible for our engineers. It’s pretty complicated on the backside. Here’s a pretty simplified picture of what the backside looks like. So, Swati, you did a magic thing with a dot. I don’t know how to do it so I’m just going to go point. So that thing, the alert mapper, pulls in alerts from PagerDuty. That’s who we use for monitoring or where we consolidate our alerts. And it runs those alerts through the configuration like the configuration files we were just seeing and calculates what remediation jobs to run, inserts those jobs into the database, and then that thing, the job launcher, pulls the jobs from the database, hands them as config files to Kubernetes and Kubernetes executes them inside of containers. We’re running them in containers because I’ve built this before and engineers make jobs that take 100 gigs of ram and all the CPU you can use so we don’t want any job to choke out the others. And lastly, since we have this nice infrastructure in place already with a beautiful SDK, we’re giving people the ability to launch proactive jobs using a CLI to do things like kernel upgrades and other stuff that’s not necessarily responding to alerts. All right. Thank you.

Eleanor Stribling speaking

Group Product Manager Eleanor Stribling gives a talk on “ML in Support: Infusing a flagship product with innovative new features” at Zendesk Girl Geek Dinner.

Eleanor Stribling: Hi, everyone. My name’s Eleanor Stribling. I’m a group product manager here at Zendesk. What that means is I manage other product managers. And what I wanted to tell you about today was how we’re using machine learning in Support, our largest, oldest product. A little bit about me. I would also say that Zendesk is really the best place I’ve worked in in tech. I’ve been here a year. Before that, I’ve been in all kinds of companies ranging from a company that’s like a 100,000 people all the way to a teeny, tiny social impact startup and this experience overall has been just amazing. I work with obviously lots of really smart people, so definitely encourage you to explore this if it’s of interest to you.

Eleanor Stribling: One of the reasons I really like Zendesk and I like working on this product is … well, it’s not evil. But also, it really helps people do their jobs and do them well and that’s why I’m so excited about this particular project. Putting machine learning in Support, because like I said, this is the product that a lot of our customers use. Use it a lot. They’re in it everyday. And we want to help them do their jobs better and more efficiently. So machine learning is a great way to do that.

Eleanor Stribling: I want to do a little bit of clarification of terms. So when I say Support, I might mean something different than what you imagine it to mean. So most people when they say, most normal people who don’t work here, when they say support, they mean calling support like I need to call support because I’ve got a question. That kind of usage. What I’m going to talk about is the product Support. So Support, as I mentioned, is our oldest product. Until recently, it was Zendesk. And basically it’s a system for creating tickets or issues, moving them through a system, making sure the right people see them at the right time and then resolving them. And that’s kind of the core of what we offer. So it’s a really cool place to work because we have huge impact on a lot of users.

Eleanor Stribling: So a pause here and then zoom up a little bit. When you think of machine learning as part of customer service or customer support, what do you think of? What do you sort of imagine? Chances are, you imagine something like this. So this is one of our products. This is AnswerBot. And it is exactly what the name connotes. It is a bot that answers questions for people in chat. So in this example, you’re connecting to a chat. You’re asking some basic questions. AnswerBot looks at the text and predicts a response and then serves it to you. If the prediction is strong enough and if it doesn’t, as you can see right here, it’s going to escalate it to an agent. That went by really fast but trust me, that’s what it did.

Eleanor Stribling: So that’s usually how we think about customer support with ML, right? Bot answers your questions. I think this is a great product and it does lots of great things. Among them, it means that customers don’t always have to talk to a person. So I definitely have my moments. I think we all do when we really don’t want to talk to a person and in these circumstances, it’s great. But the problem with answer bots, generally, not just ours, is that people do want human connection. So it’s great for deflecting some issues but sometimes when you call support, you just want to talk to a person. How do I get to a person, you might scream into the void.

Eleanor Stribling: So really the question that we have now as a very customer centric company building a product that’s supposed to help you build relationships, is how do we help people inject that humanity that customers want, they want to experience. How do we help them do more of that? How can we help them be more efficient? And I think we started looking at machine learning as a way to do that in Support. This is also, I think, important kind of context. We do this really cool report every year about customer experience trends. So if you’re interested in customer experience, generally, if you’re a data person, definitely check this out because I think it gives you good perspective or if you want to apply for a job, just saying, it will give you really good perspective into the landscape.

Eleanor Stribling: So there’s a lot going on here but basically people expect answers fast. They want it on every channel that you have. They expect you to be on every channel. They really want you to be proactive but you’re probably not doing that so there’s a lot of pressure right now on these customer support organizations. So in this environment of I just want a person but I also want a person with all this other stuff, how do you manage that? So when we first looked at taking this approach of we got this giant product people know and love. It’s like where they spend their whole day in a lot of cases at work. We first started with the question, how can we use machine learning to help customers manage complexity. Because we are going up market. We’ve got more and more customers who have huge agent teams. Like about 40% of our annual revenue comes from customers that have over 100 agents. So these are not small companies. There’s a lot of complexities.

Eleanor Stribling: So we kind of started there, but then realized pretty quickly as a customer centric company that really, what we were asking is how can we use machine learning to make our customers even better at their jobs? And really even beyond that, how can we help them make their jobs less stressful? If you imagine being an agent or a manager of support agents or even an administrator of a system like this, there’s a lot riding on you. There’s a ton of stress. People are calling you stressed out, saying I’ve been trying to talk to a person for however long. It’s often not pleasant and so, I think, to make jobs for these folks easier is one of the reasons I joined Zendesk, because again, it’s something that’s actually improving people’s lives and it’s definitely not evil.

Eleanor Stribling: So what we wanted to do was figure out, how do we add little things to this so that it won’t blow you away, like the machines aren’t taking your job, but we’re giving you little tools to do everything that much better, that much faster. So again, being a customer centric company, we looked at the main groups of customers that use our product, which you see across the top there. Agents, managers, administrators. And then we thought about, for each of them, as you can see down the side there, what their goals are and then we thought about what we could use ML to do for them. How could we help them do their jobs with this rich set of data that we have for each customer?

Eleanor Stribling: So first of all, agents. So they really need to get happy customers. Like if you’re finally getting that touch of humanity in your support experience, you want your customer to leave happy, right? It satisfies them. It satisfies the customer. Everyone’s incentives are aligned. So the plan here is because agents are often working in complex environments, they can be very high turnover environments, we wanted to figure out a plan to–and what we’re working now, actually–is essentially crowdsourcing agent responses. So we can start suggesting next steps for people as they’re working on a ticket. And that’s really huge. Again, in somewhere that’s really fast paced, maybe you’re working on something you’re not familiar with, we’re kind of there to lend them a helping hand and help them be a little bit faster and more efficient and give people more relevant answers.

Eleanor Stribling: For managers, so managers are leading a team of agents and they really need these agents to be efficient and make people happy and they care about CSAP. Part of that is making sure you got the right number of people, the right people and the right number, in the right place to answer questions. So here we’re looking at grouping relevant data together. So for example, if you have a ticket that comes in and it’s one of a hundred tickets about the same topic, we want to surface that in a really clear and simple way for managers so they can respond effectively. Either by getting agents with the right skills. Maybe they figured out a response they want to communicate to their team. That kind of thing so that they can get on top of it. Another thing that we’re working on managers that I think will really help is predicting surges. So we can look at the agent staffing that they’ve had at any given time. Maybe it’s a time of it’s really busy like around Christmas for example or maybe it’s just every Wednesday. What do I need? The other thing we’re working on here is figuring out how to surface that intelligence so managers can do their job better so we’re giving them a little boost.

Eleanor Stribling: And then finally, administrators. So these are the folks that set up Zendesk and maintain Zendesk. And so their main thing is that no ticket, no issue kind of gets undealt with. And I think that there’s kind of a constant stress that they have that something will not be answered because they somehow messed up the settings. So the great thing about administrators from a data science perspective is they kindly label a lot of data for us. We don’t want them to stop doing that but what we can do is learn from how they label data for us. And what that means is we can help make sure that no ticket goes unanswered. That if they don’t assign something that makes sense, we can provide suggestions, updates for them, but also for managers in real time so that they can change the routing. So there’s a lot of really cool things we can do that would really have real time impact in small ways on our customers to, again, make their job better, make it easier and less stressful. And really, that’s one of the reasons I work in tech. Because I want people’s lives to be made better through it.

Eleanor Stribling: And finally, if you follow me on Medium or Twitter, you know I’ve got kind of this weird thing about Harry Potter and I had studied language in Harry Potter. But to me, this project is kind of like that. It’s like we’re taking something that’s everyday that people are used to staring at for hours on end and we’re adding little things that are unexpected and kind of cool. And so that’s why I think that this is such a great space to be in. Because we’re having like huge impact by making little and also extremely cool changes to the experience. We are also hiring in that team. Shameless plug. We’re hiring in that team for a data science engineer and a data scientist and I’m also hiring for a product manager, so if you’re interested in any of those, definitely come see me after. Thank you.

Shawna Wolverton: All right. Thank you to our amazing speakers. Why don’t you guys actually all come back up and we can do a little Q&A. I think there’s going to be some folks out with mics wandering around. Maybe. There you go. We don’t need all the mics. So we got about ten minutes for Q&A if anyone has questions about the talks or Zendesk or you know, we know a lot of things. Trust us. It’s fun. No? Careful, we’ll ask you … oh, great. Right … oh, you’re close but then we got one up here.

Shawna Wolverton, Swati Krishnan, Erin McKeown, Alethea Power, Eleanor Stribling

Zendesk girl geeks: Shawna Wolverton, Swati Krishnan, Erin McKeown, Alethea Power and Eleanor Stribling answer audience questions at Zendesk Girl Geek Dinner.

Audience Member: Hi. Alethea, I really enjoyed yours as someone who’s been woken up so many times from PagerDuty. Like God bless you. Can you talk more about the code behind what makes all that wonderful magic run?

Alethea Power: Yes, but there’s so much of it. Maybe it’s better to go into details after the Q&A?

Audience Member: I will find you. Thank you.

Shawna Wolverton: I have a feeling–

Alethea Power: I guess I could give you like a 30 second. It’s all written in Python. We use Aurora on the backside for the database. Like I said, we put containers into Kubernetes. I don’t know. That’s a very quick, quick, quick. It looked like you frowned when I said Python.

Audience Member: Oh no.

Alethea Power: Okay, so don’t find me afterwards. No, no, seriously. Totally come ask.

Audience Member Thank you.

Shawna Wolverton: Heard one up here.

Audience Member Hi. This is a question for Swati. You mentioned metaprogramming and I’m actually really interested in dynamic programming languages, such as Python, but you mentioned you mostly work with Ruby. So I was just curious if you ever worked with other languages, such as Python, for instance?

Shawna Wolverton: Lovers and haters of Python.

Swati Krishnan: Thanks for the question. My internship project here was in Python. So yes, I’ve worked with Python before. That was dealing with, I don’t know if you’ve heard about [inaudible], but that’s like a graph database implementation in Python. So I worked in that quite a bit and yeah, Ruby and Python are very similar, interchangeable somewhat. Yeah. Any more questions about the?

Audience Member: Talk to me more about it.

Swati Krishnan: Sure, catch me and then I can talk to you about my Python work. Sure.

Shawna Wolverton: Question.

Audience Member: Hi. I have a question for Alethea. So no doubt that it’s great that you’re not woken up at 4 A.M. or on call. Agreed with that. But I’m curious, one of the philosophies of DevOps is that when engineers feel the pain of the alerts, they’re more motivated to fix it. And so do you find that maybe the engineers aren’t as motivated to fix it and if so, is that actually a problem?

Alethea Power: That is such a good question. So this service is in the process of being built right now, but like I said, I built this in the past and had years of experience running it in the past. That’s why we surface very public metrics from it. So rather than feel the pain in a way that makes them bleary eyed and less capable of doing their jobs, they feel the pain in the sense of error budgets and visible metrics and things like this. So, yeah.

Shawna Wolverton: For the record, blameless accountability.

Alethea Power: This is true. I’m actually a big fan of blameless accountability.

Audience Member: I’m also just curious as to how many engineers helped you to build this and how long it typically takes?

Alethea Power: So it’s me and two engineers on Kim’s team. We spent a while designing because there were some security compliance constraints we had to hit and also, we’ve purchased a number of companies, so we have to be able to work with a wide variety of infrastructural decisions. So it took us a few months to figure out high level, how to design the system so that it would do all of that. And once we knew roughly what we were doing, I don’t know, what would you say? We’ve got about 80% of the code written in two months. Something like that.

Audience Member: [inaudible].

Alethea Power: Yeah. We’re cranking right now.

Audience Member: Hi. I have a question for Eleanor. So, I don’t know anything about your product, Support, but I’m assuming there’s a dashboard so when the customers come to open a ticket, is there a knowledge base? I was going to ask you, are you using machine learning to help the customer before they open a ticket.

Eleanor Stribling: Yes. So we’ve got a product called Guide, which is basically a help center. It’s a really easy use, out of the box kind of help center. So yeah, we’ve got that product. We also have AnswerBot, which I mentioned, which helps people before they even reach out to a person to try and resolve their issue before that. And we also have a bunch of tools for people who administer help centers to help them figure out what to write articles about so from those three dimensions, we try to take care of them before they need to reach out.

Audience Member: Got it. Thank you.

Shawna Wolverton: Going once. Oh, one more. [inaudible].

Audience MemberI have a question for Erin McKeown. She and Kim Smith and I actually started Zendesk on the same day, a little more than four years ago. But Erin, when you started, you were the first person to work in business continuity and disaster recovery here, and now you’ve built out quite a practice. I’m just wondering if you have any sort of quick tidbits, lessons learned, insights on that experience over the last four years?

Erin McKeown: Yeah. Well, that’s a really good question. Yeah, I started out as business continuity disaster recovery program manager and that kind of scope grew quite a bit. We had a lot of activity on our intimate management so we built out an entire team that is really churning now and doing amazing work. And so, been switching focus a little bit to prioritize different things and build out different teams. I’m actually, right now, hiring a disaster recovery manager who then will hire three analysts under them so I’m really excited about the progress that’s being made there. But I think what I tried to do was focus on what I could actually manage and actually what I could take on and be honest with myself about that. Because I think I started out of the gate being like oh, I’m going to do all of these things and quickly was like, oh gosh. Got to pace it back a little bit.

Erin McKeown: Again, having very supportive upper management and with that whole perspective has really helped us get progressively down the line, but, yeah, it’s been a fun journey over the four years for sure.

Shawna Wolverton: One in the back.

Audience Member: Hi. This question’s for Eleanor. I was just curious, and it seems that the product you’re thinking about might not be as mature. How do you deal with customer questions around validation of the algorithm or you mentioned you’re going to forecast demand search. How do you deal with where they’re like, well, how is this true or how do I know you’re giving me the right guidance because I don’t trust the machine or the model?

Eleanor Stribling: Yeah, that’s a great question. I actually saw a really … this influenced me a lot. A talk by someone from PagerDuty at a conference a little while ago. And I talked to him about it after because we were thinking about doing some similar things and he was saying that really the biggest challenge was getting people to adopt the ML because they didn’t trust it. And so I think the approach that we’re taking is very much opt in, we’re going to validate all of these algorithms we’re writing. We’re going to validate them all with customers before we start and make those early validation customers EAP customers, we hope, to sign them up so they can sort of see it in action and be part of making sure it works the way they need it to. So I think that that’s one tack.

Eleanor Stribling: But I think it’s also the reason behind the strategy that we’re not going to suddenly say oh, we’re going to use ML to route all of your tickets. Like trust us, it works. We’re not going to do that. We’re going to very gradually introduce little things that help people a little bit. And they don’t even have to take the suggestion if they don’t want to. But the hope is that over time, they begin to trust it. It doesn’t replace them. It doesn’t replace necessarily even huge amounts of their workflow. It just makes it a little bit better for them and I think that that’s definitely going to have to be the first phase of how we approach this. And then we’ll see.

Shawna Wolverton: I think one more question. Yeah? But we’ll all be here afterwards. Feel free to find us.

Audience MemberHi. I have a question for Eleanor, too.

Eleanor Stribling: Sure.

Audience MemberIt’s a continuation to what she asked. So with every customer that opt ins with you, do you retrain your model and then how do you know, how good is your model?

Eleanor Stribling: Yeah, so, great question. So we are doing individual customer models. I think that that’s really because each customer’s quite different and we definitely have customers with a ton of data and we want to make sure that we customize the solution to them. I think that’s how we’re going to get the best result. In terms of validating it, I think that, again, we’re going to need to do a couple of steps. I think with some of our biggest customers, we have some customers who are already really interested in this. So I think that there’s an opportunity there to get them on board. Have them help us test it effectively. I think we will be gating some of these things, so we’ll give them options to roll it out to portions of their organization. We have a lot of customers who deploy it in multiple areas in the organization. So do that gradually. Make sure they’ve got some training around it. But I think, again, really the strategy needs to be we’re going to get some customers who we know it works for them and they can help us evangelize it, because otherwise, I don’t think people won’t necessarily trust it. [inaudible] own data. Does that answer your question?

Audience Member: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Eleanor Stribling: Great.

Shawna Wolverton: All right. Thank you lovely speakers. We fed and watered you. We educated you a little bit. And in exchange, you get to learn why it would be so amazing and awesome to work here. I want to introduce Lauren from our recruiting team.

Lauren Taft: Hi, everyone. Thanks so much for coming. I’m Lauren Taft, manager of recruiting for technical and university recruiting and Stephanie, who’s over there, who’s our senior tech recruiter. Just wanted to tell you a little bit more about Zendesk. We have 145,000 customers, 2,600 employees. Our headquarters is here in San Francisco. We have 16 global offices. Our product is in 160 countries. It touches 60 languages. And we have 1.4 billion yearly interactions processed.

Lauren Taft: So a little bit about Zendesk recruiting. We’re growing at scale. There’s tons of opportunity and with opportunity comes impact. And then a little bit more about what our values are here. We practice empathy, focus on relationships, and be humbledent, which is humble and confident together that we made as one word. Kind of a fun little spin. We thought it’d be great to show you a video. Oops. I should pause this for a second. We made this for International Women’s Day and it’s a little bit of what it feels like to be a female here at Zendesk.

Video Speaker: Oh okay, one word.

Video Speaker: One word to describe her? Badass.

Video Speaker: Oh, I would totally call her a badass.

Video Speaker: Badass.

Video Speaker: Is badass one word?

Video Speaker: Okay, two words. She’s amazing, but she is also a badass, which is pretty cool. She has a special way of like seeing things within you that you might still be trying to grasp or shore up and she’s like no, you’re there. You’re ready.

Video Speaker: Any time she gives me feedback, it’s often very direct, and sometimes a little shockingly direct, but it never upsets me because I know that it’s coming from a place in her heart where she wants to be my best self.

Video Speaker: She had a really genuine talk with me, which I really appreciated. It was kind of like a big sister talk and it was a talk that I’ve never gotten from anyone at work. She just did it in such a genuine, motherly way. The way that she approached the situation, I really respected, and I realized why she deserves to be in a leadership position.

Video Speaker: Wow. She said all that? Trying to put into words the emotions that are there around it. It’s wonderful to feel recognized. I feel like that’s something a lot of women don’t ask for or expect. I had women like that in my own life, and it is super meaningful to me in terms of just being a person in this world to be able to affect somebody like that, so.

Video Speaker: She’s really helped me to push myself outside my comfort zone. To own those aspects of being a woman that at times can appear or make us feel a little bit more limited. I think her favorite word was, use that emotion and passion for good. To help get things done. To help drive what’s important to your team and your organization and that’s the first time I’ve really looked at it that way. How do I take that crazy wild but super passionate part of me and put that in a place and use that in a way that can get good things done?

Video Speaker: I really love it when women have a conviction or a boldness to put themselves out there and say this is a thing that I want and then to go get it. And it’s been so cool to see her succeed and push herself and push others and grow Zendesk over the past couple of years.

Video Speaker: We would talk about what we’d like, what we didn’t like about our jobs and what we wanted and she took the steps to communicate, make it clear what her goals were, but she didn’t just wait for things to happen. And that’s what is mostly inspiring is that she took her destiny into her own hands. She went and took classes outside of work and was able to move her career in the direction that she wanted to.

Video Speaker: I would say that she’s helped me by demonstrating that you … it’s always easier to take responsibility for your current situation and how to get to where you want to be. She’s shown me that it’s good to not necessarily wait for opportunities to show up, but to go after them aggressively. Even if you’re not sure how they’re going to pan out and even if sometimes other people are telling you not to go after the thing, that if your gut is telling you to go after the thing, you should do it.

Video Speaker: I’m actually surprised at how many strong, powerful, motivated, intelligent women that I’ve met since I’ve been here. More than I’ve ever met in my life. It helps me to drive myself to be better, but it’s also just a really good support network.

Video Speaker: We’re hoping we can spread the joy.

Video Speaker: You are definitely spreading the joy. If there was like one moment this week that I needed this most of all, it was like right now, today.

Video Speaker: I’m so glad to hear that.

Video Speaker: So, thank you.

Lauren Taft: Uh oh. I don’t know what’s going on. There we go. So I hope you guys enjoyed that video. Just gives you a good sense of what it’s like to be here. If you’re interested, come chat with us. It was a pleasure hosting you all. We had a bit of swag snafu so check your inboxes for an Amazon gift card. We’re very appreciative that you’re here, and we are going to take a group picture.

Zendesk Girl Geek Dinner group picture

Zendesk Girl Geek Dinner group picture – thanks for coming out and joining us!

Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

“Coding Strong at Age 60”: Akilah Monifa with ARISE Global Media (Video + Transcript)

Akilah Monifa / SVP / ARISE Global Media
Gretchen DeKnikker / COO / Girl Geek X


Gretchen DeKnikker: I’m so, so, so excited about our next speaker, Akilah Monifa. She is the SVP at ARISE Global Media, which is a digital media platform for LGBTQ folks of color and their allies. And she made an Alexa skill called Black Media–or Black History Everyday, which I really want to just make it Black History Errryday. But not everybody’s gonna put all the Rs in it.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I’m very, very excited for this talk and you guys are gonna love it. Please, welcome Akilah. All right.

Akilah Monifa: Thank you, Gretchen.

Gretchen DeKnikker: All right, thanks.

Akilah Monifa: Welcome, everyone. It kind of reminds me, the start kind of reminds me of in eighth grade watching a science film and the film broke, but it is 2019, so we did get it together. I am Akilah. I’m gonna talk today about my Alexa Skill Black History Everyday.

Akilah Monifa: Even though you can see me, just wanted to share a little about me and the skills. This is me. This is my wonderful headshot. One of my favorite shots of myself. This is me and my children. my son Benjamin who is 15 and my daughter Izzie who turned 18. This is Raya Ross who is my intern and is a high school student, and helps me work on the skill. I just wanted to show a picture of her. This is my friend Elan and myself. We are in our Black History is Golden tshirts from the Golden State Warriors, because, obviously, black history is near and dear to my heart. Elan also helps a lot on the site, too.

Akilah Monifa: Okay. Now, this is just a brief little video that I wanted to share with you that Alexa made about my app.

Akilah Monifa: My first skill is pretty simple. It’s called Black History Everyday.

Alexa: Patricia Bath, that first black woman to serve on staff as-

Akilah Monifa: It started to work at 5:00 AM, on April 3rd, 2017, which happened to be my 60th birthday. And I cried when it worked. I cried tears of joy. I want people to know that you don’t have to know the coding to do it. I didn’t know the coding, and I actually now have three skills. I think it’s very exciting. I mean, I don’t think that I can adequately describe just the thrill that all of these skills have, but particularly the first one. And to know that so many people can hear the skill and be as enlightened through sound and knowledge, as I was, it is, I think, very, very profound.

Akilah Monifa: My children jokingly say that that’s my commercial for Alexa.

Akilah Monifa: Why did I start the skill? The first thing was that, as we all know, Black History Month in the United States is in February, and it’s the shortest month of the year, lot of people have complained about that. 28 days, 29 in leap year.

Akilah Monifa: My other big issue was that I really wasn’t learning much in Black History Month. The same facts were being regurgitated over and over. So, what do you remember about Black History Month in general? I mean, we heard facts about Martin Luther King, George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, and that was really the extent of it. That certainly was not sufficient for me.

Akilah Monifa: The first thing that I did was to develop a website which is I was actually amazed that the URL was available, but it was, so I developed the website. My thought was that every day I was going to put a different black history fact on this website.

Akilah Monifa: Here are a couple of examples. The website exists. A few examples of the facts that I put on the website, and they’re very short. I wanted them to be diverse. This is Isis King who is the first transgender model to compete on America’s Next Top Model in 2011. This is the Mobile Edition. This is what it looks like. Mashama Bailey, the first black woman nominated for Best Chef at the James Beard Foundation awards 2018. Glory Edim, she’s the founder of Well-Read Black Girl, an online book club and community.

Akilah Monifa: The other thing that I wanted was the oh wow factor, “Oh wow. I didn’t know that,” or, “I was unaware of that.” So, I really tried to have really interesting things. Since today is International Women’s Day, starting today through the rest of the month all of my facts are going to be about women, about black women.

Akilah Monifa: Now we go from, I have this website. Two years ago, someone gave me an Alexa, and I had heard about it, but I had not experienced it. I got it. I saw that there were all sorts of skills on Alexa, so I thought I should be able to have my website into an Alexa skill. That was my thought. I thought how difficult can it be. Actually, I thought I don’t know anything about coding, so maybe I can’t do it. But I googled how to do an Alexa skill, and found out there was something called the Alexa skills kit, and that was online.

Akilah Monifa: So, I went to the Alexa skills kit and got information that alleged that one could build a skill in minutes with no coding required. I said, okay, I’ll develop the skill. Basically, when I went to the Alexa skills kit, there were five different entries that I could make to help develop the skill. I suppose theoretically, it could have been done in minutes…skipping ahead. It did not take me minutes. And when I tried to fill out the form or I did fill out the form and I developed my skill, it got rejected. I lost count the number of times that it got rejected. After you submit it, you submit it for certification, and it was not successful. I think I submitted it between 75 and a hundred times. I joined Alexa developers groups to try to figure out what was wrong and talked to people and tweeted…. The shorter version of it is that finally, after all of this, it did start to work. And I just wanted to show you this is just the first page. It was almost fill in the blanks. But the key thing that was missing for me in developing the skill is that I thought that simply by having the website that I could feed the website into Alexa, and Alexa would be able to read out my website, and that in fact was not the case.

Akilah Monifa: It was finally when I, through a lot of research and trial and effort, realized that one thing that I needed was to get Alexa to talk to the website. It was pretty simple. I just had to find a device, and the device that I found is called Feedburner, Once I plugged my website into that, then Alexa could understand what my website said and read out the information, which was just wonderful.

Akilah Monifa: As I described in the video, it actually started working on my 60th birthday, which was two years ago, which will be coming up two years ago, so I was very ecstatic. I can also really, if you’re trying to build an Alexa skill, really recommend Feedburner. After that, it was very simple.

Akilah Monifa: I just wanted to show–The skill, I did a definition of the skill. The skill basically says that it is Black History Everyday in about a minute from Arise 2.0. Black history is no longer relegated to the shortest month of the year. A different black history fact presented daily, seven days a week, 365 days a year, 366 in a leap year. It’s prepared. I say, “Invented by the team at Arise 2.0,” which is mainly consisting of me and Raya with some help from a few other friends who give me information. Our mission is to tell our diverse stories.

Akilah Monifa: If you have an Alexa and you go to Alexa, you can enable the skill in the app. And there it is, Black History Everyday, actually with an old logo. Or you can actually just ask it to enable it. I just wanted to at least show you–and hopefully, Alexa will work–how it works.

Akilah Monifa: Alexa, what’s my flash briefing?

Alexa: Here’s your flash briefing. From Arise 2.0 Black History Everyday, Zarifa Roberson, CEO/ Founder/ Publisher of I-D-E-A-L magazine for urban young people with disabilities 2004 to 2015.

Alexa: Toni Harris is the first woman football player at a skill position, non-kicker, to sign a letter of intent accepting a scholarship to Central Methodist University in Missouri in 2019.

Alexa: Akilah Bolden-Monifa, Alexa pioneer, developed Black History Everyday Skill for Amazon’s Alexa in the website

Alexa: Dr. Roselyn Payne Epps is the first black woman to serve as President of the American Medical Women’s Association in 2002.

Akilah Monifa: The only glitch was that it was my intent to have one black history fact every day. What I found out with Alexa is that through my website Alexa would read out five facts a day. I had to basically then shift gears and make sure that I had five different facts a day instead of one. That’s my skill. Thank you.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Thanks. Looks like I was still muted. Thanks, Akilah.

Akilah Monifa: You’re welcome

Gretchen DeKnikker: That is so awesome. There’s other people. It’s the same. People [inaudible 00:11:48]. That’s making their Alexas go off just listening to you.

Akilah Monifa: Yes.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Which is awesome, because that’s what happened when we did the dry run for her speaker talk too. And so, we had one question come in. She keeps getting rejected, she’s saying with Google not Alexa. Because I think they don’t want to give me the name I want. It’s frustrating for an indie developer. How many times did you say you had to keep applying?

Akilah Monifa: I lost track, but I believe that I applied for certification between 75 and a hundred times before it was accepted. And I would say that the one thing–that it passed certification, basically.

Akilah Monifa: The one thing that I didn’t do was you can test it before you submit it for certification, and I didn’t do that. I foolishly just kept certifying it and submitting it through certification thinking that it would work, and it didn’t. If I’d tested it, I would have seen that it didn’t work, so I probably wouldn’t have submitted it for certification

Gretchen DeKnikker: Another question. What was the thing that surprised you most about developing a skill?

Akilah Monifa: I think that the thing that surprised me, what most, was how easy it was that I just had the idea. Before people told me that you needed coding to do it or you needed to pay someone to code you, so I thought I can’t do it. The surprising thing was that when I googled how to build an Alexa skill, yes, if you know coding you can build it, but you can build it without knowing coding.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Amazing. I think this is great. What I’m really hoping, this will be my request to you, is that next year you can come back and tell us about building it for Apple and for Google, so that we can all have it, because I do think that American school systems don’t do a great job of giving that information out. It’s amazing that you took the time to just share it with everybody.

Akilah Monifa: Well, and the good thing is that it is available to everyone because even if you don’t have the skill, if you don’t have Alexa, you can get the information through the website. Just go to, and all the information is on the website, which is good.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Awesome. All right, Akilah, this was great. Thank you so much for taking the time.

Akilah Monifa: Thank you.

Gretchen DeKnikker: All right.

Episode 13: Self Advocacy

Resources mentioned in this podcast:

Getting More: How You Can Negotiate to Succeed in Work and Life by Stuart Diamond


Angie Chang: Welcome to Girl Geek X Podcast connecting you with insights for women in tech. This is Angie.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: This is Sukrutha.

Gretchen DeKnikker: This is Gretchen.

Rachel Jones: This is Rachel, the producer of this podcast, and we are the team behind Girl Geek X. This podcast brings you the best of Girl Geek X events, dinners, and conferences where we’ve been elevating women in tech for over 10 years.

Angie Chang: And today we’ll be discussing self advocacy.

Rachel Jones: How do you see these topics kind of come up?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, it definitely comes up like if it doesn’t come up with the speakers talking about their own personal experiences when they were growing. It does come up in the Q&A, for sure, because the attendees want to get a sense of how they can navigate through the challenges that they’re navigating at work, and it’s usually about how do I not get overlooked and how do I push myself to be more visible without being obnoxious, and so that sort of topic typically comes up, obviously, in different spots. What do you think, Angie?

Angie Chang: I find that when I am with a ladies lunch, women who brunch, group of women, you always find yourselves egging each other on to do more. Apply for the next job, or for you’re headed for some new writing residency, and so advocacy is something that we find ourselves doing to help encourage each other to self advocate.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah, I mean I think it comes up even if it’s not with that language, around how do I negotiate the right salary? Should I be going for that promotion? How do I present that?

Rachel Jones: Have any of you had personal experiences where you’ve had to advocate for yourself?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, I mean not the more obvious way of advocating for myself, but when I wanted to move to management, I basically… when I would meet people that I needed to take advice from, I would ask them what they looked for in a manager, and then I would talk about myself in the context of those qualities that they brought up, and I would ask, “Okay, how would you like that to be–that to have been exhibited,” then I would give examples of when I have done it just so that the VPs would keep me in mind if they had a manager position open, and I do think it worked. It helped me get better at describing what my strengths were, and whenever I needed to actually talk more about what I’ve been doing and what my highlights have been, I definitely found the language better.

Angie Chang: When I hear about self advocacy, I think about how you get what you asked for if you ask for it. So, I self advocated when I was at a start-up when I went in as a director, and then kept asking for a higher title. Arguing that it would help me get meetings more easily, and then I asked a few times, over and over in different ways, and then I got a promotion and people would always be like, “Congratulations, you got promoted for recognize,” and I’m like, “Yeah, that’s because I asked for it. Many times.”

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Because you were already doing what defined what a VP’s role would be in that company.

Angie Chang: Right, and you’re not going to get things unless you ask for them, half the time, more than once.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Earlier in my career, the thing I would have to advocate for the most because I worked at such small companies was another resource. I was the only one doing something, and so I think I got good advice really early on of keep a good list of what things you work on, but then divide those up into things like if you could get rid of, what those things? What would those be, and then at some point, those will be another role, and then you can off-load most of the stuff you don’t like doing and you have all this stuff to make a case for the hire, which was advice I got from at my very first start-up that I’ve given again and again.

Gretchen DeKnikker: So, I don’t know if that’s self advocacy as much as self preservation. I can’t keep doing two peoples’ jobs but–

Angie Chang: That’s a really good point. I’ve had several friends over the last year tell me about their difficulty in getting the team to manage at their companies. So, make a list of things you do and the roles you need to hire for and advocate for your resources.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah, and then also, an extra case for–the frosting on the cake and the way that you really get it is you’re like, “Okay, this is what this person would do, and then here’s what I would be free to do if I wasn’t doing this stuff and this is how I would be able to add a whole bunch more value.” That’s where, if you were coming to me as a manager, you would really get… instead of just, “If I could get rid of this, you could hire this person,” but if you can make that second half of the argument, then you’re sold.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: The good thing, also, about asking for whatever it is, whether it’s for another resource, or a promotion, is you end up getting feedback that you may not be getting in that context. So then, you get a sense of what is it that you need to do in order to get what you need? If you’re not yet there, which I found also useful when I would ask for whatever it was that I felt like I deserved, I would hear feedback about what it is that they needed to see, and then that would help me. If I was already doing those things, that would help me realize what I needed done, which is more of and what I wasn’t able to.

Gretchen DeKnikker: How’s this come up for you, Rachel?

Rachel Jones: I think, just coming from the non-profit world, you’re put in a position very often where you had to advocate for yourself, like, “Hey, this is too much work for a person to be doing and making this little money,” or, “These decisions that you’re making to get this type of funding don’t actually make any sense for my program.”

Rachel Jones: Yeah, it’s definitely something that I learned to do, and had some more success in some spaces than others and with some methods more than others, but I just think a lot about responsibility and where that falls and how it sucks that self advocacy is even a thing that you have to do, because you hear a lot in non-profits, and I’m assuming other work spaces, where everyone’s always like, “Oh, we really want to support you. Tell us what kind of support you need,” and even me just sitting down and listing for you all the stuff I need to do my job is extra work and I wish that you, who made this job and hired me to do it, already knew what I needed and could provide it for me, but that’s not the case.

Rachel Jones: Self advocacy is definitely a skill that you have to develop.

Angie Chang: Yeah, I also hear it in people who are in a job and like you said, Rachel, in a non-profit. I also see it in start-ups and tech companies where people go into a job and they’re like, “My manager isn’t amazing. I don’t have the resources to succeed,” and then they have to do a lot of self advocacy to get what they need, and they thought, “I graduated from a top university. I did the right thing, and then I thought I was in this kush job, and then I realize that no one’s paying attention to me and I’m just in this seemingly glamorous job at a company that a lot of people have heard of, but I’m not being supported,” and that’s where the self advocacy comes in to really digging your heels and figure out where you want to go hire because you’re not getting stuff handed to you.

Gretchen DeKnikker: So, there’s also the… if you haven’t developed your own self advocacy, who are those people that you have around you, kind of like Angie was talking about. So, our next quote is from Nupur Srivastava. She’s the VP of Product Management at Grand Rounds, and she shared her personal experience on self advocacy during our dinner with SquareTrade last year.

Nupur Srivastava: There was a time when I got promoted to director, and I was really excited about it, but we were scaling as a company, and my CEO told me that he’s looking to bring in a VP of product to consolidate different product functions that we had, and I was actually really excited. I helped interview. I was actually vouching for a couple of the candidates, and once I was in the room with him, we were discussing a candidate, and he looked me straight in the eye and said, “Why have you not asked me for this role?” And I was like, “Because I didn’t think it was an option? I didn’t know that that’s a thing you can do,” and it really was a pretty shocking and pivotal moment for me, because he saw my leadership potential way before I believed I could be a leader, or even deserved to be the VP of product.

Nupur Srivastava: I was lucky he gave me the role. Now, I lead the product team and I’ve grown the team out, but I think the biggest thing that taught me is you miss all the shots you don’t take. It really made me think about what are other opportunities where we are not raising our hand for, and what other things are passing us by, but that is a moment that has stuck with me, and I constantly think of that, even with my own team, which I certainly tend to have it be female heavy, because why not? And you’re always looking out for these instances where people are not asking for what they deserve, and I see it time and again.

Nupur Srivastava: If my CEO hadn’t said that to me, I would have been probably still happy, but reporting to another VP of product and probably not talking to you guys tonight.

Angie Chang: I love how honest Nupur was about the fact that she didn’t see herself as a VP until her boss reminded her of it. I wish I could say I have a similar appearance or something, but it was just really nice to hear her say that.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I resonate with what she talked about. The only thing that I took objection to was when she called herself lucky that her boss gave her the role because I believe there’s no such thing. Obviously, she worked hard and she seemed deserving, which is why he even recommended it to her, but it is fascinating to me how she said something like she would have happily reported to another VP had he not brought this up. So, just being more self aware of what you bring to the table is really important. Perhaps you’re not even thinking of putting yourself in that position.

Rachel Jones: I think this relates a lot to a discussion we had a few episodes ago about imposter syndrome and just what you think that you’re capable of, because I think self advocacy is about asking for what you deserve, but you can’t do that before you actually know what you deserve, and you take time to figure that out. So, that’s definitely important work and sometimes we’re lucky enough to have people around us who will recognize what we’re doing and push forward, but I think just within ourselves, really figuring out what we do deserve is super important.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I also want to say that if you’re a manager, or in a position where you are the one recruiting and able to spot talent or grow talent, you may not always have someone who might be great at advocating for themselves, but if you can grow someone, or nudge someone in the right direction, you should absolutely be mindful of those chances that you should take, and take them.

Gretchen DeKnikker: This has just got me thinking. I had so much support at the beginning of my career of just people who saw that I could do a lot more than I thought was even remotely possible, and it was in the late ’90s and the middle of the boom. So, it’s sort of like that whatever raw skills I had meets timing meets opportunity, and so I was able to take on so much, but I questioned them the whole time of like, “I don’t know what a 401K is. I’ve never heard of one. I can’t pick one out for the whole company,” right, because we didn’t have 401Ks, but then I think about managers I’ve had since then, and they’ve all pushed me in a different way.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Some of them, I don’t like and I don’t particularly appreciate the way that they pushed me to see that I could do more, but all of them have shown me a new part of myself where I didn’t think I was capable of something until they pushed me to do it.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: That motivation that you got a lot of support, does that make you to be more likely to then look around your team and support other people?

Gretchen DeKnikker: Oh, totally. Keep pushing something back to, especially someone who’s really junior, who’s like, “I don’t think I can do that,” and it’s like, “Okay, well let’s talk about it for a second. You need A, B, C. That feels like something you could do, doesn’t it?” And just keep pushing it back because I had that so early on that it’s… I’m really grateful for that because I think it just forces me to be like, “No, I think you really are capable of doing that. What else should I take off your plate so that you can have time to do that or whatever else?”

Rachel Jones: Do you think there was a point in your career where you transitioned out of needing people around you to point those things out?

Gretchen DeKnikker: I don’t think you ever get… I mean, what sucks when you get really senior is that you have fewer people to push you, and you’re the one doing the pushing, and so you’re providing more support and getting less, and that’s hard and you have to… I think we’ve talked about that, in the mentorship podcast, of finding those people who can still do that because I have somebody like Angie, or Sukrutha, or you around. Angie, for a decade now, has been behind me just like, “Nope, you can do that.” I was like, “First, you’re my PR person. Then you’re my life coach. Then you’re my this,” right, but she’s always, always, always pushing me to do something that I wasn’t comfortable with, and so that’s, I think, when you get more senior in your career and you don’t necessarily have a boss boss, you have that. Y’all have an Angie?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Or go find an Angie.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah, we’ve got our Angie busy, so you’re going to have to get your own.

Rachel Jones: So I hear conversations around self advocacy and even a lot of what we’re talking about with imposter syndrome being framed, specifically, around women in tech. Do you think this is something that women struggle with more?

Gretchen DeKnikker: I mean, there’s study after study shows that women don’t negotiate, and we have so many instances of it, of you get your salary offer. You’re like, “Yeah, that’s great,” and this huge percentage of men always ask for more, and so that’s the number one thing when you start thinking about the wage gap, and it’s just maybe five or ten thousand dollars in your first job out of school, but then that compounds over time and every time you get a promotion, and if you’re never negotiating at the top amount where those two things can divide where you actually have played some role in it.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I’m not saying that it’s women’s fault because I do believe that employers have a responsibility to be more responsible about this, and by the way, in California, they are not allowed to ask for your last salary. That is illegal, so definitely don’t answer that question because it has nothing to do with the job you’re about to get, and that’s another way to help in there.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: But they will ask you what salary you want.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yes.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I think it’s going back to what you said earlier about imposter syndrome impacting whether or not you do think you deserve something, and then if you think you deserve something, only then will you advocate for yourself.

Angie Chang: So, the topic of gender and self advocacy came up in our recent Elevate conference with Salesforce EVP Leyla Seka. She pushed for the gender wage gap at Salesforce to be closed and convinced CEO Marc Benioff that it was a really important topic. She spoke to this issue this year at Elevate.

Leyla Seka: Over time, throughout many companies and throughout my career, I’d had the sense that the men made more money. Just like shop talk in the kitchen kind of thing. Nothing super sophisticated, but just a feeling, and then I got Salesforce and I got totally… I got raised up and I got this great opportunity to run one of our divisions called Desk, and it was bonus time. When you’re the boss, you get the money and you decide who gets what money, what stock and all that, and so I really fought hard to get a lot of it for everyone, and when push came to shove, I really just thought they all deserved an equal amount.

Leyla Seka: So, I gave them all the same, but I gave them a lot. A lot more than any of them had ever gotten before. I worked hard. So, then you have the meetings with the people. So, my assistant set up the meetings that just happened to be the two women went first, right? So, I sit with the first woman. Great job, this, this, and this. Here’s your bonus. “OH, Leyla, thank you so much. It’s so amazing. Oh my gosh. I love my job. Thank you for the money. Thank you, thank you,” and then the second woman. Great job. “Oh, thank you for the money. Thank you so much. Thank you, thank you.”

Leyla Seka: And then the first man. I said it to him and he looked at me and he said, “I want more,” and I thought in my head like, “What? What? How could you want more? You’ve never gotten this much. What?” but I straight up was like, “Okay, I’ll try to ponder that,” and then the second man, who was really my COO, and really my partner in running the business, my primary partner. I told him the money, and he looked at me and said, “I want more,” and he was a close enough partner that I could say, “Okay, stop a second. What is this?”

Leyla Seka: And he started to say, “We’ve always been taught to ask for more,” and it was like someone slapped me across the face because I thought of all the times that I had gotten a bonus, or a promotion, or a job, or any of these things, and I had been like, “Thank you,” because that was the way my mother raised me.

Rachel Jones: So, I really like, actually the end of Leyla’s quote where she talks about how her mother raised her to say thank you because we’ve talked a lot, even in this conversation, just about imposter syndrome and how women struggle with it, but it’s not just like a thing, biologically, that women deal with, or some difference. It’s because of how we’re socialized and how we’re conditioned in society to be grateful for what we get when men are taught and encouraged to ask for more and push farther. These are messages that we’re given even as children. It starts super young.

Angie Chang: That was interesting to me because I’ve never heard of that.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I haven’t heard of that, specifically, but I’m very, very aware that women don’t want to come across like they’re complaining. So, I feel like that’s what it leads to, where you want to sound grateful. You don’t want to sound like you’re complaining and not thankful because you want your boss or whomever to be like, “Oh, they’re easy to work with.”

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah, I mean there’s certainly the likability thing that comes in. You’re negotiating for a job and you know that you have to ask for more like, “Okay, we’ve listened to all these other women say that. I know I have to go back and ask for more,” but there’s still that part of you and you’re like, “Well, is this going to make them hate me?”

Gretchen DeKnikker: Of course, then you could have the argument with yourself and like, “Well, fuck them,” if they hate you and they didn’t really want you, but I always feel like it’s going to create some sort of friction before something even gets started, and I’m so worried about carrying that into by asking for more, but if I was giving myself the advice, it would be like, “If they came back and that was a problem, then that was not the right job anyway,” but it’s just so much easier if you go talk to another person and have them tell you that, than try to get yourself through it.

Gretchen DeKnikker: When Jenny was telling this story of when she negotiated at PayPal and how Judy was like, “Ask for more everything. Don’t just ask for more salary. Ask for more time off. Ask for more stock.” Literally, go back and ask for more of all of the things that they’ve offered, and she got all of it. Not the entire amount, but also just Negotiation 101, give yourself all the levers. I’m not just going to ask for more money. I’m going to ask for more stock, and then you know which things are more important, but if you go back and ask for more of everything, and then you already have your idea of the things that are important, then you can trade those off of like, “Okay, I don’t need that much stock, but I would like my base salary, or if you can’t give me the base salary that I want, then I need an extra week of vacation, or I need the signing bonus,” or whatever those other trade offs are, but I’m going to have Judy help me next time I go negotiate.

Angie Chang: There’s a book called Getting More: How You Can Negotiate to Succeed in Work and Life, which is a book that I think Google has recommended to all of their employees in helping you to become a begrudging negotiator and learn that negotiation, how to do it in incremental ways and how you’re perceived. It’s really helpful.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah, and that book’s good because if you’ve read other books, then it’s like, “You need your big, hairy, audacious goal and your, like, BATNA, the best alternative.” It’s like business school stuff in negotiation. Your best alternative to a negotiated agreement or whatever, and all of that. This book is not that. This book is for real people that are in real life situations.

Angie Chang: It’s about how to plan better vacations, how to have happier encounters with your bank account, how to make little wins in your career.

Gretchen DeKnikker: It’s not your standard negotiation book. I highly recommend it, also.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: And just as a take away, I think you want to consider whenever you’re being offered something, it doesn’t mean… when you negotiate that, it doesn’t mean you’re being less liked, going to be perceived as less likable, or difficult to work with unless the way you say these things, obviously. You can negotiate, but be respectful when you’re negotiating, and not sound apologetic, and also a lot of the times, situations like this, people are expecting you’re going to negotiate and they already have a limit to how far they are willing to go, and they’re just honestly going to tell you that.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: The last time I had to interview for a job, I was attempting to negotiate for a salary increase, and the recruiter started to sound really irritated with me and I just froze and I gave up, and then maybe six months after that, I asked my boss where I stood in comparison to everybody else in terms of my salary, and I told him what happened with the recruiter, and he said, “I want to tell you something. No one’s ever going to revoke a job offer just based off of the fact that you asked for more.”

Sukrutha Bhadouria: So, going forward, if I’m ever in that situation, I definitely want to be asking for more while sounding appreciative at the same time.

Angie Chang: Yeah, you always hear stories of people getting their offers revoked.

Gretchen DeKnikker: What?

Angie Chang: There are stories of that happening.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I’ve heard that, too. I know someone for whom it was revoked. I don’t know what led to that, whether they ended up hiring someone, offering the position internally in the meantime, but there are ways you can negotiate without sounding obnoxious. That doesn’t mean you don’t do it at all.

Gretchen DeKnikker: If they did revoke it, again, fuck ’em. That’s probably not the place for you. We need a whole one on just negotiation.

Rachel Jones: If that’s so ridiculous to this place that I think I deserve a little bit more than they’re offering, yeah. I don’t want to work there.

Angie Chang: And thought maybe it was just that recruiter that didn’t hire her making that mistake and losing out on a really great candidate.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I don’t think it’s only a gender issue where women are less likely to negotiate. It’s also culture, and a lot of cultures, you were taught not to, whether you’re a man or a woman. Anyway, they can’t list of who you are if you’re in that group of people that feels uncomfortable with negotiating. It’s understandable to be worried, [inaudible 00:24:29], and, for example, even now when I get a raise, or more stock, I know that that’s the best that could have been given to me because of how the system works. Then to negotiate further than that when I know there’s not going to be a change. I have to pick which ones I negotiate for and which I don’t. It makes more sense to me to discuss the promotion and getting to the next level as opposed to, “Okay, there’s a fixed budget. The entire company is going to get a certain amount.”

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Negotiating that, I don’t know if that’s going to lead a different result. There’s other ways for me to get a dialogue going instead of me saying I’m not happy with what was given to me.

Angie Chang: I think just inserting negotiations normally into your life, a lot of them, so that you’ll make some ones here and there, and nothing is ever depending on one thing.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, what I was trying to say is I have to be ready to what I’m negotiating and why I’m negotiating it. I have to be convinced, first, that it’s what I want and what I need and I can make an impact. I can change. I guess, for sure, I should be pushing for getting to the next level when I do believe I deserve it.

Angie Chang: Are you negotiating your vacation?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: No, because it’s a fixed thing. Some companies have fixed vacation policies.

Rachel Jones: Yeah, you got to know where and when and how. How do you advocate for yourself?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: The how is the hardest part. Arquay Harris, Director of Engineering at Slack, at the 2018 Elevate Conference, gave her own advice for advocacy.

Arquay Harris: So, even though others help you along the way, you are your own best advocate. I keep a running list of all the projects, outlining every single thing that I’ve worked on, and more importantly, the impact of those things, and I encourage you to do that, and also to do it maybe just in your personal Gmail, in your personal docs, or wherever, someplace that’s external to your current job, because you want to be able to aggregate this information, and also take it with you when you go to other places. It’s good to look back. Because what happens is when it comes time for promotion, or comes time for review cycles, you get recency bias.

Arquay Harris: You think about the things that you’ve done in the last six weeks, or maybe even the last couple months, but if you make it a part of your practice to every week, or every couple weeks, sit down and say, “Oh, what did I do? How does that impact the company?” Because the other thing that people do is they outline the things that are shiny, but even if it’s shiny, if you didn’t work on it, would it have still launched? If you didn’t do it, would it have mattered at all to the company? What is the impact of this thing and why is it important?

Arquay Harris: So, I encourage you to do that, and also, it helps you when you go and have a conversation with your manager so that you can say, “Look, these are the things that I’ve done.” That said, I have never in my professional career had a situation, I mean never, had a situation where a manager has said, “Great, Arquay, you’re doing awesome. Time to promote you to the next level.” Never happened, every single promotion that I’ve ever gotten has been me saying, “I am operating at this level. I’ve done all of these things, and I think I’m ready for the next level and here is why. Here is why,” and you can hand this to your manager and have a conversation with your manager to demonstrate these things.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I love the idea of keeping a running list of projects because sometimes we just forget, or we don’t think it’s important enough to highlight, and so absolutely. I remember when I first heard her say this. I was like, “Oh, I should do it,” but I haven’t been as good about keeping a list up to date, and it definitely inspires me to keep doing it. Same with Arquay, I’ve never gotten a promotion that I didn’t ask for. Perhaps I’ve gotten appreciated through salary increments and through more stock that I didn’t ask for, but never a promotion.

Angie Chang: What about you, Gretchen?

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah, I think I’ve just spent a lot of time advocating for more resources, just because when you’re employee four, or employee 17, that’s the thing that you’re always looking for, and I’ve always been close enough to the CEO that I generally know the salaries of everybody around me, so I know when that stuff’s coming. So, it’s also not something that I’ve really looked at.

Rachel Jones: I think tips for advocating for more resources. Earlier in our discussion, you definitely had some helpful thoughts about that. So, it’s not even just getting a promotion, or getting a raise that you have to push for.

Gretchen DeKnikker: And advocating for my team, which it’s definitely easier to advocate for your team than it is for yourself, I think, but a lot of times, the stuff that you get for your team elevates you, too. There’s very rarely it doesn’t.

Angie Chang: I feel like this activity sounds really great, and I’m like, “Oh, I love it,” and then I’m like, “Can someone just share with me their brag list so that I can then copy and replace,” because it’s just always helpful when you have a rubric of what it looks like.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I feel like yours, Angie, like Sukrutha’s would be five bullet points of no more than four words each. Yours would be 17 pages written like long form. The two of you would say the same thing in like this very different way. I can see why this would be hard for you, Angie. Angie likes words. She loves words, especially writing words.

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

Rachel Jones: This podcast is produce by me, Rachel Jones, with recording help from Eric Brown. To learn more about Girl Geek X, or buy tickets to our next dinner, visit You can also find videos and transcripts from our events. If you’re interested in hosting a Girl Geek dinner, email

Angie Chang: This podcast was brought to you by SquareTrade. SquareTrade is the top-rated protection plan trusted by millions of happy customers and offered by top retailers like Amazon, Sam’s Club, and Target.

12 Product Design Leaders To Follow In 2019

Love building digital products with amazing user experiences? Product Designers as a job title has blazed a trail in tech for the past decade with the rise of Facebook VP of Design Julie Zhuo leading the industry.

We look to Product Design leaders at companies of all sizes to find insight in their careers and map the rise of Product Design as a profession. Lucky us — many of these leaders speak publicly, tweet and share their expertise and thought leadership.

Here are 12 Product Design Leaders to Follow in 2019:

Christine Fernandez – Stitch Fix VP, Product Design

Christine’s Proudest Moment: “There’s so much work that I’m proud of, but my biggest accomplishment is definitely the teams I’ve built over the years, and helping some of the best designers I’ve had the pleasure to work with grow into leaders. Design now has such an important seat at the table – at the executive level, in boardrooms, and shaping the future at the most innovative companies. It’s been quite a journey, and I’m so grateful to have been a part of leading that change.”

Christine Fernandez is a Vice President of Product Design at Stitch Fix. Previously, she was Chief Experience Officer at, Head of Design at Uber, and worked as Creative Director at R/GA, frog, Razorfish, Schematic and FCB. Connie holds a B.A. in Graphic Design and a minor in East Asian Studies from University of Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter at @ctfernandez and her product design thoughts on Medium.

Connie Yang – Coinbase Director, Design

Connie’s Proudest Moment: “I scaled a team from 3 to 20 in a year – including establishing the functions of User Research, Product Writing, and Brand Design. I did not expect to do that, nor did I think it was even possible. You never know until you actually try.”

Connie Yang is a Director of Design at Coinbase. Previously, she spent six years at Facebook as a Product Designer. Prior to that, she was a UI Director at Twist and PopCap Games, Art Director at ReignDesign and began her career as a Graphic Designer working in advertising. Connie holds a B.A. in Graphic Design and a minor in East Asian Studies from University of Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter at @conniecurious and her product design thoughts on Medium.

Erica Weiss Tjader – SurveyMonkey VP, Product Design

Erica’s Proudest Moment: “Landing this role as VP of Product Design at SurveyMonkey 2 years ago – not only because it’s a great opportunity with an amazing company, but also because this role represents a shift in my willingness to take risks, aim high, and flex my leadership muscles.”

Erica Weiss Tjader is a Vice President of Product Design at SurveyMonkey. Previously, she spent six years at Quantcast as the Director of Product Design, where she was responsible for building the design and research functions. Prior to that, she was an Interaction Designer and User Researcher at Move, eBay and Yahoo. Erica holds a B.S. in Cognitive Science and B.A. in Communication Studies from UCLA. Follow her on Twitter at @ericatjader and her product design thoughts on Medium.

Huda Idrees – Dot Health CEO

Huda Idrees is CEO at Dot Health. Prior to founding Dot Health, she was Chief Product Officer at Wealthsimple. Prior to Weathsimple, she was a Product Designer at Wave, an Interaction Designer at Shaken Media Collective, and an UX Designer at Wattpad. She began her career as a Web Developer. Huda holds a BASc. in Industrial Engineering from University of Toronto. Follow her on Twitter at @hidrees and her product design thoughts on Medium.

Irene Au – Khosla Design Partner

Irene’s Proudest Moment: “I had the honor and privilege to build the industry’s most influential and talented design teams over the last two decades. At Yahoo! and Google, we established the gold standard for user experience and design for the internet that continues to shape the profession in this industry today, and we elevated design’s strategic importance in both companies.”

Irene Au is a Design Partner at Khosla Ventures. Prior to Khosla, she was Vice President of Product at Udacity and build and ran design for all of Google and Yahoo! for many years. She began her career as an Interaction Designer at Netscape. Irene holds a M.S. in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a B.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of South Carolina. Follow her on Twitter at @ireneau and her product design thoughts on Medium.

Julie Zhuo – Facebook VP, Product Design

Julie’s Proudest Moment: “Helped Facebook scale from 8 million college students to billions of users worldwide.”

Julie Zhuo is a Vice President of Product Design at Facebook. She started as Facebook’s first intern in 2005, was hired as a product designer at Facebook, and has been working at Facebook for over a decade. She published in 2019 “The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You.” Julie holds a M.S. and B.S. in Computer Science from Stanford University. Follow her on Twitter at @joulee and her product design thoughts on Medium.

Katie Dill – Lyft VP, Product Design

Katie’s Proudest Moment: “My great achievement and greatest joy has been the teams I have had the pleasure to build at Lyft and Airbnb. Great things come from great teams, and my focus as a leader has been finding just the right mix of folks that can come together as one to build lasting change. A strong culture full of people that inspire each other and elevate each other’s work is the best thing I have ever built.”

Katie Dill is a Vice President of Product Design at Lyft. Prior to Lyft, Katie was at Airbnb as a Director of Experience Design. Prior to that, Katie worked at frog design for five years, where she began her career as a Design Analyst. Katie holds a B.S. in Industrial Design from Art Center College of Design, and a B.A. in History from Colgate University. Follow her on Twitter at @lil_dill and her product design thoughts on Medium.

Kim Lenox – Zendesk VP, Product Design

Kim’s Proudest Moment: “I have had the privilege to nurture a number of burgeoning designers into design leaders. Seeing how they grow their careers, take new leadership roles and bring their own contribution back to the design community is one of my fondest rewards as a design leader.”

Kim Lenox is a Vice President of Product Design at Zendesk. Prior to Zendesk, she was a Director of Product Design at LinkedIn. Prior to that, she was a Senior Manager of Interaction Design at HP Palm. She has held a number of roles in research, interaction design and UX Design, and has consulted and freelanced. Kim holds a B.F.A. in Photography from San Jose State University. Follow her on Twitter at @uxkim and her product design thoughts on Medium.

Kim Williams – Indeed Senior Director, UX Core

Kim’s Proudest Moment: “I have had the honor of orchestrating Design and Brand Systems teams at brands that focus on connection. First at eBay, and now at Indeed, where I am proud to be building a team of talented product designers, technologists, and creatives. My team inspires and challenges me daily, as we work on creating experiences that further empower job seekers during their job search.”

Kim Williams is a Senior Director of UX Core at Indeed. Prior to Indeed, she was at eBay for two years, working in roles from Head of Brand Systems to Creative Director for eBay’s human interface group. Prior to eBay, she was as a Creative Director for Oglivy & Mather, Serious-Gaming Agency, and Weber Shandwick. She began her career as a Designer for consumer goods companies. Kim holds a BFA in Visual Communications with an emphasis in Graphic Design. Follow her on Twitter at @kimwms_.

May-Li Khoe – Khan Academy VP, Design

May-Li’s Proudest Moment: “Despite having worked on so much of Apple’s product line and have a pile of patents as a result, I’m proudest of putting pink hearts and technics 1200s into MacOS, and building a diverse & inclusive kickass design team at Khan Academy.”

May-Li Khoe is a VP of Design at Khan Academy. Prior to Khan Academy, she was at Apple for over seven years, working in roles from Interaction Designer to Senior Product Design Lead. She began her career at IBM as a Research Assistant for three years, and was at MIT Media Lab as an Undergraduate Research Assistant for three years. May-Li holds both M.Eng and S.B. in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from MIT. Follow her on Twitter at @kayli and her product design thoughts at Medium.

Ratna Desai – Netflix Director, Product Design

Ratna’s Proudest Moment: “My greatest achievement has been to build diverse teams and create the conditions necessary for design to live alongside technology and business strategy. Both at Netflix and Google, I was able to connect individuals to the right opportunities within very different organizational cultures. The key has been to lead with authenticity and adapt my approach to complement the culture and design’s relationship to other functions. The successes have come when open-minded, passionate and hardworking teams selflessly collaborate to do their most meaningful work. I’ve had the privilege of witnessing the best product ideas thrive, transform industries and shape society.”

Ratna Desai is a Director of Product Design at Netflix. Prior to Netflix, she was at Google for four years leading multidisciplinary UX design teams. Prior to that, Ratna was at frog design for six years as a Creative Director, an Art Director at Gap and Korn Ferry, and began her career as a Marketing Associate at the Wall Street Journal. Ratna holds a B.S. in Graphic Design and B.A. in Rhetoric & Communication from UC Davis. Follow her on Twitter at @RatnaDesai1.

Susan Dybbs – Collective Health VP Product & Design

Susan Dybbs is a Vice President of Product & Design at Collective Health. Prior to Collective Health, she was at Cooper for four years leading the interaction design team as Managing Director. Prior to that, Susan lead UX consulting for a few years. She began her career as an User Interface Designer at Microsoft. Susan holds a M.D. in Interaction Design from Carnegie Mellon University and a B.A. in Design, Urban Studies, Psychology from New York University. Follow her on Twitter at @dybbsy and her product design thoughts on Medium.

Product Designers – We Want To Hear From You!

Tell us about your Product Design experience, resources, and nominations!

Thanks to Samihah Azim, Women Talk Design, and Latinx Who Design.

Stay up-to-date with Girl Geek X! To get notified of future events and news, join our mailing list!

You can also follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.

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

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

Tracy Sun speaking

Co-Founder and SVP of New Markets Tracy Sun welcomes the crowd to the Poshmark Girl Geek Dinner in Redwood City, California. The stylish evening’s theme: “people-powered innovation”.

Tracy Sun / Co-Founder & Senior Vice President of New Markets / Poshmark
Barkha Saxena / Chief Data Officer / Poshmark
Vanessa Wong / Senior Director, Product Management / Poshmark
Angela Buckmaster / Associate Director, Community Operations / Poshmark
Camille Forde / Senior Manager, New Markets / Poshmark
Adrienne Hamrah / Software Engineer, Cloud Platform / Poshmark

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

Tracy Sun: So I’m here, I get to kick us off. And so after welcoming you, welcome again. What I’m going to do is tell you a little bit about me. I’ll do that pretty fast and then share what people-powered innovation means and why we chose that to be the theme of the evening. And then we’ll just kick it out to all of the amazing speakers that you’ll hear tonight. I believe there’s six women that will talk to you tonight about who they are, what they do.

Tracy Sun: When we talked to the panels, everyone wanted to share a tip that they’ve done or something they’ve done in their career that they really wanted to share with the group. So we’ll talk a little bit about tips and try to have a whole bunch of fun doing so. So to kick it off. My name’s Tracy. I’m one of the co-founders and I head up a new department at Poshmark we’re calling New Markets.

Tracy Sun: My background, I grew up in the East Coast. I’m still kind of an East Coast person, but getting more and more West Coast as the years go by. I started in science. I was a science geek. I loved reading about brain and behavior. I moved into fashion pretty early on because I loved building brands and obviously now, I’m in technology. So my one thing I wanted to share with all of you is you can switch industries. I get this question a lot. It’s hard. So you have to really want to do it, but if you want to do it, you can do it. And I’m happy to answer questions later about some tips on how.

Tracy Sun: But the first I’d say is you can do it and you have to believe in yourself. And I’ve done it twice and who knows what happens to me. I’m still pretty young and have a lot to look forward to. So now about the theme of the evening, people-powered innovation. The reason that this is the theme is this is Poshmark’s superpower. What I mean by this is this is the one thing we do that we think we do better than anyone else.

Tracy Sun: And we wanted to share with you how we’re thinking about it and what we mean by it. Because I think that maybe you can take some of that into your own lives or into your own careers or how you think about innovation. It might inspire you a little bit. So that’s why we’re choosing the theme is just really talk about our strengths and the things that we’re really proud of. So people-powered innovation to us means three things.

Tracy Sun: The first is, and then video kind of alludes to all three of them. The first is we built our entire business off of people. We call ourselves a social commerce platform. And what that means is we take people and we insert them into all the important parts of commerce. We think that all of us have stories to tell. We tell them differently. That’s part of the beauty of photos and words and stories. So we want to put that back into commerce. We think that there’s more to selling a dress than seeing it on a hanger at a store. So how did she style it? How did she feel when she was wearing it? Things like that. We think that’s really important.

Tracy Sun: So we put people back into the conversation of commerce and then we build an entire platform around this so that people, anyone, any one of you, it sounds like we have some poshers in the room, but really anyone in the world can become a seller, no matter what your experience, how much money you have, whether you’ve done it before or not. All those things are irrelevant. Anyone can be a seller. And so what we see now is we have 40 million registered users. About 6 million of them have become sellers. Meaning we’re one of the largest selling networks in the world.

Tracy Sun: So raise your hand if you’re a Poshmark seller here. Congratulations. You’re one of 6 million people in the US that are selling on Poshmark, including a lot of us here. So congratulations. So that’s number one. The second thing is you can’t build a people-powered platform without the people. So the second thing we did is we built a community. And what that means is we focused day one on really taking a look at our users and doing everything we can to support them and so saying, we are behind you to help you build your business and we encourage our community to talk to one another in case we can’t be there to support you, support each other.

Tracy Sun: And so not only does that happen in physical venues like this, but it happens in events that we hold like in our app. So a mobile event and it happens in the conversations when you’re on Poshmark and then it happens offline as well. So a lot of times we’ll see Poshmark users talk to one another, they met on the app and then they talk to one another in real life. And that to me is one of the most beautiful things about why I love coming to work every day. It also reflects in a lot of our business metrics too.

Tracy Sun: So, for example, every day a Poshmark user spends 30 minutes on Poshmark. And for those of you in commerce who think about these kinds of metrics and maybe some of you are not in commerce that think about these kinds of metrics, that’s unheard of for commerce. People don’t spend 30 minutes talking about shopping elsewhere and maybe nowhere. So people are not just talking about transactions on Poshmark, they’re also talking to each other as human beings. And that’s where we like to spend our time. That’s how we find extra minutes in the day when we’ve had a long day is to have a human connection.

Tracy Sun: And so, in so many ways, we feel like we’ve built a really large marketplace and a really large platform but also a really large place for people to come and to connect with people, either that they know really well or that they’re meeting for the first time. So that’s the second piece. And then the third is Team Posh. So there’s some of us here tonight. Team Posh is really all we have. We don’t hold any inventory. It’s all people. And then a lot of code that happens and a lot of packages shipped around but there’s 400 or so people that are part of Poshmark that really make everything go round.

Tracy Sun: So we spent a lot of time thinking about how we can innovate in this realm and really keep people happy and motivated, creative. And eight years into the business still feel like they’re learning new things every day. And so I’m really excited to kick this off. We have five people coming up to share their story, get into some specifics about the innovation that they’re seeing and the stories that they have. So with that, I’d like to bring up our next speaker. Can I go ahead? I’m going to go ahead and do it. Okay. So our next speaker is Barkha and she’s our Chief Data Officer here and officially one of the coolest women at Poshmark.

Barkha Saxena speaking

Chief Data Officer Barkha Saxena talks about being a data geek, and working with mobile, social, and commerce data, at Poshmark Girl Geek Dinner.

Barkha Saxena: Thank you, Tracy. Hi, everyone. Is everyone having fun? I was telling Tracy that I’m always bummed when I go after her. She’s such a fascinating speaker. So I’m basically making sure that nobody has very high expectation. I’m going after Tracy. So just about a little bit about myself. I’m Barkha Saxena. I’m Chief Data Officer at Poshmark. I’ve been here for five years. But somebody was asking me, I was talking to them, hey, this whole data thing didn’t exist 10 years ago so what did you do then? I was like, yeah, it’s true. This whole world data service didn’t exist but I had been literally doing this. This was my first job out of college.

Barkha Saxena: I studied statistics. Numbers is what I have known my entire life. I spent my first 10 years at a company named FICO. I was a data scientist there. I started as an individual contributor, moved into management role and then I spent some time in product management, sales, and corporate strategy. After that, I spent a couple of years in advertising industry, still focused on the data, building data products for advertising. And then I had my second child and I thought I would take a little bit break. And like in two weeks break time, my husband, someday one day comes and he says, hey, I heard about this really cool startup. They had these virtual parties which is called posh party and I think you should go and meet with them.

Barkha Saxena: And I was like, okay, it doesn’t hurt to meet. So I found a connection to Manish and I met with Manish and Manish said we had some conversation and then he said, “Hey, you should come and meet with Tracy.” You just met with Tracy. Once you talked to Tracy. There is no going back. So here I am, five and a half years ago, I joined Poshmark, still here and having a lot of fun. When I joined Poshmark, it was really the driving factor was people. I met with Manish, Tracy, Chetan, Gautam, our founding team. And honestly, it had been a long time.

Barkha Saxena: Like being in the tech sector, I had not met so many smart but super humble people. And then from being a data geek, this aspect of I’m going to be working with mobile, social, and commerce data. It can’t get any better than that. What I didn’t understand at that time was when you are putting this social and the commerce together, it’s a totally different beast than just thinking about the social network and just thinking about the commerce. So Tracy explained the social commerce from the vision perspective but I’m a data person. So I have to understand it from the data angle.

Barkha Saxena: So how did I understand the social commerce? And how I started to understand it’s really not putting two plus two, four. Really getting them together is we are making two plus two, seven. And the way it works is from the data perspective, when you are selling, what are your goals? You want to acquire users who will come and buy stuff. So at Poshmark, you build your follower network, you follow people, they follow you. And by that way, you are basically finding out the impact, the people who are going to see your merchandise.

Barkha Saxena: Then how do you market inventory? So there is a whole aspect of sharing which happens in the platform. Everyone who is successful in selling at Poshmark knows that you cannot be successful if you’re not sharing. So you’re engaged in sharing, not just your item but you also share other people’s items. Because when you share somebody else, they will share yours and you are basically just expanding the network of the people with whom you’re sharing your item. So you market your items, but then after that, you have to close the deal. How do you close the deal?

Barkha Saxena: You have to engage with your buyers in conversations. So their conversations happen in their platform around fit, style, color, and then Poshmark has built all these tools in the service of community to which you send out offers in a very personal, personalized manner to all these buyers. And that’s how you close the deal. So sellers are very vested in being social in the platform because at Poshmark that gives them an advantage to drive the more social you are, the more successful you will be. Now from the buyer’s perspective, the reason you want to be so socially engaged because when you follow people, it’s exposing you to a larger and larger merchandise which means you are looking at so many items from where you can buy.

Barkha Saxena: So you are getting exposed to the styles of different people. You engage with the seller because you want to be able to understand the merchandise beyond what just the description is telling. If you think of the reason the whole social commerce exists because just in reflecting back, the 15–people who are a little bit older. If you think of the way the commerce was done like 15, 20 years ago. I grew up in India and a lot of time when we went for shopping, we will just go back to those limited number of shops. But it was fine to go because you will go and talk to the person who is selling and that person will know which grade you are in, what you’re doing, what’s happening at your home. And it was fun in those conversations.

Barkha Saxena: As commerce became very efficient with the e-commerce and access a lot of inventory and fast shipping. It was all very efficient but it took the fun away of that personal conversation. And what we have learned at Poshmark is people actually like to connect and talk to each other. So buyers, when they engage with sellers in the conversation on hey, will this dress look good on me or like because the same dress size can be different in different [inaudible]. How do you figure it out it really fits you? So you engage in that conversation and you’re figuring out.

Barkha Saxena: Buyers do a lot of liking activity in the platform and that’s because by doing like you are creating this sort of your wishlist of the items you want to buy. By doing the activity, you’re also building the connections with the seller. So when seller is ready to make an offer, there is a way for seller to reach out to you. So that’s how like when I started looking at social commerce and the numbers started to explain why the social is truly driving the commerce. It wasn’t just hey, we got a commerce, they come less to the social. This is the genius of the founding team who built this amazing platform.

Barkha Saxena: Social is so integrated with the commerce that the two actually drive each other and that is what has gained given us such a unique advantage that we didn’t just try to bring the two pieces together. We built them interlinked from the day one and then you build that kind of platform with the types of numbers Tracy was sharing, like 40 million users and 5-6 million sellers stylist, 18 million shares per day. Think of the amount of data we are collecting. Like we have 30 plus terabytes of data, 400 plus million events logged every day. You leave a data team in that kind of environment. It’s like the wonderland for people.

Barkha Saxena: So my team is so excited. It’s a cross-functional thing. We work with multiple teams and we are solving problems that cross the aisle. From working with the marketing team on different types of users. That question problem. Working with Leanne’s team and helping out how we can serve our community better. Working with Tracy’s team and figuring out how can we help them launch market. There’s so many problems teams are solving, they get to work with humongous amount of data. They get to use different types of data technology and the tools to build out the solutions which creates business value for our community.

Barkha Saxena: And just to bring it back to I’m very lucky to have such a fantastic team which is just building all these awesome solutions. But the reason all of us are so engaged in doing all this wonderful work, going back to what Tracy said, this is just a wonderful place to be. The people are–I don’t know how many have notice our core values. I have worked at multiple places. This is the first place where I would say we actually live by our cultural value. We focus on people, truly on people. You heard Tracy. The whole conversation is started on people. We lead with love. We trust each other. We believe in supporting each other.

Barkha Saxena: We embrace all the weirdness. That is one of the core value. Honestly, even I use it in my personal life. Like when you start to accept people for what they are, life just becomes simple. And then together we go. So we are so vested in each other’s goal that it just makes this place, this beautiful place. With that, let me invite… Can I invite? More wonderful people that you guys can meet with. Okay, thank you.

Tracy Sun, Adrienne Hamrah, Camille Ford, Vanessa Wong, Angela Buckmaster

Poshmark girl geeks: Tracy Sun (speaking, right) moderates a panel discussion with Adrienne Hamrah, Camille Ford, Vanessa Wong, and Angela Buckmaster introducing themselves at Poshmark Girl Geek Dinner.

Tracy Sun: Sorry, I’m just trying to make them nervous. We’re just going to get excited, get loose. Let’s go. So first question, can you introduce yourself a little bit about what you do at Poshmark? So everyone has context of all the amazing things you’re going to say after that.

Angela Buckmaster: Yes. Microphone on. Okay. Hi, I am Angela. And as Claire mentioned, I am the Associate Community Operations Director. And so my team works under the Community umbrella and what we do is actually support all other areas of the community team through data analytics, product knowledge, and training.

Vanessa Wong: Hi, I’m Vanessa. I’m senior director in the product team and I run the core experiences team. And when I say core experience, what it means is the buying, the selling, the social interaction, working with our power sellers, our new sellers, any international expansion. And then also like market expansion as well.

Camille Ford: Hi, everyone. My name is Camille Ford. I work on the new markets team and the markets team is really focused on driving expansion into new business areas. So what that looks like could be developing a new category, launching multiple markets within the product alongside Vanessa’s team or expanding into new departments as well.

Adrienne Hamrah speaking

Software Engineer Adrienne Hamrah talks about innovation at Poshmark Girl Geek Dinner.

Adrienne Hamrah: Hi, everyone. I’m Adrienne. I’m a software engineer on the growth team. What does that mean? I basically work on projects to bring in new users to our platform. Whether that’s like an influencer project or just any like fun new things, new features.

Tracy Sun: So I know it was pretty fun to hear from me and Barkha but these ladies have the real stories that you want to hear about. As I was hearing earlier about what you guys wanted to share. I just thought it was great content to share with this group here. So no pressure. So we talked a lot about… Sorry, I’m being really goofy. It was a crazy day today. We talked a lot about innovation. And I kind of talked about it at high level, Barkha talked about it at high level. Can you guys really bring it home? Like what does innovation look like to your day to day?

Tracy Sun: Is there an example of something you’ve done recently, for example, that you think it was just a really cool project to work on because it involved innovation and, or something around people? I think that would be great for everyone to hear. Who wants to go first? Adrienne, you want to go? We’ll go backwards.

Adrienne Hamrah: So a good example of innovation was we basically wanted to bring the influencers I work with on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, etcetera. We wanted to bring them onto our own platform rather than going through a third party. So that was my first project, starting from helping the product manager all the way to doing the tech spec and actually executing on the code. And one example of innovation is in order to like see the level of influence someone has, we have to have some sort of metric so we know how much to pay them for, for posting on Instagram, for example.

Adrienne Hamrah: And instead of going through their API because there was a lot of stuff going on Instagram and they’re saying they were taking away their API, we decided to actually just use the HTML code and get their stats that way. So I think that was a really fun example. Because the first thing, if you’re familiar with software, the first thing you usually do when you talk to different companies, is you go through their API. And we decided to just bypass that completely.

Camille Forde speaking

Senior Manager of New Markets Camille Forde talks about markets and using technology and social as tools at Poshmark Girl Geek Dinner.

Camille Ford: So the innovation question’s interesting because I feel like throughout my career I’ve always tried to think about how can I do something different? But at Poshmark, I feel like that question gets tipped a little bit. It’s how can we do things differently using social as a tool, using a technology as a tool. And so I feel like working on markets for the past six months is a really good example of that. And so markets themselves are just easy experiences within the product that make it easier for people to connect, sell, and shop by what’s important to them.

Camille Ford: And in many ways, it’s just a layer on top of Poshmark’s existing platform, but really digs into the social piece, which is, brings it back to people, I think at the end of the day. And so for me, even working on markets and figuring out like how can we get people to shopping experiences that are relevant? It’s almost like this backwards thing where through markets we’re now enabling people to shop the way that they used to shop.

Camille Ford: So if I only wanted to shop luxury and I want to go into a luxury store and I want that like real-time feedback on a certain thing, I can get that through the luxury market on Poshmark. And so to me, this is like an interesting full circle view of innovation around how can we use the tools that we have to kind of bring it back to its core. And so just working on launching markets over the past six months, I think now we have roughly 25-ish markets has been an interesting experience for me with regards to innovation.

Vanessa Wong: So, many years ago, we launched a feature called Offer. And what that feature is, I don’t know if any of you… Has anyone used it? Raise your hand if you’ve used that feature on Poshmark? So it really mimics normal behavior. You’re there like, think about the olden times. You’d go barter and negotiate. And we kind of bring that to life in the app. So what we did last year is we launched a feature called Offer to Liker. Has anyone ever liked an item on Poshmark? Has anyone had a listing and gotten likes on Poshmark? Yeah.

Vanessa Wong: So it’s an amazing feeling. You know that these people are really interested in your product. And so you’re getting all this love for this product. And so we thought why don’t we use that energy to the seller and help them. So what we launched is Offer to Liker and where you can give a private discount to the people that like your item. And that’s been amazingly successful for us. We’ve just used kind of normal behavior and we’ve used that organic behavior and we’ve amplified that through our product.

Angela Buckmaster: Awesome. So I’m kind of echoing some of the things that you’ve heard. Poshmark is a social commerce platform. And so on the app, people are commenting and communicating with each other on listings. They’re liking. They’re communicating and building bonds with each other through buying and selling. And so from the very early days of Poshmark, we actually saw that these users, these poshers, were, as Tracy mentioned, getting together outside of the app, as well, very organically and just meeting up.

Angela Buckmaster: There’s actually a term that has been coined for someone that’s a friend that you meet on Poshmark that is PFF which is Posh Friend Forever. And so, as you can tell, these bonds are lifelong. And so we saw this and we thought, okay, this is really, again, the lifeblood of Poshmark. We are all about the people and spreading the love. And that’s the only reason all of us are here today. So we came up with a type of event called a Posh N Sip. And the Posh N Sip is a posher-led event.

Angela Buckmaster: And these poshers are finding the venues. They are inviting their friends, their family, their PFFs, to get together and not only talk about Poshmark but also just build upon these bonds. And make more connections and really grow and empower each other. And so I think, to me, that’s something that’s super exciting because we get to see them meet all over the country and just get together and just kind of continue what they have on the app but in the physical world as well.

Tracy Sun: Okay, great. So we talked a lot about innovation and if you guys want any more, feel free to ask. They’ve all agreed to stay for the Q&A so you can’t leave. We’re doing a Q&A right here and then after if you have questions that you want to do in private. Now I want to talk about you as people. You have so much experience that I think is so interesting. It was really interesting to me to hear it. I think it’d be really interesting to everyone else in the room mostly because we’re all so different. Our stories are all so different.

Tracy Sun: And so can you share a little bit about how you got to Poshmark and if there is, and with that, is there anything you did along the way that kind of helped you get into the role or any tip you have? I imagine anyone, here either now or in the future, might be looking to make a change in their job, for example. So if you have any tips on that or you might want to have a job. So if you have a job are they any tips on how to be successful. It’s just you are four really successful women. And then I think I’d like to give a little bit of the floor to that. You want to start, Angela?

Angela Buckmaster: Yeah. Awesome. So I actually have been at Poshmark for a little over six years now. And so I found Poshmark through a friend who still works here. We were friends through middle school and high school, and she heard that I had graduated college and was looking for my first big girl job. And she was on a community team here and said, hey, you should come interview. So I did. And at the time, we had basically one role, which was community associate. And through that, we wore a lot of different hats, as is typical at a startup. And from there, we kind of started to build into different teams.

Angela Buckmaster: And so from there, I moved into the support team. It’s still under the community umbrella and I did some management for a couple of years. And through that, I noticed that I started having and more of an interest in our KPIs and our SLAs. And I wanted to know why are they the way they are. How can we make them better and to really understand them on a deeper level. And so I started speaking to my manager and Leanne, our SVP, and just letting them know I’m really interested in this. I would love to move into more of a data-driven role.

Angela Buckmaster: The time wasn’t right, right at that moment. But I kept telling them and I kept trying to get into projects that I could kind of dip my toes into the analytics area until the day came when Leanne approached me and she said, “Okay, the role’s here, let’s do it.” So I happily went to that more of an analytics role on the community team which was awesome. I got to stay with my community family and did that for about a year.

Angela Buckmaster: And then Leanne approached me with another opportunity and said, “Hey, let’s build out this team.” So now I have the three areas. I have a data analytics team, a product knowledge team, and a training team. And so I’ve learned a lot over six years. I’ve learned that you can’t just keep your dreams to yourself. I think something I really believe is whatever you think about and you talk about all the time is what you are or what you will become. And so I was very open and I kept telling people about my dream and I truly believe that that’s why it happened. Because if you don’t speak up, no one knows. So if that’s my little tip, I would encourage you all to just be very open about your passions and your dreams.

Tracy Sun: That’s so amazing that, Angela, you knew your dream and then went and told your boss. That’s so vulnerable. It’s so scary. Has anyone here done that? Told your boss you want a different job or you want a different you know. Anyone who wants to do that? Just kidding. I love my job. I was just trying to get people… So if you’re one of the people raising your hand, come talk to her. Because she did it and sounds like it worked out for her. So, Vanessa, you want to go?

Vanessa Wong speaking

Senior Director of Product Management Vanessa Wong talks about her journey in product management, and moving on up, at Poshmark Girl Geek Dinner.

Vanessa Wong: Cool. So when I graduated college, the economy wasn’t great and I was just applying jobs everywhere. I was hanging out with my unemployed friends. It was really fun, but my parents were like you need a job. And me being a geek, like many of you guys, I saw a job posting. I don’t know if you guys have heard of CNET? They review electronics and I love electronics. They do a lot of cool tech stuff. It’s in San Francisco. Super fun. And I got a job there. Just amazing. And it’s at a big company. It’s like, “Wow, that’s really cool.”

Vanessa Wong: But I started my job and I was really bored. It was just something, yeah, it was a job, but it wasn’t something fulfilling. But then I got immersed and started talking to people and I got involved in helping building tools for that team with engineering. I was kind of doing product management for the backend tools but I wanted something more. So like Angela, I actually went up to my VP and very–more like a “Hey, this is something I’m already doing. What can I do next?” Like, “How do I prepare myself? Do you have advice for me? Do you have input?”

Vanessa Wong: And he was very open and receptive and pretty much immediately he was like, let’s craft a role for you, which was amazing. I did not expect that. I came to kind of talk to him, building a case, not sure what would happen. I definitely was really scared, but he was very receptive and I got the role as a project manager to help build internal tools. But deep down, I really wanted to work on the user side. So I was building tools for the shopping team. So that was my kind of first step into shopping which kind of leads to where I am at now.

Vanessa Wong: And so then I was in that role for maybe about a year and then internal opening opened to be a PM for CNET shopping and and I applied. And what was great about the people at CNET is that they were so supportive. My manager was like, “Hey, yeah, go, go talk to that hiring manager.” And we were able to work through and I was able to transfer into that role. And then I was there for several years and then it kind of leads me to Poshmark where my then boyfriend was like, “Hey, there’s this job opening at this company called Kaboodle.”

Vanessa Wong: And Kaboodle is our CEO, Manish Chandra’s, first company that he started. And I just applied. I was like, okay, this seems pretty cool. I’m already doing something in shopping. This is social shopping. This is pretty new then. And then I applied and I wasn’t sure about this whole thing because it was still pretty new. Social shopping was a pretty new concept back in the day. And then I applied and then worked there for several years. I went on with my journey in product management to many different companies.

Vanessa Wong: And then I had kept a close relationship with Manish and he’s always been my mentor. And then one day he’s like, “Hey, what about joining Poshmark?” And I was like, “Yeah, of course.” This seems natural to work with people you really trust and you really admire. But coming full circle back to my role now, just a couple of weeks ago, someone on my team, she came up to me and she kind of did the same thing that me and Angela did.

Vanessa Wong: She’s like, “Hey, I love what I’m doing but I want more. Can I talk to you about it?” I’m like, “Yes.” She’s like, so the first thing she said was, “Sorry, if I’m being aggressive,” and I stopped her right there. I was like, “You’re not being aggressive at all.” Like, “I welcome this. Please, please feel that you can do this any time. I’m here to help you fulfill your dreams.” So we’ve started this conversation and we’re really helping her where we’re going to really help chart her to her dream.

Tracy Sun: That’s amazing.

Camille Ford: I’m going to cry.

Tracy Sun: Yeah.

Camille Ford: Sitting next to her. So there really are some interesting themes here. I also graduated when the economy wasn’t doing so hot and I felt like, what is the responsible thing to do now? Go be an accountant. And so my team teases me now because I call myself a recovering accountant because that’s exactly what I am. But I started my career about 10 years ago at PWC. It felt like that was the right thing to do. That was the safe thing to do. I had student debt, but it was like not the right thing for me at all. In about a couple of years into doing that, after I felt like I had a good foundation around financial services. I was auditing at the time, mainly VC funds and private equity funds.

Camille Ford: I also then went to my boss and said, I’m not happy. Like, I like it here. I like the people, I like the culture, but I don’t like the work that I’m doing. And I feel like there’s a part of my brain that’s withering away because I’m not doing anything creative. And they helped me, they helped me find a new role. And so I moved into a marketing function where I felt like I could get some different functional expertise in something that felt like I would be able to still use the analytic side of my brain but also use the more creative side of my brain as well.

Camille Ford: And it was a really great learning experience. But after a little while, it also felt like, okay, what’s next? This isn’t quite enough. And so I made the decision to move from the East Coast. I was in Boston at the time, go Bruins, and I moved to the West Coast to attend business school. And I was really intentional about my time during the MBA to just like, one, unlearn all the stuff that I didn’t feel like was for me. Because I told myself, “You are an accountant. You are only the analytical person. Who are you to think that you can be creative? Who are you to think that you can find both of those things in one job and be happy? Who are you to think you can work in fashion at all?” And really opened myself up to the possibilities of what could be.

Camille Ford: And so I spent those two years just doing a lot of internships in fashion tech and just retail and trying to just learn everything I felt like I didn’t know. Interestingly enough, I had been a user of Poshmark for several years. Actually, before I moved for business school, I sold all my stuff on Poshmark, moving across the country. And it was right before I was about to graduate. I look around and a lot of my classmates have these fancy jobs. They’re all set. They’re enjoying all this traveling and here I am still recruiting up until the day of graduation.

Camille Ford: I’m looking at Danny back there because I got a call from the Poshmark recruiter on the day, the morning of my MBA graduation and I thought he was going to say, Camille, we have an offer for you. He didn’t. Instead, he’s like, “Camille, we don’t have something for you right now. But like we still want to stay in touch.” And that was a little heartbreaking, to be honest, going into graduation, but still stayed the course. And a week later which actually was on my 31st birthday got a call from Danny again and this time it was like Tracy’s ready to make you an offer.

Camille Ford: And I share that level of detail only to say that what got me through like, one, switching these functions, kind of keeping the momentum up when I felt like I wasn’t necessarily getting to the place that I wanted to be in the time that I wanted to be at, to get there, rather, is just this layer of tenacity. And just going after it and knowing that like you are totally worthy of whatever it is that you think that you can get. Because the opportunity might not present itself right now but it definitely will.

Camille Ford: And so just staying the course that you feel like is true and natural to you and not being nervous that like, “Hey, I’ve invested all these years in like financial services.” Like that’s what I’m an expert in. No, like, now I’m an expert in social commerce. Or I’m going to get there. So just being really honest with yourself and not giving up on yourself would be my best advice.

Adrienne Hamrah: That was amazing. So like everyone else, I also had a career change. I actually had four. So 10 years ago, I was in school. I was in structural engineering and undergrad and while I really liked like calculating forces and making sure things don’t fall down in buildings I ended up getting–

Tracy Sun: Me too, by the way.

Adrienne Hamrah: Yeah, it’s still like every time I drive over a bridge I’m like, I hope this bridge like doesn’t shake. That’s always in the back of my head. So I ended up actually taking a job in civil engineering with the city of San Francisco, interned there for public works. Really, really boring. I worked on sewers and sewers are very, very boring. They like fall apart every 100 years. There’s not much thinking involved. So I went back to school, got a masters in engineering management because I wanted to learn more about the business side, the people side of things.

Adrienne Hamrah: And then after that, I actually went to Verizon. I did a four-year rotation program and that was really, really cool. I got to do four different jobs in four years. Got really great training with executives, seeing how they run a really large company. But telecom was also very boring to me. It’s like there’s only so many cell phone towers I can design. They all look the same and not very challenging.

Adrienne Hamrah: So I shifted again, I decided to become a product manager, and luckily, a girl from high school was the recruiter at a really small startup of 55 people at the time. It was in the cancer research clinical trials space. And so that was really interesting to me because I actually was pre-med for a hot minute in college. So I was like, I’m going to go back to healthcare. As a PM, though, I was doing internal tools and I don’t think that was the right fit for me. And also, the management there was just a disaster.

Adrienne Hamrah: And I think the most important thing I learned out of that is it doesn’t matter how cool the space is or how cool you think the product is. If the people, if they’re not the right fit for you, then go. Because you’ll find someplace else better. So after going through that experience and even though I was like this is such a cool like company, I was like, this is not the right thing for me. So I walked away and then I decided to go into software, so I did a boot camp.

Adrienne Hamrah: It was a three-month boot camp, 100 hours every week of coding. It was the hardest thing I’ve had to do. Harder than structural engineering undergrad because it was all crammed into one. But I came out of it absolutely loving it. I met up with a girl at a new restaurant opening. She’s actually there, Christina. Because we do food influencing on the side. And so she was like, I work at this company called Poshmark. We’re always hiring. I’m sure we have software engineer openings. Why don’t you like look?

Adrienne Hamrah: And so I took a look. I decided to apply. She referred me and I just absolutely fell in love with the culture, the people first, and then it happens that the product is also something I love and I use as well. So it’s like best of both worlds. So I think my tip is, first, if it’s not the right fit for you, don’t be scared to move. For me, I moved four times, four different companies. But just don’t settle and just go for it.

Tracy Sun: Thank you for sharing your stories. You guys, can you give them all just a… Yeah. Amazing. So I’m going to ask one more question and then I think we’re going to open up to Q&A. So those of you who know me and there’s a lot of you in the room, I’m a huge believer in superpowers. So I just gave Poshmark a superpower, which is people-powered innovation. And what I mean by a superpower is that there’s typically one thing that you can do that you know you do better than everybody else. And if you’re lucky, it’s useful in your personal life or career, but it doesn’t have to be.

Tracy Sun: And so I think it’s really–sometimes you don’t know what it is and sometimes it can change but I think it’s really helpful to have that conversation with yourself. Like, what is my superpower? So that you can carry that with you and just know, no matter what, I can do one thing better than everybody else. And I think that’s great for confidence. So I wanted to–this is one of the questions I snuck in there so I’m not going to call on anyone. But if you want to volunteer and share with us your superpower, my hope is that if we share then if you don’t know what yours is maybe we can help pull it out of you by sharing what ours is.

Tracy Sun: So I’ll just start. I didn’t know this until a few years ago but I think one of my superpowers is that I’m really good at telling stories if I care. And I’m really bad at telling stories if I don’t care. And so going back to like career stuff, I have to do things that I care about because then I do my best work. So I think my superpower is, I’m a good storyteller. Anyone want to share?

Adrienne Hamrah: I don’t know if this is a superpower, but I can literally talk about food forever, which is like it’s how I got this job. It’s how I got the job before this one. It’s great because like this company loves food too. So it just worked out and I’m like a supertaster. So I’m just very sensitive to like ingredients as well. So I’m the kind of person sitting at the table and like asking the waiter like, “What exactly do you put in here?” “Oh, yeah, yeah, I did taste that.”

Camille Ford: That’s funny. My superpower? I would say that I’m really good at building relationships with people. Not like massive amounts of people, but if I like find my group, I can really build deep relationships with them and it certainly served me at work, given that the markets team needs a lot of other people to get things done. But it just played a big role in my life to be able to like put myself in other people’s shoes.

Camille Ford: And it’s funny because my friends tell me I’m a good listener. My mom tells me I was the worst listener as a child. So I’m not exactly sure how to reconcile that. But other than kind of going this back to this point around caring. For the people that are around me, I care a lot, and building relationships has been something that I found I’m pretty good at it.

Vanessa Wong: So for me, I don’t know if this is a superpower, but I think this applies to–how many moms are out there? Yeah. So I’m a mom to three young children. I have three girls. They’re all under the age of five so I have to multitask like crazy. My husband has a really busy job too and so I think that carries on into my work life and personal life. I became super efficient after I had my first child. I don’t know if that applies to you other moms too. So I would say a superpower that I have is just being able to manage multiple things, switching context here and there and just being able to switch gears on the fly and just to readjust and reassess and prioritize accordingly. So, yeah.

Angela Buckmaster: So I think my superpower is actually something that other people knew about me before I knew it about myself and that is that I will and can support anyone in anything they want to do. So when I was a kid, I was the kid in elementary school who would get put in groups with like the trouble kids because I’d be so patient and supportive but I could like help the group get to the group project and get through it. And so for a lot of years though, I didn’t really realize this about myself and people are like, you should be a teacher, you should do this, you should do that.

Angela Buckmaster: And I always was like, “Oh, what’s my skill? What’s my thing?” And then actually being here at Poshmark and noticing kind of the roles I drifted towards and the people that I drifted towards, I kind of drifted towards the natural leaders because I wanted to support them and empower them. And I found eventually by spending a lot of time looking inside that that’s actually something I enjoy and I’m really good at. So I would say that’s my, my superpower.

Tracy Sun: Thank you guys for sharing. Let’s open it up for Q&A. If you have questions, I don’t know what to do. If you have questions, the mic is coming around. Raise your hand. Barkha, do you want to come up here? You’re fair game for questions. Thank you.

Speaker 12: Thank you. Thank you for sharing. I have two questions, so you can answer either or. One question I have is just about how you try to maintain the company culture as you grow into a larger company eventually over time? The other question I’m curious about is how you use innovation to stay ahead of your competitors? Who are your competitors?

Tracy Sun: Angela, you want to take those questions?

Angela Buckmaster: Yeah. So the first question about culture. I think for us, like you said, we’re scaling so much, so rapidly, not only internally, but externally. And so we have to think about both. And tying back into something I said earlier, I think that the way that we make sure that we continue to scale our culture is to make sure our culture is top of mind. Because again, if you think about it, if you talk about it, if you embrace it, it’s only going to get better. And you can never forget about it. So doing things like making sure we stay in touch with both our internal and external community all the time. Even at the company here.

Angela Buckmaster: So when I started six years ago, we were in one room and I knew everyone, I knew what they ate for dinner the night before. And now that we’re spread out and we’re on two different floors, it is a little bit harder, but you have to remember that we are all working together towards the same goals. So we talk to each other a lot. I can still go up to anyone in the company and talk to them about anything that’s happening inside or outside of the app. So I think again, just keeping it top of mind and always trying to think of how can we do this better has made us be able to scale our culture with the company.

Vanessa Wong: Yeah. Actually, I’ll do the first one too and I could go a little into the second one. So for our product features whenever we build something, we look at what our values are and we always make sure they’re rooted in there. So our CEO is really into love. I don’t know if you’ve guys have… You should catch some of his videos on YouTube but he always says something where you lead with love and with love comes money. And we use that a lot in our product thinking. We have a like, which is a heart, but we don’t have like a hate or dislike. Like how Facebook has different reactions.

Vanessa Wong: We always–everything is really positive. Everything is really transparent. And that goes along with a lot of our company culture as well. Everything is transparent. You can voice your opinion. You know what’s going on at our all hands–all the information is kind of disseminated into everyone. So that’s kind of how we look at when we’re developing products. As far as our competitors, yeah, we’re always checking them out. They’re always doing cool and unique things.

Vanessa Wong: But again, I think because we’re so different. We have like the largest community, social community out there. We have to take a little different angle. We can’t be like an eBay. They’re very different than us and whatever–let’s say we do something similar to them, it may not work for us. So we’re always on the lookout, but we always search within of like what would really help our sellers stylists? As people, they’ve started their own businesses on Poshmark. How can we empower them and how can we help them grow? You’ll be good…

Tracy Sun: No, no, no, no. She’s all right. I was going to echo.

Speaker: Do you have another question? Otherwise, we can keep going. All right there. Is there a mic?

Audience Member: Hi. I have a question about user feedback. How do you gather that and how do you incorporate that into the product development and innovation?

Angela Buckmaster: You can maybe onto that.

Vanessa Wong: So I actually work with people like Angela and we meet with the community team very often. I look at our Facebook groups and we talk to our users. We go to Posh Fest and we’re very connected to our users and we hear what’s going on and we incorporate that into our product roadmap. There are things that our users may request but they may not fit in. They might think that that is the solutions for them. But when we internally talk about these things, we think one step further is like, is that really helping? That might be one thing but we have a larger plan and larger vision for them.

Vanessa Wong: And I think one of the coolest things that I’ve done at Poshmark is each year, we have an annual get-together with our seller stylists called Posh Fest. And I’ve been very fortunate the last couple of years to kind of announce what we did for our hackathon. And so what we did is we had users submit things that they’ve want in the app and we get like, I don’t know, thousands and thousands of requests. And they’re like the spreadsheet is crazy.

Vanessa Wong: But I love looking at it each year because I’m like, “Oh, this is what they’re interested. This is what they’re passionate about.” And so, for example, last year we were able to rehaul our newsfeed and this is something that the users have wanted for so long and they were so excited about it. Another killer feature that we launched was they’d been always wanting a draft listing and so we were able to launch that. So that was really amazing.

Speaker: I think we have a question over here.

Audience Member: Thank you, everybody. I’m actually a Poshmark buyer, especially. I’ve been seller but buying more than selling. And so a question I have for you that I’ve noticed is that there is a very distinct culture within Poshmark. And I was wondering, how do you ensure that positive culture and thinking when like cybersecurity issues or bullying issues and things like that online considering there’s 40 million users, how do you use data or how do you think about the product or how do you build the communities to be able to continue that very specific type of culture that’s already been there? And especially around Cybersecurity anti-bullying.

Tracy Sun: So I’ll start and then Barkha, if you have anything to add, let me know. So we get this form of question quite a bit. And the first thing I’d say is it’s really hard to fake a value. So when you talk about the values that are our unique community, I’d say that comes from what we want and it’s a little bit of the world that we wish we had before we had Poshmark. We live it here at headquarters and it’s, we intentionally said let’s also build it into the user experience and also to our community.

Tracy Sun: And it’s really hard to fake that because you almost have to be a little bit crazy about it and not know you’re crazy. And in that way then you just naturally start to act in a way that’s according to your values and it becomes stronger and stronger. So what we did is we talked a lot to Angela’s point. We knew people were important to us. We knew culture is important to not just culture here, culture in our app, in our community. So we had that top of mind and built everything with that in mind.

Tracy Sun: And there are some times where we said this would make sense to make more money. But this doesn’t make sense if we want to be empowering to our sellers. And so we had our North Star and we chose that path. And so if you know what your North Star is and for us, it’s our people, then it’s easier to make those decisions when those crazy moments happen and you’re panicked and you don’t know exactly what to do. I don’t know if I can answer anything about cybersecurity. Can you? Where is Chetan?

Barkha Saxena: Or Gautam.

Tracy Sun: Or Gautam?

Barkha Saxena: Well, the only thing I would say is we also rely on our community to help with that. That’s the power of this community who is very passionate. For them, Poshmark is not just a product. It’s their own thing. So they really help us with that too. Like there’s lot of comment reporting, a lot of reporting that happens which goes to Angela team and of course, you have to look at it like the… You can report anything. But that’s where their team has the expertise in knowing like how to do it. But I think it’s our community who is actually allowing us to scale more than I would say the data in this case.

Speaker: We’ll take a few more questions.

Audience Member:  Thank you. And thank you guys so much for volunteering your time to talk to us today. My question is around branding, especially when starting a company and starting a venture, especially social like Poshmart. How did you decide your values and how did you decide what kind of brand you wanted to put forward?

Tracy Sun: So I touched a little bit before… I’ll take, okay. I touched a little bit before about our values and just to recap, I think it comes from what you deeply care about and the founders and the founding team, we have a lot of things in common but I think one of the strongest things we have in common is just a belief in the way we want the world to be. So it’s almost outside of business and it’s not just a company value. It’s like our personal values. So it comes from there.

Tracy Sun: In terms of branding, I think that’s a really interesting one for us. And when it came time to really formalize our thoughts around brand, we were a little bit confused because we’re a company that wants to empower other people. And so if you create a really strong traditional brand, likely you will alienate some people. So I come from the fashion background. So my first thought was, “Ooh, we’re going to create a really cool logo and all of our messaging and all of our images are going to look chic and sophisticated.” Things that you had imagined at like Net-a-porter, for example, or just another cool brand. But we’re like, “Yeah, but 80% of America doesn’t want to see that. So what do we do then?”

Tracy Sun: And plus all of our sellers, they have their own story. How can we possibly create a brand around our story? And this is where those core values come into play. And one of our core values in terms of how we prioritize our time is to get behind our sellers, get behind our community, and make sure that we’re empowering them. And so when we think about brand, our brand became empowering sellers. And so when you see some of our videos or you see where we put our energy into things that might be called brand. We usually don’t put our faces, we put your faces right and we celebrate your wins. We don’t really celebrate our wins because if you or the community’s winning, we know we’re winning. So a lot of our brand is around community, honestly.

Speaker: Last question.

Audience Member: Thank you all so much for taking the time to speak with us today. I was wondering if you have an example of a challenge that you’re facing as a company right now or maybe in the recent past. And I’m interested in hearing about what kind of problem-solving methodology you use in a fast-paced environment like Poshmark.

Vanessa Wong: So I think one of the problems is scaling. We’re getting larger. Our app has a lot of different things in there. We want to introduce new features, but I think the core thing is keeping it simple. We don’t want it to be complicated. We don’t want a million steps in the listing flow. We don’t want to make buying complicated. But we do want to introduce new things that are useful for everyone. So I think one thing we’ve introduced within the last couple of years and we’ve introduced a concept of a metamodel.

Vanessa Wong: And what it is, is it’s basically a core set of principles that you kind of adhere to when you’re building a feature and really mapping it back to those. So if I’m going to create this button, like does it really adhere to what we’re trying to do? So really sticking that and it really gets the team aligned, as well. So let’s say we have a team of like 10 engineers working on it. That helps us really stay focused and make sure that we’re reaching our North Star.

Tracy Sun: Just to add one thing to what Vanessa said. The metamodel is a great one. But really that the problem that we’re facing that led that to be the solution is that we used to be a team that would sit around the table and design the product and then we grew to 400 plus people. And what we found is conversations were happening all over the place about the same project in different offices. We have three other offices around the world, and we had trouble–We would always try to communicate but things would always slip between the cracks.

Tracy Sun: And so that’s a challenge of scale that we had is we were not talking to each other in a way that — we weren’t communicating. We were talking and not communicating. So what the metamodel does, and you can call it what you want, but it gives guidelines. Here’s the core values. Here is what when we’re doing a feature, when we’re doing a project, we’re doing a campaign, here’s what it should do. And so double check yourself so that we don’t have to. We can be more nimble as a smaller team.

Speaker: All right. Thank you so much. Let’s give them a big round of applause here.

Tracy Sun, Claire Berkley

Technical Recruiter Claire Berkley passes the mic to SVP of New Markets and Co-Founder Tracy Sun to deliver opening remarks at Poshmark Girl Geek Dinner.

Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!