Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Career Advice from 45 Inspiring Women in Tech

elevate headshots glamour

March is Women’s History Month! Do you recognize Shanea (pictured, middle)? She is regularly featured as stock photography as a modern corporate woman, thanks to that #WOCINTECHCHAT photoshoot!

Today, Shanea Leven is the CEO and founder of CodeSee, a venture-funded startup in San Francisco that raised over $11 million in funding to date. She’s now scaling her dev tools company, helping developers onboard to codebases, gave a talk on Int’l Women’s Day AND led a developer workshop at the Girl Geek X Career Fair. Black founders raise 1% of all venture capital dollars in the United States, so this Black female founder is exemplary and exceptional.

We are proud of these ambitious technical women making history with glass-breaking insights on tech careers, self-care, ambition, career pivots, squiggly career paths, optimizing your resume for the ATS and recruiter, and much more. We have been so excited to host Shanea and 40+ incredible women in tech as speakers at ELEVATE 2023 Conference & Career Fair!

Don’t miss their key career advice and action items, with links to their inspiring videos and transcripts below – be sure to bookmark this heavily-resourced and inspiration page, and share with your job-seeking friends this link (GIRLGEEK.IO/JOBS) – Please help a girl geek find her next job in tech!

#1 – Stevie Case – If you want to build an incredible career with a non-traditional background, my number one tip is that the online application pretty much will never cut it.

Stevie Case (Chief Revenue Officer at Vanta) believes that the perfect resume is a myth, high level tech sales roles can be done by almost anyone, and that these roles should be the #1 pathway into tech. She shares her own career path (including being the first professional female gamer) and encourages women to embrace discomfort to grow. You can watch her keynote “Don’t Think You’re Qualified for a Position in Tech? Apply Anyway” on YouTube or read the full chat transcript.

Slide: Online application won't cut it.

#2 – Rebecca Dobson – “Make sure you are creating opportunities as well as taking things that are offered to you.

Rebecca Dobson (Corporate Vice President, EMEA at Cadence) believes ‘success’ is very personal. She shares her career journey from startups to big semiconductor companies, and talks about dealing with personal and professional setbacks, and how you can achieve your goals. You can watch her talk “Own It! Tenacity, Dealing With Setbacks and Being Resilient” on YouTube or read the full chat transcript.

slide: What Does it Take To Become Successful? 

Embrace opportunities; build momentum!

#3 – Cassandra Terry – “Which of these self-limiting behaviors is a growth opportunity for you?”

Cassandra Terry (Chief Risk Officer, Security Development at IBM) talks about how to connect with your inner voice and began to reframe the self-limiting beliefs that you discover. She introduces 5 R’s to repeat until you successfully rewrite your limiting beliefs. You can watch her talk “The Voice Within Wins” on YouTube or read the full chat transcript.

Slide from Cassandra Terry's talk. 

The title is "self limiting behaviors."  

Below that, she lists 5 behaviors: 
imposter syndrome, covering, shrinking, flip flopping, and people pleasing. 

To the right is a small image of Cassandra captured during her live presentation.

#4 – Claire Rutkowski – “Managing up is really important and it’s your responsibility, not your manager’s responsibility.”

Claire Rutkowski (Senior Vice President, CIO Champion at Bentley Systems) discusses how to create an environment which has no proximity bias, specific ways to overcome proximity bias where it does exist, and shares tactics to ensure your value is noticed and rewarded. You can watch her talk “Overcoming Proximity Bias” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

Claire Rutkowski's slide, titled: "Overcoming proximity bias as a contributor: be visible."

Make sure your manager knows what you are working on.
Use cameras when necessary. 
Be reachable or clear of when you will be. 
Treat working remotely as a luxury.

#5 – Aastha Gupta – “It’s self-care, fundamentally, especially when you become parents, when you’re in parenthood, we start to put a partner, a marriage, children, work, before us.”

Aasha Gupta (Senior Director of Product at Meta) is a cancer survivor sharing stories of ambition, burnout, resilience – valuable lessons – on the importance of ruthless prioritization, letting go of mom guilt, and self-care, in conversation with Sukrutha Bhadouria. You can watch her fireside chat “Cancer Survivors on Career Ambition, Ruthless Prioritization, and Self Care” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

Screenshot of 3 smiling women presenting at Elevate Virtual Conference, Aasha Gupta (Senior Director of Product at Meta), Sukrutha Bhadouria, Senior Director of Engineering at Salesforce, and Sharmeen Chapp (Senior Director of Product at Meta).

#6 – Sharmeen Chapp – “The hardest part of my cancer journey was the mom guilt of not being able to pick up my son for eight weeks. Not the chemo, when I couldn’t get out of bed all day, or help myself, or change my own clothes after surgery. The mom guilt.”

Sharmeen Chapp (Senior Director of Product at Meta) is a cancer survivor sharing stories – and valuable lessons – on the importance of ruthless prioritization, letting go of mom guilt, and self-care, in conversation with Sukrutha Bhadouria. You can watch her fireside chat “Cancer Survivors on Career Ambition, Ruthless Prioritization, and Self Care” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

aastha gupta sukrutha bhaudoria sharmeen chapp fuck cancer fireside chat elevate

#7 – Maria Kazandjieva – “Let’s talk about the it’s risky thought-terminating clichés. List the risks. Specific risks. Evaluate the new unknown opportunity. Evaluate some of the risks in your current role, a fairer comparison.”

Maria Kazandjieva (Engineering Leader and Co-Founder at Graft) speaks about how to honestly evaluate an opportunity and understand when is the optimal time is to make a move. She encourages you to investigate thought-terminating clichés. You can watch her talk “From Netflix to Co-Founding a Startup and How to Make ‘Scary’ Career Choices” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

Screenshot of a slide from Maria Kazandjieva's talk. (Engineering Leader and Co-Founder at Graft). An orange long-haired tabby cat sits on a wooden floor, with all 4 paws inside a blue square that's taped out on the floor.

#8 – Dr. Tonya Custis – “I learned so much from playing roller derby. The best lesson was like research. It doesn’t matter how many times you fall down, as long as you get up again.”

Dr. Tonya Custis (Director of AI Research at Autodesk) shares how she learned about management and strategy by playing both offense and defense as a roller derby skater. She talks about her team’s research papers, making designers’ jobs easier by using AI to reverse-engineer objects and assemblies into sketches and CAD models, as well as generating the designs themselves. You can watch her talk “Designing AI for Designers” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

Screenshot of a slide by Dr. Tonya Custis (Director of AI Research at Autodesk). In the slide, there's a photo of Dr. Custis playing roller derby.

#9 – Claudia Natasia – “My mom took me, when I was 5 years old, to business meetings at banks across Jakarta’s financial district. Sometimes I had the privilege to watch her close deals. I learned it’s important to build businesses and enterprises that last.”

Claudia Natasia (Director of Product Insights at Highspot) talks about how to build and structure a team that supports strategy and growth, to to calculate the impact of investments and results against financial models (e.g. discounted cash flow), and how to speak the language of investors and c-level, so your team will be leveraged as a strategic hedge against negative impacts of a recession. You can watch her talk “Hedging For Revenue In Recessions Through UX Research” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

Slide from Claudia Natasia's talk at Elevate 2023. Slide shows a mathematical formula that she was explaining as part of a financial model.

#10 – Maya Israni – “The government is entrusted to provide critical services and programs to the public. And the types of services that we work on and the people that we’re impacting. The scope is enormous.”

Maya Israni (Director of Engineering, U.S. Digital Service) shares her journey to government and civic tech, and her experience leading government engineering teams. She dives into the types of projects that engineers work on, along with how to apply your technical skills to improve government programs and services for millions of people across the country. You can watch her talk “From Private to Public: Leading in Government Tech” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

usds diector engineering maya israni girl geek x elevate conference

#11 – Kimberley Parsons – “When you’re leading without formal authority or role, that’s where the relationship piece becomes important. Build the relationship. Practice inquiry and curiosity.”

Kimberley Parsons (CEO of Bamboo Teaming) shares a time-tested approach distilling team functioning into four interrelated dimensions, with concrete guidance to implement for improved team performance. She explores common “hot spots” that can make or break team functioning, and the corresponding team leadership behaviors you can cultivate to overcome. You can watch her talk “What Every Leader Should Know To Catalyze Higher Team Performance” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

Powerpoint slide presented by Kimberley Parsons (CEO of Bamboo Teaming) during Elevate 2023 Virtual Conference. 

To the right, a smiling and professionally dressed black woman is speaking to the camera.

#12 – Jessica Sahagian – “Many neurodiverse women don’t know they’re neurodivergent. Consideration of neurodiversity should be given to everyone. Pick a career that works with who you are, not against it.”

As an ADHD/autistic, Jessica Sahagian (Director of Engineering at connectRN) discusses why women’s neurodiversity gets overlooked, provides tips on how to attract and hire neurodiverse candidates, shares tips for making your atmosphere conductive to amplifying ND voices, and inspires you to shine as a neurodiverse woman in a neurotypical work world. You can watch her keynote “Neurodiversity @ Work” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

how to retain neurodiverse hires: stim acceptance, sensory friendly workplace, remote, adaptive goals, agendas, clear asks. 
 - a slide by Jessica Sahagian

#13 – Luiza Pena – “We need to be intentional about forming relationships, and build our networks. Stakeholder awareness is understanding key people to help you amplify your impact toward the next step in your career.”

Luiza Pena (Lead Application Engineer at Cadence) talks about the 4 allies you need in your career to facilitate growth. She discusses the challenges of remote work regarding career development and networking, how promote yourself in this new environment, and most importantly, how women can leverage professional relationships to go beyond their dreams. You can watch her talk “The 4 Allies You Need to Boost Your Career” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

Slide: Climbing the Ladder

Business acumen is needed to make conscious decisions in your career.

#14 – Joy Ebertz – “I write about running, but I also write a lot about diversity, equity, and inclusion. I write about career topics and tech technical topics.”

Joy Ebertz (Principal Software Engineer at Split) gives an overview of feature flags are, shares interesting use cases around using them to remove debt code load and stress testing, evaluating tech costs, parody testing, and logging. You can watch her talk “Feature Flag Use Cases You Haven’t Heard About Yet” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

feature flag check mirrored traffic old system new system requests - joy ebertz, software engineer at split

#15 – Moriel Schottlender – “Working in the open, working in open source, has benefits. Even if no one ever produces a PR to your code, you put it out there. That’s important, because we tend to only put out things that are perfect.”

Moriel Schottlender (Principal Systems Architect at Wikimedia Foundation) exposes interesting impacts of gendered language with, and shares technical insights for open source development and architecting software “in the open” for creating career opportunities. You can watch her talk “A Gendered-Language Flipping Tool That Exposes Bias: Case Study” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

Slide: "flipping gendered language" wikipedia ada lovelace moriel schottlender

(Principal Systems Architect at Wikimedia Foundation)

#16 – Shanea Leven – “When onboarding, start from the key flows and then expand to the architecture. You know, make sure that you start there and maybe draw them out.”

Shanea Leven (CEO and Founder at CodeSee) talks about why onboarding to your company’s code is hard, and shares tips, tricks, and tools to make this easier. She shares advice for the team, advice for the onboarding, and advice for continuous onboarding. You can watch her talk “Why Onboarding to a Company’s Legacy Codebase Sucks and How to Make it Work for Your Team” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

codesee shanea leven

#18 – Katie Egeland – “Always connect back to the decision, or course of action, that this data storytelling will influence. Start with a summary of your key takeaways. Spoilers are good.”

Katie Egeland (Senior Insights Analyst at PlayStation) teaches you to communicate in a way that resonates with your audience to drive action and influence decisions. Go beyond “what” and “how” questions to “why” and “who” – really think about who it’s for and why they want to see it. You can watch her talk “Data Storytelling – How This ONE SKILL Will Set You Apart” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

slide: Asking the Right Questions

What Data is Needed? How will I get it and Analyze it? Who is going to see it? Why do they want it?

#19 – Aashima Lakhanpal – “Working in teams is only going to get tougher. Learn your team members’ key motivations. Then, pair them with your own strengths.”

Aashima Lakhanpal (Search Product Lead at Google) believes your team’s talent if leveraged correctly can drive significantly higher productivity and well-being. You can watch her talk “Strength Spotter for Teams” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

Slide: Aashima Lakhanpal (Search Product Lead at Google) 

Realtor, Influencer, Strategic, Executor

#20 – Odette Nemes – “Apprenticeships impact inclusion with a cohort model, so they’re not going in as an ‘only.’ Build your ecosystem. 91% of white people’s friends are white. We cannot keep using referrals.”

Odette Nemes (Head of Growth at Onramp) talks about how to develop new and existing talent in exciting and innovative ways with apprenticeships – and why now? If you’re recruiting at universities, you’re automatically eliminating 80% of black and brown folks – not a good tool for you. You can watch her talk “The Talent System Is Broken – Finding Better Ways to Hire” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

Slide: Odette Nemes (Head of Growth at Onramp)

Spprenticeship Programs Landscape 

software engineering 
department of labor 
return to work 
formerly incarcerated 
third parties 

#21 – Spandana Govindgari – “Startups offer different things than corporates. For example, startups offer accelerated growth. It is important that you have diversified work experience of both in your career.”

Spandana Govindgari (Staff Engineering Lead at Meta) talks about how to transition from corporate to startups, what skills are required to be successful, the pros and cons of working at a startup vs corporate, and growing as an individual contributor (IC) without transitioning to management. You can watch her talk “Transitioning and Growing Your Career: Getting Comfortable with Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

slide by Spandana Govindgari (Staff Engineering Lead at Meta) 

Where to transition?

important to diversify your work corporate and startup

#22 – Judith Syau – “Networking is important for referrals. Get your foot in the door when an application doesn’t work. You never know how valuable a connection is, and potentially key to getting your next job.”

Judith Syau (Senior Software Engineer at Stripe) shares resources for researching a company’s culture from multiple angles, networking strategies, and questions to ask during the interview process to gain the necessary insights to choose the right company for you. You can watch her keynote “Understanding Company Culture Before Accepting the Job Offer” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

Slide: "networking strategies"

girl geek x 
rewriting the code 
/dev/ color 
code 2040
hispanics in computing

presented by Judith Syau (Senior Software Engineer at Stripe)

#23 – Ginger Holt – “To increase your visibility, present and share your work as much as possible. Get face time with execs. Sign up for office hours. Ask questions in meetings.”

Ginger Holt (Senior Staff Data Scientist at Databricks) distills career advice gleaned over a decade of working in academia and corporate / startups. Clarity, consensus and inclusion is key. You can watch her talk “How To Take Control of Your Career” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

clarity consensus inclusion - a slide by ginger holt

#24 – Erica Pisani – “Keep a long-running brag sheet across various roles. Listing dates that the project(s) ran for demonstrates velocity of work as a valuable lever for promotion.”

Erica Pisani (Senior Software Engineer at Netlify) talks about why and how you can keep a “brag sheet” to maximize your chances for career success. She shares her brag sheet template and demos your first brag sheet! You can watch her talk “Increasing Your Odds of Career Success with a Career ‘Brag Sheet” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

demo time "your first brag sheet" template by Erica Pisani (Senior Software Engineer at Netlify)

#25 – Aliza Carpio – “Your base salary and your bonus tend to be the least flexible. Your RSUs and PSUs are where you have the greatest flexibility for negotiation. On balance, a modified schedule is negotiable.”

Aliza Carpio (Director, Product and Tech Evangelist at Autodesk) shares tips for you to consider beyond the base salary, from future facing RSUs and PSUs, to extra incentives like a sign-on bonus or negotiating your job description or title. You can watch her talk “Beyond the Base: Negotiating Your Total Package” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

negotiating your total package beyond the base salary aliza carpio

#26 – Melsha Nicole Key – “Make sure that your definition of excellence aligns with your manager’s definition of excellence. Don’t just do the work that you that you have to do. Align with the department goals.”

Melsha Nicole Key (Senior Marketing Manager at GAP) talks about the importance of PIE (Performance, Image and Exposure), the importance of PIE at different stages in your career, how to get promoted while working remotely, and shares tips for gaining exposure in a large company. You can watch her talk “The Key to Excelling In Your Career is to Manage Your PIE (Performance, Image and Exposure)” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

pie performance image exposure melsha nicole key

#27 – Cynthia C. Harbor – “Intentionality beats imposter syndrome any day. You will encounter roadblocks and gatekeepers every step of the way. Navigate them by becoming a subject matter expert.”

Cynthia C. Harbor (Senior Technical Program Manager at CACI-Federal) discusses “troot mout” and calls a thing a thing. Gatekeeping is not always bad. In the height of the civil rights era, grass-root organizations and the church served as gatekeepers (from politicians and developers and others encroaching on the African American community). Become a subject matter expert. You can watch her talk “How To Navigate The Gatekeeping Culture in Tech on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

Slide: Show Them Who You Are 

Set realistic expectations.
Make your intentions known.
Explore multiple points of entry.
Don't sweat the small stuff.

#28 – Kelly Kitagawa – “The limiting belief about interviews is that people are born good interviewers. In fact, the people who are best in interviews are the ones that are the most prepared.”

Kelly Kitagawa (Senior Solutions Engineer at HashiCorp) shares her experiences learning on the job, and talks about overcoming limiting beliefs around like mindsets and imposter syndrome. She recommends creating an education plan, reframing your story, and applying for the job. You can watch her talk “Are You Technical Enough?” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

examine limiting beliefs daily

#29 – Arathi Mani – “In the spirit of International Women’s Day, let’s pick a very cool tissue – the uterus! See here all of the different cell types in the uterus. The uterus is also an incredibly cool muscle what enables it to expand from the size of a lemon, to the size of a watermelon.”

Arathi Mani (Engineering Manager at Chan Zuckerberg Initiative) discusses the process of building successful multidisciplinary teams that bring together the best of all disciplines. She demos CZI’s gene expression tool to visualize uterus cell types in the spirit of International Women’s Day. You can watch her talk “How to Build Teams that Bring Together the Best of All Specialities on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

Slide by Arathi Mani (Engineering Manager at Chan Zuckerberg Initiative)

#30 – Elena Ringseis – “Leverage discussion prompts in different ways. Try to meet live or in-person wherever you can. Twice-weekly Slack posts on key happening in the org, company announcements, and activities.”

Elena Ringseis (DesignOps Leader) makes the case for stronger relationships across your remote team – it’s within reach! She shares stories about how a little listening goes a long way, and successful community building. You can watch her keynote “Creating a Strong Team Culture in a Hybrid Workplace on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

Slide by Elena Ringseis (DesignOps Leader) - "Worth the effort?" 4 stars. Heavy lift; huge impact.

#31 – Tasha Penwell – “You get certificates of completion after you complete a course – something that you can share on LinkedIn. AWS is one of the most in-demand skills in technology today.”

Tasha Penwell (Founder at Bytes and Bits) is an AWS Educator for AWS Academy and AWS re/Start, using different curriculum and strategies to teach AWS skills. She identified two training and lab resources available, and the the role of guided notes when teaching. You can watch her talk Scaling Women in Tech as an AWS Educator” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

Slide by Tasha Penwell (Founder at Bytes and Bits) 

Building A Digital Presence Using LinkedIn

#32 – Sheri Byrne-Haber – “You don’t have to get a college degree in accessibility. In fact, such a thing does not exist. Go learn about all this stuff yourself, invest time, go to meetups, talk to people who are already in the field.”

Sheri Byrne-Haber (Senior Staff, Accessibility Architect at VMware) talks about what accessibility is, how it fits in the overall software development life cycle, and how to prepare for a successful career in accessibility. You can watch her talk Consider a Career in Accessibility on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

Slide by Sheri Byrne-Haber (Senior Staff, Accessibility Architect at VMware) 

What do accessibility professionals do with that knowledge? 
1. Design 
2. build 
3. test 

All through the lens of accessibility.

#33 – Korene Stuart – “Highlight your strengths in 1-2 sentences – your experiences and skills. Include key words to generate hits on the tracking software, making sure your keywords are coming straight from the job description.”

Korene Stuart (Director of Programming at G{Code}) gives you the tools and resources to create a technical resume that highlights everything you have to offer! Her pro-tip: find the three job roles that you want to do the most, and only apply to those positions, instead of being all over the place and applying to 30 different job roles. She walks job-seekers thru building a technical resume for both the applicant tracking system (ATS) and recruiter. You can watch her workshop Building a Technical Resume: Workshop on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

building your technical resume filename fullname pdf

#34 – Jenée C. Smith – “Make your GitHub profile shine and showcase your personality. Think about who you are. How do you want to be remembered?”

Jenée C. Smith (Software Engineer at Microsoft) reviews best practices for customizing your GitHub profile so you can stand out to recruiters and other developers. She stresses clarity in the README and walks through examples. You can watch her talk Developing Your Professional Brand with GitHub on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

readme file github jenee smith

#35 – Xinran Waibel – “I like writing about data engineering. I created a publication called ‘Data Engineer Things’ to share my learnings of what I learn at work.”

Xinran Waibel (Senior Data Engineer at Netflix) talks about modern data engineering, how data quality is defined and measured, and why it’s important for data engineering to closely connect with business. She discusses challenges and practical tips on designing data systems that consistently produce high-quality data. You can watch her talk Engineering Data for Data Quality on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

Slide by Xinran Waibel (Senior Data Engineer at Netflix)

There are two frames pictured on this meme slide. 

On the left, a cartoon dog surrounded by flames stares at his coffee. The text above him reads: "Data systems without data quality check." 

On the right, the dog excitedly says "This is fine." and smiles as the world around him goes up in flames. 

The caption below him reads "Data Engineer"

#36 – Carly Richmond – “Solve hard problems in a more quantitative way. Here’s how we can use tools such as Google Lighthouse, Synthetic Monitoring, and Elastic Real User Monitoring to achieve that.”

Carly Richmond (Developer Advocate at Elastic) discusses the reasons why feedback on feature adoption can be difficult to validate. She teaches you to measure feature effectiveness quantitatively to support qualitative user feedback. You can watch her talk “Are They Really Using It? Monitoring Digital Experience to Determine Feature Effectiveness” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

slide: synthetic monitoring

#37 – Shalini Sundaram – “One of my early moves, I jumped into a cybersecurity startup to wear multiple hats. One day, I sat next to the security researcher. The next day, I spent time with the business development team learning use cases and integrations.”

Shalini Sundaram (Group Product Manager at Proofpoint) encourages you to make a career transition into the cybersecurity. She talks about the Solar Winds hack, which affected  18,000 organizations that downloaded the software. Then, she shares her career journey as perspective on the cybersecurity industry. You can watch her talk “Demystifying Cybersecurity, A Good Career Choice” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

My journey in cybersecurity: shalini

#38 – Bhawna Dua – “Imagine hackers using your IOT devices to get into your home network and access all your information through Ring doorbells, Ring camera, and digitized fridges. This motivated me to work in cybersecurity.”

Bhawna Dua (Engineering Program Manager at Proofpoint) encourages you to make a career transition into the cybersecurity. She talks about the Saudi Aramco hack, and shares resources for learning about cybersecurity, from online courses to bootcamps and podcasts. You can watch her talk “Demystifying Cybersecurity, A Good Career Choice” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

Bhawna Dua (Engineering Program Manager at Proofpoint)
cybersecurity podcasts learning

#39 – Shanea Leven – “Open source contributions are an easy check mark to show off your experience to recruiters. Then, optimize by visually walking people through those code changes. You won’t be alone in doing this by joining”

Shanea Leven (CEO and founder at CodeSee) shares tips on optimizing your resume for ATS algorithms and reverse engineering your resume. Then, she talks about how to create a visual map of your codebase that will help you plan, automate and review your next feature, refactor or code review. You can watch her developer workshop “Demystifying Cybersecurity, A Good Career Choice” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

codesee shanea leven

#40 – Allison Liemhetcharat – “Ultimately, how do you want to tell your story? How do you want to plot the line, with all the data points all over the place? If you’re interested, I can tell you all the twists and turns in the straight line.”

Allison Liemhetcharat (Senior Staff Software Engineer at DoorDash) discusses how taking a sabbatical helped tremendously with burnout. She describes the three games she developed during her sabbatical, and how game development can be a lot of fun, and/or it can be a lot of work. You can watch her talk “How I Created 3 Games (of Different Genres) and Was Covered by Engadget During My Sabbatical” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

Slide by Allison Liemhetcharat (Senior Staff Software Engineer at DoorDash)

Lessons learned: 
A game jam is a wonderful experience with a great community. 
It's very possible to work too hard, even during a sabbaitical.

#41 – Mudita Tiwari – “Typically, a developer is working on a business problem. Your developer is trying to understand ‘what is it that the business wants from me?’ That’s what you’re trying to solve for.”

Mudita Tiwari (Senior Director of Product, Developer Experiences at PayPal) discusses how to build products for developers and technical users, shares collaboration best-practices with UX research and design for holistic product development. She talks about building low-code solutions to scale product adoption. You can watch her talk “Developer-Centric Design Approach To Building Technical Solutions” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

5 developer trends

1. Covid exacerbates need for developers

2. Devs think their role in making business decisions will increase over next 12 months. 

3. For businesses, prioritization of Dev productivity is key. 

4 low code tech enabling modular assembly of solutions and rapid customization are on the rise. 

5. Deep integration of AI technologies

#42 – Marilyn Hollinger – “Use tools like Figma, Sketch, and InVision for people to get into the design, see them, and comment on them. There needs to be ongoing commentary about your designs, preferably in the designs themselves.”

Marilyn Hollinger (Senior Director, User Experience at Betterworks) covers optimizing interactions with your UX team and Product Management and Engineering, shares key elements of managing a successful UX team, and discusses the steps in the growth and maturity of a UX team. You can watch her talk “Building and Managing a UX Practice” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

what is ux

#43 – Rashmy Parimi – “I joined a startup working on a soft tissue surgical platform. Verb Surgical has been acquired by Johnson and Johnson, and that team is continuing the work on that platform. Hopefully soon that will be in the market helping people improve their quality of life.”

Rashmy Parimi (Manufacturing Test Engineering Manager at Johnson and Johnson) discusses the growing role of robotic medical devices to improve quality of life, shares career paths in robotic medical devices, and provides a forward-looking outlook on the industry, sharing this guide to robotic surgery companies. You can watch her talk “Dr. Robot Will See You Now” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

elevate rashmy parimi johnson and johnson dr robot will see you now video transcript

#44 – Sukrutha Bhadouria – With hosting Girl Geek X events, we’ve dramatically seen a shift in people wanting to get more, do more, and move the goalpost for ourselves. We also need to take care of ourselves. Throughout these sessions, you’ll see us balancing that conversation. How do you seek out more while also putting yourself first?”

Sukrutha Bhadouria (CTO at Girl Geek X and Senior Director of Engineering at Salesforce) discusses why women continue to flock to Girl Geek X events after 15 years to grow their careers in the fast-moving technology industry. You can watch her host “ELEVATE 2023 Conference and Career Fair” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

screenshot of 3 women speakers

#45 – Angie Chang – “We’re really excited to have Autodesk, Cadence, United States Digital Service, Dematic and CodeSee with us, as sponsors and government participants. You’ll be hearing from their women leaders and founders today and tomorrow. Also, check out GIRLGEEK.IO/JOBS!”

Angie Chang (CEO at Girl Geek X) thanks our supporters at Autodesk, Cadence, United States Digital Service, Dematic and CodeSee for providing speakers, support, jobs, and more. Check out these companies’ featured jobs at GIRLGEEK.IO/JOBS – they are actively hiring! You can watch her host “ELEVATE 2023 Conference and Career Fair” on YouTube or read her full chat transcript.

Quotes from female speakers at our 6th annual Elevate conference have been edited for clarity.

girl geek x elevate speakers sponsors
Stevie Case quote Elevate 2023 Girl Geek X Vanta Instagram
Rebecca Dobson quote Elevate Girl Geek X Cadence Instagram
Cassandra Terry IG quote Elevate Girl Geek X IBM
Claire Rutkowski IG quote Elevate Girl Geek X Bentley Systems
Aastha Gupta quote Elevate Girl Geek X Meta Instagram
Sharmeen Chapp quote Elevate Girl Geek X Meta Instagram
Maria Kazandjieva IG quote Elevate Girl Geek X Graft
Tonya Custis IG quote Elevate Girl Geek X Autodesk
Claudia Natasia quote Elevate Girl Geek X Highspot Instagram
Maya Israni quote Elevate Girl Geek X United States Digital Service Instagram
Kimberley Parsons quote Elevate Girl Geek X Bamboo Teaming Instagram
Jessica Sahagian quote Elevate Girl Geek X ConnectRN Instagram
Luiza Pena quote Elevate Girl Geek X Cadence Instagram
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“Don’t Think You’re Qualified for a Position in Tech? Apply Anyway: Morning Keynote”: Stevie Case, Chief Revenue Officer at Vanta (Video + Transcript)

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Angie Chang: I’m so excited that we are here today. If you can cheer us on in the chat, we really appreciate it, and tell us where you’re coming in from. I see we have people from all over. We have over 2,500 people signed up so far, and we’ll be open all day for registration, so if people are interested in joining, they can totally do so at any time and just register and click on that join link.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. Hi, everyone. Welcome to ELEVATE 2023. Loving seeing everybody telling us where they’re joining in from. This is our sixth annual Girl Geek X: ELEVATE virtual conference where every year we celebrate International Women’s Day. This is Angie who just spoke and she founded Girl Geek X. It was originally called Bay Area Girl Geek Dinners, started all the way in 2008. Some years later, I’m Sukrutha, I cornered Angie into joining her and together we saw, with a lot of help around us, we saw this really take off from small meetups to huge, huge in-person meetups every single week. Booked up all the way to the following year. And then we were commuting to an event in the South Bay. Angie and I started to talk about what else could happen with this, and we are like, “Let’s do conferences and let’s keep it virtual, so we go beyond the Bay Area.” And that’s where we ended up. We also did podcasts along the way, and what we struggled with in the pandemic is while virtual, how do we also still encourage people to network? Which is why we incorporated the networking aspect into this particular conference. You must know somebody from everybody around you who’s looking for a job, especially in this climate. So, please do look at our sponsors page. The link will take you to our list of sponsored jobs. Angie, do you want to give a shout-out to our sponsors?

Angie Chang: Yeah, we’re really excited to have Autodesk, Cadence, United States Digital Service, Dematic and CodeSee with us as sponsors and government participants, and you’ll be hearing from some of their women leaders and founders later today and tomorrow. I really encourage you to check out the agenda and go find them and bookmark them, so that you don’t miss a thing. I know it’s a really hectic day, so if you bookmark the sessions, you’ll get a calendar invite so you won’t miss it. And the link is

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, today we’ll be hearing from a diverse set of women working in various roles in tech, right? And that’s what we really are passionate about, Angie and I, we want to give the mic to anyone who hesitates to share their story, share their journey, and hence, end up inspiring more and more people to not just get into but stay into tech. In many years that we’ve been doing this, we’ve dramatically seen a shift in people wanting to get more, do more, push themselves more, and as we continue to see ourselves move the goalpost for ourselves, we also need to take a pause and take care of ourselves. So, throughout this sessions today and tomorrow, you’ll see us balancing that conversation. How do you seek out more while also putting yourself first? So, it’s going to be amazing and very, very interesting. But Angie, since we have you for a few minutes, we should hear from you, what’s the flavor of the week? What’s on your mind right now?

Angie Chang: I’ve been thinking about all this talk about imposter syndrome, and I also want to turn it back and say there has to be systemic change in the way that women are promoted throughout the levels. And I encourage women to come to events like the Girl Geek events and get out of their own organization or their own small group. I used to be in engineering and then I was in product and I was in these very small groups, but I also think that we need to look at how teams can work together to figure out how to solve these structural problems that exist across companies and not just your company’s problems, because they exist all over. And so together, we can work together in these big structural problems, hopefully, or point to researchers and Harvard Business Review researched on how to solve for that and not just say we all have imposter syndrome, which we do, but let’s leave that over there along with the bad stories you tell at the bar, and go ahead to find solutions together. I think that is what I am thinking this week.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Well, I’ve been thinking about it is a very, very difficult place to work, this industry in the first place, and then now this industry is going through so much of a struggle with all the layoffs and I see so many stories that people share on LinkedIn about how much they’re struggling. And I keep getting reminded of, how do you lead people through these difficult times and how do you lead yourself to navigate through these difficult times? And something that keeps coming back to me is this piece of advice a mentor gave me several years ago, that it’s more important to lead with empathy than with force. So, whether you are navigating your own career or you’re trying to motivate your team through a difficult time, put your heart first, because that’s what’s going to last the longest. Yeah. Well, and with that, I want to remind everybody we have hashtags to use, so please continue to share the love on social media with the #ElevateWomen, because we want you all to lift as you climb, and the #IWD2023, because it’s International Women’s Day and we are so excited to have you all here with us today. Anything else, Angie, before I welcome an amazing, amazing speaker, Stevie?

Angie Chang: No.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: All right. We have our keynote speaker, Stevie Case. She’s a Chief Revenue Officer at Vanta. Before that, she was VP at Twilio, and also is an angel investor and advisor. Welcome, take it away.

Stevie Case: Thank you so much for having me. Good morning. I want to share a little bit of my story this morning because the truth is, I was never qualified for most of the jobs that I succeeded in. I want to start with a story of this girl, this young girl in the late 1970s, growing up in Kansas, not exactly a tech hub. Growing up on 300 acres of prairie, I actually did grow up in a little farmhouse on the prairie. And I grew up with a mom and dad who were very idealistic, who were not at all connected, who had big ideas about helping people. My dad, a biologist, my mom was a nurse and later, a social worker. They had really incredible view of the world, but we also had a pretty limited view of the world.

Stevie Case: Growing up in the country in Kansas. Growing up poor. I certainly had no passport. I had no concept of what was beyond the state borders in many cases. I definitely knew nothing of tech, but I did have big dreams. And as I made my way through high school and I saw what was ahead, I dreamt of being a lawyer, being a constitutional lawyer of all things. This is a real picture, I actually met Bill Clinton at the White House. I was on this path. I felt like, “Okay, I’m on my way. I’m going to go to law school and map out this future helping people.” At that point, I believed that politics was a great path to helping people. I’ve got mixed feelings on that now, although a lot of people are doing incredible work out there.

Stevie Case: And that idealism carried me through to college and I went to the University of Kansas, right down the street from where I grew up. Still big dreams of going to law school. And then this happened. If you were around in the late ’90s, early 2000s, you might recognize this as a LAN party. You’ll see the 21-inch CRT monitors back in the day. That person in the red circle there is me. And you’ll note, I think I’m one of two women in the room in this photo. And this was the beginning of the great derailment of my plants.

Stevie Case: And this moment came about because I started playing games. At the time we were playing Doom and then Quake. We were playing games in the dorm and I lived in this dorm on this honors floor, with all these really smart guys. They introduced me to these games and I fell in love with playing these games and I got quite good at it. And that took me on the road. I got to meet all these gaming legends. I got to play a variety of games and I got to compete. And as I competed and got better and better, I got the opportunity to challenge the man who had made one of those games. I ended up beating him at that game and I ended up dropping out of college.

Stevie Case: Imagine being my mom at 10:00 PM on a weeknight, when your daughter shows up with the U-Haul and says, “I’m moving to Dallas, I’m dropping out of college, I have no real plan and I’m going to just go down there and play video games.” This was not a popular decision in my household, but it did lead to this and it mled to some really interesting adventures. I got the opportunity to play professionally, to travel all over the world, and then ultimately, to make video games. I saw this evolution that I could undertake to get deeper into the industry.

Stevie Case: I took every opportunity to learn and ended up making video games for a living, and that was my detour into tech. Flash forward 25 years, it wasn’t all rosy, as you can imagine, in an industry that at the time was like 98, 99% male. It was rough. I was almost always the only woman in the room. I endured a tremendous amount of harassment and sexism and things that today blow my mind that they actually happened in the real world. And I recently told that story just last year in Vanity Fair.

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Stevie Case: I’ve had an incredible adventure since then. I’m a single mom. This is my daughter. She’s 18 now. That’s her senior picture on the right. She’s a total sweetheart. She’s just about to graduate. I’ve had full custody of her since she was three. That was also not the plan, but here we are. And now, I’m the chief revenue officer at a company called Vanta. This is my team, just a few weeks ago, kicking off our year down in Austin where we did a big revenue kickoff event. Vanta is a unicorn. It’s a more than billion-dollar company and it is my first role in the C-suite at a company of this size. And we work in security and compliance, which is again, a fairly male-dominated industry vertical.

Stevie Case: I am so grateful for this ride and I could not have predicted it if you look back 25 years. Even at the beginning of my gaming career, I had no idea this is where it would take me. Over 25 years, I’ve built an incredible career. I am a self-made multimillionaire. I’ve got this daughter about to graduate high school, and I’ve got a life I am so excited about. But when I look back at the reality of everything I went through, I was absolutely never qualified for the vast majority of roles that I ended up taking and succeeding at.

Stevie Case: I’ve joked about this in some of the roles I’ve taken over time, that if you actually looked at the job description for the job I was doing, if we had a job description on the website, I didn’t meet the criteria. I was a college dropout. I didn’t have all the check-boxes. And yet, in each of those roles, I found a path to success. And I’m here to tell you today that there’s nothing magical about what I did, and I don’t think there’s anything particularly special about how I plotted my way through that journey. There are a bunch of tactics that I used, that I believe anyone can use to help open up opportunity and to plot out the kind of unique career with a unique background that I have been so lucky to have.

Stevie Case: I want to make a special pitch too, for tech sales. Sales has been really good to me and I think there are great reasons to consider it. I know that in tech there are times when it’s frowned upon, it’s seen as less technical or less sexy than coding, but I’m here to tell you it’s actually a great career.

Stevie Case: Let’s flashback a little bit to the beginning of that journey in gaming. I want to tell you a little bit more the mechanics of how I made my way to where I am now and then some of the tactics I used along the way. Flashback to the early 2000s, I was a pro gamer. I knew I wanted to make games. I knew that gaming itself had a shelf life. You’ve got have great twitch reflexes and I thought, “Okay, I want to become a designer. That seems like a great path forward.”

Stevie Case: I thought, “I need to gain some technical skills of some kind.” And the only technical job I could get at that time was taking calls in a call center. It was a support call center for Toshiba laptops. I will never forget this experience, and it was very much a fake-it-until-you-make-it experience. I had to learn along the way. I had to study and I got actually quite good at tech support. I continued to work within the gaming scene. I got an offer to do quality assurance work at a video game company. And this, to me, was a huge win. I got to join the team onsite, go work in the big office with the creative team. And granted, I was the lowest paid person at the entire company, paid less than our receptionist. It was total hustle, and I was so thrilled. And I took that job and again, I learned, and I would find time to go talk to the designers. I was trying to absorb everything around me. At one point, I slept at the office for two weeks and kept a suitcase under my desk, trying to learn the business.

Stevie Case: Over time with enough hustle, I got the opportunity to get a design job and I worked on the product side of games. I continued there in Dallas doing that for several years, and after a relationship gone bad, I fled to LA, and in LA I found more opportunity in gaming and I ended up at what I felt at that time was the pinnacle, as good as it gets, I was at Warner Brothers making mobile games and it felt like, “Oh my gosh, I’ve made it. I can go on this studio lot.” And for a Kansas girl, there are actors and celebrities and I’m making content with all this great IP. “This is it. I have made it.”

Stevie Case: And along that journey, I had a vendor and he approached me and said, “Hey, I need a junior salesperson and I think I can teach you to sell.” And I had no idea what that meant. I had a huge amount of social anxiety, I was very shy, and it sounded honestly, deeply, deeply uncomfortable to me. But one of the things that has defined all the life-changing moves I’ve made in my life is that they felt deeply, deeply uncomfortable and scary. So, I thought, “If I’m this scared of this, I probably should do it.” And I did.

Stevie Case: And ever since, 15-plus years on, I have been in sales. And through that journey I took first just a job as a junior salesperson. I went on the road. I was really bad at it. I had a great mentor who really just beat into my head what great sales looked like, what it looked like to be vulnerable. One of those core lessons he taught me in those early days is that the best way to have success in sales is to just be authentic and be vulnerable, and it’s actually okay if you make mistakes, because that gives the other person permission to be human. That lesson really stuck with me throughout my career.

Stevie Case: I started to climb the ladder. I had some great leadership roles. I started to have the opportunity to run a team. I ended up as a VP at a company that was acquired by Visa, worked my way into additional opportunities, running everything revenue-facing. And ultimately, I landed at Twilio, and Twilio was an inflection point in my career. When I was offered the opportunity to join, they offered me either an account executive, a salesperson role, or a leadership role, and I decided I wanted to have the opportunity to just own the quota.

Stevie Case: Twilio was very early, it was all self-service. There was not really a sales team, and it felt like kind of the Wild West. I thought, “If I can just be an enterprise salesperson and go sign a bunch of big deals, that could be a really cool experience.” So, I did that. Ended up spending six years at Twilio, first as an enterprise AE, signing deals with Fortune 500 companies for them, then as a frontline manager running a team, then as the second line manager running the Western US, and ultimately, as the leader of the mid-market business, a $400 million business. And at each step, there was so much luck involved and so much pressing forward and learning and challenge and deep discomfort. But there are some tactics I used both inside Twilio and along the way to get there, that I think everyone can leverage. I want to share those with you now.

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Stevie Case: If you want to build an incredible career with a non-traditional background, my tip number one is that the online application pretty much will never cut it. When you’ve got a unique background, what makes you so special and a compelling candidate to any hiring manager is really difficult to articulate in a resume. And as somebody who is currently a hiring manager, I can tell you the deluge of resumes is incredibly hard to break through. If you are unique, if you bring a special skillset, it’s incredibly important that you get in front of people with your story, and your story in particular about what does make you unique and why someone should take a chance on you.

Stevie Case: Don’t settle for the online application. And if you get a lot of rejections through the online application, do not take it personally. It is not about you. There is so much limitation in a single page of paper that misses everything that matters about who you are. So, never settle for the online application. It’s got to be about the human connection.

Stevie Case: Number two is, own your story. And what I mean by this is, be you. You don’t have to fit the mold of what people are expecting. And rather than coming into a role, if you’re going for a stretch role, if you are applying for a job where you know you don’t meet the criteria, own that. Don’t pretend that you fit in that box, because if you pretend you fit in the box, you’ll often then get put up against the standard criteria. Hiring managers will say, “Uh, I’ve got somebody that fits this set of boxes better.” And it will be a struggle to succeed.

Stevie Case: What you’ll find is that if you truly own your own narrative and especially the parts of it that are unique about you, that will resonate, because really, hiring managers are looking for somebody that can do the job and can do so uniquely. And job descriptions are a very inaccurate and very rudimentary way to describe what they need. It’s a vague notion of what’s needed to succeed in a job. If you own your story and you tell them why you’re uniquely suited to do the job for reasons that aren’t on the page, that’s often much, much more compelling. And owning your story can mean writing it down. Get down the elements of your narrative that you think are unique and memorable. And be vulnerable. It’s okay if it’s not perfect and it’s okay if it doesn’t meet the requirements.

Stevie Case: The next is, do great discovery. And discovery is a word we love in sales. It really just boils down to asking great questions. Doing great discovery means figuring out all of the details about the situation, the people involved, what the expectations might be. And in many cases, especially if you’re looking to make a career pivot or you’re reaching for a job that you might not meet the requirements for, sometimes it’s just about knowing the right words. It’s incredible the power of mirroring and of spending the time to understand how the hiring manager and how the team you’re trying to join thinks about and talks about their business.

Stevie Case: Now, as you do this, one thing that I think is really important is that a lot of people who are trying to break into an industry or get a new job, they shoot high, they’ll go to the most senior person in the org or the hiring manager, or their boss. I would actually encourage you to make that connection and do discovery with people who are in the job today, people who are perhaps a little bit lower in the org chart, who are going to have more concrete information about the expectations that might help you form a great story about why you would be so wonderful for this role.

Stevie Case: Meet people, ask little of them, and just absorb their knowledge. You can do this in adjacent industries and folks who are in that role today, but ask the questions and spend the time to get to know people. You’ll be shocked in the ways that it pays off.

Stevie Case: The next is to paint the art of the possible. One of the things that really strikes me about hiring is that folks who are coming in who might be intimidated by the role they’re applying for, they want to justify their background. They’ll tell you a lot about the past, but really what hiring managers care about and what people building businesses care about is the future. One way you can counteract having a less-than-perfect resume or a non-traditional story, or different background than they might be looking for, is to talk to the hiring manager and talk to folks in building the company about the future and how you can help them build that incredible future.

Stevie Case: One way I manifested that at Twilio, when I was up for the VP role running this $400 million business, I had never run a $400 million business before. What I tried to focus on was rather than giving them proof points that might show them in the past, I’d done something similar. I focused instead on telling our CRO about my vision for the future of that business and how I was going to take it from $400 million to a billion dollars, and that forward-looking vision was compelling, and I explained the how. That got him on board, that while I might not have done it before, I did have a vision for it and I understood how to make it happen, and he was willing to take the risk.

Stevie Case: My next tip is, seek out opportunities that lack definition. If you’re trying to make big leaps in your career, if you’re trying to do something new, you’re going to have more luck doing that in places where it’s either early stage, people are building things that don’t exist before, or there’s a new opportunity that isn’t yet well-known. So, seek out these areas where it’s sort of the Wild West and you can help define and build something from scratch. It’ll give you an opportunity to show your unique skills and really stand out from the crowd, because you know that what you’ve got in your background makes you unique. Use that uniqueness to build something great where the expectations aren’t well-defined. In these situations, you’ve got a real chance to succeed and exceed expectations.

Stevie Case: And along the way, remember that every hiring manager is just another human. Everybody you’re trying to do business with, get a job from, connect with, they’re just other human beings. I have met some of the richest and most powerful people in the world. They’re not special, they’re just like you, they’re just like me. They’re just people. Approach them from the point of view of an equal. Approach them with confidence and vulnerability. Treat them like a human being and not somebody magical, special. Just be kind, just be normal and you’ll be shocked how far it goes. It’s very rare actually, the more senior you become that you get that equal treatment, and it’ll go a long way in establishing you as an equal on the playing field.

Stevie Case: And developing champions. I cannot recommend this enough. One of the ways that I see this go wrong is I think early in career, especially folks who are coming from backgrounds outside of tech, feel like they have to have formal mentorship. And formal mentorship is great, but what I have found in my career is that most of the folks who can actually make stuff happen for me, don’t have time for formal mentorship, but they’re willing to make things happen for me if they believe in me and if I’m willing to ask them and try to learn from them and also be respectful of their time.

Stevie Case: These are three of my champions. Matt Golden, on the left, was the first person who gave me a sales job and believed in me and taught me and was very hard on me and made me so much better. Alyson Welch, at Twilio, promoted me into a second line role when I’d never been a second line leader before. George was my COO at Twilio. He taught me so much and would really just open my eyes to the possibilities. I would not be in the C-suite today if it were not for George.

Stevie Case: Find your champions and be careful with their time. Don’t demand too much of their time, but really try to get deep on how they think about it, because the truth is as you move up, every role is a different job. The job of a salesperson and a frontline manager are extremely different. The goals are different. The way you think about the business is different. And every time you want to make that move up, start trying to discover from these champions how they think about that role and what matters there.

Stevie Case: And my favorite probably, celebrate discomfort. My most successful moves have come when I was deeply uncomfortable and I would encourage you to lean into that. It is okay. The worst case scenario is probably some embarrassment and an overreach of what is possible. And that’s okay. The world won’t end. And the more you lean into that discomfort and the more that you take those risks, the more you’ll know you’re growing.

Stevie Case: I want to talk a little bit about the, “Why not me?” This is the core question that I would encourage you to ask yourself as you look at opportunities that might feel beyond your reach. If we’re all on a level playing field, it’s important to ask yourself, “Why not me for these opportunities?” Because they are really accessible to you. And don’t become the person that believes it’s not possible, because you don’t want to be your first big blocker.

Stevie Case: Now, I want to give you a brief pitch on tech sales. I know we’re tight on time. Tech sales is an incredible path to wealth creation. And while it may be slightly less geeky in some senses, if you’re interested in it, this can be an incredible way to go. If you’re looking for an entry level role, an SDR or BDR role. If you want to make a technical pivot from a technical role, a sales engineering job.

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Stevie Case: Or, if you want to pivot from an industry, find a sales job, selling something in that industry where your subject matter expertise will matter. Why would you do that? Because truly, tech sales is one of the greatest paths to wealth creation for women, for people of color, for folks from underrepresented backgrounds. This is an incredible path to building wealth and it is accessible to everyone.

Stevie Case: So, what can you do today? Draft a version of your own story. Cold outbound to three people that are outside your comfort zone. And make one uncomfortable ask. Challenge yourself to get outside that level of comfort, and I think you’ll be shocked by the results that you get.

Stevie Case: Thanks so much for having me today. I’m pretty active over on LinkedIn. Would love to see you all over there. Come follow me, come connect. I hope you all have a great day. Happy International Women’s Day!

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“Own It! Tenacity, Dealing With Setbacks and Being Resilient”: Rebecca Dobson, Corporate Vice President, EMEA at Cadence (Video + Transcript)

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Angie Chang: My name is Angie Chang, I’m the founder of Girl Geek X, and we are so excited to have with us on International Women’s Day Cadence corporate vice president of EMEA, Rebecca Dobson. She has spent time as successful start-ups and then joining the semiconductor industry. And she’ll be telling us all about her career journey with some real talk leadership and career advice that you won’t want to miss. So grab some tea, grab some coffee, and get ready for Rebecca’s story and you’ll be sure to walk away with plenty of insights to take to your own career and climb that career ladder. Welcome, Rebecca.

Rebecca Dobson: Thank you Angie. Well, a lovely introduction. It’s really great to be here, all the way from snowy London. I’m here today to talk about tenacity and owning your career. And the reason I wanted to cover this is, because we really want women to be successful, but we want to give women as much opportunity as possible, but it’s also really important that they want to own it for themselves. So as Angie mentioned, I’m the Corporate VP for EMEA at Cadence. I’m going to talk a little bit about my journey and share some insights and some quite personal and professional challenges, which I hope helps you whilst you are driving your career. But one of the first things I really wanted to touch on was a little bit around success.

Rebecca Dobson: We talk a lot about success, but I think it’s really important to think to yourself about, what does success mean for you? Because the reality is that it’s very personal for all of us, and means something different for all of us. For some of us, it means about being the expert, being the best individual contributor you can possibly be. And remember, you don’t have to manage people to be a great leader. Some of the best scientists in the world have been individual contributors, and changed the world we live in, such as Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace, and of course Charles Darwin. If that’s what you want to be, then that’s what you want to be.

Rebecca Dobson: Sometimes we look at jobs or careers, and sometimes you don’t want a career, you want to have a job. Just identify what your priority is. I think also there’s obviously lots of us that want to be in leadership roles, leading teams, setting direction, running companies, and inspiring others. It’s a very people-orientated role. Very important to understand why. That’s what success may mean to you. It also may be in status. It may be mean having the best of everything, or it may be being a parent. Being a parent is a big thing in a lot of women’s lives, because many of the times we are the primary caregivers, whether it’s extended family, children, friends, and this sometimes impacts on our choice of career. And then finally, we also talk about family, because family is different to just parenthood.

Rebecca Dobson: Determine yourself, what’s important for you, because the success really does mean something different to everybody else. Talking about success, I’m really going to spend quite a lot of time focusing on what does it mean, and what does it take, to make us successful? And success you can see, can be described as iceberg.

Rebecca Dobson: We often see people at the top who are very successful, but underneath it all, what it takes to get there is actually a huge amount of sacrifice and also a lot of mistakes along the way. We’re going to talk about some of the things that I’ve learned on my journey, which I hope they really help you but learn. The one most important thing I want you to take away is why tenacity is important. And we’re going to talk a little bit around tenacity, but also learning from your mistakes. It’s always great to get everything right all the time, but actually, the reality is, you learn more from mistakes, than you do from successes.

Rebecca Dobson: What does it take to be successful? I personally think a really important thing is to understand your non-negotiables. And when I say your non-negotiables, this is what you won’t compromise on, and there are lots of different things you may think about, that are important to you, that you won’t compromise on, and those non-negotiables will change as your life, and your career, goes on. For example, when you are a grad, you might think, “Okay, well I have no non-negotiables. I’m prepared to move to anywhere in the world, to do any sort of job that I think fits with my aspirations. I have very few non-negotiables.” But then as you get a bit older, and maybe you get married, or you have a family, or you’ve got caring commitments, you may then think, “Actually, you know what, I’m not prepared to be away from home so much, so I need a job that’s going to keep me grounded and keep me close to home.”

Rebecca Dobson: It may be that I want to retain in my specialism, for example. I always want to be a programmer. I’m not prepared to go into the commercial world. I love what I do that is one of my non-negotiables. Whatever that means for you, understand your non-negotiables, but also expect them to change as your life and your career moves on. Secondly, I think this is just so important, particularly for someone who has spent a long time working out what I’m good at, because I think I was very aware of what I wasn’t good at. But the most important thing is focus on your strengths. You will have a lot of setbacks in your career, and how you deal with them will be down to your strengths. But this is also when you start leveraging your personal brand.

Rebecca Dobson: Your strength should really be what helps you develop your brand. Think about what you are good at, what you are really good at, and think about how you can leverage them in your career or in your job, whatever that may mean to you. Think about if you see a gap, what can you do to help fill that gap? Maybe there’s something in your team that someone else can’t do and you think, “Well actually I can do that quite easily.” Be curious, step into that gap, and see if you can help out. People are often unlikely to say no when you offer your experience and expertise, so focus on your strengths, and be tenacious in using them.

Rebecca Dobson: Set goals. We often talk about having massive career plans, and knowing where you want to go, and lots of interviewers always say, “Where do you want to be in five years time?” which is just a horrible question to ask on so many levels. But I think the important thing here is you don’t have to have a grand plan the whole time. I think if you speak to many senior people, men or women, a lot of them will say, “Actually, I didn’t really have a plan. I didn’t really know where I wanted to be.” The most important thing is that you set yourself goals and they can be short-term goals. “What do I need to develop? Am I good at presenting? Am I good at writing technical documents?” Try and identify short-term, what are some of the building blocks that will help broaden your expertise and broaden your career?

Rebecca Dobson: And then, long term, and that could be three years, it could be two years, it could be five years, whatever you feel is important for you, have an aspiration of where you want to be, and then how those short-term goals can help you get there. Sometimes you have to understand what the big thing is, in order to set the short-term goals to help you get there. For example, if someone had said to me six or seven years ago, you are going to be running Europe for Cadence, I would’ve said, “Don’t be so ridiculous.” Because in my mind, I probably had too many gaps that would help me get to the role that I’m in. But if you set those short-term goals, with a long-term aspiration, you start closing the gaps to where you want to be. So that’s really, really important.

Rebecca Dobson: I think this is critical, and I’m going to talk about this a lot when I kind of share a personal experience on my journey. It’s really, really important, particularly very early in your career, to find someone that you respect and can learn from. Now quite often that is someone that you work for, and there’s a great HBR article which I’ll reference at the end, which also talks about this in a bit more detail. But having someone that can coach you, whether it’s a direct manager, or someone that you know and that you respect, is really important. You can learn so much from them.

Rebecca Dobson: It’s not necessarily just about technical skills, it can be soft skills. Because I work in the commercial world, understanding how to speak to a customer is really, really important. Really prioritize identifying people around you that you can learn and respect from. And always have a boss that you respect and you can learn from. And always remember, no matter what job you do, no matter how senior or expert you become, you never stop learning.

Rebecca Dobson: Don’t expect to know everything all the time. Once you stop learning, it’s time to move on. And then a big one, I think you’ll probably hear a big theme today, is about embracing opportunities, whether they’re big or small. You need to embrace opportunities as they come to you, which does sometimes happen, and they sometimes come to you if you’ve been very vocal about what your aspirations are and what you want to do. But sometimes you have to make opportunities to build momentum. It may be something like I was saying before. If you see a gap and you think you can fill it, then go and ask, “Look, I can do this. I think I can help you.” People will say yes, okay.

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Rebecca Dobson: It could be that you are asked to do a project, you think, “You know what, that’s out of my comfort zone. It’s not really my core strength. I’m not comfortable doing it right now.” Okay, you may decide to say no, but often in life, people regret more often the things they said no to, rather than things they say yes to. And remember, you can manage any sort of impact of doing something not as well as you wanted, as long as you’re honest. Embrace opportunities, I think that’s really, really important.

Rebecca Dobson: And then finally, I can’t tell you how important this is. Hard work is incredibly important for success. And when I mean hard work, it does come down to sacrifices. Everyone always says you can have it all. For example, I’ve got two boys, one is 11 and one is nine, and I’ll talk about them a little bit later, but I have to still now prioritize what I’m doing when. I work really hard. I have to think about the times that I’m working hard, the impact it has on my job, and the impact it has on my family. But working hard is really, really crucial to success. And no one should ever expect, no matter how smart you are, or you know what you believe that you are giving, you can’t do it without hard work. Always bear that in mind.

Rebecca Dobson: I will also always say that you have to balance that hard work with a way to decompress and manage your stress, manage what’s on your mind, and look after yourself. I will always say there are two things, right? No one’s ever going to drive yourself as hard as you, and no one’s going to look after themselves in the way that you need to look after yourself. It’s really, really important that you think about your role in your career, but also looking after yourself. Those are the really key things that I think are really important in driving success for yourself. Don’t underestimate when you see everybody and lots of really amazing people talking today, they would’ve made decisions and sacrifices to get to where they are.

Rebecca Dobson: I really do believe you can be very successful with compromise, but it is impossible to have everything, so there will be sacrifice. I want to talk a little bit around my personal journey and professional and personal setbacks. It’s a very honest description of some of the challenges that I’ve faced and some of the things that I’ve kind of challenged myself with overcoming. I hope it’s useful for you.

Rebecca Dobson: I joined the tech industry 23 years ago now. I started out of university, I did a technical degree doing programming. I’ve never been a programmer since I’ve graduated. I’ve always wanted to work in the commercial space. But I think one of the first setbacks as well as one of the first transformational parts of my career journey were that when I joined Sensaura, which was a startup out of a research lab, I joined doing public relations, and I was absolutely awful at it. I mean awful. I hated every moment of it. I hated speaking to journalists, I just didn’t understand it. I just hated it.

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Rebecca Dobson: I was very lucky because I worked for the CEO and he was amazing and he was someone that I’m still in contact with today and actually gave me a job later on in my career. And he was someone I respected and learned from. And he said to me, “Rebecca, I don’t think you’re very good at what you are doing.” And I said, “I’m not very happy doing it either.” But this was like, “What do I do?” But actually this is when it probably provided me with the biggest opportunity.

Rebecca Dobson: He said, “I can see in you something that you probably can’t see in yourself. I think you’re brilliant at speaking to customers. Why don’t you think about going into sales?” That’s when I made my first move into sales, and for a couple of years, I worked for that company running all of our sales in Europe.

Rebecca Dobson: I then decided to take a career break. I’d been a backpacker in my university days, so decided to go off and do a little bit of South Asia and finished in Australia. And when I got to Australia, I was really lucky, I’d run out of money, but I was really lucky because I got a job with what is now Dolby. This is probably one of my first biggest personal setbacks happened. I just got my job at Dolby literally one week, and I was due to start on the Monday, and I got a phone call from home in the middle of the night, and my father had had an enormous heart attack, and it was horrendous. I knew that I couldn’t stay in Australia. I thought, “I don’t even know if he’s going to survive this.” I got on a plane in, first plane I could get, and I flew back to the UK.

Rebecca Dobson: I was very lucky when I got back. He was ill for quite a long amount of time. He had another heart attack, almost immediately after the first, which that one doesn’t represent, but I looked after the family business. When I got back, I couldn’t go back to starting my career. I looked after the family business. But I have to say this did teach me a lot about resilience. It’s a very traumatic time when you experience illness in your family, and I also got thrown at the deep end running my family business, which I didn’t really know a lot about at the time to be honest. But I thought, “What’s the worst that can happen? Someone’s keep it going.” My dad’s got to rest when he came out of hospital, so I did that for about six months, and it taught me a huge amount about being determined, about being resilient, really looking at what the setback was.

Rebecca Dobson: I was thinking, “Well, it’s not about me, it’s about my family business, looking at the bigger picture of how I could help.” I got loads of experiences a result of it. I had to speak to the accountants, I had to speak to the lawyers. It gave me some great experience. Then I went and got a job again. Again, my last CEO from my last company, hee said, “We’ve just set up a new one, Rebecca, would you like to come and work for us?” And that was amazing. I had an amazing journey for about six years with this company called Sonaptic. My boss, who is the CEO, gave me amazing opportunity. I learned everything from how to work with our lawyers to set up precedents for contracts, negotiating commercial deals, and then toward the end of that time before we got acquired, I was running the European sales, and I was personally looking after Nokia, which at the time was the biggest consumer electronics brand, particularly in mobile phones at the time.

Rebecca Dobson: My father had another heart attack. This is a theme, you may see coming on here, but then we were acquired, and we were acquired by a company called Wolfson who’s been acquired subsequently, but we were acquired because they wanted our relationship with Nokia, to help them leverage their business. And I have to say this professionally was probably the first time I was devastated about a role. Shortly after we were required, Wolfson said, “We don’t want you looking after Nokia anymore.”

Rebecca Dobson: Someone I was working for was brave enough to tell me at the time they thought I wasn’t experienced enough, and granted, I was in my late twenties at the time, so I certainly wasn’t experienced enough as some of their sales team. But as a startup, we had managed to sign a contract with this multi-billion dollar company, and we were only about 30 people, and we’d done what this bigger company hadn’t managed to do, and they’d acquired us to do. And so I was kind of blown out the water. They’d asked me not to run Nokia anymore and they’d asked me to work for someone who I didn’t really respect, which I found very difficult because I’d worked alongside them as a peer and knew what they were, how they operated and what they did. And at that point, I just thought to myself, “I don’t think my career is going to be here.”

Rebecca Dobson: That setback then put me on the road to looking for a new role. And ironically, at the same time, I was approached by ARM. And ARM, some of you may be familiar with, it’s the biggest intellectual property provider in the world. It’s a massive cornerstone of the semiconductor industry. And I was approached by ARM to come and join them to run Southern Europe for them, and I have to say I had massive imposter syndrome. I was absolutely terrified. I thought there’s just no way I’m going to get this job. This is even before the interviews.

Rebecca Dobson: And then when they offered me the job and I arrived, I was the youngest, I think I was the only the second other woman in the team as well. And I just found it completely overwhelming. But the great thing was, I had an amazing team around me. I worked for someone who was fantastic, and they gave me amazing opportunities. After nine months of running a relatively small region, they asked me to step up and run one of their biggest accounts, and it was definitely their biggest accountant in Europe, and I think it was possibly one of their biggest accounts globally as well.

Rebecca Dobson: And I looked back and I thought a year ago there was me being told, “You’re not good enough to run this account for us.” Then moving onto an even bigger company, being asked to run one of their biggest accounts, I just thought, “Oh my goodness, this has happened in the space of 12 months.” And if I’d stayed there, if I’d stayed in that role, I wouldn’t have got this opportunity, but it was scary and I really had to be brave.

Rebecca Dobson: One of the reasons that I managed to make the move myself was, because I had amazing support at home. My boyfriend, now husband, has always been massively supportive, and he just used to say to me, “Oh God, I can’t believe you’re even thinking that you can’t do this. Of course you can, just go off and do it. You’d be amazing.” Now if he hadn’t pushed me, I don’t know whether or not I would’ve been brave enough to even go to the interviews for ARM. And I look back now and think, oh my goodness, I can’t believe that I even doubted myself.

Rebecca Dobson: I then had a really great career in ARM, but then my father had another heart attack. But then, about 11 years ago, I had my first son. I took him a little bit of time out on maternity leave, and then I came back from maternity leave, and then they asked me to pick up lots of different areas. In ARM, I moved roles quite often, so whenever I was asked to take up an extra project or extra responsibility, I always did it, even if it was for a short amount of time, deputize for my boss, or picking up another region, I always did everything. And then in the end, I got some great experience across the region, although I was not promoted in that time. I was probably there five years doing lots of different things without being promoted. Came back from having my first son, like I say, got a broader role and then I fell pregnant with my second son. And then I think probably one of the most devastating things happened.

Rebecca Dobson: My mother had a massive stroke, and she was incredibly ill for a really long time, and we didn’t think that she was going to survive. And I was actually eight months pregnant at the time, and in that last month of pregnancy, I lost 14 pounds in one month, just purely down to stress, which for any of you that have been pregnant, you’ll know that losing weight in pregnancy is very unusual, let alone in the first month, in the last month. It was an incredibly stressful time. And it was also an incredibly stressful time because at work I was doing a deal with a customer that I had been looking to close a deal with ever since I joined, and we’d never ever got there. And finally, right at this point, that’s when I managed to close that deal.

Rebecca Dobson: It was a really hard time. My mother was really, really devastatingly ill. I had a newborn baby, closing a deal at work and we’re also doing building work at home. It was unbelievably stressful, but I did just keep on going. And I think one of the reasons I kept on going was, because I just thought, “What are the alternatives?” I had a little baby to look after, I had a toddler to look after, I had to think about my mother who was incredibly sick, but I knew I always wanted to go back to work, so I took a full maternity leave, which in the UK is quite generous. I think I took about nine months off after I had my second son, maybe 10 months, and I spent a lot of that time kind of helping through the family with my mother being sick.

Rebecca Dobson: And then I was really lucky. I went back to ARM, and as soon as I got back, I think I was back three months, they then promoted me to director. And then I scooped up a lot more of responsibility in the team, and then had an amazing journey, and then a couple of years later, finished as VP. But, it was really hard and I think my natural tenacity to just keep going, and problem solve, and I am someone who loves problem solving, really helped me pursue that career, and really helped me develop in that role as well.

Rebecca Dobson: Then about four or five years ago, I decided that probably I really wanted to move on from ARM. The danger was if I carried on there, I probably would stay there the rest of my career. And I thought, “I don’t want to spend another 20 years, so I want to go and do something different.” And then I really did challenge myself. I thought, “Right, I am going to move out of the industry, and g,o and do something completely new.”

Rebecca Dobson: I joined a British satellite network provider called Inmarsat, and I was there to run the sales team. They very quickly promoted me, and I picked up the marketing team, and became an SVP as well, and I was there to transform the business. So it was kind of like a channel business, and I was there to transform it into an IT solutions business, and I was only there 14 months because Cadence had approached me about joining them. And like I said, this role at Cadence was something which I’d never considered, I would’ve been good at doing, but I had learned a huge amount of time at Inmarsat, although one of the main reasons I was happy to move on was because on my second day, they told me that the investment they promised me when they gave me the job, I was never going to get.

Rebecca Dobson: Again, I thought, “Well, how can I transform this business if you’re not giving me the investment I’m supposed to have?” It was quite a problematic business, so I went through a transformation, transformed the business, restructured the business, and then moved on from that to Cadence. And I have to say Cadence, I’m now three years in and it really is an amazing place to be. But there have been some big challenges since joining Cadence. If you think I joined three years ago, I joined eight weeks before we went into the pandemic and went into lockdown, and this in itself has presented me with lots of challenges. I had to think about how was I going to build my networks with HQ, which obviously is in the [Silicon] Valley when I’m based all the way over in Europe, different time zone, I don’t know the culture of the business.

Rebecca Dobson: And it’s very difficult to understand the culture of the business when you’re not in the office, you’re not with people all the time. I then spent to spend another two and a half years behind the screen, basically, still just trying to set myself up. So I had to get to know my team, get to know HQ, get to know the politics, get to know the networks, understand where the powers of influence, and everything were, all remotely. And it was really, really difficult. The first year itself was probably the most challenging year, and then I’ve kind of moved on from that now and got to know people, but I’m still now only really just getting out into the field to get to know different networks in the US and both in Europe. So there have been lots of challenges along the way.

Rebecca Dobson: I’ve always worked incredibly hard. I’ve always thought about what I’m happy to compromise on and what I’m not happy to compromise on. And I would urge you to think of those things. Think about what are your non-negotiables. Think about what’s important to you, and that you are not going to compromise on. And like I say, those will change as you go through your career.

Rebecca Dobson: Create and take opportunities, so don’t always wait for everything to come to you. Make sure you are making opportunities as well as taking things that are offered to you. Sometimes it’s okay to say no, but if people offer you lots of times and you keep saying no, then they won’t come back to you. So really, really think about those opportunities. Networks, you’ll hear a lot about networks again today. Networks are so important in helping you dealing with setbacks, whether it’s your personal networks, your friends, support at home or people in the business.

Rebecca Dobson: I look back at a lot of those times when I had challenges both professionally and personally. It was probably my professional friends, like people in the business who are really important to me, that probably kept me going. Either saying, “Look, this is a period in time, this is a period in time, it’s going to get better.” Or giving me tough love, it’s nothing like tough love, right? People to give you a bit of feedback.

Rebecca Dobson: Evaluate your successes and your setbacks. It’s very easy sometimes to go, “Yeah, I smash that, I’m so happy. And move on.” Look at those successes and understand why you were successful. But also even more importantly, look at your setbacks and understand why it went wrong and what you would do differently now based on understanding the outcome of that. It’s making sure you’ve got a balance, ok? It’s really, really important.

Rebecca Dobson: And then take calculated risks. You have to be brave, but you have to be bold as well. We all have to put ourselves out there. And sometimes, like I say, people make mistakes. You will learn more from those mistakes than you learn from successes. And one other thing I just wanted to mention as well about networks. Good relationships really are critical. No one wants to work with people they can’t get along with. Make sure that you are great to get along with, and humble, and people will do the right thing for you as well.

Rebecca Dobson: Be bold, be brave, take calculated risks, utilize your networks and leverage strength wherever you can find it. Friends and family are so important. Friends at work are really important. Find someone at work that you can talk to that you can trust because sometimes they understand the context of some of the challenges that you have.

Rebecca Dobson: And make sure that you enjoy everything that you are doing. Don’t always look to the end point and think, “Oh, when I’m there, it’s going to be better. It’s going to be better.” Actually, enjoy the journey. Enjoy everything that you are doing, enjoy every role that you have. And I want to say, come and join Cadence. We are hiring. If you go to our careers page, you’ll find lots of fantastic open roles. We’re always looking for engineers both in the sales team and also in R&D.

Rebecca Dobson: I know you’re going to hear from one of my colleagues, Luiza, this afternoon, and she’s going to talk to you as well, about looking after advocates, and looking for support your network. Make sure you listen to Luiza and then the resource that I mentioned as well, which is in from at the Harvard Business Review, which is all about how successful women sustain their career. There’s six key points in there, which I think are really, really important to understand.

Rebecca Dobson: I hope you’ve enjoyed a little bit of insight. We all have personal and professional challenges. Make sure that you understand you’re human, you’re not superhuman. Don’t try and do everything all the time. Just do what’s important for you, makes you happy, and makes you successful, whatever success means to you. Thank you very much and really enjoy the rest of today’s conference.

Angie Chang: Thank you, Rebecca. That was an excellent talk. I enjoyed that thoroughly. It was very inspiring to hear about your entire career and the ways that you can pivot and work through the family health crisis that happens to all of us. We actually had a speaker cancel for today because she is out sick. So we have a little bit of time if you would like to take some questions. I just want to let you-

Rebecca Dobson: Oh yeah,

Angie Chang: … Yeah. Our next speaker, Cassandra is sick. So we have about five, 10 minutes if you would like to take any questions that have been asked or we can…

Rebecca Dobson: Sure. Happy to take questions, Angie, if that’s good. I’m very happy to take questions.

Angie Chang: Yeah, is there any questions anyone has for Rebecca? It’s a good time to ask it.

Rebecca Dobson: Okay, here’s one, “If we’re ready for C level, or how can we pursue them when they’re rarely get posted?” Okay. This one is a really good example of your networks. A lot of the time roles like that are absolutely not advertised. They are absolutely word of mouth. Someone may recommend you or they’ll go through a headhunter. This comes back to making sure that you are talking to your networks about your long-term career aspirations. You are extending your network.

Rebecca Dobson: I think sometimes women are not particularly good at maintaining their networks. My recommendation would be anyone you meet, link in with them, make sure you maintain that relationship, make sure you check in with them, make sure that you are making your social media presence visible. I didn’t touch too much on brand, but this whole setting yourself up with non-negotiables and being clear about what you want is your brand. That’s who you then become and people acknowledge you, but your networks will help you get exposed to these non-posted C level jobs.

Angie Chang: Great. That’s a good answer. How do you recommend staying in touch? That sounds like a lot of work.

Rebecca Dobson: Yeah, I mean it is important. I think if you are someone that’s going to conferences and attending these things, I think it’s always good. Drop someone a note and say, “Look, I’m going to be there, do fancy meeting for a coffee or be great to meet you beforehand.” I don’t live in the center of London, but if I’m going into London, I’ll say to one of my old contacts, “Hey, do you want to meet up? It’d be great to see you.” Luckily these days, LinkedIn’s brilliant, you can just drop them a note, “See things are going well, how are you? Not heard from me for ages.” You’ve got to manage your time, can’t be with everyone. But it is important to maintain those contacts and those networks and have positive relationships with people.

Angie Chang: That sounds like great advice. That’s a good reminder to take a little bit of time to find a quick coffee or lunch, when you go to a work event or a conference, to just reconnect with somebody, and get recharged and re-inspired,

Rebecca Dobson: Our CFO at one of our women’s conferences. He said something which I thought was really powerful, he was like, “Networking is not for weekends. Networking is part of your job. So take time as part of your job to make sure you network.”

Angie Chang: That’s excellent advice. I think your Harvard Business Review articles are really inspiring. I love sharing articles about the latest in the research about how women in tech and business can be successful or help raise red flags for ways they’re not, so that we can all address the issues. And I think sharing articles like that has been a fun way to break into people’s LinkedIn in boxes and people share news all the time and we’re always looking for that cutting edge research to bring back to work and apply with our teams. And that can be a part of that networking and messaging each other saying, “Hey, did you see this cool article? Maybe you’ll get some useful use out of it.”

Rebecca Dobson: Yeah, you’re right. Absolutely right.

Angie Chang: Great. If you have to go, we can let you go and I will be here. Once again for anyone that joined us, Cassandra is out sick today and we are looking forward to hearing her talk at a later time and we’ll be sharing that with everyone. The voice within was a great talk. I felt like when I heard the dry one it felt like very therapeutic. Look forward to that coming, not today but another day. But is there any more questions or we can let Rebecca-

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Rebecca Dobson: There’s one I’ve seen here that I think is quite interesting, which is about focusing on your strengths. “How do you identify your strengths?” Sometimes people are very self perceptive and they know what they’re good at. I know what I’m good at, but it’s taken a while to work that out. And one of the ways you do that is asking for feedback. not just your boss but people around you and being really thick-skinned when they give you the feedback. Quite often with my team, we do top, start, and continue. We go and ask people three things they should stop doing, three people things they should start doing, three things they should continue doing and it helps them understand what they’re good at, maybe where they need to develop. Feedback is really important. Make sure you ask for it, but listen to it.

Angie Chang: That is so scary, but also so true that you have to ask for feedback, listen to it, process it and work on your strengths and weaknesses, or strengths.

Rebecca Dobson: Strengths, yeah. Strength based is always good, right? It’s always good, yes.

Angie Chang: Any more questions? We have a few more minutes before the next session.

Rebecca Dobson: “How is the work culture at Cadence?” Okay, so that’s a great question. I’ve been at Cadence three years. I think it’s a great environment. So it’s a highly intellectual environment. We’ve got a huge amount of technical employees. It’s an environment where people are trusted. For example, we’re going back to the office now and some people are saying, “Well how are you saying we’re going to go back to the office?” And say, “Look, we just trust everyone to do the right thing they need to do.” It’s a very outcomes based company. We have some amazing individuals within our field, like real experts in our field as well, and so it’s a very insightful business, but it’s a lovely place to be. It’s a very warm and welcoming place to be, and we’re a very international business ,and so culturally very diverse as well.

Angie Chang: That’s great. That’s great to hear. Okay.

Rebecca Dobson: Oh, that’s a hard one. I think grief is one of those things that doesn’t ever go away. A lady that worked for me, her husband unfortunately had a very unexpected heart attack and she struggled with grief for a really long time. And she said, “Oh, everyone keeps on telling me that it’s going to get better with time.” And she said, “It’s not getting better with time.” I think, you need to find your way. Quite often talking to people really makes things better. Maybe talking to someone who understands, who’s been through it and also someone who maybe know the person as well that you are grieving with. But I think the most important thing is don’t rush trying to recover from something like that because we’re all… Same with everything, we’re all individual in it. It’ll mean something different to other people.

Angie Chang: It does feel like we’re always moving through a lot of different griefs in our lives, so sharing them with others when you feel ready or finding support groups has been something that I found very useful. And this day and age of Facebook, it’s actually very easy to find a Facebook group where people were struggling through, very, not similar but different things.

Rebecca Dobson: Yeah, it’s someone who understands, isn’t it really, that you can… Yeah, it’s important.

Angie Chang: You have one more question.

Rebecca Dobson: “When things don’t work out, how do you ensure you accurately understand how things got there and take away the credit lessons?” It depends on the complexity. Sometimes you need to really get a lot of people together to unpick what happened and go through it step by step. At what point did something not work or not become successful? I think you need to really make sure you’ve got the right people involved. You can’t do this stuff on your own always. Make sure that you’ve got the right people involved. Go through it as a process, understand what happened, where and when, and then really do some research around it as well. Look at best practice depending on what you’re looking at. See if we can understand best practice and then think about lots of different potential outcomes. I think really having a group of people who are both involved and also not involved to cast an eye over it will help you understand how things may have gone and maybe what should have been done differently and learned lessons.

Angie Chang: Yeah. Thank you Michael for asking that question. We actually do get about a few percent of our Girl Geek X event attendees have been people who don’t identify as women. So I’m always encouraged to see men and allies come to our events, learn something, ask questions, and have fun, share the takeaways and expertise with other people. I think Jamie said we have one more question. You have to answer that.

Rebecca Dobson: This is a great question. I think this is down to people getting to know you. So I’m sure if any of my team are on the call, well, I am very firm, I’m very clear, but I’m very fair. So I think as people get to know your personality and they understand your non-negotiables and they understand kind of what the boundaries are, then they understand. But also if any of you are fans of Simon Sinek, as I am, explaining why is really, really important, not just what. So you think about when you are explaining something like you mustn’t do this or we can’t do this. It’s always the context of why. I think that’s really, really important. And the simple things, don’t be emotional, don’t be out of control. Just be really reasoned and sensible as you would expect someone to be in a professional environment. And then people will see that you are making the right decisions and being fair.

Angie Chang: That is very fair. Thank you. I think hearing from people like you, Rebecca, and being inspired by, you’re very measured, very fair, very firm, very empathetic personality, it’s really inspiring to see on International Women’s Day. So we’re going to wrap up this session and go to our next session. So thank you all for joining us and thank you especially to Rebecca for joining us from London.

Rebecca Dobson: Pleasure. Thank you so much. Have a great time.

Angie Chang: [inaudible]. So thank you so much and we’ll see you in the next session.

Rebecca Dobson: Super. Thanks Angie. Thanks everyone.

Angie Chang: Thank you.

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“The Voice Within Wins”: Cassandra Terry, Chief Risk Officer of Security Development at IBM (Video + Transcript)

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Angie Chang: And with us today, we have Cassandra Terry who is Chief Risk Officer of Security Development at IBM in Texas. In addition to her work in security, she’s passionate about coaching and mentoring, and offers coaching services, vision board parties, and personal development training. We’re excited to hear about how the voice within wins. Welcome, Cassandra.

Cassandra Terry: Thank you. I have an alarming statistic, 85%. There is research that shows that 85% of the population either has, or is suffering from, low self-esteem. Let that sink in for a moment. Just think about that. On average, 85 out of every 100 of us that is enjoying this conference either does not believe that you deserve or that you can have the life that you desire. What messaging is playing in your head? That is one of the most important questions that you will ever answer, because it is the voice within that wins. After today’s session, you are gonna stop that negative messaging that’s running on autopilot, and you are gonna begin the journey with me from the 85% and we’re gonna expand that 15%, one deserving woman at a time.

Cassandra Terry: Hi, I’m Cassandra Terry, and as Angie mentioned, I’m an an employee at IBM. Last Monday was actually my 23rd anniversary as an IBMer, something that I’m very proud of and I’ve accomplished a lot while I was there. But it’s specifically the work that I do as a coach and mentor that’s bringing us together today. Much of those 23 years, I suffered from imposter syndrome and other self-limiting beliefs. I just was not able to believe or to wrap my head around the goodness, the success that was happening in my life. I’ve done a lot of work to reframe that and to step into my own power and to see my own value. And what we’re gonna do today is, I’ll share those lessons with you, so that you can begin your journey into that 15%.

Cassandra Terry: No one wants to have negative messaging playing it in their head, but it’s there. What messages are you hearing on autopilot? Our internal messages have a profound effect on how we show up in the world. I wanna do a little exercise, so bear with me. I’m gonna ask you in just a moment, if you’ll close your eyes. I’m gonna have you close your eyes and just try and just ignore everything but the sound of my voice, and what I’d like for you to do, while you’re in that state, is to really hone in on what you’re feeling, and where you’re feeling it, and what thoughts crop up, as I say these words. You ready?

Cassandra Terry: Let’s take a deep breath in through the nose and out through the mouth. One more. Close your eyes and just listen to the sound of my voice. You are worthy. You, you, you’re important. You are capable. You are innovative, and able to solve complex problems. You are special, just the way you are. You are enough. Your company is fortunate to have you.

Cassandra Terry: What’s happening? What are you feeling? Are you smiling in agreement with me because you’re like, you better believe I am? Or, are you starting to feel some discomfort? Did some of that not resonate with you? It’s okay if you are, because what you’ve discovered with that discomfort is just, where you are. Have you ever gone to the mall, and you’re trying to find the new store? What do you do? You go to the directory, and you locate the store on the map, right? Good information, but that’s only half the story. The other thing that you look for, is that star on the directory, that says you are here.

Cassandra Terry: Once you know where you are, in conjunction with where you’d like to be, now you’re ready. You’re ready to plot a good, efficient course to your destination, right? You need to know where you are and where your heart, where you’re feeling that discomfort. You may be harboring a self-limiting belief. Self-limiting beliefs can either be conscious, or they can be subconscious. They’re those little truths, that we hold about ourselves, that quietly dictate what we do, and what we don’t do. What we’re willing to try and what we wouldn’t even consider trying. They’re powerful, but you know what else else they are?They’re based in fear. Fear of failure. I don’t believe that I can really do it. Fear of success. What if I actually pull it off? Will I be able, will I really be able to handle the responsibility that comes along with it? Fear of not being enough. No one who looks like me, no one who sounds like me, no one who comes from where I come from have ever accomplished anything like this, so who do I think I am? What makes me believe for a second that I could pull it off? I’m not even going there. Or, fear of being laughed at. If they had any idea, that I wanna be CEO. If they had any idea, that I dream of running my own corporation, they would laugh me right out of the room.

Cassandra Terry: After today, I believe that you’ll say, let ’em laugh. I’m gonna be laughing right along with them, because as I obliterate my goals one by one, I am going to be so giddy, that I will let be laughing just as hard as they are. Self-limiting beliefs.

self limiting behaviors imposter syndrome covering shrinking flip flopping people pleasing cassandra terry

Cassandra Terry: Which of these self-limiting beliefs is a growth opportunity for you? Does any of these resonate? Put some thought into that. But regardless of whichever one you choose, if it’s left unchecked in our minds, it will become not only a belief, but it can expand into a self-limiting behavior, and self-limiting behavior shows up in many ways. These are just a few. I alluded to imposter syndrome a little bit during my intro.

Cassandra Terry: When you’re suffering with imposter syndrome, you are convinced that everyone thinks that you know more than what you actually know. You believe that you have to be so careful, because the slightest mistake, the slightest blunder, and you’ll be found out as the imposter that you really are. You’ve got ’em all fooled.

Cassandra Terry: But the truth of the matter is, the only person that you have fooled is you. You fooled yourself. Everyone else is operating off the evidence. They’re operating off of your results. They can actually see you, and your value, but because of the messaging that’s playing unchecked in your head, regardless of how much success you experience, you’re not able to tap into it. Self-limiting belief, imposter syndrome, it’s a big one. There’s also covering. Covering is an interesting one, because unlike imposter syndrome, it’s based in some fact, there’s something about you that you’re concerned about. If they knew this thing about you, it may have a negative effect in your environment, in your workplace, in your community, whatever the case may be.

Cassandra Terry: I’ll give you an example. I had a well-meaning executive a few years back tell me that I may wanna tone down the grandma thought. Well, anybody who really knows me know that my grandchildren are my absolutely the apple of my eye. They are my most favorite thing, hands down. I talk about them a lot. I’ve got pictures and videos galore of those kids. When me and my coworkers are talking, or I could be in any environment, it’s not uncommon that I would mention my grandchildren. So he pulled me aside one day and he said, “I just got a little bit of advice for you. No one looking at, you would think that you’re a grandmother. You don’t look like a grandmother. So you may wanna tone the grandmother talk down. You can talk about the kids, but you don’t necessarily have to say they’re your grandkids, because when people start to hear you talking about being a grandmother, they may start to make some assumptions. They may assume you’re on your way out, that, that you’re looking for retirement, that you’re not gonna be as productive as you were a few years ago. You just might wanna think about that and tone that down.” Now, his intentions were well-meaning, but it wasn’t good advice.

Cassandra Terry: There’s a lot of research that shows that when we show up in any environment as less than our authentic self, that we’re not as productive. We don’t form as good of relationships, we are less satisfied in that environment. So because of that research, lots of companies, and you may have noticed it at yours, they they’re talking about showing up as your in as your authentic self because they know that if they get the real you, if they get all of you, that they’re gonna get a more productive, a more loyal, a happier employee.

Cassandra Terry: Covering is a big one, especially in the workplace, and then there’s shrinking. When you find yourself shrinking, you’re in the room, but you don’t necessarily want anyone to notice. You don’t want the spotlight. You’re gonna let everyone else answer the questions. You may know better. You may know the answer, but you’re not likely to speak up. There’s something inside of you that hasn’t let go, that hasn’t allowed you to trust yourself enough to speak up, and let your voice be heard. So you shrink, and you make yourself smaller. You give the spotlight to everyone else.

Cassandra Terry:And then, flip flopping. That’s my technical term. I don’t think you’ll find it in any <laugh> psychology research paper or anything like that. But I use flip flopping to describe someone who can’t stand in their point of view. You may have a point of view for a moment, but as soon as someone opposes it, then you start to, instead of defending your point of view or trying to talk through it, you just give up on it, and take on the point of view of the other person.

Cassandra Terry: You can imagine how difficult of a situation that is if there’s two points of view and the two people are each trying to bring you to their side. You’re swaying and moving back and forth with the conversation, but to actually stand on it, to actually have an opinion and to be solid in that opinion, is very difficult. If you don’t have good self-esteem, you don’t trust yourself enough to land on an opinion and defend it. And then there’s people pleasing. I was at one point in my life, the poster, girl, you should have looked up “people pleasing” and here you go, this is what you should have seen.

Cassandra Terry: People pleasing is definitely rooted in fear, fear of abandonment fear of rejection. Those are paramount in someone who’s operating from a people pleasing point of view, you just can’t say no. You’re not comfortable saying, no, you’re not comfortable making someone uncomfortable because you don’t trust the relationship. You don’t believe that they’re in it with you just because you believe that they’re only dealing with you because of how you make them feel. You may be the class clown, make everyone laugh, or because of what you do for them, your fear is that as soon as you say no, as soon as you put yourself first, that the relationship is over. People who are people pleasers rarely put themselves first. They have a hard time with self-care because they’re saying,”yes” to everything, their plate’s always full, and you’re ripping and running and just trying to keep everybody happy. Everybody except for you.

Cassandra Terry: Which of these self-limiting behaviors is a growth opportunity for you? Think about that. And while these experiences can be debilitating, they don’t have to be permanent. No one wants to have negative messages playing in their head, and while realizing that they’re there is important, that’s just the beginning. You have to realize that you’ve got the control. You are the author of your story, and you have to start to rewrite those negative messages. And I’ve got five steps to help you get there.

five ways to subdue your inner critic cassandra terry manifesting miracle makers

Cassandra Terry: I call them the five ways to subdue your inner critic. Step one is to realize everything begins with it – awareness. You first have to become an observer of your thoughts and feelings, so that you can realize that that negative message is actually playing in your head. Step one, you’ve gotta hear it. That’s why it’s so important that you don’t judge it. You don’t try to push it away. You just allow it to be. You tune into it, and you take notes. You get really clear about what’s being said, because then, you can begin to do some work. You can begin to change some things.

Cassandra Terry: The second step is to recognize, now our inner critic sounds like a bad thing. It can be debilitating if it’s left unchecked, but it’s there for a reason. It was actually born out of some sort of self-protection, something in your past, something in your history said that this is not safe. This stove is hot. I better not touch it. And so every time you see a stove, you back away. But we know that that’s only for our toddlers in the very beginning. As we get older, we teach them how to properly use the stove, so that the heat doesn’t burn you, but it gives you what you need, so those self-limiting beliefs will actually become a burden. They were born to protect you, but they become a burden, and stop you from blossoming, if you don’t work with them, if you don’t realize that they’re there, recognize that they’re there for a purpose.

Cassandra Terry: Try to understand how, where they came from, because your real work starts with reassuring them. You wanna reassure that message that you’re okay, and this is where it may start to get difficult for some people, because you have to get comfortable talking to yourself. You have to hear that message, and then you have to talk back to it. And you have to tell it, “Everything is okay. I’m not fighting with the message. I’m not denying the message. I am reassuring the message that there’s nothing that you need to really protect me from. Everything is okay.”

Cassandra Terry: You say things like, “I trust myself. I am capable of getting through this. I have a lifetime of success, that I can draw on, that can help me get through this situation as well. You literally talk back to it, and try and feel yourself, start to calm down and be a bit less anxious about that situation. And after you’ve reassured it, now it’s time to reframe it. You actually have to rewrite the message, and it’s a good idea to grab pen and paper or keyboard and a notepad and actually rewrite it, hear the message for what it is, and then rewrite it, flip it on its head so that it becomes something that serves you and moves you towards your goals instead of shackles you to your past and keeps you from being able to move forward. Let me see if I can think of an example.

Cassandra Terry: Math. I talked about math this morning. I grew up believing that I wasn’t good at math. Now, I’m an honor student. My whole life, always made straight A’s would even eat them out in math, but math was hard. My entire life, up until probably almost 30 years old, I just had that playing in my head – I’m not good at math. Because I went into the situation with that mindset, it was always a little bit more difficult than what it needed to be, because I was anxious, I was uptight, I was stressed. What I learned from Carol Dweck and her growth mindset, and from others is really small word, three letters – “yet”

Cassandra Terry: If I could have known back then what I knew now, life would’ve been so much easier getting through my classes. I could have said,” I don’t understand how to solve this problem, yet.” As long as that “yet” is there, I’m still hopeful. I’m still planning for success. I still have a path forward, but if I just can’t do it, I’m stuck right there. There’s nowhere to go. It that’s the end. And so learning “yet”, and tagging that on to the end of some of these some of these messages, will really help you continue to think, and call on your innovation, and get solution-focused, and plan your way out of a difficult situation.

Cassandra Terry: And then the last step is repeat. We repeat in a couple of ways. One of the ways is repeating the new message that you’ve reframed over and over again until you believe it. Every time that negative message comes up, you repeat it, you repeat the new message until eventually it takes the place of the old. And that positive message is what comes to mind first.

Cassandra Terry: And then the other way you repeat is the five steps. As new messages appear, and you observe another negative message, you wanna run through these five steps every time, and so that you can continue to do the work and clear the path, because the thing that stands between us and the life we desire more than anything, is us. It’s internal. It’s not external. There’s a lot of external stuff out there, but we can handle it, if we believe that we can handle it, right? All right, so knowing that those messages are there, doing the work to reframe them, working your way through the five steps, and you are well on your way.

Cassandra Terry: Which of these five steps do you think would have the biggest impact on your life? We’ve walked through them. You know the five steps, and now we wanna look at how do we maintain this new mindset? Think of affirmations, positive affirmations, as your maintenance. I’ve put a few here, four that I like, that I repeat on occasion over myself, but what would work for you? It’s very personal. One of the things that I have on my mirror in my bathroom at about eye level is a little note card with some affirmation on it. It’s called habit stacking. I brush my teeth every morning like clockwork. I’m gonna do it when I get outta bed. That’s a habit that I already have ever since I’ve had teeth. To get a new habit, you wanna stack it on an existing habit. I put those affirmations right there quite some time ago, so that I remember to say them.

Cassandra Terry: I began my day and I end my day with positive self-talk. I do affirmations. I I think about what I’m grateful for, and I set intentions for my day, so that I am not just going through my day on autopilot, but I’ve already told my brain, I have told myself, how this day is gonna shape up. And because I start my day in a positive mindset, if things do start to go awry, I’m in a better position, a better head space, to think about a solution, instead of getting bogged down, with the emotions of what’s going on.

Cassandra Terry: All right, we talked about a lot. And before we end our time together, let’s do a quick review. There are three things out of everything I said. If you grab these three, then I think our time together would’ve <inaudible> Starting with, how you think affects how you feel, and how you think and feel, affects what you do. That’s why it all begins with the mind. And then I hope if that you learned today, that you have way more control than you may have realized before.

Cassandra Terry: You are the author of your story. Write your story so that it is uplifting and moving you forward towards your goals, and not holding you back. And use those five steps to do that rewrite. Realize, recognize, reassure, reframe, and repeat. Before we talk about what’s next, I wanna take a minute to thank the girl geek community. This is a awesome opportunity and I so appreciate being chosen to be able to share with you guys. But more than that, I appreciate your mission. You guys are out there building the leaders, the next women leaders in STEM, and you’re preparing them for that journey.

Cassandra Terry: I’m so grateful to be connected with you and be able and being able to participate in that in any way that I can. I have another 85% statistic for you. 85% of people who attend conferences, workshops, classes, what have you, do absolutely nothing with the information that they received. Please don’t let that be you. I’ve got a course that can help you along the way. It’s a free online course. Go ahead and take your phones and scan the code. I’ll put it up again at the end. It’s called “Transforming Your Inner Critic Into Your Inner Advocate.” Your inner critic is really what we’ve been talking about all day. It’s those negative messages that are on autopilot, and this course, it’s a short mini course that reinforces the things that we’ve talked about today, and gives the opportunity to continue to practice it.

Cassandra Terry: I look forward to you doing that, and I really wanna hear from you guys and hear how, what your experience was like with the course, and if you have any suggestions for it. Connecting with me is definitely not a problem. Scan whichever platform is your preferred way, and by all means, let’s stay in touch. Let’s get in touch after the conference, and I really would like to hear your feedback in all sincerity. All right. It is decision time.

Cassandra Terry:You have to decide now if you are going to join me in moving from that 85% to expanding the 15%. You’ve gotta decide that you are gonna take those negative messages. You’re gonna move them off of autopilot. You’re gonna tap in, hear them for what they are, and run through those five Rs as many times as it takes to rewrite them. Because if you didn’t know before today, you know now it is the voice within that wins. Thank you so much.

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“Overcoming Proximity Bias”:  Claire Rutkowski, Senior Vice President, CIO Champion at Bentley Systems (Video + Transcript)

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Angie Chang: Welcome to Elevate. My name’s Angie Chang, the founder of Girl Geek X, and today we welcome Claire, who is Senior Vice President and CIO Champion at Bentley Systems. She’ll be speaking to us about overcoming proximity bias, a very timely topic. Welcome, Claire.

Claire Rutkowski: My name is  Claire Rutkowski. I am the Senior Vice President and CIO Champion at Bentley Systems, and I wanna talk to you today about overcoming proximity bias. I’ve been so inspired by our speakers so far today, loving the stories. And today I’m gonna talk to you about kind of my story on working remotely as well as give you some practical tips on things to do cuz we’re kind of in a whole different world these days. I’m curious about where people are watching. There’ve been lots of comments in the chat about calling in from Portland in the UK and DC and Chicago, which is where I am, and everybody I think is all over. But I’m curious about whether you’re in an office or working from home.

where are you watching remote work work from home claire rutkowski

Claire Rutkowski: Now, I apologize in advance for international attendees that this is a sort of America’s focus survey here, but it was the most recent I could find. This survey found that 26% of us employees are working remotely full-time. That’s a lot. 36.2 million Americans are going to be working remotely by 2025. And two thirds of folks are working remotely at least one day a week. I think we all, those of us who have the opportunity to work from home. Boy, look at all those work from home, work from home, work from home, remote, comments!

Claire Rutkowski: I think for those of us who get to work from home, we very much value the ability to get a little bit more work life balance, maybe just being able to focus and not have people dropping in no drive-bys, you don’t have to commute, you don’t have places to go which takes up a lot of time. So it’s fabulous, but it has a darker side, which we’re gonna talk about. Now, to give a little context, I work at a company called Bentley Systems. I’m not gonna spend a lot of time on this, but Bentley produces the software that engineers use to design and construct and operate infrastructure like bridges and wind farms and roads and rail and everything else. We’re in 60 different countries and so we’re very used to geographically dispersed teams, which is great. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that pre pandemic, we were used to working remotely with home as the option.

Claire Rutkowski: Now, personally speaking, I’ve worked from home for a very long time and I’m gonna tell you about my journey to remote working very briefly. There are train tracks up for a very good reason. I’m gonna date myself here, but in the early two thousands, I took a job with a company called MWH and they were an engineering firm. And engineering firms tend to be very traditional. That’s changing, but they’re kind of old school. There was that belief that I have to see you to know that you are working. I joined as a consultant and I only agreed to take the gig for two weeks. I ended up being there for 19 years, but that’s a whole other story.

Claire Rutkowski: I said, I’ll take this gig for two weeks, but only if I can have Wednesdays working from home, because the commute was an hour and 50 minutes each way. Oh yes, it was a 20 minute drive to the train station, and then I had to sit on the train forever, and then walk to the office. It was a really long commute. And if it wouldn’t have been such a fun job, I never would’ve done it. But I only agreed to do it if I had Wednesdays to break up that commute.

Claire Rutkowski: And then what ended up happening, was each time I got a raise, that I thought kind of sucked, let’s say, cuz you know, there’s only a certain percentage that the company could give out in raises. And so whenever I felt my raise was lacking, I would say, “Okay. Well, I’m a little disappointed in a raise, but you could give me an extra day a week from home because the commute is terrible.”

Claire Rutkowski: And so I gradually worked my way in the early two thousands into full-time working from home, which was fabulous and I loved it, and I still do love it. I worked from home now and I think that people are increasingly moving to a full hybrid or working from home model as we saw from the survey results. That was my journey into working from home. I’ve been doing it for full-time, 15 plus years, so well before the pandemic.

Claire Rutkowski: But as I mentioned, there’s a darker side to working from home. And it’s one of the things that, that we really need to address proactively. It’s called proximity bias. In 2021, the Society for Human Resource Management did a survey, which Harvard Business Review reported on. They surveyed 800 supervisors and 67% said that remote workers are more replaceable than on-site workers. I’m just gonna let that sink in for a minute. 42% admitted. I love this one. No, I don’t really to forgetting about their remote workers when assigning work. Like how does that even happen? I don’t know how you forget about someone, but the general feeling was that onsite workers are more productive, which I kind of secretly die inside a little bit when I I read this report. But this is, this is sort of that unconscious bias of I know you’re working if I see you working.

Claire Rutkowski: Now, the problem with the problem with this data is that the perceptions are all wrong. They’re wrong. In 2015, a study by Stanford found that remote workers are 15% more productive. And Mercer, which we know is a very large large consulting HR talent management organization in the US, said that 98% of employers say productivity is the same or better since the pandemic began. And yet we had those results from the other survey. There’s conflicting data there. The data actually says workers are more productive.

promixity bias perceptions are wrong stanford mercer studies claire rutkowski

Claire Rutkowski: I know that myself. I used to run a team of 400 people and during lockdown, I would say our productivity went up 30 to 35%. That’s huge, right? And so post pandemic, I was like, okay, well we’re never going back to in the office. I want everyone to have a choice of where they wanna work because why would I walk away from a 30% increase in productivity? That would just be dumb. Nevermind the fact that it gives everybody so much more flexibility. It really helped people with work-life balance and childcare issues and family care issues as our last speaker was talking about, to be able to be flexible. Why walk away from that? That would be stupid.

Claire Rutkowski: But we have managers who still think, well, I’m more likely to give a promotion to somebody who shows up in the office. That’s bad. And the reason I really wanted to talk about that is to raise it as an issue. I know we as women on International Women’s Day, are very concerned about diversity. Our male allies who are here and who work with us in the office are also very concerned about diversity and inclusivity. And the problem with proximity bias is it creates even more of a diversity challenge. And here’s why.

Claire Rutkowski: Because the people who are those who are likely to experience or have experienced microaggressions or just outright discrimination in the workplace, whether it’s, we can think of a hundred different ways, right? Cutting people off, not listening to them making comments, you name it. Those are the same types of people who will more be more likely to choose to work from home. Why? So they don’t have to experience those microaggressions and annoyances or discrimination in person on a daily basis. You’re kind of buffered a little bit if you’re working from home.

Claire Rutkowski: But the problem with proximity bias is if people are choosing to work remotely and we have proximity bias, then promotions and the more important work likely going to the people in the office just sort of spreads the divide even further, right? Which is not what we want to happen. It’s really important both as leaders and as employees, that we are aware of proximity bias and take proactive action to overcome it. I don’t think there’s any point in saying it doesn’t exist cause it does.

Claire Rutkowski: If you lead a team, I think the most important thing that you can do is to be aware of proximity bias. Know that it happens. Make sure that you are not guilty of it, right? And do all that you can to create a level playing field – and what I mean by that, is making sure that there isn’t like, an A team, and a B team. You know, it’s really hard. Those of us who are remote know there’s nothing worse than being remote when there’s a bunch of people co-located in a conference room. It’s better with video technology nowadays, but it’s hard sometimes to feel included and God help you if somebody uses the whiteboard in the room, right? So annoying.

overcoming proximity bias as a leader level the playing field claire rutkowski

Claire Rutkowski: I think it’s important as a leader to make sure that, that you are creating that level playing field for everyone on your team by treating everyone the same. And how do you do that while you make sure nobody writes on the whiteboard in the room? First of all, use the whiteboard in [Microsoft] Teams. It’s a small step, but it helps a lot.

Claire Rutkowski: Also, be very purposeful with your calendar. Make sure that your one-on-one time is the same amount for the people who are in the office as the people who are not in the office. I’m using the words “not in the office” because “remote” has implications and I don’t actually like the connotations of the word remote, right? It makes it sound like you’re really far away, and not really connected. I think “geographically dispersed” or “not in an office” is just a more neutral way of saying it, right? Be conscious of the time that you spend and where you spend it if you’re a leader, and also make sure that you are continuously creating that sense of team, both with geographically-dispersed folks and people that you might be physically co-located with.

Claire Rutkowski: There are lots of ways that you can do that, whether it’s through virtual celebrations or simple things like starting a meeting with, “Hey everybody, turn your camera so that you can show us your view from your desk, right?” And that way everybody feels like they’re included. Another thing that’s really important is making sure that there are objective goals and everyone knows what those goals are and share them across the team, right? I think when people know what each other is working on, we avoid some of that. Well, are they working? Are they actually working? A lot of that, right? And make sure that you make it fun for your team.

Claire Rutkowski: There’s so many different things that can be done nowadays in terms of making sure that, that there are remote parties virtual happy hours, you name it. There’s so many different things to do as a leader to make sure that you recreate that sense of community for folks who aren’t necessarily in the office.

Claire Rutkowski: Now, the second thing that’s really important is, let’s say you’re not leading a team, but you are a contributor. You’re on a team and you are this, this first one actually goes whether you are remote or not. And whether you are in the same office as your manager or not. This is something that I’ve done ever since I started my Wednesdays from home many, many years ago. Make sure your manager knows what you’re working on, ma work.

Claire Rutkowski: Managing up is really important and it’s your responsibility, not your manager’s responsibility. One of the things that I’ve always done every Friday whether my managers ask for it or not, and I’m an SVP and I still do it, is on Fridays, I send an email saying, “Okay. Here’s what went well this week. Here’s what did not go well this week. And here’s what’s teed up for next week.” I call it the “no surprises” email. It’s not the “let me justify my existence by telling you every little thing I’ve done”. But it is making sure there’s no surprises for my boss. I do it out of respect for them. And when I lead a team, I ask my team, my directs to do the same for me. But that way there’s absolutely, you are visible, right?

overcoming proximity bias as a contributor be visible claire rutkowski

Claire Rutkowski: Use cameras when necessary. I say when necessary because using a camera is three times more mentally exhausting than not using a camera. Scientific studies have shown this, and I don’t have time to go into it right now, but it is actually exhausting for your brain to translate 2D images into 3D pictures. And then back in your brain, there’s this whole thing around it with body language and what’s happening off camera. Can’t see my hands right now. You’re probably kind of doing some mental gymnastics. It’s exhausting. Use the camera when necessary.

Claire Rutkowski: It’s good to use a camera so people know you are, you are working right, and you are, you are looking professional and you’re at your job, but you don’t have to use it all the time. That is too much pressure, I think. And so I think it’s absolutely okay to say, “I’m having a no camera day today.” I do that. Have a no camera day. It’s fine. But, use the camera when you need to be reachable, when you should be right, and be clear on when you will be part of the advantage of hybrid teams and remote working is that flexibility. It’s okay to say I am well in my company anyway. I should preface that. It depends on your manager.

 Claire Rutkowski: I try to create a culture where it’s okay to say, “I am stepping away right now. I will be back at 1:30 PM central time or whatever it is.” That transparency is really what’s important to help overcome proximity bias and finally treat remote working. I’ve done it again, remotely, working in a hybrid fashion as a luxury, not as a, well of course it’s expected. I think if you treat it as a luxury, you’re more conscientious about making sure people know what you’re working on, when you’re working on it, when you’re gonna be back. And all of those things help eliminate any kind of distrust.

Claire Rutkowski: I think those are all really important things to do. But remember the Friday email, it helps so much. The other thing that that Friday email can do for you is, is when it’s time for performance reviews, you sort of have a record of everything you did that week and you’re like, wow, I did a lot. And you go through the year and you’re like, geez, that’s awesome. There are lots of things that you can do, but that’s probably I think the most important. And so with that I will turn it back over to Angie. And I’m just looking, I don’t see any questions, but if anyone has any, feel free to pop them in the chat. All right. Thank you everyone very much. I am going to move into the lounge if anyone has any questions. And Angie, back over to you.

Angie Chang: Thank you so much, Claire. That was an excellent talk on overcoming proximity bias. Thank you for joining us on International Women’s Day. I am sure everyone is chatting their way and saying what a great talk this is. Thank you so much for joining. We will be moving into our next session. In just one minute, we’ll be having a fireside chat with some cancer survivors who also happen to be executive women. Please stay tuned for that and we’ll see you on the other side again in Happy International Women’s Day. Hope you can help elevate some women. We have a million of them speaking at this conference and attending, so please hang out in the lounge or networking. And then tomorrow you’ll meet some recruiters and help get your next, or your fellow girl geek, her next tech job. So thank you so much. All right, bye. Thank you.

 Claire Rutkowski: Bye-Bye.

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“Cancer Survivors on Career Ambition, Ruthless Prioritization, and Self Care: Fireside Chat”: Aastha Gupta and Sharmeen Chapp, Senior Directors of Product Management at Meta (Video + Transcript)

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Sukrutha Bhadouria: Okay. I’m Sukrutha, back with you again to this fireside chat where I have Aastha and Sharmeen with me here today. Aastha is a senior director of product management at Meta. Interestingly, Sharmeen is also a senior director of product management at Meta! They’re going to tell you a little bit more about their journey career-wise, as well as how they have been warriors in their battle with cancer, which has been such a personal subject for me. Last year, I lost someone very dear to me to cancer, and so when I read about Aastha’s story on Facebook, I was immediately touched and I was so happy to see, more recently when there were posts from her, and it included Sharmeen about how they were on the other side of that journey. So, welcome!

Aastha Gupta: Thanks.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Go ahead. Would you like to start?

Aastha Gupta: Of course. Thank you so much, Sukrutha. Hi everyone. I am Asta and I’m a senior director of product at Facebook where I lead our identity and product foundation teams. I have been at Facebook or Meta for over a decade now, so I feel a little bit like a dinosaur.

Aastha Gupta: I like to say I’ve had a very squiggly career path here, across roles, across functions. I started in global operations leading global teams, moved to business strategy to lead monetization for a lot of emerging businesses at the time, so got a chance to work across Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger, Marketplace, Video, the whole portfolio of products, which is wonderful. I then transitioned to product.

Aastha Gupta: I was the head of Facebook Integrity for about three years, a role I absolutely loved, very mission-driven. I wanted to then do consumer product, and I led product for community builders or group admins, one of my favorite features on Facebook. And now I’m in my existing role. And I think as I’ve thought about career changes, I’ve always really sort of, the impetus has always been learning and building new skillset sets. In many ways. I’ve also grown up at Facebook personally – I got engaged here. I got married here. I had both my beautiful children in the last five years here.

Aastha Gupta: I was unfortunately diagnosed with breast cancer in April last year. It came out of absolutely nowhere, no genetic history, no obvious risk factor. My kids were four and two at the time, so as you can imagine, just very life-changing for me and my family. I decided it take seven months off work to frankly, just survive, and focus on getting better. And I am now cancer-free and back at work in January, and very grateful to be able to be back. <Laugh>

Sukrutha Bhadouria: How wonderful. Sharmeen?

Sharmeen Chapp: Yes. Hi everybody. Aastha and I have such interesting stories to contrast. I began my product career at Twitch back in 2014. I joined as an individual contributor product manager, and I grew to be our VP of community products, leading engineering, product, data, and technical program management. It was an incredible time to be there. I got to work on the creator side and the viewer side, and at the time that I left, I was leading all of our community interactivity products, and our trust and safety products as well.

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Sharmeen Chapp: Facebook for me was the big journey that came after Twitch, but the way Aastha was talking about Facebook is how I was at Twitch. I got engaged there, I got married there. I became a mom of my wonderful two year old while I was there. And when I came back as a new mom, I had to evaluate, what am I getting out of my role and what do I want in my career? I realized that I really wanted to keep learning and growing at the speed that Twitch had enabled me to do over the past six years, and given the senior position that I was in, I found that that was starting to plateau, and I wanted to keep pushing myself. And so that’s why I decided to look at other opportunities, and Meta landed at my doorstep.

Sharmeen Chapp: I joined and I’ve been supporting our creator team at Facebook ever since then, so for the last year and a half and, I took two months off before my time at Twitch and Facebook. And so I was ready to come to Facebook, hit the ground running and give it my all, super excited. And then six weeks into my time there, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, that happened in October of 2021. I’ve spent the last year and a half going through all of my treatments, and different from Aastha, because I was ready and had a ton of energy to hit the ground running.

Sharmeen Chapp: I decided to work through my cancer treatments, and for me, work was my stabilizing force. It kept me sane, it kept me feeling productive, it kept me mentally happy when I felt like everything else in my personal life, I had no control over. So just really interesting to contrast our stories and how we approached going through such a challenge in our lives.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: My goodness. Such amazing stories from both of you. And by the way, there’s some very, very personal comments on the chat. You’re already touching everybody with your story so far. But tell us, what is it that you think you learned about yourself and learned through this journey? I’ll start with you. Aastha.

Aastha Gupta: You know, many, many lessons, obviously Sukrutha, this is life changing, but I think two things that sort of may help this crew a little bit. One, I think just this notion of control. You know, I think we’re all we all like to plan make sure everything is sort of in order, everything is teed up right to the very last thing. And I remember when I was diagnosed, one of my first oncologist visits, I read a quote which said, peace is being comfortable not knowing what’s coming next. I think it’s the opposite of how many of us are wired, where we want to plan everything and just know exactly what’s happening. I think one of my biggest lessons was to really embrace uncertainty, have faith, let go of things, and just feel like living in the moment, much more fully, and much more richly.

Aastha Gupta: I think that was actually very life changing for me, because that’s not fundamentally the sort of person I am at all. That’s one. And then second, I think, you know, especially as I’ve come back to work, I’ve really been thinking about, “how do I show up in this second phase of my life, as my husband likes to call it, “Aastha 2.0.”

Aastha Gupta: I’ve come back with a very balanced state of mind. You know, I’m a passionate leader who you know, lives on adrenaline and really caring about what, what I do. And of course, I’m going to continue to do that. I invest very deeply in my people and care about the work I do. But I think I’m trying to approach my work in by being a little bit more emotionally detached. And that means not letting the small things get to me. When things do get to me, really thinking about what the bigger picture is in terms in the grand scheme of things called life, work is just a very small part of it, even though it’s a very meaningful part, and having some perspective there. And I think this is going to help me evolve my leadership style in a way that I think is hopefully much more mature, much wiser, and much more sustainable.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: What about you, Sharmeen?

Sharmeen Chapp: Yeah, I think for me, the biggest thing that I learned through my journey, you know, I was just so eager to learn and grow when I started at Facebook and I wanted to prove myself and kind of make all of those first relationships with everybody around the company, and then I was diagnosed and I was like, “I’m not ready to just step away, right?” I wanted to keep working for me. I think if I had taken the whole time off, I would have just driven myself crazy. I felt like I wasn’t able to, to have control over anything. I wanted to feel a sense that I could be making an impact on the world, be productive, be helping my team and our customers, and build products for them.

Sharmeen Chapp: It really turned into a game of ruthless prioritization, right? I had to really be conscious of myself and what my limits were. I had a certain amount of energy once it was gone, it was, that was it. I had to stop. The time that I was able to put towards work had to be the most important things that I needed to do. This is actually a lesson that a lot of new moms have shared as well. Like, when you become a new mom and you go back to work, you just learn how to prioritize what are the most important things that you spend your time doing, and you have to be comfortable letting everything else fall by the wayside.

Sharmeen Chapp: For me, it was the ruthless prioritization and then really, really critical to be able to communicate to your team, to your, to your peer group and to your leadership, what those energy levels are, and how much you’re going to be able to give them, so that everyone understands what the expectations are. The combination of those two things helped me successfully work through my treatments and feel like, you know, that sense of accomplishment and onboarding at this new company that’s super intense and exciting, but also making time for myself, to go through those treatments and make sure I was putting my health first and, and prioritizing that.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, prioritization is hard in general, right? No matter what new challenge we are being thrown our way, and I struggled with this myself when I moved you know, from <laugh>, I wanna say, moved from childless to then being a mom, and I struggled with that every few months. It’s like a dynamic puzzle. How do you make it work? <laugh>, You think you have it sorted and then you have to fix it again. I didn’t end up asking you this, but I do want you to share with everybody how you ended up meeting each other and how you ended up building this connection, so tell everyone that story?

Aastha Gupta: I love it. It’s such a fun story. Sharmeen and I were supposed to report to the same VP but the week she joined, I ended up taking on a new role within Facebook. This VP asked me to be an unofficial mentor to her, to help her integrate within Facebook, and get to know the place I’d been there for so long. I was Sharmeen’s mentor for about six months, and then Sharmeen was ahead of ahead of me for by six months in a cancer journey. And when I got diagnosed, and Sharmeen became my cancer mentor. I feel like our paths were meant to cross. And it’s a club that no one wants to be a part of, but I do think it’s a very small but very mighty group and community of women who are in it together. I simply couldn’t have done this without Sharmeen and without them. Unfortunately, this fear of recurrence is real for both of us and for anyone who’s gone through this. Just knowing that we’re all in it together is what helps me get through

Sukrutha Bhadouria: <Laugh>. Yeah. Destiny is a real thing. I feel like <laugh> is truly is. Yeah. Tell me how you all ended up using technology or what your experience was using technology through your treatment, whether it was using social media to connect with other people, or whether it was through your medical care.

Aastha Gupta: Let me go first. For me, I use our platform. I am somebody who’s lived all over the world. I have friends all over the world and I like to live my life in more of an open book fashion. I posted about my cancer journey on my Facebook and Instagram pages and profiles, <laugh> Instagram, and spoke very, very openly about everything I was going through. There was a part of it where I wanted to help anybody who may be going through anything in life, if I could make an impact on even one person and help them think through things differently, that would be worth it. It was actually really, really cathartic for me.

Aastha Gupta: I thought it was therapeutic, being able to share my story, and I was completely, beautifully overwhelmed with the love that I got back. There’s a lot of power in prayer and every single wish, every single message, every single prayer, I just added up to positivity, and me feeling like I was getting better, and feeling this surge of love and support behind me. I thought was a very important part of my journey was being able to be vulnerable and share it very openly in a way that was very cathartic for me, and hopefully I helped others. I remember going through all these apps that you have to go through once you’re in these healthcare systems and thinking, oh my God, the Stanford Healthcare one is much more beautifully designed, and the Sutter Health one doesn’t have attachments, you can’t put pictures up, and just thinking through the product pieces around that. I really do think healthcare tech is something that I’m now going to… it’s just a lot more meaningful to me, and it’s something that I’m going to spend time on as I recover.

Sharmeen Chapp: Very, very similar for me, like Aastha was saying, I made that decision when I first got diagnosed that I also wanted to share my story publicly. The month that I was diagnosed, it was in October of 2021 – and October is Cancer Awareness Month – and I remember, it felt like the right time for… there’s never a right time for something horrible to happen, but if it’s going to happen, it felt like the right time to be able to say… I similarly had no genetic history, no family history. It shouldn’t have happened to me either, yet here I was, and it was supposedly a rare anomaly, and I wanted to raise awareness.

Sharmeen Chapp: I wanted other women to know that this is a thing that can happen to anybody, and the sooner you catch it, it can make a difference between life or death, so it’s very critical for all of us. Forget the statistics, forget your age, forget your genetics. Go get checked, make sure you give yourself exams ,and just take care of yourselves, because it can make a huge difference if something does come your way. And sharing that honestly gave me the strength that I needed, right?

Sharmeen Chapp: Like there were times during this journey, I shared that after my surgery, I couldn’t pick up my son for eight weeks because I had a double mastectomy and it was just too risky, and that was the hardest part of my entire journey, because of the mom guilt and not being able to care for him, and I remember posting how vulnerable and guilty I felt in my posts to Facebook and Instagram as well, and I got such an outpouring of love and support, and that’s what kept me going. It was also a form of therapy for me, cuz I would process my feelings, and then I would also get the energy and the support from everybody to give me the strength to keep going. It also pushed me to be kinder to myself, which was really important during those tougher days.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. And like, how about reflecting back? Do you think you would’ve done things any differently?

Aastha Gupta: You know Sukrutha, reflecting… I’m reading the comments, the number of women who are talking about how they’ve been diagnosed is sort of frankly shocking to me, but to answer your question, I don’t think I would’ve done it differently at all because I was, pre-cancer for the past four years before cancer, I had two difficult pregnancies, and two difficult deliveries. I had breastfed both my kids for a year each, and I had three senior level promotions at work, so you can imagine just the amount of intensity in a very, very compressed period of time. I was completely burnt out and, you know, I had an amazing support system with my partner and husband with help at home you know, a high profile intense job that I absolutely loved.

Aastha Gupta: I was sleeping about six-ish hours a day on average, and I was physically active but not consistently exercising. And I was consistently, my family and my work, over sleep and exercising. I thought at the time, it’s a new phase you know, and it’s just a phase. I’m a new mom, self-care can come after, and I made the best decisions I could in that moment. But I really do think that cancer is multifactorial. There’s no one reason, but I think there’s a confluence of factors that definitely did not help, and, and as I’m reading these comments and seeing so many women impacted, I think people may sort of relate to this, but in my case, I think there were three things, at least.

Aastha Gupta: One, we’re the first generation that is completely on with devices. Two, I think the tech industry in the last 10 years has started functioning at a pace that’s pretty unprecedented and, and potentially unsustainable, very stressful. And three, I think many young women are getting more senior quickly and having later children later, so our biological and professional clocks are coinciding in a way where many of our bodies are breaking. They’re just not meant to do all of this together. And I think the confluence of these factors just doesn’t help any of us. My biggest lesson, nobody can answer the question of why I got cancer, that’s not in my control, but what is in my control, is trying to learn from it. And my biggest lesson, in addition to what I spoke about was, my body’s my temple, and sleep and exercise have to come first. Self-care has to come first, and so I would not do anything differently. I am so glad I took those seven months off to focus on just recovering, getting better, spending time with my two little toddlers who were crazy. They were four and two. And I would not have it any other way,

Sharmeen Chapp: If I asked that same question to myself, Sukrutha, it’s very similar to what Aastha said in line with self-care, but it’s the realization that we continue to be our own harshest critics every step of the way. Like, the fact that I’m saying the hardest part of my cancer journey was the mom guilt of not being able to pick up my son for eight weeks, right? It wasn’t the chemo when I couldn’t get out of bed all day, or help myself, or change my own clothes after surgery. It’s the mom guilt. And that’s the piece around, we keep prioritizing ourselves last, and we need to give ourselves grace. We need to be kind to ourselves, and so what I would do differently, is not feel so guilty.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. I mean, it’s really hard to like put yourself first and not feel that guilt. Yeah. But another thing that kind of like struck my mind, is how, when you talked about how differently you handled prioritization, and whether or not you chose to continue working or continue, or chose to take the time off, I do wanna ask you – Do you see a correlation between your tendency to either take calculated risks, or not take calculated risks, and take the risk, and deal with the calculating later? You see correlation with that at strategy <laugh> and you know, taking time off when you may or may not need it. So how about you Sharmeen? Do you think you saw any kind of connection there?

Sharmeen Chapp: I am very much a calculated risk taker, right? Like every job that I have chosen to leave, I’ve had a framework, there’s been a reason why I think it’s the right thing for me to do. It’s a combination of what might be going on in my personal life, in my career and what my goals are. And those are continuously evolving. I’m always checking in, and when they start to not be aligned, that’s when I know it’s time to make a move. And I’ve also always had an offer lined up before I leave the job that I have. Like, I’m very risk averse, but then what I end up doing in those transitions is when I prioritized my time off.

Sharmeen Chapp: I took two, two and a half months off between my time at Twitch and then joining Meta. That’s part of why I didn’t want to take a break when I was diagnosed, right? I was coming in well-rested and ready to hit the ground running, but then it meant that when something was thrown my way, like a curve ball, like my diagnosis was, I wasn’t ready to take a break and it wasn’t part of the plan and it was something that I had to figure out how to work into and adjust the plan accordingly. Yes, very much a planner on my side. <Laugh>

Aastha Gupta: You know, it’s fascinating. I think I’m a planner generally in life, but with regards to work, I have been completely unplanned. And it is relationships or different decisions have taken me in different directions. I remember I was at Microsoft before before Facebook or Meta, and as immigrants, a lot of people will relate with this, I was on an H-1B visa, and I was fresh out of business school, you know, doing product management. And I was in love with a boy in India and I decided to just leave. I decided to leave, move back to India, called up my business school friend within a week, had a job at Facebook and this new company, in operations versus product, and just moved and did it, and did it for love, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made when I decided and moved back to India after 13 years…

Aastha Gupta: Came back two years later to take on a role, I was leading a global team of about a hundred people and came on to take an IC role for business strategy and just for building a new skillset and just learning a completely learning how to function in a completely different way. I was a director on the business side, really progressing well in my career, and I was asked to move to product and that was a pretty big switch so late in your career in, in terms of seniority. I made that switch. For me it was actually very, very different. And again, it was for learning, and not love.

Aastha Gupta: I’m so, so grateful I did it, but mine were less calculated. And I think that’s why also just the decision. I remember I was diagnosed the next day, I said, I’m taking the time off. It also didn’t help that I was burnt out, Sukrutha, I was definitely burnt out. It was very clear to me, said, we’ll see what happens at work. And I’ve been fortunate, Sharmeen, I think we’ve been both fortunate, that Facebook and Meta have supported us in the way they have, in very different phases of our journey. She was brand new. I’ve been there forever, and I just feel very supported, but I made that decision without thinking… Did we lose Sukrutha?

Sharmeen Chapp: I think she’s frozen. <Laugh>

Aastha Gupta: Oh no, what timing.

Sharmeen Chapp: I know. Let’s see, what would Sukrutha do if this was her, right? I think we’re probably probably due to wrap up soon. And so, oh, she’s back

Sukrutha Bhadouria: <Laugh>. We’re concerned about the few months and the few years when our career is gonna span decades. It’s a very, very exactly difficult decision to wrap your head around how much time is okay to take off, and how much of a risk and how much of a reset, and a recalculation is okay in your career. These are all like difficult things to do and they’re so personal, these sort of risks that we are willing to take. I’m like looking at, you know, the chats and how people are talking about self-care being the most important and general acknowledgement around not really giving, putting themselves first is the general trend and how instinctively we are sort of trained, I think to put as..

Aastha Gupta: It could be when you’re a new mom. You don’t have to go through a life-changing thing like cancer at all. It’s exactly what you said, and what I’m seeing in the threads, it’s self-care, fundamentally, especially when you become parents. When you’re in parenthood, we start to put a partner, a marriage, a children, work, before us.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. It even happens prior to parenthood when someone meets a partner, and they’re making certain choices, and taking a choice, and then dealing, adapting to that, and still pushing through, is one thing, versus taking a complete backseat. Taking time off to focus on your self is something that generally something we struggle with. These are all eye-opening conversations. I am seeing also a general shout out from multiple people on how you both are amazing, amazing role models.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I do wanna quickly wrap with, what are some final thoughts you might have that you might like to share with everybody, as we like, nevermind cancer, nevermind parenthood, nevermind anything. Life is difficult. Working in tech is difficult. Working and living life is difficult. <laugh> How do we balance life, and how do we balance ourselves?

Sharmeen Chapp: That’s the heart of it, right? The biggest message here is that you don’t need something like cancer or even parenthood to teach you that lesson. We need to be prioritizing our self care from day one. Whatever situation you might be in, you need to be able to recognize when it’s too much., when you need more sleep, draw those boundaries, because no one else is gonna do that for you. You have to do it for you, and when you do that, then you can be your best self, for everybody else in your life, whether it be your family, your partner, your children, your coworkers. They’re not going to get your best version if you don’t put yourself first.

Aastha Gupta: Sharmeen said it so beautifully, but I will add to that. If I can’t be there for myself, I can’t be there for my family, for my work, for my friends. That became very clear to me, and I wish I had known that without having to know it, theoretically, but truly, truly felt that. And then second, I think just this feeling of gratitude for being able to come out the other side.

Aastha Gupta: I never thought at the age of 37, I would be fighting for my life. And you know, especially coming from a lot of privilege, I feel like I’ve always had a great life, and just it came out of nowhere and hit me so hard. I think this feeling of, I’ve got gratitude today, and this feeling of, I really want to take each day at a time, because you just don’t know what life’s gonna throw at you. Self-care for me, as well as just gratitude, and take each day at a time. Rally live it up, because you don’t know when things can change.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. Thank you so much, both of you. And thank you to everybody who’s shared their stories. Don’t forget to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before you put it on. Anyone else? All right. Have a good rest of your day in the sessions. Thank you everybody. Thank you. I would love….

Aastha Gupta: To finish that. Thank you for having us.

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“From Netflix to Co-Founding a Startup and How to Make ‘Scary’ Career Choices”: Maria Kazandjieva, Co-Founder and Engineering Leader at Graft (Video + Transcript)

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Angie Chang: We have with us today Maria Kazandjieva. She is an engineering leader at Graft. She’ll be speaking to us about working at Netflix, where she was for seven years, most recently as an engineering director. And then now she has started a company and taking that big jump, and she’s gonna tell us about making ‘scary’ career choices. Welcome, Maria.

Maria Kazandjieva: Thanks, Angie. And hi everyone. Good morning from what appears to be a rainy and gloomy California in Bay Area. Isn’t that the story for the last two months? I am really thrilled to be spending International Women’s Day with people, even though we’re all virtual. I love seeing your smiles. Just kidding. I love imagining that you’re all in pajamas like me. But hopefully in the future we get to see each other in person. As Angie said, I used to be engineering leader at Netflix, and about two years ago I did a career switch and I co-founded a startup with a few friends of mine as well as a few new friends of mine. And I thought it was a really good topic to talk through because I think no matter what career choice you make, it can feel stressful and and scary at the time of the decision.

Maria Kazandjieva: When you look at LinkedIn, you see the choices that people have made through their career, but you don’t really get a glimpse into what was going through their head. And so my goal today is to tell you honestly and genuinely the types of things that I was thinking about and perhaps tell you not to do some of those things. I hope that by the end of this talk, instead of feeling like this scared cat in the middle of the slide, you’re going to feel more like either me smiling or Foosball, and I highly recommend feeling like Foosball because he is always full of energy and always happy.

Maria Kazandjieva: Let’s get started. Two years ago, I was living the dream at Netflix, a company that people recognize, a product that people love, a company that always supported me. And it was an amazing place to work at. And it felt like this beautiful trail that I was on this, this career path that I was on. This is a trail in the Bay Area that I really love. But there came a day and it literally, it was about two years ago, it was in February, two years ago, that there was a fork in the road, right? A friend of mine from graduate school approached me, had been thinking about doing a startup, and he wanted me to join him in that adventure. And I had to think about it. This was an opportunity that I was not actively looking for at the moment, but I was like, man, I really gotta think about this one. By the way, if you see a robot next to a picture, it means it was generated via AI. So all complaints about those images should go back to you know, Dall-E.

Maria Kazandjieva: I think in this case now, I did a career choice that many people at the time called brave, scary, risky, because it was going from a kind of stable, well-understood job to something completely new. But honestly, I think anytime you come to a fork in the road, or a fork in the trail, it can feel scary. It doesn’t have to be going to startup. It doesn’t even have to be going to a new company. It can just be a role change within your own company, like going from being an engineer to being a manager, or going to a different team at your same company. And the reason it can feel scary and stressful, at least for me, is because there’s a known thing, that you currently have, and then something unknown, something new that just feels like it’s nebulous and and you don’t know how to evaluate and, and, and what’s gonna happen with it.

Maria Kazandjieva: I think that’s just the nature of humans to be a little bit scared of the unknown, right? And so what I wanna tell you, really, if you get out, one thing from this talk is there are many beautiful trails out there. And so the fork in the road can feel scary, but in fact, sometimes when you take a new path and you’re not sure where exactly it’s going to lead, you can end up somewhere else, somewhere that’s different, but equally beautiful and equally fun and true story. This picture on the screen is in fact a trail that I had seen many times, and I just didn’t know how steep it was, and I didn’t wanna run it. I had ignored it for, for many, many runs. And one day I was like, you know what? I’m gonna try it. And I was rewarded with something amazing and just, just as beautiful as the previous trail, but, but different and new and exciting.

Maria Kazandjieva: And so I hope if you’re considering a career change, and if you feel like it’s a stressful thing, yes it is, but I know we can do it. Before we get going, I’m gonna give you a 60 seconds linguistic lesson, and you can ignore it, or you can go ahead and look this up on Wikipedia afterwards. But I find this concept fascinating. It’s the concept of thought-terminating cliché. It’s essentially things that we say or think that cause our thought to stop, instead of encouraging more thought and analysis and conversation. And so if we have something called a thought provoking question, a thought-terminating cliché would be saying something like, “well, it is what it is, right?” It doesn’t really encourage further thought.

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Maria Kazandjieva: One way to think about thought-terminating cliché is to imagine that you’re this cat that is boxed in, and even though there’s no actual box, there’s no actual barrier. The cat is sitting in this square, even though it’s just marked on the floor, the cat can go in any direction, but it has put itself in this imaginary box. Why am I telling you this? When I started considering a career change from Netflix to a startup, I immediately found myself engaging in my own thought process with these thought-terminating cliché and boxing myself in, and I really wanna tell you don’t do that, right? There’s better ways to do it.

Maria Kazandjieva: Let’s talk about the three cliché that I engaged in. Number one, telling myself it’s not the right time. Number two, telling myself it’s risky. Number three, telling myself I can’t do it, what if I fail? These things could be true, but as thoughts, they’re not useful because they do not actually dig deeper into what’s behind them and what’s actually going to drive your decision to make a career choice.

Maria Kazandjieva: Let’s jump into the first one. It’s not the right time. If you’re at a job that you currently like, and I hope that’s the case, and if you’re working with people that you like, it can feel very uncomfortable to think about leaving. And that discomfort is immediately going to manifest itself, like it did for me, as you’re saying, “Well, it’s not the right time” because you don’t wanna leave something good, right? And so the, the thing I would suggest here, and this is what I went through, is process that may be guilty feeling or that discomfort cherish what you have in your current situation, but don’t let it stop you. Don’t let it stop the thought of doing something new just because you love what you’re doing currently. I put some pictures from various team members and, and people that I worked with at Netflix. I loved working at Netflix. I miss Netflix. I miss the people that I work with. They’re fantastic people, I keep up with a lot of them. And I felt like I was going to be betraying my team, that I was going to be betraying my manager, that I was going to be betraying Netflix if I left, because Netflix had been so good to me.

Maria Kazandjieva: But the truth is unless you stay at the exact same job for decades and decades and decades, you are going to have to sit with that uncomfortable feeling of choosing to leave something good, so that you can have a new adventure, and it’s a normal human feeling. It’s a good feeling to have because it means that you liked the thing that you had and you appreciated it, but it doesn’t mean you should not go for a new adventure.

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Maria Kazandjieva: Instead of, instead of telling yourself it’s not the right time, admit to yourself, “Man, I’m gonna miss some things about this gig if I take this new gig, right?” It’s okay. The other thing that I thought through when I was telling myself it’s not the right time was actually digging deeper and investigating some of the things that were good reasons not to take a new job, versus questionable reasons not to take a new job. I had considered a couple startups during my time at Netflix, and to me, there were just legit reasons why I chose not to take these other opportunities. At one point, I had kind of immigration and visa concerns, very practical and, you know, unpleasant thing to deal with. Personal circumstances, there were times with like the, the money situation was just, I was in a place where it was important for me to have that stable Netflix job. I also had desire to learn and grow in the current role and company that I was at. For example, when I transitioned from an engineer to a manager, I really wanted to learn about people leadership at a place like Netflix because I thought there was a lot of good stuff to learn there.

Maria Kazandjieva: There were other things that I was telling myself that were not good reasons. They were basically thought-terminating clichés. “Oh, I have ongoing work projects”. Well, ugh, guess what? There’s always ongoing projects. Or I would be like, “Well, the timing’s gonna be better in three months or six months or 12 months.” Maybe, but you can’t predict the future. And if you always tell yourself that the timing is going to be better in 12 months, chances are you are going to look back and regret not taking some chances in your career and, and not doing something new. And you’ll look back and be like, “Damn, I didn’t think I was gonna be doing this for 10 years. What was I doing?” Right? If you find yourself thinking these things, it’s not the right time. It’s better timing. Three, six months.

Maria Kazandjieva: Force yourself to just analyze what that really means. And is the person valid? For example, I can’t leave now cuz I wanna learn from the people that I’m working with versus, well, there’s always ongoing projects, and at some point if I’m gonna leave, it’s not like everything will be neatly wrapped up, right? Instead of just thinking that top-level thought, force yourself, you know, we’re all critical thinkers, we’re all tech people. Force yourself to think through the, the real reasons that are maybe preventing you from taking, taking a new role.

Maria Kazandjieva: Now onto the second one, oh, and I’m sorry, I wanted to say often you don’t control the timing of opportunities, right? Which is why it’s really important not to say it’s not the right time, because some opportunities you can seek out, but other opportunities, like the one that I took, it was my friend who had started thinking about the startup, right? I didn’t control when he was going to reach out to me, and if I just brushed it off as it’s not the right time, then when is the right time If you don’t really control it, right? So startups, gosh, everybody told me they’re really risky. Let’s talk about the, “it’s risky” thought-terminating clichés. I think it’s a clichés because basically everything is risky cuz you can’t fully predict the future. And I think if you say to yourself it’s risky without truly evaluating the risks, then what you’re saying is, I wanna take this leap, but I might fall, but you haven’t really analyzed what the fall is gonna look like. Maybe you’re gonna be like the cat, right? It gets dropped from some height. Don’t do this with your cats! But maybe you’re like the cat, and you’re actually gonna land on your feet, and perhaps land on one of those beautiful trails that I showed you earlier. The moment you think it’s risky, say to yourself, “Okay, yes, it could be risky, but like, what does that mean?” Right?

Maria Kazandjieva: List the risks, specific risks. Evaluate the specific risks when you’re evaluating them. Evaluate the new unknown opportunity that seems risky, but also evaluate some of the risks in your current role, because then you’re making a fairer comparison. And lastly, if you’re interested in taking a new job and you’re worried about the risks, try to imagine what the “ideal opportunity” would look like that has the right benefits versus risk ratio, right? Because you might always say something’s risky, but then you might as well admit that you’re never gonna do XYZ. Like a startup is always going to be risky, right? Leaving a stable job is always going to be risky, but admittedly, there’s some benefits to it. Think through how much risk in an ideal case would I take? And is this opportunity very close to this ideal case?

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Maria Kazandjieva: Let me give you a couple of examples, right? Graft, our startup, we’re a machine learning startup. What are some of the specific risks that I listed for myself? It’s a startup. We may not succeed, right? Pretty obvious one. I’m not really sure my, what my job will be like cuz I’ll be on a small team building the team. I’m not a machine learning expert, so I gotta learn a bunch of stuff. I’ll be making less money for a while. I think that’s like a taboo one that people don’t talk about sometimes. But I think it’s okay to think about the practicalities of changing jobs and what that means for your lifestyle, and your needs because, you know, we all need money to pay the rent and feed the cats, right? I thought about some of these specific risks and I evaluated them for myself.

Maria Kazandjieva: Well, startup may not succeed, but if I wanna do a startup, I’m in the best position to help it succeed. <Laugh> Who else is gonna do it, if not me, right? I’m not sure what my job will be exactly. I mean, you’re never sure what happens at your job. Perhaps when you’re at a startup, you actually have a bit more control, right? I’ll make less money for a while. I did a calculated analysis of that and I was like, now’s a good time to try this thing, even if I have to take a salary cut for a while. The other thing that I did is, I also thought about my current job at the time at Netflix, and how do these risks about the new gig compare to potential risks at my current gig? Unfortunately, we’ve seen a lot of companies doing layoffs. It’s really, it’s really rough and honestly, my heart goes to anybody who’s going through this. But the truth is that what we’ve seen, especially in the last year or so, is that even at a larger company, at a more stable job, there are risks to job security, maybe not as big as a startup, but they exist and shouldn’t be ignored. Reorgs happen. Projects get abandoned, stuff like that. And so even though your current job might be amazing, you don’t fully control what your job will look like and what you’ll be working on, so there’s a little bit of uncertainty even in your current job. And on the money front, you know what, companies stock may go down, we’ll just leave it at that, and and hope that the market does better in the coming year.

Maria Kazandjieva: But the point here is if I only evaluated the risks of the new opportunity, this startup opportunity, and I didn’t compare them to the current opportunity with like specific bullet points, I might have been tricked into thinking that the new thing is way more riskier than the current thing when in reality, there’s a lot of similarities between the two. And as I said, I asked myself, what would my ideal next opportunity look like in terms of risks versus benefits? And I knew that I wanted to try a smaller company at some point. And I was like, well, if I wanna try a small company, some of these risks are inevitable. How can I mitigate them? And the examples in this case were, I know a couple of the people who are thinking of banding up and doing this startup together. I also know that it’s an area of work that I’m interested in, and I know that the timing is good. It feels like a pretty ideal situation to pursue, an ideal trail to pursue, given that I can’t fully predict how many uphills there is going to be, right?

Maria Kazandjieva: Now, last but not least, and I’ll treat you to one more AI-generated picture, which I quite like. The last thought-terminating clichés, and I’m going to speak about myself. Maybe nobody else thinks this, but I absolutely thought to myself, “I can’t do it. I’m not ready. What if I fail?” I wish we were in a room together so I could get some hands raised and, and maybe somebody else has felt this way when considering a new job. If you have maybe put it in the chat to make me feel better, but it’s a real thing. And here’s the thing, again, speaking for myself, maybe everybody else is better than me. Two things. You’re your harshest critic. I am my harshest critic. I am going to think this stuff. And if I get wrapped up into thinking that I risk of being the cat in the box on the floor, where if I only focus on thinking that I can’t do it and I’m not ready, I’m not putting my paw outside of that box, right? And second, I think to tell people not to doubt themselves and not to have those thoughts is not productive because it’s not real.

Maria Kazandjieva: I like to think that I’ve had a pretty successful career. I’d like to think that I’m pretty technically adept. I I like working in tech and I have those thoughts, so I have to imagine other people have them. And you can’t prevent the thought. But if you can’t prevent the thought, I think you should actually engage with it and talk to it. And I told you earlier that I’ll be very honest and genuine. I’m gonna show you the kind of sort of ridiculous questions that I asked myself as a follow-up to this thought, in order to get myself out of though-terminating clichés, and into real, internal investigation of what’s going on inside my head. All right?

Maria Kazandjieva: “Am I so special?” “Yes, but am I so special that I’m the only person who’s going to take a new job or do a startup and be worse than anyone has ever been to where it’s going to be absolutely catastrophic?” Well, when I ask myself the question that way, I was like, “Hell no. I’m not that special, right?” Everybody’s good at something. “Am I going to make mistakes and fail?” Absolutely guaranteed. “Am I going to <laugh> mistakes I’ve made in the past and have I already made mistakes and failed at things?” You better believe it, right? Again, if you’ve never made a mistake, put it in the chat and I will clap for you and support you. But the reality is that I’ve made mistakes. I’ve learned things as an engineering manager, as an engineer. And so I know that there’s things I can do. And then there’s also things that I can learn. And asking these a little bit ridiculous questions really helped crystallize that for me. Okay, we’ve established that I’ve made mistakes in the past. Am I still around kicking ass, having a job, helping people collaborating? Yes. Yes I am. And I think fundamentally that is the question that brings it all together. When I think to myself, oh my gosh, what if I can do it?

Maria Kazandjieva: “What if I fail?” I actually try to get a perspective of the things that I’ve done in my career, the chances that I’ve taken the mistakes that I’ve made, and remind myself that it’s okay, we’ll make mistakes, but, but we can do it. We might not be a hundred percent ready, but we can take that next adventure and, and learn more. And at the end of the day, my gosh, it’s International Women’s Day. If we don’t do it, who will do it? Why shouldn’t it be us? And I think that question, me saying it to you feels like an inspirational thing to say. But what I challenge you to do is actually after the talk, or later tonight when you’re brushing your teeth, ask yourself that question. Ask yourself, why shouldn’t it be me doing it? And I think that’s more of a thought-provoking question instead of a thought-terminating cliché.

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Maria Kazandjieva: Because your brain will be like, oh yeah, that’s a good point. Why shouldn’t I do it? And I really hope that that fuels you if you’re having one of these stressful discussions. And so just to wrap up and you know, this is recorded so you can go back to this. Just wanted to compare and contrast these two things. Don’t stop your decision-making process so early on with generalities. Focus on what are the things to consider when making a career choice. Make it a rational process. And then if the time is right, lean into it. Even if it feels a little bit risky.

Maria Kazandjieva: My hope is that after this talk, you’re gonna feel less like this cat in the little box. It’s a fun trick to do with your cats if you have one. And instead, you’ll feel free to explore a new opportunity to take a chance to learn more and to honestly continue kicking ass in tech. Thank you so much for having me today, and I hope everyone has a wonderful International Women’s Day.

Angie Chang: Thank you so much, Maria. That was an excellent talk on encouraging us to ask ourselves to hard questions and say, “Why not me?” Thank you so much.

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“Designing AI for Designers”: Dr. Tonya Custis, Director of AI Research at Autodesk (Video + Transcript)

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Tonya Custis IG quote Elevate Girl Geek X Autodesk

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Hi everybody. Welcome to this session. As you know, AI is such a hot topic and has been for many years. It’s gotten into an even hotter, hotter topic now. So I’m very, very excited to have Dr. Tonya here for us today. Wanted to remind everybody to share on social media, Twitter, Instagram, all the amazing learnings that you will have today. Don’t forget to also post your questions in the chat. Yeah, so anyway, <laugh> Sorry about that, the first part of the confusion that I had with my tech technical difficulties. I’m gonna go jump right into the intro.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Dr. Tonya Custis is the Director of AI Research at Autodesk. She leads the AI research team at Autodesk that conducts the fundamental and applied research in AI and machine learning with the goal of unlocking a new era of AI-powered design tools. We’re so excited to hear her speak today and to hear about how roller derby has played a part in both her life and career. Welcome, Dr. Tonya.

Dr. Tonya Custis: Thank you so much. Hi everybody. It’s such an honor to have been asked to speak to you today. I’m really excited to be here. First off, in the spirit of International Women’s Day, I would really like to start by thanking and giving a shout out to all the strong women in my life from friends that I’ve had since kindergarten, academic advisors, roller derby teammates, to all of the brilliant supportive women in tech that I have and continue to encounter every single day in my career.

Dr. Tonya Custis: How is leading a roller derby team similar to leading a team of AI research scientists? Today I’m gonna answer this question by talking about my current position and the work I do as the director of AI research at Autodesk and about how I ended up there. Although I am not sure I would’ve realize it until much later, I guess the first step in my journey to getting here was learning to program in Logo in second grade, and then teaching myself BASIC on my Atari 400 computer when I was in fourth grade. But fast forward a few years, and the next step was obviously getting my college degree in music clarinet performance, and music theory followed by graduate degrees in linguistics and computer science.

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Dr. Tonya Custis: Now, you might ask yourself, what do music, linguistics, and computer science have in common? At the time, I’m not actually sure, I could have told you. I maybe would’ve told you that it was very unlikely I was gonna get a job as one of two clarinets in any major symphony orchestra, which basically only opened when someone dies. I decided to go to grad school for linguistics. I was really interested in how the brain processes language and specifically how children learn language. However, as I advanced my linguistics grad school career, it also became clear that like the clarinet gig, in order to get a job as the linguistics professor, I would probably have to wait for someone to retire, and when they did, have to be willing to move to wherever that opening was. What I haven’t mentioned that is that in grad school, I was also married with two small children. They were so cute. Just picking up and moving to wherever was not really an option, giving my family situation.

Dr. Tonya Custis: Re-enter computer programming, I love doing it. As a kid, I’d taken some programming classes in high school and in college, but I had never really seriously considered getting a degree in it or making a career of it. Until my interests in how children learn language expanded to how can I get a computer to learn language? And I guess that’s when it all came together. What do music linguistics and computer science all have in common? Recognizing, producing, and leveraging patterns. I was able to take the skills from each discipline and creatively apply them to the others. I finished grad school around the time when Google and other search engines were really starting to take off. Although there were no actual computational linguistics or natural language processing degrees at the time, the coursework I did that combined linguistics and computer science put me in the right place at the right time.

Dr. Tonya Custis: My first job as a research scientist gave me opportunities to do machine learning research on information retrieval and natural language processing. It was my first real job and there were a lot of rules to learn. I needed to figure out how my research and my work fit into the bigger picture of the team I was on, but one thing that remained constant between academia and being an industrial research lab is that research means failing a lot. It’s part of the job, and it’s also part of the job to then pick yourself up and learn from those failures going forward.

Dr. Tonya Custis: A couple of years into my career as a research scientist, I went to my very first roller derby bout. As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to play. I immediately bought skates and gear and found out when the next tryouts were. Here’s me at tryouts. I tried out and I became a member of the league. But much like getting my first job, I now had to figure out what the rules were and how I fit into the team, and so became began the period of my life where I was an AI researcher by day, and a roller derby player by night.

Dr. Tonya Custis: I played roller derby, competitive roller derby, for 10 years and during that time I had the privilege of playing with skaters of all ages, all body types, and from all walks of life. The Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby Association (WFTDA) serves as the international governing and sanctioning body for bouts, rankings and tournaments. WFTDA currently has about 450 member leagues spread across six continents. There’s even a roller derby World Cup. The rules of roller derby are complex. They involve a lot of safety measures, where you can and can’t hit people, and with what parts of your body you can and can’t hit them with. But here’s a real high level description of how roller derby works. There are five players on each team, and the players skate counterclockwise on the track. Each team has four blockers and one point scorer, the jammer. The jammer is the one with the star on her helmet, and the jammer earns points earns a point for each opposing blocker she laps on the track.

Dr. Tonya Custis: What this boils down to is you have to play offense and defense at the same time. You have to prevent the opposing jammer from passing you and your teammates, while also helping your jammer through the pack to pass the players from the opposing team.

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Dr. Tonya Custis: The most effective way to slow down, or stop players from the other team, is to knock them over, or to push them off the track. Roller derby is a full contact, physical sport. In addition to countless bruises, I’ve had a concussion, a broken leg, and a broken collarbone. This picture actually shows my collarbone being broken. But <laugh>, I have really never had so much fun in my life. I learned so much from playing roller derby, but maybe the best lesson was sort of like research. It doesn’t matter how many times you fall down, as long as you get up again.

Dr. Tonya Custis: A year into my roller derby career, I became captain of my team. I really did not want to be captain of my team, but somehow I got elected anyway. Being captain meant making decisions about people’s playing time, art training program, and the overall strategy. It meant being a player and being a coach at the same time. I was a reluctant leader, but I approached it as a puzzle, as an exercise in recognizing, leveraging, and optimizing patterns, skills that I was able to transfer from the other areas of my life. I learned that none of us had the same strengths or weaknesses, but we could strengthen each other on the track, and mitigate each other’s weaknesses by playing to our strengths, and as long as we worked together and trusted each other. Our team, which had never won a game when I joined the league, ended up winning several season championships in a row.

Dr. Tonya Custis: A few years later, when I was offered the job of research director, I was once again a reluctant leader. I loved doing research, I loved being a player on the research team, and I didn’t know if I really wanted to be a coach. But oddly enough, I was able to creatively transfer my roller derby leadership experience to my new role, which I again approached as an exercise in recognizing, leveraging, and optimizing patterns – and also one in playing offense and defense at the same time! What I’ve found is that being a leader means protecting your team, so they can concentrate on and have the space to do their jobs, so this is playing defense, but it also means playing offense by proactively getting your people opportunities for career growth and development, and making sure they have the resources they need to do their jobs.

Dr. Tonya Custis: So to be honest, leading a team of research scientists isn’t that different than leading a roller derby team. Everyone’s different, we have different strengths, different weaknesses, and not everyone plays the same position, but we all do better when we learn from each other and trust each other, working as a team to solve difficult and interesting research problems.

Dr. Tonya Custis: Let’s fast forward, back to my current role as the director of AI research at Autodesk, I lead a global team of AI research scientists and we work on machine learning research primarily in the 2D and 3D geometry space. So you might be asking yourself why someone with a heavy background in NLP and linguistics is leading a geometry-focused AI research team, and honestly I asked myself the exact same question when I was offered this job. What drew me to the design space was the opportunity to join language and geometry, to use language to communicate the semantics of geometry, in order to make design more intuitive. I wanted to take my background in NLP and use it to creatively solve problems in a new domain. Increasingly, NLP techniques, like large language models are finding more and more success when being applied in new ways and to new modalities.

Dr. Tonya Custis: The recent explosion of generative AI models like ChatGPT, Codex, Dall-E and Stable Diffusion is especially interesting in the context of design software. Autodesk, if you don’t know, creates design and make software. We serve the architecture, engineering and construction manufacturing and media and entertainment industries. We help our customers design and make everything, from smart cars to skyscrapers, and from bridges to the visual effects in films and video games. So if you’ve ever been in a building, driven a car, used a computer, sat in a chair, or seen a movie, you’ve likely experienced the designs our customers have made with Autodesk software.

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Dr. Tonya Custis: My team’s research has three main areas of focus, and a big chunk of the work we do is in publishing papers at top conferences, often with academic labs. I’m briefly gonna outline some of our recent papers to give you a flavor of what we’re working on. In JoinABLe, which is work we did with MIT, we used machine learning to learn a bottom-up approach to parts assembly. So given a set of parts, can a computer learn to assemble them? To do this, the computer needs to be able to reason about not only the shapes of the parts, but also how they might be joined together. And as it turns out, this is a task people can only do correctly 80% of the time, so the graph shows the experimental results for JoinABLe with blue at 78% accuracy, against other state-of-the-art machine learning methods in green, and also, human performance in pink.

Dr. Tonya Custis: In the UNIST paper work with Simon Fraser University, we investigate using machine learning for style transfer. So for example, you might want a chair that matches the style of a table. This algorithm, given the 3D representation of a table, can generate a chair that matches it in style. Although style is somewhat subjective, it can be learned by neural networks, and the ability to transfer style can save designers a lot of time.

Dr. Tonya Custis: Let’s pause here for a second and talk a little bit about generative AI. I’ve been doing research on language modeling and computational syntax for the past 15 years. ChatGPT and other large language models are an incredible achievement towards a lot of the things I have been working on for my whole career. And advances in multi-modal generative AI models like DALL·E 2, Stable Diffusion, and Midjourney point to the desire to translate our ideas between language and other modalities.

Dr. Tonya Custis: Linguistic generalization and the ability to generate novel human-like language is a huge milestone for AI. Large language models are capable of generating strings of words that no human has ever said before. This is the power of linguistic productivity, using a finite number of grammatical structures to produce an infinite number of utterances. However, we do need to remember in the hype of all this, that large language models are trained to optimize for linguistic structure. There is no intent, no information, no reasoning, nor knowledge behind the words being strung together.

Dr. Tonya Custis: Any meaning perceived in the string of words supplied by the computer is, the meaning is supplied by the user. Said differently, there’s no actual creativity behind how large language models generate language, just probabilities. Nonetheless, one of the criticisms of large language models like ChatGPT, is that they make up and hallucinate facts. These models again we’re trained to generate syntax, not meaning and not facts. Having trained on over billions of word tokens, the text they generate puts words together that are related enough and seem plausible enough that they might sound like facts, but often they aren’t.

Dr. Tonya Custis: Why and how is this relevant to the design space? My team has been working on research in which we apply large language model techniques to 2D and 3D data. What if we could learn a grammar for how sketches and 3D models are generated by humans, and then mimic that grammatical generation with an algorithm? In the design space, having the algorithm hallucinate new designs is actually an advantage, not a liability. In this paper, we proposed two transformer based generative models that generate engineering sketches. This paper shows the ability to tokenize engineering sketches and represent them in a transformer architecture showing that it was not only possible but a promising research direction. Other works we’ve published that use transformer models for sketch and 3D generation are SkexGen and SolidGen.

Dr. Tonya Custis: In both cases, we are trying to generate designs that will be helpful to the user, which means they have to walk the line between being realistic and manufacturable, but also novel, diverse, and inspiring. SkexGen uses sequences of CAD operations to train a generative transformer model. Here we can see how the CAD operations in their order are broken down into tokens, or words, so that the transformer model can learn the structure, or grammar, of how the operations go together to create an entire 3D model, or sentence, if you will. SolidGen is also a generative 3D model, but instead of learning from sequences of operations, it learns a grammar of the 3D structures directly, by predicting the vertices edges and faces that make up an object, using transformer based and pointer neural networks.

Dr. Tonya Custis: These three papers are all great examples of how we can transfer and apply the ideas and mechanics of large language models to other types of data. Language is how we describe the 3D world around us, and we’re also working on multimodal generative models that allow designers to use language to communicate their designs, design intent, and specifications to computers. There has been quite a bit of progress recently in text to images, but similar progress in text to 3D shapes has leg behind because there isn’t a lot of data that pairs text to shapes.

Dr. Tonya Custis: CLIP-Forge proposes a machine learn geometry sensitive method for generating 3D models from natural language, so a prompt for a round chair generates a 3D box model of a round chair as opposed to a square. One CLIP-Sculptor is the newest paper from our lab recently accepted at this year’s upcoming computer vision and pattern recognition conference. It improves on the results of CLIP-Forge and other previous state-of-the-art methods, both in terms of diversity and accuracy, but also in speed of generation. Language is a tool we all share, and right now we’re starting to be able to use language to help shape and build the world around us in an actual physical sense. It’s really inspiring to me to think about how these technologies will evolve to support designers who use Autodesk software.

Dr. Tonya Custis: I have come a long way from almost no one understanding why I would possibly be interested in combining linguistics in computer science, and from when no one understood what my job was or why I was doing it, and so it’s incredibly validating to have reached this place where computers can recognize, leverage, and complete patterns at such a large scale that they are useful to people in so many different ways. What I want you to take away from this talk today is that technology is always changing. Life is always changing, but your strengths and the skills you’ve learned in one place are often transferrable to new situations. In my experience, leadership requires you to recognize patterns and creatively transfer what you know from one place to new situations, so that you can play offense and defense at the same time, so that your team has the space they need to on the track and the trust, confidence ,and resources they need to do their job successfully.

Dr. Tonya Custis: The ability to take what we’ve learned from one place in life and creatively apply it to new situations is what makes us human. Be curious, learn and discover. Fall down and fail. But remember, in roller derby and life, it really doesn’t matter how many times you fail, as long as you get up again. Thanks!

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you so much. This talk really resonated with a lot of our attendees. We see some amazing comments. We are at time now. Thank you all, everyone, and thank you so much Dr. Castes for making time for us today.

Dr. Tonya Custis: Thank you all.

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“Hedging For Revenue In Recessions Through UX Research”: Claudia Natasia, Director of Product Insights at Highspot (Video + Transcript)

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Angie Chang: Claudia Natasia is a director of product insights at Highspot and she’s exploring new ways to expand the impact research beyond product and to the business ecosystem. She’s passionate about improving accessibility of financial literacy and is excited to talk about quantifying impact. She also advises startups on growth and revenue. I’m really excited to hear her speak today about her topic. Welcome, Claudia.

Claudia Natasia: Thank you Angie, and welcome to my talk everyone. Happy International Women’s Day. I’ll get started. I grew up in Jakarta and this is a photo of the financial district of Jakarta, Indonesia. And I would like to say that I actually grew up in the financial district. My mom would pull me out of school sometimes and take me to business meetings that she has in different banks in the financial district. And sometimes I had the pleasure of actually being in the meeting room and watching her close deals. And what I learned from being in this environment from early on, even at the age of five, is that it’s important to build businesses and enterprises that last. And as I transitioned my career into many different things, starting in banking right after college and then eventually landing into research data and product strategy, I always bring that learning that I have from finance of how can we use, how can we as a company use research, use data, use strategy to build companies that last?

Claudia Natasia: And that is what my talk is going to be today. I hope that everyone here can come out of this talk with several different ideas for how we can build strategies for our companies to help our companies become more sustainable, particularly during more challenging economic climate. Like today, we’ll talk about a few things. The first valuation model called the discounted cash flow model. Then we’ll talk about two case studies of how being user driven drives valuation by way of the DCF model. And then we’ll wrap up and talk about evolving a revenue-generating data practice in your organization. I’ll share some tips for whether it you’re a founder or if you currently are employed in an organization, how you can structure your product revenue, data and research team to overall drive better and more healthier valuations for your companies.

Claudia Natasia: Let’s start with the discounted cash flow model. I’ll start by asking this question, is a hundred dollars today worth more or less than a hundred dollars next year and a hundred dollars the year after? I’ll pause for a few seconds and feel free to answer this question on the chat to start a discussion or write it down anywhere. Now, similar to that question that I asked earlier, let’s assume that you just won the Powerball. Congratulations, you won a huge windfall from the Powerball. And the question now is the Powerball usually does payouts in two different ways. The first way is a lump sum where they give you less than the amount you win, but they gave give all of it right now less taxes. Or you can also opt for this thing called an annuity that pays the, the, the funds that you win from the Powerball in a yearly manner. Would you rather take the lump sum so that huge chunk of money that comes right now, or would you rather take the annuity a smaller amount of money year on year until let’s say 30 years? That’s usually the timeframe of the annuity.

Claudia Natasia: I’ll give a few seconds so you can think about that as well. Alright, I actually ask this poll to a large number of people in my company the other week. And actually 72% of people answer lump sum and 28% annuity. And there’s really like, it, it’s a matter of preference at the end of the day, but also from a fiscal or financial sense, there is actually a right answer, even though at the end of the day it is a really a matter of preference. We can go debating this over and over again, but from a financial perspective, the answer is actually take the annuity. And I did a calculation to show why it’s important to take the annuity. Let’s assume that the Powerball, when I did this calculation, I assume that the Powerball was a hundred million. I don’t know what the amount is now, frankly, I’ve never been part of the Powerball, but let’s assume that the, that the Powerball is a hundred million dollars.

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Claudia Natasia: If you were to take the lump sum payout, you’d get $52 million right now, less the federal tax at 24%, and then you’d get a net payout of around $32 million. Whereas if you get the annuity over time, over 30 years, you’ll actually net at $64 million, meaning you’ll actually get $31 million more, which is two x the amount of the lump sum pay out. That’s really amazing to see the difference between these two values. People often wonder why, how come the annuity, even though you don’t get the psychological reward of getting the money now, you actually net out with more. And what a lot of people don’t know is the Powerball annuity is actually paid through investments in bonds. The investments in treasury bonds actually has an interest rate of around 5%, so if you were to, let’s say, not invest in the stock market at all and you invest in government bonds, you’d net around 5%.

Claudia Natasia: Sometimes in good markets, of course, if you like let’s say invested in Bitcoin like four years ago, you’d probably net like three x higher, like I think at one point the increase was like 300%. But in certain markets there’s this thing called the risk-free interest rate where the for the risk-free interest rate in in particular, that’s the rate that you’d get if you invest your money in a safe product like government bonds. And the reason why annuity pays more and more each year is what Powerball assumes is if you were to take the money right now, you could invest it elsewhere. And the hope is that actually with the annuity, that if they were to keep the money and pay you on a yearly level, that they need to at least match the risk-free interest rate of 5%.

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Claudia Natasia: Now let’s shift our thinking a little bit to the actual markets. I bet a large number of you are founders or part of a company that is actually VC-backed. By VC, I mean venture capital. And when you look at venture capital funding in the past just five years, you actually see an interesting trend in during the pandemic, we see venture capital funding actually increase drastically. And only recently because of the more challenging macroeconomic condition and rising interest rates and wars in in Europe, we actually start to see venture capital funding decline. And during periods when funding decline, VCs and investors, similar to if you are also an investor in the market, you become more picky on the type of companies that you want to invest in. And for the companies that you’re already invested in, you also pay more attention to fundamentals. You go back to very important fundamentals, business fundamentals of increasing sales while also being efficient and minimizing costs.

Claudia Natasia: And what VC is always used to calculate the valuation of companies is this thing called the discounted cash flow model. It’s actually a very, very simple formula that is a function of the cash flow that a business receives year after year. It’s a revenue less cost, that’s the CF and enumerator discounted or divided by a function of the interest rate. And this part is really, really interesting because as you all know right now, interest rates have skyrocketed. That’s why we’re seeing ramifications the mortgage market. It’s harder for people to get mortgage. If you could afford a home that’s let’s say $1.4 million last year with mortgage with the increasing interest rate, right now you could probably only afford a home at a lesser price because your mortgage is more expensive. And so when periods of r so r indicates interest rate in this formula.

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Claudia Natasia: When r increases, when the Fed increases interest rates, then regardless of what cash flow you have, like assuming your cash flow is stagnant and even if it grows a little, that value will be eaten up by the increase in interest rates from this formulas perspective. And that’s the important thing for us all to know, as either founders or shareholders of our very own company as employees, is that we need to do more with less right now in this market, even if we’re able to grow our revenue by 20% this year because we were still able to maintain great sales velocity in a challenging macroeconomic climate. Note that a 20% increase in sales this year matters less than a 20% increase in sales last year because the interest rate has grown like nearly double at one point compared to two years ago. And that’s why it’s very important for companies to understand how we can build strategies that ensure that our cash flows in this DCF model are robust regardless of the macroeconomic condition in the world.

Claudia Natasia: What are the factors that typically drive strong healthy DCF models or strong healthy valuation? I listed a few different factors in the relationship to the DCF model sales. Of course, as you increase sales, you would see an increase in cash flow and a positive relationship to the DCF model. And a driver of sale is achieving product market fit. If you are starting a company and you are able to achieve product market fit earlier on and have customers that recommend your product or your experience to other customers and then drive like stronger horizontal growth on all of your product suite and continue to capture more and more of the market or even define your own market cap, then you can actually achieve stronger product market fit. And of course stronger sales and closely related to sales is growth. Growth also has a positive relationship to the DCF model.

Claudia Natasia: And companies typically achieve growth through these terms that you may have heard before, like acquisition, acquiring new customers, adoption, having customers actually use your product and using it more and more, which is engagement. And like what I said earlier is also recommending other people to use it and things like activation. Going through the entire horizontal and vertical growth of your product, using more of of your product’s, compliments that you also build in your company. And upselling and cross-selling, I’m actually getting ahead of myself because I just described the third driver of DCF which is actually retention. And retention also has a positive driver, like I mentioned it, it leads to cross sells and upsells. If you’re able to get customers to buy more of your product, like let’s say your company, what’s a great example of this… Like if your company sells a learning and management software, but also a conferencing software, if you’re able to get your customer to buy not just the LMS but also the conferencing software, then you’re essentially driving cross sells, which it’s the same customer but you’re driving more revenue from that particular customer.

Claudia Natasia: And then there’s things like lifetime value also, assuming that the customer doesn’t cross sell or upsell, they don’t buy more of your product suite, there is an opportunity of course fundamentally to just retain them, keep them year after year to come back and use your product and not jump ship to a competitor. And other drivers of DCF includes costs. There are several different types of costs and I’ve highlighted two major classes of costs, cost of goods sold. So if you were to produce a a product or a experience, what is the cost of actually producing that product? And then also operational costs of running your business. And then finally, like we’ve discussed in the previous slide, interest rates, which is driven by macroeconomic conditions and generally what the government decides to set the interest rates at. All of these factors work together with each other to ultimately influence the discounted cashflow model and the valuation of your company. And if you’ve read some tech news recently, that’s actually why we are seeing quite a bit of companies experience declines in their, their valuations recently because of the higher interest rates in the more challenging fundraising environment.

Claudia Natasia: Are there other ways we can hedge for revenue? Outside of what I’ve described on a DCF model? I’ll describe two case studies for how being user driven actually help hedge for revenue. The first is how a user-driven approach uncovers revenue generating opportunities. And I’d like to introduce everyone to this framework. It’s called the value frontier. There’s two different elements of this framework. One, if you’re a business, of course you want to drive value to your business. Like we saw in the DCF model, we want to drive more revenue, but also you want to drive value to your users.

Claudia Natasia: And the hope is that as you build more and more products or more and more features that you get closer to this frontier where you’re unlocking and creating value both for the business and both for the users. We were actually able to create that at this company I worked with in the past called Five Stars. Five Stars originally started as a loyalty company. If you’ve been to a boba store, you may have inputted your phone number and joined the Five Stars loyalty program. It was an amazing product and many, many people loved using it, but we wanted to do more with this product. And so what we did was we conducted user research. A lot of the researchers in the team went out to the field, went to all of the small businesses that used Five Stars to try to get a general idea, like an ethnographic perspective of how are people using the product and how can we improve the experience.

Claudia Natasia: We also mined revenue analytics data and created models against average revenue per user and closed loss feedback, which in sales terms is basically we weren’t able to to sign a deal with a customer, what was the reason behind their close lost deal. And we actually build a machine learning model that analyzes the text of all of the reasons behind the, like why we weren’t able to sign that customer. And then finally we use a combination of product analytics health metrics of all of our product suites to come up with an opinion of what can we do to actually drive more value to both five stars and our small business owners. And that ultimately led to the largest product pivot that I’ve frankly done in my career, which is to pivot the Five Stars loyalty program to become a payments provider. And we actually build all of this in-house. And ever since then, small business owners are able to take payments also that’s linked to their loyalty program and, and have this in store. And essentially what we did was we created value by driving this in-store loyalty program to become a mobile payment service that ultimately drove a multimillion dollar acquisition of five stars by a European point of sale company called SumUp.

Claudia Natasia: My next case study is on how being user driven reduces invisible liabilities and speaking about invisible liabilities. What are invisible liabilities? I like to use this example from friends. I don’t know if anyone here remembers this particular episode or even watch friends, but in this particular episode we, we all know that Monica is the character known to be very, very neat and very, very tidy. And her husband Chandler actually opened a door that he never realized was in their apartment. And behind that door was all of Monica’s mess just stashed inside. And essentially this really describes invisible liabilities because invisible liabilities are all of the things that it, it’s, think about it like tech debt or product debt. It’s all of the things that we don’t want to deal right now that we just stash somewhere. But eventually we will have realize that eventually they become a reality.

Claudia Natasia: In this particular example in this company that I worked with, customer support costs were rising and we didn’t know why. We were pretty successful at reducing the cost. It takes a support customers from a customer service perspective in year one. But in year two we started seeing it drastically increasing like in this hockey stick chart. And so what the team did was we mined 9,000 support call data, did one ml text analysis of all of the feedback on that support call data to find out the root cause and uncovered that these, the, the root cause of the increase in costs were actually three major user experience issues that were not fixed. It led to an average of five repeat calls of 30 minutes each. And assuming that the calls were $1 per minute, like the, cuz it, it takes of course we have to pay when we answer a call from a customer, it leads to $225,000 of extraordinarily loss not accounted for.

Claudia Natasia: We were able to fix this and of course reverse the loss that we had accumulated. But imagine if we had been more intentional earlier on to be more user driven to actually uncover and fix these UX issues, we would not have accumulated all of these costs. And that’s the scary thing about invisible liabilities is no one can see them until it’s too late. That’s why they’re called invisible. And so let’s update the DCF model. There are two things that ultimately drive discounted cash flow in addition to all of the things that I mentioned. New product pivots and invisible liabilities are also examples of things that could drive DCF.

Claudia Natasia: And both of these things are driven and discovered by strategic user research. I’ll end by describing how to build and empower a revenue generating research team or a revenue generating data and strategy team. And I’ll give a quick example of Uber. If you were to ask my mom 20 years ago if she would let me jump into a stranger’s car, she would definitely say no. But right now I’m going to Indonesia in a month and my parents actually told me to take an Uber from the airport. If Uber were to ask people 20 years ago if they would jump in a stranger’s car, probably the product would not have been built the way it was built today. Similar to the approaches that sometimes we take when we do research by building empathy maps like this, empathy maps are fundamentally not a great way to do research because they actually diminish innovation.

Claudia Natasia: When we’re asking people what they empathize with, what they do, what they see, all of this is limited to what currently exists in the world. If you’re building game changing products and experiences, you can’t ask people all of these things since their perception will be limited to what’s in the world today. And so instead of asking all of this, I would encourage founders, research practitioners, data, product managers, anyone in in the industry to think about data from a more strategic lens.

Claudia Natasia: And instead of asking what users want, ask these three questions. One, how can we influence user behavior? Two, how do users behave? And then three, is our strategy working efficiently and using a combination of both qualitative research, quantitative research, and also more machine learning and and advanced statistical analysis. And do not be afraid of combining all of those different types of data sources to ultimately form an opinion that will drive your revenue and your valuation strategies for your company.

Claudia Natasia: And I’ll end with the statistics. Two x higher growth is experienced by user driven companies as measured by a reset study from McKinsey. I encourage everyone today to shift your mindset away from just being product driven or sales driven and find ways to incorporate data to be more user driven to drive stronger and more sustainable valuations for your company. Thank you everyone. Please feel free to ask me questions on my Twitter account or I’ll be hanging out at the lounge after this. And happy to answer any questions that you may have. Thank you.

Angie Chang: Thank you Claudia. That was an excellent talk. I think people learned a lot and there’s definitely some comments and requests for slides, so if you can share them on your LinkedIn or put them in the chat, that person can get them. Thank you so much and we’re gonna start our next session. So yeah, good to see you. Thank you so much for joining us on International Women’s Day and we’ll see you at the next session. Bye.

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“From Private to Public: Leading in Government Tech”: Maya Israni, Director of Engineering at U.S. Digital Service (Video + Transcript)

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Sukrutha Bhadouria: Hi. Hi everyone. We hope you’re having a wonderful time in the conference and you’ve been enjoying all our sessions. A few housekeeping notes. Make sure to tweet all the amazing things you’ve been learning in your various sessions that you’ve been attending. The hashtags are IWD2023 for International Women’s Day 2023 and hashtag ElevateWomen, which is, you know, the name of our conference where we want us all to lift as we climb.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Next up, we have Maya. Maya is Director of Engineering at United States Digital Service in Washington, D.C.. Prior to working at U.S.D.S., she worked at Facebook as a senior software engineer and graduated from Stanford University with a computer science degree. Welcome, Maya.

Maya Israni: Thank you. And thank you so much for inviting me to be here today. Thank you all for joining. As she mentioned, my name is Maya. I’m the Director of Engineering at the U.S. Digital Service. I’m not sure how familiar y’all are with the Digital Service. During this talk, I’ll dive into a little bit of what government tech is and my journey here and the types of projects that we work on in government tech. Just because it is a little bit unique, especially as someone coming from private sector that transitioned into public sector and public sector work has been pretty awesome. Please do use the Q&A. I will aim to save as much time as possible to answer your questions. Again, use the Q&A and chat feature, and I will try to save time at the end to answer them.

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Maya Israni: A bit about myself. I joined U.S.D.S. at the end of 2020. I started off as an engineer working in our nutrition safety net benefits space. For those of you that aren’t familiar, the United States government has a number of nutrition safety net benefit programs. Those include programs like WIC (Women, Infant, Children) or SNAP, which is formally known as food stamps. These are programs that are offered to low-income folks for cash and benefit assistance in, in buying food in other nutrition services. And we had a team over at the Department of Agriculture working on improving the service delivery of these benefits. I was an engineer in that team and then led that team for about a year, and then stepped into the director role at the beginning of 2022, and have been here since prior to US Digital Service, which is a small unit of technologists sit at the White House. I worked at Facebook, I worked in the private sector and I was an engineer on both integrity and privacy teams there and made that transition into government at the end of, of 2020. Let me dive a little bit into what engineering looks like at U.S.D.S.

Maya Israni: We have around 50 or 60 engineers and data scientists here at the US Digital Service from a wide variety of backgrounds. We have folks that are coming from public sector, from private sector, maybe that’s non-profits, other governments state governments, also folks with civic technology background. And like most places, we hire a diversity of engineers. We have full stack, we have front end backend folks with more security expertise, folks with more DevOps expertise, data scientists, data engineering. We generally hire senior folks with a generalist background, and that’s because we work on a really broad range of projects here. It’s important that folks are able to just jump in and, and plug in when, when needed and however needed. We also work on cross-functional teams.

Maya Israni: In addition to engineers, we have product managers, we have designers, and again, similar to private industry, those designers sometimes have UX backgrounds, research backgrounds, content backgrounds And then we also work with procurement folks, and that’s particularly important in government because oftentimes in government, we’re not necessarily building the thing, building the product. A lot of government services are run through having, bringing in a vendor or a contractor to kind of build out that service or build out that program, and so it is a key part of how we build government technology, and we have procurement folks to help us ensure that we’re building things responsibly, and baking in the best engineering and design practices into the products that we build.

Maya Israni: The day-to-day of U.S.D.S. engineering, like any job, there’s no specific day to day that I could call out, but we have about 20 different projects across about a dozen federal agencies right now. And the general mission of U.S.D.S. engineers is to bring the best practices in technology and in design into how we deliver government services and programs. Sometimes that might mean helping an agency set their technical strategy or hire in technical talent. Sometimes it actually is the technical implementation, and we do have some folks that have the hands-on keyboard coding and architecture work. Sometimes it’s helping set model engineering practices for an agency and, and kind of teaching, teaching folks how to fish rather than doing the fishing ourselves.

Maya Israni: I think it helpful and usually just to dive into some examples of projects so you can get a flavor of, of the breadth and scope that we work on, so I wanna dive into three examples with y’all today. The first is around our work with the CDC. So at the onset of the pandemic as we all experienced, there was a huge data crisis in terms of, we were testing folks for Covid and needed a streamlined, accessible sustainable way to report that testing data to public health departments. And so the US Digital Service partnered very closely with the CDC in building out a bunch of data reporting systems. One of them is called Simple Report, and you can learn more about this at and the concept is quite simple. It’s a system that is used now across the country for testing organizations to report Covid test results to public health departments, and as you can imagine, that’s a critical point in the data reporting process and helping understand what is the severity of Covid cases or a number of Covid cases across the country, and helping us better understand how the pandemic was affecting different regions and what trends we were seeing. Again, this is something that we partnered very closely with the CDC on, and it’s a product we helped build from scratch and it’s a product that’s still used today.

Maya Israni: The second example I wanna wanna outline is related to an executive order that was signed in the end of 2021. In December 2021, President Biden signed what was called the Customer Experience Executive Order, and the goal of this Executive Order is to improve the customer experience, so the experience of folks like you and me have when we interact with government services and programs. And one of the core tenets of U.S.D.S. is designing with users and not for them, and bringing in the principles of human-centered design and helping better shape government services and programs to meet people where they’re at and be accessible for everyone. And so with this customer experience executive order, U.S.D.S. has taken on a bunch of different customer experience work across federal agencies. There are almost a dozen federal agencies that run programs that interface with people, the American public, and those are agencies like the Small Business Administration, the Social Security Administration, Veterans Affairs, and we’ve partnered really closely with those agencies to provide more accessible services to people and again, make sure we’re meeting people where they’re at and providing them with an accessible and dignified experience as they’re moving through the process.

Maya Israni: In particular, we worked closely with the Social Security Administration to modernize their landing page, so that’s We launched a beta site at the beginning of 2022 and really focused on the user here, right? These are folks who are maybe more senior and there might be accessibility or connectivity issues when they’re accessing the website, and so we focused on accessibility and navigability and making sure that we were minimizing as much friction as possible when folks are landing right on and trying to understand more about the services or programs that they’re entitled to, and then how to actually enroll in them and minimize any sort of friction along the process. The third example of project I wanna highlight is one of our open source projects. This is one that was born out of the Justice 40 Initiative. In December, or excuse me, in January of 2021, just after inauguration, President Biden launched the Justice40 Initiative, and this commits to distributing at least 40% of certain federal funding to communities that have been disadvantaged, that have been marginalized, underserved, overburdened, particularly by environmental factors.

Maya Israni: And so after this initiative launched, US Digital Service partnered closely with, it’s called the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which is a council out of the White House, and we built what’s called the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool. Again, this tool is, the code is all open source right now, you could check it out if you’re interested, and this is a tool that shows an entire map of the United States down to very specific local regions, and you can dive into a number of factors (environmental factors, housing factors, transportation factors) to better understand where each of those regions are scoring. And the goal of this tool is so that an agency can go in and help them identify communities that have faced environmental injustice, and that helps direct where they should focus and funnel funnel federal funding. It’s a tool that we built mostly off of census data, so data that’s available. And again, we built this tool end to end and open source, and in that way, we’re really trying to, as I mentioned instill engineering practices and set the standard and model of how we should build tools and products in government.

Maya Israni:I’ve talked a lot about what engineering projects have looked like at U.S.D.S., and I, I also wanna come, come forward and talk about the difference between maybe private sector, where maybe more of y’all are familiar with and public sector. And so I’ll drive into like different aspects of the organization that I think are important. The first is around culture. U.S.D.S. has developed a number of, of values that we work by and, and live by every day, and I’ll call out a few of the ones that are most resonate with me, and most resonate with the work that I think we do, because our culture is a little bit unique from the rest of government. Obviously the US government is a huge, huge entity and a huge bureaucracy and we’re just a mighty group of just over 200. But we do aim to maintain a culture that imparts those best practices as of technology and design, and one of the values that we live by is find the truth, tell the truth. You’re coming in as, as technical experts and you’re meant to, to hone into that expertise. And, and as you see things say things and, and call things out that goes really closely in line with our other value of optimizing for results, not optics.

Maya Israni: Every day, we use data and research to help inform the direction that we are designing and heading, and then the decisions that we make in building products and providing services. Another value of ours is to go to where the work is, and that means that while we sit technically at the White House, we are partnering very closely with agencies, and that means to meet your agency partners, meet your users where they’re at, go to where the work is, go shadow folks, go do field research, go sit in the offices of our federal partners, and empower the people in the agency who are oftentimes doing the work already. And again, designing with user is not for them, centering the human, centering the person in everything we do, designing for all people in America.

Maya Israni: A topic that became all the more exacerbated during the pandemic was this digital divide that not all of America might have access to smartphones or the type of Airmeet platforms that we’re using today, and how do we build services and introduce technology responsibly and provide folks with yes, an option to enroll in a program online, and also provide a paper process for someone who might not have access to the same resources. Building accessible websites, websites that are translated to different languages and using plain language, not government speak or legalese. Another topic I wanna dive into a little bit is just the pace of the work. Government does move slower, plain and simple. It’s a bureaucracy. That’s how bureaucracies are designed.

Maya Israni: Quite frankly, it can be irresponsible to move too quickly sometimes. Inherently as some of the work we do is a bit more retroactive. We’re responsive to events like a pandemic and how that changes how our country operates. That being said, things can go from 0 to 60 really quickly if we’re sprinting towards a launch. Like I mentioned, we worked on some Covid launches and on a few others, and things can move fast. And we try to build momentum and create that momentum as we go. I think metrics of success also look a little bit different in government. I came from private sector and was used to having a half over half product roadmap with dashboards and data, and could see the graph grow and, and ebb and flow over time. That’s not always the case over here, I would say.

Maya Israni:We oftentimes, sometimes we have those launches with metrics, but oftentimes we have more maybe creative metric success, and that looks like I mentioned, like hiring technical talent into agencies or setting the technical direction of an agency. The last piece I wanna touch on is the scope of work because it’s huge. The government is entrusted to provide critical services and programs to the public. And the types of services that we work on and the people that we’re impacting. The scope is enormous. We’ve worked on programs with veterans, with refugees and asylum seekers, with students, with small business owners, seniors, and focusing really mostly on, on the people who need it most. And I think that’s definitely worth calling out as maybe one of the unique facets of working in government.

Maya Israni: With that, I am going to take a look at some of the questions. First question I see right here is, “How did you discover the opportunities in U.S.D.S. and what made you transition from private to public?” I think that feeds kind of straight in from what I just said there, which was I’ll answer the the second part of the question first, which is why I made the transition from public to private, or excuse me, from private to public, is I never… I studied computer science in college. To me, computer science was always a tool. I wasn’t necessarily keen on building things to build things. It was always the why, and why does it matter, and how am I impacting people, and what am I doing in this world to make things a little bit better than… how leave things a little bit better than how I left, than how I entered. And again, I think the scope and impact you can have in government is just unparalleled and unmatched, quite frankly. In the United States, we entrust the government to provide these types of services and programs to people and set the policies, and I think that the type of impact you can have here was always very appealing to me.

Maya Israni: How did I discover it? That’s a good question. I think I discovered it a little bit by word of mouth. The story that most folks often hear is the story. So when U.S.D.S. was born out in part when launched and the launch didn’t go as smoothly, a bunch of technologists came in and helped stand it back up. And I think I’d kind of followed that journey and that story, and when the time seemed right and for me it was almost a year into a a pandemic, I decided to to make that shift.

Maya Israni: Another question I see. “What advice would you give to early stage UX designers interested in building a career in civic tech or government?” I’m gonna maybe broad broaden up the question and advice I would give to early stage technologists in general. There’s a lot of ways to get involved in civic technology that aren’t just working at, say, the US Digital Service or government agency.

Maya Israni: A lot of states and cities have digital services. I recommend you take a look at the Digital Service Coalition. There’s also volunteer opportunities and there’s also, we have what’s called the US Digital Corps hires early stage folks / early career folks to come in and do a tour of service in government. Definitely a lot of different options in how to dip your toes in and in the way that fits your personal and professional circumstances best. I see the host coming in here, which probably means I’m getting kicked out at this point. <Laugh>

Sukrutha Bhadouria: No, hardly getting kicked out. Just wanted to say thank you so much, Maya. This was wonderful. I see the amazing engagement and the questions. Please do take it to Maya, or you can reach out to her, how, how do people reach out to you, Maya?

Maya Israni: I think throughout the profile, I’ll add in my email address and you’re welcome to reach out to me there. We also have folks attending, sitting in the lounges and attending the different networking sessions, so please come talk to us. We’re eager to share more. We also have our incredible engineers and data scientists and designers and folks on the project teams attending those sessions as well, so please talk to them. And we’re eager to hear from you!

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yes. All right. Just like one of the attendees said, this was rad. Thank you so much. All right.

Maya Israni: Thank you. Bye bye-Bye.

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