“Changemakers: Insights From Visionary CEOs & CTOs Shaping Social Entrepreneurship”: Iliana Montauk (Manara, Baat Enosh (Nia Growth), Pamela Martinez (Snowball Wealth) (Video + Transcript)

In this ELEVATE session, purpose-driven leaders from Manara (CEO Iliana Montauk), Nia Growth (CEO Baat Enosh), and Snowball Wealth (CTO Pamela Martinez) discuss launching their startups, from innovative retirement planning for generational wealth to empowering female engineers in Palestine. Learn how these entrepreneurs create meaningful impact and how to contribute to the evolving landscape of social innovation.

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Pamela Martinez ELEVATE focus on soft skills like communication goal alignment thinking of impact because its not just writing code

Transcript of ELEVATE Session:

S.K. Lee:

Hi everyone. Happy International Women’s Day! Also, want to welcome all the gender diverse identities that are maybe in the room. I’m a former founder, sold my first company in 2012, joined a second that grew from pre C to series B, became a VC. Today I’m an angel investor and a coach, particularly to female founders and what I call underestimated leaders around the world. I’m super excited for these badass women here in this room.

Did you know that 7.4% of all US engineering managers and 10.1% of senior engineering managers are female? Pretty incredible. I actually didn’t know that 8.4% of CTOs are women. Only 2.7% of venture capital dollars went towards female founded companies in 2019. It went down in 2021 to 1.1, just over 1%, folks, and yet the research says that companies with female founders performed 63% better than those of their male peers. What’s going on, folks?

With that, I would love for these women to introduce themselves and because we don’t have a ton of time, we’ve gone through a couple of questions with this. The intro, if you could, women on the panel, what is it that you do today and why? Iliana, if you could go first.

Iliana Montauk:

Sure. My name’s Iliana Montauk and I’m the founder of a startup called Manara. Manara means lighthouse in Arabic. The reason that I founded it is because I want to make incredibly huge change in the world. I want to leave this planet a much better place than I arrived to it, and I really believe that to do that, we need to leverage the innovation at the scale, the speed that comes with tech, but also with social impact at the core of the business.

Manara is a public benefit corporation. What we do is we connect the top tech talent in the Middle East and North Africa with the top jobs in the world, so we take that top one to 3% of talent and we accelerate their careers so that ultimately they can accelerate the careers of the entire ecosystem that they’re from. Our vision ultimately is to expand that globally.

S.K. Lee:

Alright, Baat.

Baat Enosh:

My name is Baat Enosh. I lead today Nia Growth. Our focus is to help freelancers and self-employed and anyone who sits under the non-traditional worker umbrella to say for retirement. It’s not a sexy topic, but it’s a topic that everyone should be thinking about if they’re not already. We work with people who are at the early stages of even thinking about, is retirement for me? Will I ever retire? We hear way too much, “I’ll never retire”. We give them tools and calculators and whatever it is they need an inspiration to start saving.

S.K. Lee:

Awesome. Pamela?

Pamela Martinez:

Hi everyone. I’m the CTO and co-founder of Snowball Wealth, and we’re a financial platform and app to help people manage and go from wealth that to wealth. Similar to what Baat was talking about, but a little bit earlier in the process, why I’m doing this.

I’m a first-gen immigrant here in the United States and learning how to manage my money, how to save for retirement, what to do about student loans was something that was really hard and challenging for me. Me and my co-founder, we thought that this could be done better and differently and we really focused on bringing a first-gen woman led perspective to the space. We are both/two Latina founders and we really do believe that the FinTech space needs to be a lot more inclusive of all of our backgrounds and perspectives.

S.K. Lee:

Awesome. There’s probably a lot of folks in the audience who are on the job seeking, job pivoting path, and so we’re going to ask a little bit about each of your backgrounds and how you got where you are and some of the experiences you might’ve had.

Iliana, really curious about your experience going through the YC accelerator program and what that was like. What was the biggest benefit? What was the biggest challenge and or surprise?

Iliana Montauk

For me, when I applied to Y Combinator, it was like a dream, it felt very inaccessible. It felt like if I got to that dream that I will have achieved it all. Little did I know that that’s just the beginning!

When my co-founder, Laila Abudahi and I applied, we applied the first time thinking, we just need to learn how to apply. We’ll apply once and we’ll see, learn about the application process so that then the next time we apply, we might actually have a chance to get in.

We actually ended up getting in the first time. And yeah, it blew our minds. A big part of what surprised me and was beneficial was first of all just the application process itself. They really make you think very strategically, and YC – Y Combinator – feels like this kind of elite and accessible community until you start the application process, and then immediately it’s this very warm community that wants to help you.

And so you receive tons of advice as you’re applying. It really elevates your thinking. When we first applied, we were thinking maybe if we’re successful, we’ll do this for a year, because really we’re on other career paths and this social impact startup that we’re working on is maybe just the side thing.

By the end of the application process, we were so invested, we knew that this is really what we wanted to go build, so YC had that impact on us: it really helped us feel confident first through the application process, but also then with the funding, it gave us that confidence that we could actually pursue that.

The biggest benefit was the ability to raise money quickly. We raised very, very easily during a time when the market was high, but there’s no way we would’ve raised that much funding that easily without YC and just the joy of being in such a focused environment for the three months, even though it was during COVID, it was all online, it reminded me of being in university where everyone’s working on something that they’re super passionate about, and it was like the Zoom calls were meeting in the dining hall at midnight with other random people and all just helping each other. That was the best part.

The part that surprised me the most was, or kind of disappointed me was how uninclusive it is, from so many different ways. I think that there were just very few women. For example, when I went to events, often I was the only woman there, YC founder events, or myself and my co-founder were the only women there.

These days, I know that we’ve been feeling a little bit isolated, especially my co-founders from Gaza. There’s only two Gazans in YC, and we just feel like nobody’s really reached out to try to even ask how we’re doing, and the community hasn’t felt really supportive even though her family’s lives were in danger at the beginning, and everyone knew us, and so it felt weird that nobody reached out. But other than that, I would say that I would definitely do it again, strongly recommend it. I’m happy to help any woman or anyone from diverse background who is applying improve their application, and I strongly recommend going to any kind of focus program like that to get you started, I think is a good idea.

S.K. Lee:

Super helpful. A lot of folks don’t know that YC does work with a lot of social impact companies that come in through the pipe it’s not sort of the majority certainly, but it does happen. I’m really curious, Baat and Pamela, you both started companies, why the non accelerator path or how did you choose to launch just really quickly?

Pamela Martinez:

Yeah, I mean, I would say for us, I mean we did go through different accelerator programs, so we didn’t necessarily go through YC. We went through StartX, which is a Stanford affiliated accelerator program, and that one’s a community focused accelerator program, so they don’t take equity, which was something that we really cared about, and then we also did Google for Startups.

We actually did apply to YC and didn’t get in, so it’s not like we didn’t try, so definitely highly recommend joining any startup community or accelerator program if that’s something that you’re looking into. And also, know that just because you don’t get into the top one that you want, it doesn’t really mean that it’s the end of the world.

You can still build your company and you can still make a lot of progress. And there’s other accelerator programs out there as well.

S.K. Lee:

Yes, shout out to Alchemist accelerator, Techstars, and a couple of other that I, Bronze Valley for BIPOC founders that I work with. Anyway, sorry, but really quickly. Yeah.

Baat Enosh:

No, I’ll go. Everything Pamela said, I’m a fan of accelerators. I even was a part of one many years ago as an organizer, and I think starting on your own today just doesn’t make a lot of sense without any… There’s a big, I think in the last decade we created a huge infrastructure to help startups happen, and it doesn’t make sense to just think you’re going to go at it alone.

Unfortunately, it’s less available in some other countries. I mean, the US I think has the biggest concentration, but if you’re planning on starting a company, definitely find either the startup scene, the startup ecosystem, or an accelerator or anything to join that will help you — it accelerates everything.

S.K. Lee:

Totally. Okay, Baat, I wanted to stay with you for a second. You spent some time, I think it was six or more years at Intuit, and I’m really curious, gigantic corporation. What’s the one thing, the lesson or habit that you learned there that you still use in your kind of founder playbook today?

Baat Enosh:

I know there’s a lot of people on this call who are in their job searching world, and also I have now a kid who’s starting their career, and I always have this dilemma – startup or corporate, startup or corporate. I’m a big believer that the corporate teaches you things that you’ll never learn elsewhere. I’m a believer that to succeed, you really have to understand what systems are currently in place, and how do you become a part of these systems, what makes them go, what makes them move? I think the corporate world is an incredible place to learn that. I’m a big advocate.

That being said, it’s not just Intuit. I spent over seven years at Intuit and at EY and another big corporate, and I think that it requires a stamina that is different from entrepreneurship mainly because there’s constantly competing.

At the end of the day, even in a corporate environment, in a startup, you’re competing, but you can make sure your own voice dictates how you compete. Whereas I think in a corporate, it kind of gets dictated for you, so the things I learned the most, and Intuit, by the way, is a wonderful corporate to be a part of if anyone has a chance to. Our CEO back then had a lot of sentences, my favorite one was “don’t confuse our kindness with weakness” which, up until I heard that, I had this idea that whatever it is you do in the career, you have to have your machete ready to show your strength. And I think at the end, you can do things in a nice, pleasant way, pleasant, transparent, employee-first way and still come on top. That’s kind of my biggest learning.

S.K. Lee:

Yeah, it’s a topic I come across a lot, how to be powerful and also authentic to your values and have high integrity and kindness. Pamela, you started out as an engineer, perhaps many of the people in this audience. I’m really curious, what was your biggest learning and or advice to people who are shifting from individual contributor to managing a team? What was the hardest?

Pamela Martinez:

One of the things that I like to talk about, when it comes to switching from an individual contributor (IC) role to an engineering management (EM) role is I think a lot of times people think that look, okay, well, if I’m an engineer and I switch into an engineering manager, I can never go back or role switching is really hard. I actually started my career as a product manager (PM), so I started on in product and then I switched into a software engineering role at an early stage startup.

Then I went to an earlier stage startup after that, and I would say for me, joining some of these early stage companies gave me the opportunity to try some of these different roles that I think would’ve been really hard for me if I had gone to a more established company. I was able to become an engineering manager just like two-ish years after being a software engineer, which is pretty quickly, I would say.

Now that I’m a founder and I switched back into a CTO role, I ended up doing a lot of coding again. I started doing a lot of engineering work again. In terms of what is the hardest thing when you’re switching from being an IC to an engineering role or an engineering manager role or management role, the biggest thing is about thinking about the impact that you’re making as an individual. When you’re an IC, it’s all about the work that you’re doing. And when you transition into a management role or a leadership role, it’s all about how you empower your team to really hit and accomplish those goals.

One of the biggest learnings for me is that no matter what role you’re in, even if you’re an IC, having that mentality is really powerful. That’s something that kind of enabled me to jump into a management role earlier on, was really thinking about how do I empower my peers? How do I make sure that I’m effective as an IC? And really focusing on some of the quote soft skills like communication, goal alignment, and really thinking about the impact that you’re making because it’s not just about writing code.

S.K. Lee:

Awesome. Couldn’t have said that myself at all. Iliana, I’m really curious. You’re now focused on helping underrepresented underestimated talent also, but particularly focused on the Middle East and North Africa. I am just curious, what do you see that’s different there than what you’ve experienced here in the us, particularly with women in tech?

Iliana Montauk:

Manara focuses on all the Arabic speaking countries, and the reason for that is that when I had the chance to go live in Gaza and work there for two years, I was running a startup incubator.

When I would talk to women about the stigma that women face in STEM fields, the reaction I got consistently was, “what stigma are you talking about? We know we’re better.” And I was like, “oh, we know we’re better. All right, this is great. Tell me more. This is such a good starting point.”

What I learned was that, this region is the only region in the world where girls outperform boys in high school math, and in a lot of the countries, the percentage of women studying technical fields or scientific fields, whether physics, electrical engineering, mechanical, computer science, et cetera, is equal to or higher than men.

For instance, in Tunisia, 62% of computer science grads are women. In Palestine, 52%. And then also from my experience in the region, I saw that it is one of the youngest populations in the world, the youngest, so growing faster in terms of a potential talent pool than any other region.

It’s had huge investments in education in the last 15 years, more than OECD countries. So, you also have just more people graduating from university. Soon, there’s going to be more computer engineers in this region than in Europe for instance, or the United States.

I come from Poland. I remember a time in Poland where there were no jobs, and we never imagined how quickly that would change. I lived there in 2001 and people thought I was crazy as a Polish American to come to Poland. Now, fast forward, they cannot fill all the roles. All the major tech companies have hubs and offices in Poland now, and they just can’t fill jobs, and they’re importing people from Manara, from the Middle East and North Africa to work in these roles.

The fact that there is this really strong pipeline of female tech talent was what got me super interested in spending more time in this region. I was working at Upwork at the time. We had the largest talent marketplace in the world, we could hire from anywhere, and we still struggled to find number one, good engineering talent with, Pamela, the soft skills that you spoke about, because good engineers to really solve problems need to have those skills. And that was so hard to find.

And number two, we had goals around hiring women, and it was just impossible to fill them even though we had all of these profiles at our fingertips. And so I was like, well, I know where these women live, and I think I know a little bit about the challenges, but really that’s where my co-founder jumped in. So Leila had gone from Gaza to becoming a tech lead at Nvidia in Silicon Valley, running the autonomous driving system. Always the only woman on her team, always struggling to hire talent once she was in the hiring talent role, but also remembered the amount of friction she had been through along the way.

That was why what got us so interesting in the region when I talked to companies now Connect.

Manara alumni are mostly at places like Google Meta, Amazon. About half have relocated for their jobs and half have stayed locally.

We want to support people with whatever their dreams are, but we’re looking for more partners in the Middle East, north Africa, and places like Dubai, Saudi, Egypt.

Often, when I talk to companies there and I just kind of get into the mode of pitching Manara the way I do to other companies in the US or Europe, and I’m like, and “we have such a high percentage of women”, they’re like, “duh, so do we!”

And at the leadership level. And so it’s a region that I think really is ahead of us in that way, and I think it’s just super humbling and a good reminder that we don’t have everything figured out in the United States.

S.K. Lee:

Do we not? (sarcastic/laughing) Pamela, I’m curious. On that note, it’s so enlightening and we certainly do have a lot to learn. What is it like to be a technical founder? What do you think was your biggest challenge? Is your biggest challenge? What do you see there? I’m just curious.

Pamela Martinez:

When you listed out some of the thoughts, I was like, oh, I don’t actually know that only 8.4% of CTOs are women.

One, it is kind of lonely. I feel like every time I am in, even through all of these accelerators, I’ve been through a lot of them. I actually can’t think of a single one where there was another CTO who was a woman, or at least, in my cohort or in my group. It’s very difficult to find other peers who are also CTOs. there’s kind of that challenge. Throughout my career. I mean, for better or for worse, I’ve gotten used to being the only woman in the room, the only Latina in the room, and over time I’ve learned how to operate in these environments, and that’s a really valuable skill to have, unfortunately.

In terms of the reality, putting that aside, for me and in general, when it comes to being a founder, a lot of it ends up being around what is it that you’re building, what problem are you solving, and how do you get to your desired result? When I first became a founder, I was coming from an EM and engineering background, so I had a very technical focus.

Now as I’ve evolved, I’ve learned that building a company is a lot more than just building the product. I’ve had to learn how to hop on calls with investors on calls with customers, doing partnerships and sales, running a team. As a founder, you do have to wear a lot of hats and your relationship with your team. If you have a co-founder, it’s also really valuable to know that you’re coming in and you’re supporting them and helping grow the company and not looking at it just from the technical lens.

Expanding your viewpoint and worldview, it’s really important when you’re a technical founder so that you don’t get stuck in, I’m only thinking about the tech, I’m only thinking about the product. You have to think about the business as a whole, and I would say my biggest growth and learning, and obviously you still have to do the tech and build the product, so that’s still really important and valuable., and having that bigger view and thinking about the company overall, and thinking about the business case for things, is something that’s really applicable to every engineer and anyone who’s in a technical role as well.

S.K. Lee:

Yeah. Gosh, we could talk about being a female founder for days and days. I wish I could interview each of you more, but I’m going to move us to kind of rapid fire as we get to the last few minutes of our time. It’s a series of quick questions and what I’m looking for so we can get as much as possible for this group here is just one or two sentence answers or moments of brilliance. Number one for all of you, and we’ll start with Baat, what advice would you give yourself your pre pandemic self? 2019 ish, what would you say?

Baat Enosh:

In 2019 and further on, I was a huge fan of working from home. I’ll tell you, for me, it’s a personal opinion. It is really hard to start a startup that is fully remote. I am becoming more conservative as the time goes by and it’s really hard to, especially to onboard people, remotely.

S.K. Lee:

Got it.

Baat Enosh:

There’s a time and a place for working remote, and I’ll tell you in a startup, it’s hard.

S.K. Lee:

Pamela, pre pandemic self.

Pamela Martinez:

Invest in figuring out how to build relationships remotely, because when we started working remotely, I was like, okay, this is going to be a three month thing, and then it turned into a multi-year thing, which turned into now we’re all very much fully remote. Learn and invest in building relationships and networking in a remote setting.

S.K. Lee:


Iliana Montauk:

If you’re compulsive about something, if you find yourself doing it in your free time and you just can’t stop yourself, it’s supposed to be your job and go figure out a way to make that your job.

S.K. Lee:

I love that. That is brilliant. Okay, second round. What is one prediction that you each have for the startup tech ecosystem for 2024 from your perspective?

Baat Enosh:

Okay, so I’ll take that one. We are no longer in ZIRP, which I just learned is an acronym for zero interest rate policy, so the world is definitely changing. Anyone who’s dealing with money, which is every startup, is understanding the implications of what it means to be when money is not free flowing on the street, whether through investments, whether through business models, everything the world is changing as we speak.

S.K. Lee:

That’s a big, big shift for founders raising capital for sure. It’s a really different perspective from the VC side of things.

Baat Enosh:

And FinTech as well. Me and Pamela, I think we’re feeling it with business models. It’s very different than 2021.

S.K. Lee:

That’s super interesting. Pamela, what’s your prediction?

Pamela Martinez:

Over the last few years, we went from consumer to B2B. In this next phase, we’re going to need to figure out how to make consumer work. Old business models for consumer didn’t work. Everyone’s been pivoting into B2B. Consumers are still out there and we still need to figure that out. My big prediction is hopefully we’ll see something new evolving for how to make a consumer business model work

S.K. Lee:

Interesting, new consumer models. Okay, Iliana,

Iliana Montauk:

I think things are going to pick up faster than people expected. I think we’re going to go from this phase where companies we’re really tightening their belt and they had been hiring a lot. They stopped hiring, they started getting really conservative, and I think things are going to swing back to hiring and feeling positive faster than we anticipated, but that it’s going to be done in ways that are very budget oriented, so it might not immediately lead to lots of new job opportunities in places like the United States.

instead, a lot of that might be in places like Eastern Europe, the Middle East, but that companies will suddenly start needing to hire again, and that when they do, suddenly, DEI is going to be important again, because it’s not when they’re not hiring, and suddenly they’re going to realize they need talent pipelines and they need to look attractive to people that they might not look attractive to.

S.K. Lee:

Great. I hope that happens too, and if I have anything to do with it, more female founders! Last question. Who was the most impactful coach, mentor in your life, or what piece of advice would you share with the audience that they gave to you and you still sort of really resonate with anyone?

Iliana Montauk

I can jump in first. Well, but unless Baat, you have something you wanted to jump in. Yeah, go for it. Okay. I have a coach that I work with right now who’s a coach for founders from diverse backgrounds working on social impact startups. She’s amazing. If anyone wants to work with her, her name is Christina Sass, and she runs this organization called Dive in Labs.

The key thing is to realize, as a founder, especially to design your job around yourself, accept yourself the way you are, just radically, radically accept who you are. Realize that there are many different forms of being a leader, a CTO, a CEO. You don’t have to be a specific version that you imagine that to be. Really understand yourself and your business goals and how to shape your organization around yourself so that you can reach your goals.

S.K. Lee:

I love that radical acceptance of the self. Yeah.

Pamela Martinez:

I’ve had a lot of different coaches and mentors. A tip would be find different people who can help you throughout different aspects of your life. For me, a few tidbits that have been helpful for me, a coach from one of my accelerators told, we were trying to figure out what to do about student loan shutdowns, and they were like, figure out what to do now. Don’t think about, okay, in three months things are going to change, which was really great advice given that student loan costs lasted for three years.

Another one of my mentors for anyone who’s in management, his number one tip for me was, when you’re first becoming a manager, make sure you give feedback and give it often

S.K. Lee:

Great advice. It’s harder to do for most early managers than expected. Baat, advice

Baat Enosh:

Between the balance of execution and creating an enrolled environment, at least I had a bias towards execution and run fast without bringing everyone along. And I’ll give a shout out to my ex-boss, Eileen Fagan, who is the one who taught me how to make sure everyone is along to the ride, otherwise execution’s going to fall in its face.

S.K. Lee:

I love it. Love it, love it. Okay. My one piece of advice is surround yourself with brilliant women like this who both inspire and also challenge the way that you think about the world. I’m S.K. You can find me on LinkedIn or my website in my profile. And just really quickly, can we iterate that your names and your companies,

Iliana Montauk:

Ileana Montauk from Manara, and our website is www.manara.tech.

Pamela Martinez

Pamela Martinez, Snowball Wealth. Our website is www.snowballwealth.com.

Baat Enosh:

I’m Baat Enosh from Nia Growth and our website is www.niagrowth.com.

Angie Chang:

I’m curious, what is the one thing that we could do as fans of your companies to help support you, or your business?

Iliana Montauk:

Follow us on social media and re-share some of the things that you see there that inspire you.

Angie Chang:

And what’s your social / Twitter handle?

Iliana Montauk:

I’ll post it. Actually, LinkedIn works best for us, so I’ll share that.

S.K. Lee:

Any asks?

Baat Enosh:

I saw we had some questions, but,

S.K. Lee:

Oh, do we have some questions? Let me see.

Baat Enosh:

Yes, there were three.

S.K. Lee:

Okay. Baat, if you have it off the top of your head, can you repeat the question that you find?

Baat Enosh:

What early setbacks in your career later gave you an advantage?

S.K. Lee:

Great. What early setbacks in your career leader gave you an advantage as a leader? Awesome qestion. One of you want to tackle that.

Iliana Montauk:

I can jump in and just say that I had no idea what I wanted to do, and I switched jobs every seven months for the first few years of my career, I went to Google, it wasn’t the right fit for me. I couldn’t see myself there.

I went to management consulting. I was gone within six months, I actually almost got fired, ended up not getting fired, but by then had thought it was going in that direction. I had realized it wasn’t for me, but I think when that happens, you just have to trust that ultimately your resume is telling a story, and it doesn’t mean that you aren’t an incredibly capable person. It just means that you haven’t quite yet found the fit, and maybe you’re forcing yourself to go down a path that you thought you were supposed to go down, but that wasn’t really meant for you.

Pamela Martinez:

Yeah. I can go quickly. I quit my first job out of school. I was a PM and I was in this weird spot of, I had too little experience to get hired as a PM somewhere else, so I had to switch back into engineering role, and I’m so happy that I did that. At the time, I was really stressed about making the switch, but not being able to get that PM job kind of led me to where I am today.

S.K. Lee:

Pamela, one thing that you said earlier that was really resonant with me is, “I was always the kind of youngest or only woman in the room quite often” and all those many years of trying to own that space, find power in that space, helped me to be able to hold space later on as a leader in a way that I could feel confident in a really non-diverse or diverse room, and then be able to recognize it when that was happening around me.

Years of feeling like the odd woman out, a weirdo, a whatever, actually became a really important part of my leadership style later on. All right. I don’t want to go over time. Angie, how are we doing? I think we ran over

Angie Chang:

We ran over time, but it’s okay. We’re starting network now in the lounge. It’s okay. You have the time to sit here and chat and answer questions. We can do that.

S.K. Lee:

Okay, great. Yeah, I have a few more minutes if anyone has questions. I don’t see any yet in the group. I’m going to go ahead. Oh, did you pop another question up?

Angie Chang:

I didn’t do that.

S.K. Lee:

What tips do you have on building relationships remotely? Okay, great. Yeah, Pamela, you mentioned that earlier that you had to learn how to do that, and also you too, Baat, what did you learn that does actually work in this sort of remote world?

Baat Enosh:

Pamela, you go.

Pamela Martinez:

I would say going beyond the small talk is valuable and also being proactive, setting up, especially if you’re at a company, setting up one-on-ones with people reaching out to people, trying to get to know them on a more genuine level. If where these people live and you happen to travel there or be in a nearby setting as them making the effort to try to meet them in person if you can.

baat Enosh:

Absolutely. I don’t have much more of that than that, but it’s yet to be cracked fully. It’s hard, especially with new people.

Iliana Montauk:

I’ll share a few more. We did iterate if you’d like to and if we have time..

One thing I would say is view this as anything else that you’re doing as an entrepreneur. Iterate, iterate, iterate. Don’t think you’re going to nail it the first time, but also don’t give up when you don’t nail it. For instance, at Manara, we’ve iterated on the cadences of various things we have tried and we’ve landed for instance on a 30 minute, once a month fun all hands that we kind of expect everyone to be at. And we have my EA running it because I never have time think through what the agenda’s going to be and how we’re going to actually have fun together. But we do that now and that’s after five different iterations.

We do an offsite in Istanbul at least once a year, and we found that it’s incredibly valuable and it just has to happen, and once you finally have done it once, then you know how to do it and you can replicate it easily.

S.K. Lee:

Intentional design of in-person time. I’ve seen a lot of my founders and leaders do one minute of connection or humor at the start of a call, one minute reflection at the end, and it’s literally two minutes on in total for a meeting, a team meeting that can make a huge difference, centered around three things – movement, music, or mindfulness. It’s like a one minute meditation, dance, music. Anyway, there’s lots of creative things you can do that make a big difference.

Angie Chang:

Well, thank you so much all for being on the panel. I love entrepreneurship. I wish we had more of this entrepreneurship content, but most of the day it was engineering and product. This is my favorite. I’m like, yes, companies, small businesses, women starting them. Thank you so much for being here and being the one non-engineering session, but I was really happy to have you and yeah, we will follow you on social media and support however we can. Thank you.

S.K. Lee:

Alright, good luck everyone. Wonderful to see you. Thank you.

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“Breaking Barriers: How To Lift As You Climb”: Monica Bajaj with Okta (Video + Transcript)

In this ELEVATE session, Monica Bajaj (Vice President, Engineering, Developer Experience, Okta) speaks about the unique challenges and opportunities faced by women aspiring to senior roles. She shares the 5C framework to help you break your own barriers and lift others up as you climb.

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Monica Bajaj ELEVATE build connections unlock hidden opportunities mentorship collaboration supportive communities

Monica Bajaj:

Good morning everyone. Happy International Women’s Day. And what a great honor to kick off the day and be a part of Girl Geek X Conference Elevate. Thank you. Thank you, Angie for reaching out, and it’s great to be a part of the conference today here. Before we formally kick off the session, on a personal note, I want to reflect something. I’m here today inspired by the women who came before me and motivated by the incredible women around me, my mom, my daughter, women at work, and many others.

Well, the topic says it all, Breaking The Barriers – How To Lift As You Climb. Now each of this can be a topic on its own, and I would like to ask everyone who is watching this, what are your biggest barriers that you are experiencing at the moment? Please drop in the chat. Well, each of us have dealt with barriers in our lives during our own moments.

How we fight through these barriers is really the key. Our internal barriers, these are our own barriers, the ones that are all under our control and can be resolved if we are self-aware of them and work towards them. These barriers include our self-limiting beliefs, doubting our own voice, imposter syndrome, trying to be a perfectionist, sometimes lack of self-advocacy and limiting ourselves to our comfort zones.

But we also have external barriers, and these are the barriers that exist around us in the organizations at home that continue to be blockers for our growth and support. These are the barriers that exist as institutional mindsets, such as gender bias, stereotyping, social barriers like microaggressions, structural barriers like getting access to the stretched assignments, and limited access to establish networks. Sometimes lack of inclusivity as well.

But when these barriers are shattered, a remarkable transformation unfolds. The world opens with unlimited possibilities. Individuals rise to their maximum potential. Talent, creativity, and resilience, they all emerge to forge new pathways to success. But wait, the real magic happens when you continue to lift as you climb.

We always imagine that careers can be a linear progression like this as we travel up, get new roles, new titles, and everything else. But the reality is it looks something like this. How do we make this journey so smooth, fun, and satisfying as we rise in our careers?

Today I’m going to take you through a five C framework of leadership, which emphasizes the act of helping each other, climbing that ladder of success, our personal growth, more inclusive, and more collaborative approach to guiding others.

Now, the difference between leadership and leadership, let me touch a bit on that. Leadership focuses on guiding and directing towards a common goal, focuses on decision-making, focuses on setting direction and achieving the results. While leadership embodies a transformative approach to leadership, which is rooted in fostering growth, providing empowerment, and looking for collective success. It helps creating a culture of mutual support and growth, and that’s the beauty when we all come together. Let’s dig deeper into each of these facets. What does it mean?

Let’s talk about connect. Connections are the pathways to new horizons leading to success and fulfillment. Reaching the top in your career is by no means a solo endeavor. It is the power of connections. I see connections as the rungs on the ladder, the ropes that lift others up, and the safety nets that support during unexpected fails.

Connections are the key and they lead to collective success. It is equally important to build genuine connections because they unlock the doors to hidden opportunities, mentorship, collaboration, and, most importantly, they build supportive communities where individuals can lift each other up.

Let me tell you a story. I’m a part of an organization, SheTO, which focuses on women in engineering leadership. Two years back, I was introduced by a connection and I played my little part. We were 50 members at that time. I played my little part, connected with other women, brought them in SheTO like everybody else did. And today we are over 3000 members. And every day is an impactful day in that community.

Fostering these connections, relationships beyond individual achievements and accolades is the true essence of progress. The connections we forge and the support we extend to each other. Cultivating genuine relationship is totally built on trust, empathy, and mutual respect, and it’s more of a networking tactic as well. My call to action is to prioritize your connection in your own lives and build them professionally and personally.

The second one is challenge. Embracing challenge emerges as a catalyst for growth and transformation. Challenges present opportunities, not only to test your own limits, but also to lift those around us. We have all navigated through the complexities of our professional journey, but what keeps us going? Resilience, grit, and creativity. I came to US almost 27 years back. It was a big bold decision I took. When I took the first flight ever in my life, moving across the continents with nothing in the pocket.

And looking back, those obstacles were not barriers, but they paved the stepping stones to success for me. So lifting others up while ascending your own career is a noble pursuit, but it doesn’t come without its own challenges. It requires a strategic between supporting others and pushing yourself forward. And remember, the mountain is vast and there is room for everyone at the summit.

My call to action to you all is let’s climb together, support each other’s ascent and reach top as a collective force.

The third one is coach. Coaching is a pivotal tool for empowerment and growth. Reaching the top of your career is not just about your personal achievements, it’s about empowering everyone along the way. Here is where the role of mentorship and coaching comes into play. It unlocks the potential.

A good coach acts as a mirror, helps individuals identify their strengths and weaknesses. By investing in the development of others, you are cultivating a culture of continuous learning and collaboration. And where each individual’s success is a part of the collective journey. A story to tell. My call to action to you all is let’s create a ripple effect of learning and empowering others to believe in themselves.

The next one is captivate. Now in the pursuit of lifting others. As you climb in your career, the ability to captivate emerges as a powerful tool for inspiration and influence. Keeping aside the traditional leadership mechanics, captivating is a whole different game. It sparse curiosity, it ignites passion for something you really, really care, with your experiences and of all experiences together and insights, we all have an opportunity to captivate and draw others into a shared vision of possibilities and potential.

As we ascend in our careers, the transformative power of captivating and the storytelling can inspire many, many people around us, and help them reach the heights they want to. When you captivate, you are not elevating just yourself, but you’re elevating many others around you and becoming that catalyst for change. Let’s captivate, not compete. Together, we can create a masterpiece for success.

And finally, my favorite part, a journey can never be [inaudible 00:11:26] until there are moments of celebrations. In this journey of lifting others, as you climb in your career, celebration is an important facet that brings camaraderie, resilience, and collective success. Every triumph, big or small, it needs to be cherished, it needs to be honored, and it builds a culture of appreciation, recognition, whether it’s in your personal, professional, or community network.

Let’s fuel that collective motivation. Witness the genuine celebration for the achievements, ignites a spark of inspiration in many others, and help them push reach to their personal goals. It helps in building unwavering trust. When you celebrate each other’s wins, it fosters a culture of trust, vulnerability, making the journey a shared experience and not a lonely climb.

The last one is amplifying the effect. By celebrating every milestone, every single milestone, you magnify the positive impact of your efforts, inspiring others to join the chorus of shared success. Remember, success is never a zero sum game. Lifting others does not diminish your own victory. In fact, it enriches it. As you climb, celebrate those victories around you. I cannot emphasize more on this.

Before I leave. Here are a few things I would like all of us to take with us. Reach out, connect, and climb together. Support each other. Look around you and see how you can help them. And where do you need help? Do not hesitate to do that. So reach at the top with a collective force.

Number two, create that ripple effect of learning and empowering each other to believe in themselves. And the last one, which I always keep in my mind and my heart, keep the drawbridge down, walk down it, stand beside the woman at its base and walk back up with her to where you are and cheer her on as she advances beyond you.

Open the doors for her, whether she’s aware of it or not, and without condition, knowing in your own heart that her success is a product of yours. Then sit back and enjoy the multiplier effect. I hope you enjoyed the five C’s, and I hope you all have taken some actions for this month and many other months throughout the year to follow up. Thank you.

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“The New Rules Of Executive Presence: Inclusivity As Leadership Skill”: Misty Gaither (Indeed) & Paria Rajai (ModelExpand) (Video + Transcript)

In this ELEVATE session, Misty Gaither (Indeed Vice President & Global Head of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belong) and Paria Rajai (ModelExpand CEO & Founder) speak about being inspired by new research from economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett that shows the criteria for leadership have shifted in the last decade.

While confidence and decisiveness continue to be important, recent studies highlight the significance of inclusiveness — showing respect for others, actively listening, and embodying authenticity — as top valued factor for executive presence.

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Misty Gaither ELEVATE evolution of leadership requires us to create spaces where people feel comfortable

Transcript of ELEVATE Session:

Paria Rajai:

Yes, thanks Angie. And hi, everybody. Happy International Women’s Day. We’re so excited to be here with all of you. What we’re going to discuss today, as Angie mentioned, is executive presence in the modern era, the rising importance of inclusivity as a leadership skill. It’s something we’ve definitely been seeing.

What we thought we’d do is we’d start off with introductions, and then share a little bit about really the impetus for this conversation and the study around it. And then really have a conversation with the hope that you’ll all lead with practical skills on how you can embed inclusive leadership into your leadership skills. If you’re a budding leader, how can you start to grow this skill a little bit more? W’re really excited to get started. We can kick it off with introductions. Misty, if you want to start off and to make things a little fun, as you introduce yourself, let us know what was your first or last concert.

Misty Gaither:

I will do that. Hi, everyone. My name is Misty Gaither. I’m so happy to be here. My pronouns are she/her, and I’ll give an accessibility disclosure. I’m a Black woman, my hair is to the back off of my face, I have on a bold lip, a black shirt with a tan sweater, and my background is white.

I’m currently the Vice President of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging at Indeed. We are the world’s leading job search engine and we are helping job seekers in a ton of countries. Over 350 million unique job seekers use our site every single day. My first concert was actually MC Hammer and I wore Hammer pants according to my mom. And just for fun, my last concert was the Tony! Toni! Toné! Reunion tour, Raphael Saadiq, revisits Tony! Toni! Toné! Back over to you Paria.

Paria Rajai:

Love it. That sounds so fun. My name is Paria Rajai and my pronouns are she/her and I’m the CEO of ModelExpand, which is a strategic workplace advisory firm. We work a lot, especially with tech companies around how do you update, how you hire, how you keep people given the modern workforce. We work a lot with lots with DEI teams, HR and people teams and talent acquisition teams as well. We’ve worked with companies like Udemy, Twitch, Lucasfilm, I mean so many tech companies.

I’m really excited to have this conversation and bring in our vantage point around having the front seat of seeing how leadership has evolved in a lot of these different organizations. And I’m also wearing a cream sweater, we did not coordinate. I have a white background, long black hair, smaller hoop earrings, but I think there’s definitely a lot of similarities in terms of our outfits today, but we didn’t plan that.

All right, so yes, please feel free to also chime in during the chat. We’ll take a look at everything you put in, try to answer questions and just would love to have you all engage in the conversation as well because I know there’s a lot of incredible leaders watching here today. And yeah, let us know your first and last concert. My first concert was Boyz II Men, Tevin Campbell and Babyface. I often say I peaked pretty early because I don’t know how you beat that. Although my last concert was also Usher, so I just have really good [inaudible] I know-

Misty Gaither:

That was a good one. That was a good one.

Paria Rajai:

All right. And we got Diana Ross, “[inaudible] Stevie Wonder when I was 10.” That is incredible. That is really fantastic. Okay, well let’s get started.

I’m really excited to talk about this because it’s based on a study that was published by Economist Sylvia Hewlett and what she looked at was what does executive presence mean today? What’s especially fascinating is she did the same study 10 years ago. What continues to be valued for executive presence and what’s new, what’s different? What are we valuing now that we didn’t before?

What she found was that confidence and decisiveness continued to be valued in terms of what motivates for executive presence. But what was new this year was inclusive leadership and that wasn’t even on the radar 10 years ago, and all of a sudden it’s one of the top factors that we think about when we think of executive presence.

It’s really fascinating the shift in just a decade. And obviously there’s so many different factors she mentioned. She included the impact of Gen Z coming into the workforce. Social movements like Black Lives Matter, [inaudible] pandemic. I mean there’s so many different factors that have really changed the landscape in terms of what motivates teams and what we want from our leaders.

ne quick note, the way she defined inclusive leadership was showing respect for your team and to each other, modeling authenticity and being real, and then listening to learn. All of this, especially for some older institutions is very different. It’s definitely a shift in how we’ve been thinking and honoring about executive presence. But I want to pause there. Misty, anything resonate when you think about the study and that work?

Misty Gaither:

Yeah, it definitely is resonating and it tracks with a lot of the research that we’ve seen and research and studies that we’ve also conducted at Indeed. The other piece is the connection to just wellbeing and employee engagement and having a leader that is actually displaying more empathy, authenticity. Listening to actually learn because everyone can always learn no matter what position you hold, what seat you occupy is very different than having more of a top-down style where everything is done in this office that’s like a secret.

It’s exciting to see what she’s outlined. And I think we talked about this when we connected, but things that were categorized as soft skills and more strengths that are connected to women and folks with underrepresented genders are now things that are critical in terms of what it means to have executive presence, what it means to be a leader in the current time that we’re in today. This is really exciting information.

Paria Rajai:

Yes. And I know you work with a lot of leaders. In the goal of making our conversation really practical, is there a leader that you’ve seen exemplify this and what do they do?

Misty Gaither:

Absolutely. I am really fortunate to work for a woman that is on Forbes, one of the most powerful women in leadership. My CEO is phenomenal and I see it every single day. If I take a step back and thinking about what executive presence used to look like, I spent the majority of my career working in consumer packaged goods. I worked for Big Tobacco and then I worked in banking for JP Morgan Chase, so executive presence used to look like khaki pants, a navy blazer with the gold buttons. It didn’t look like what it looks like today.

My direct leader is a Black queer woman, does not have a college degree and she shares that, so I’m comfortable sharing that with you all here because that also shows just the vulnerability and the authenticity. How she communicates with me, really listening to my perspective, how she checks in especially in a world that is so hard. Literally I tell my team, “The world is like a dumpster fire on a NASCAR racetrack and I don’t know that we’re getting off anytime soon.”

It’s been really helpful to have someone who can see the body language because we do so much through Zoom right now and will take a pause and just say, “Well, how are you? Or how well are you doing?” It’s not just my one-to-one interactions with her, it’s also how I see her do that across the board. Also modeling, taking time to rest, taking time away from work I think is also a part of this inclusive leadership, demonstrating wellness and wellbeing.

Then I’ll just move over really quickly to my CEO. My CEO, Chris Himes, phenomenal person to work with and work for, especially in this space. Our mission at Indeed is to help people get jobs. I couldn’t have landed at a better place to do diversity work because it’s integral to our mission. He is so sincere when he’s speaking to any and everyone, he is a regular guy, you will see him in the office buildings having lunch, having conversations.

One thing in particular that he does that is something that can be taken back to organizations as a recommendation is really look at the composition of the org and say, even if I do Q&As, whose voices are getting drowned out by the majority, who am I not hearing from? So we have a woman leaders I’m listening tour with him, so VPs and above, we meet with him on a monthly basis. If you are underrepresented racial ethnic minority, we meet with him on a monthly basis.

When we looked at experiences of women and underrepresented genders, we found that no matter what marginalized group, whether it’s veterans, parents and caregivers, people with disabilities, unfortunately Black women fare at the worst when we looked at the data. He does a listening tour with Black women at Indeed. I’m giving you all tangible examples because that’s been my experience and I’ve been at Indeed for almost five years of how I’ve experienced inclusive leadership, how I’ve seen it play out for others in addition to myself.

Paria Rajai:

I feel like something that comes out for me is just he’s so intentional and so mindful about what voices are coming into the conversation and just actively listening.

Misty Gaither:

Exactly. I wanted to ask you a question as well about your experience with this. What are some ways that leaders can actually incorporate inclusivity in their daily management?

Paria Rajai:

Yeah, I love this question. We work a lot with people managers and training and oftentimes we hear things like, “My team’s not engaged or how do I keep them motivated?” It’s really interesting because we have to teach them inclusive leadership skills because it’s not natural for… Your CEO sounds incredible and sounds like an incredible model. I guess when people bring in ModelExpand, they don’t have that kind of amazing ecosystem. It is definitely a learning curve. A few things, there’s leaders in this room.

One of the things you could do is assign someone else to conduct the meeting. If you’re having meetings, weekly meetings, project meetings, it can be really almost natural to want to just start leading the whole thing and feel the need to do that actually.

But how we’re shifting is taking some time to think about who else on the team could lead this part of the meeting? Maybe you can rotate leadership, someone leading every week. And that does two things. One is it actually models you stepping down and having someone else step up, so there’s a power dynamic that shifts that you’re welcoming.

Then secondly, it gives someone on your team an opportunity to show and build their leadership skills. It’s a small step, but it can be a powerful one that we’ve seen. And then secondly that we’ve seen is that modeling and querying before advocacy.

When someone on your team shares an idea, instead of immediately coming in with your position, take a minute, listen, sometimes we encourage leaders, hit the mute button so that there’s that physical step that’ll stop you from immediately jumping in.

But take some time to listen, to ask questions, especially if it’s a way that you wouldn’t normally go after a solution. You’ll see oftentimes when you show curiosity, you do learn from your team and it is probably a different way than you’ve been doing things for a very long time. And again, it models within the team that when people have differing opinions, we don’t immediately bring in our own, we actually take the time to hear others and learn it, learn what’s coming up for them.

Again, it sounds like Misty, there’s a lot of that naturally at Indeed, which is really fantastic. What we work on is how do you keep that with middle managers, especially with the stress that they have and the pressure that they have and convincing them that this is the way to get your team to be engaged and quite frankly not check out. Those are just a couple things, I don’t know if you want to add anything.

Misty Gaither:

I would just say I want to one, thank you for the compliment. Indeed does a lot of things well. We are far from perfect. We are on journey with everybody on this call. And two things that come up when we talk about just inclusivity, a quote that stands out from a manager at a previous organization is people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. I have carried that with me and that has paid dividends by simply checking in.

And then also a leader’s willingness to just simply say, “I could be wrong and I don’t know.” Those are so powerful and I think it complements what you just laid out when you invite other people and when you pause, and when you are curious and not certain. So sometimes it’s simple things that we can do and I hear my CEO say that, he’s like, “I can be wrong.” He will also tell you he’s good at math. But he was like, “I can be wrong.” And I tell people it shows vulnerability. Leaders are not expected to have all the answers and I think it connects back to what does this modern executive presence look like, versus it being the old school way and having to know everything.

Paria Rajai:

I love that. I think it also models that growth mindset that I know we’ve heard a lot about, but it is a big shift of being able to say, “This is what I’m thinking, but I know there’s other options or I’m open to learning,” versus this even a decade ago in the study where it feels like you have to know everything. You have to show that you’re the best and not show any mistakes. That is a real shift, especially for some industries or just even for some managers who have been operating a certain way for so long and now all of a sudden 2024, we’re asking them to be vulnerable, to be inclusive. And it’s very counter to even the models they probably had growing into their career.

One thing I would add to is showing empathy. I think you’ve touched on that and that is also a buzzword, but some examples… I know Misty, you and I were talking about this. But we talking to a woman, she was in Europe, this is a perfect example. She was in Europe at the end of her vacation and her boss called her and said… And the company’s going through a hard time and she is an executive. And he said, “Look, Allie, I know that…” Oh no, he just said, “Allie, we have these numbers, we have to turn them in. I don’t trust them. Can you take a look at it? I want you to be in beast mode and get it done. Let’s go.”

That was the tone he had and he hung up the phone and she didn’t feel good. She got the task done. But full transparency, she cried a little bit and she just didn’t feel good and got it done. Whereas if he had just approached it with empathy with just a few lines of, “Hey Al, I know you’re in the middle of your vacation. It’s in the middle of the night. I’m sorry to ask this. Is there any way you could help with this?”

And, just showing compassion. Then we see that the answer and the result is so much more of a team player when someone’s being seen, like you said, for who they are and showing that you care, they’ll come back and give you that as well. Again, it’s a different approach, but it is effective. And showing that empathy and just holding that space is really powerful.

Misty Gaither:

I know we have a question that we have to move to, but the other thing, I don’t think we’ve said the word psychological safety and how that also connects and ties into one, the story that you just shared and then also this new executive presence that’s expected.

I think so many leaders that in just the intergenerational workforce that we have, they’re like, “Psychological safety, you’re here to do a job. We don’t really care about everything else.” And candidly, I was one of those leaders when I was in a different industry, it was like, “Check your problems at the door.”

The evolution of leadership requires us to create spaces where people feel comfortable expressing what’s not working well for them. And if we have more of that, what leaders are also finding and there’s more data and empirical evidence that shows when you actually don’t have psychological safety, you are impacting the part of the person’s brain that’s making you money

Leaders are now having to connect the empathy, the compassion, the conversation, the transparency with revenue and innovation and competitiveness. And that’s going to be a long journey because we are dismantling years of practices that are no longer serving the current workforce. You can tell we’re both passionate about this, so we’re probably need to move on before we run out of time. Sorry.

Paria Rajai:

No, that’s great. One, I think the other thing that’s important to talk about is for some people they don’t have that environment. Their leadership, we’re talking about egalitarian approach or more inclusive approach. What is your advice for folks who don’t have that valued within the leadership within their own company? It’s just on a dynamic that exists, any advice you have there?

Misty Gaither:

My advice, and I know budgets are constrained for many people, but there is a tool that actually we implemented a new vendor named Apperian and my entire team took the profile assessment so we can just learn the best ways to work with one another. Part of it is one, see if you can get that tool, at least do a demo of it so you can actually show some proof points as to how that can be transformative. If you needed to do something let’s say tomorrow, I would say demonstrate what you need in an environment that is still status-driven versus egalitarian. When we use the Apperian tool, egalitarian versus status was one of the focused areas along with interdependent versus independent, direct versus indirect, risk versus certainty. And if you’re seeking more context, which if you have an egalitarian style, you want to understand the why behind an approach.

Maybe you can say something to your status-driven leader or team lead, you can say, “Hey, fully understanding the issue or problem we’re trying to solve is actually really helpful for how I’m going to determine my approach.” Hopefully people will see that as an invitation to explain the why and provide more context if they were just telling you to go and do a task. It also, you can say, “I really want to determine what level of priority this is because it sounds like it might be competing.” Then that also is another way to help get some more context, if you have a person that doesn’t just do that naturally.

Another thing you can do is ask questions. An interactive style is one that is really enjoyed by folks that have egalitarian styles. Ask questions during presentations. Appropriate, not to be too disruptive, but just to understand more.

I would say use your one-on-ones. Hopefully you’re having them weekly. That is a driver of engagement and wellbeing as well. To have conversations to connect to try and understand how you might be able to influence from whatever seat you’re in and find folks who are also egalitarian at your company to understand what are some things that you all can do that might resonate with your leader and what makes sense for the culture that you’re currently in. I so appreciate that. Paria, did you have anything you wanted to add?

Paria Rajai:

No, I did see a question about the name of the tool, if you want to put that into the chat box.

Misty Gaither:

I can drop it in the chat. I guess if we want to continue talking about just inclusive leadership, I’m curious because you work with a ton of different companies with ModelExpand, how have you seen inclusive leadership be valued with companies? Do you have any strong examples or case studies?

Paria Rajai:

Yeah, so one of my favorite partners that we have, they’re a video game streaming, and their head of talent acquisition said, “Look, we’re about to double our hiring.” Essentially we have created a culture that is collaborative, that is inclusive, especially in terms of leadership style and we don’t want to lose that because we’re hiring so fast. You can lose that, all of a sudden your culture changes.

What we talked about with him is creating inclusion as a competency for leaders. We built a set of questions. We define the competency, set up questions, create a rubric on how do you measure the answers in an interview for a leader. And we did a pilot of this and it was really powerful.

The pilot showed 90% found it effective in measuring inclusive leadership and the candidates that they were interviewing. But a secondary win was that it actually helped interviewers better understand inclusive leadership even for themselves and how to model it. It was even more effective than training. It was constantly enforced every time they’re looking to hire.

It really sent a signal throughout the company that this is so important in terms of how we lead that as we bring people on, we want this to be part of their competency. That was a huge success and a big part of that was the head of talent acquisitions said, “I want to make this structurally part of how we do things so we proactively don’t lose this part of our culture.”

Misty Gaither:

Thank you. I think that’s a really good example of just like to your point, proactively creating an environment that is more conducive for those of us who are on the margins and don’t always see ourselves reflected. I think so much of how we approach anything related to inclusion is always reactive.

I think we can maybe move into just some broader discussions. And a reminder if you have questions you can throw them in the chat, we’ve appreciated seeing the emoji responses.

We’ve left a little time at the end to hear from all of you, but we can just have a bit of a conversation and let them in as if they’re eavesdropping on our discussion and we can share some best practices of how can this discussion have an overall positive implication for gender representation in leadership, this approach. You want to take a stab at that first and then I can follow up?

Paria Rajai:

Yeah, I think the huge positive here is that people do have different approaches for leadership and sometimes it’s a bit more collaborative and because of executive presence and what we value there is shifting, it’s creating a wider net in terms of what we honor and what motivates and it creates a value that I think wasn’t there 10 years ago.

For gender representation especially, it’s creating a space and showing data that people may have different styles and it’s probably different from how we’ve been doing things and it’s effective. I think it’s a lot of positive momentum. It’s going to help with positive momentum.

Misty Gaither:

Yeah, definitely. And I think that it’s an expectation. We need to actually just do things all together different, and we haven’t really dove down into the topic around parents and caregivers. I know you have a little one and how that actually changes your experience at work and the things that are required and how it just creates better outcomes when you have the perspectives of women that are involved and women who are not timid. And this is Girl Geek. So really specifically women in technology, in technical roles, there are enough of us in HR and in legal and marketing. Getting up into the ranks of senior leadership is really, really something that can change by having this conversation. We did get some questions in the Q&A, so I clicked the little tab- [inaudible]

Paria Rajai:


Misty Gaither:

A question – Reagan saying, “My current CEO is a older straight white man, but he seems open to DEAI initiatives, though he seems to mostly approach them as a thought experiment and not something that requires more immediate action and change. Any advice to spur change?”

In the four minutes that we have, and we have another question from Julie, I will drop my CEO’s name into the chat because I think he is a great example of someone who people can model themselves after. I would just try and approach it… It’s very uncomfortable because I don’t know that he’s ever had to do this before. I would say speak the language that your CEO speaks.

What I mean by that is we want people to care the way that we care because we have the experience. But if he is driven by revenue, by innovation, connect the dots that way for him. You can also make recommendations of books that you’re reading that might not be on his bookcase. That’s also something my CEO has done and he has published his book list, which you’ll see it and it runs a gamut of people from all different backgrounds. I’ll turn it over to you to see if you have anything you want to add, so we can get to Julie’s question.

Paria Rajai:

Yeah, I’m really aligned in terms of finding out what motivates them. For example, we do training with hiring managers. Yes, they care about inclusive hiring. They care a lot more about making great hiring decisions. We know that’s the same thing because if you reduce bias, you improve quality hiring decisions.

We reframe it with the education around DEI and how it benefits them and being able to build a really great team, so as much as you can tie in… I would say small wins are important. Sometimes when you have someone like that, try to create a small win to create trust with them and then go from there. It’s going to be hard to do a lot, but do a few small wins, show them the value of those and build that trust with that person would be some of my advice there.

Misty Gaither:

Awesome. You want to read the one from Julie before we close- [inaudible]

Paria Rajai:

Yes. Julie says, “Are there any books, podcasts or media that folks would recommend to read and pass along? I’ve been starting book clubs with some coworkers and would love to have one that we can create some conversations.” Gosh, there’s so many good things. Anything come up for you, Misty?

Misty Gaither:

Yeah, actually a couple. Podcasts that I listen to, Code Switch is one that I listen to and absolutely love. The My Taught You podcast, and I’ll drop them in the chat as quickly as I can, by Myleik Teele. And then a book is Professional Troublemaker by Luvvie Ajayi Jones, very applicable in the workplace on how you can get into good trouble and actually drive change from wherever you sit in the organization. Anything come up for you? Any favorites?

Paria Rajai:

Yeah, I’m a little biased, but we do send out a monthly newsletter and it’s got a lot of great studies and snippets and things that have been effective right now. I think if you sign up, it’s at the bottom of the website. You’ll get that every month. And it’s a lot of good talking points that you could have with your coworkers in terms of what’s coming up in the workplace in DEI. So that is one. And then… Okay, I think we’re at time. I want to take Jenny’s question, but…

Misty Gaither:

Let’s… I can stay on if we have one more.

Angie Chang:

We have to move to the next- [inaudible]

Misty Gaither:

Where is it… [inaudible]

Angie Chang:

I thank you so much for all of your expertise on this important topic and we’ll see you in the next session. Bye.

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“Trailblazing Women In AI – Perspectives From Product Innovation, Startups, Chips, & Beyond”: Gabriela de Queiroz (Microsoft), Julie Shin Choi (Cerebras Systems), (Savita Kini (Cisco), Lamya Alaoui (Hala Systems) (Video + Transcript)

In this ELEVATE session, AI trailblazers Julie Shin Choi (Cerebras Systems SVP & Chief Marketing Officer), Savita Kini (Cisco Director of Product, Speech & Video AI), Gabriela de Queiroz (Microsoft Director of AI), and Lamya Alaoui (Hala Systems Chief People Officer) discuss everything from their careers to staying up-to-date on the latest in AI research, AI ethics & more.

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Julie Choi ELEVATE Governance is important building ai

Transcript of ELEVATE Session:

Lamya Alaoui:

Thank you so much, Sukrutha. We’re going to do it family style where I would hand the mic to each one of our panelists to get acquainted with our audience, and from there we will have a discussion about AI and their experiences doing this for as long as they have done it. I’ll start with Gabriela, would you mind just quick intro, less than 30 seconds and then you can hand it to somebody else?

Gabriela de Queiroz:

Absolutely. Pleasure to be here. My name is Gabriela de Queiroz. I’m a Director of AI at Microsoft. More specifically, I work with startups, doing a lot of engagement with them, talking to them about Microsoft product and anything that it’s around AI. And I’m so excited to be here today. We’ll be talking more about AI and the fun stuff and I’ll pass to Julie.

Julie Shin Choi:

Hi everyone. I’m Julie Choi, and I am the CMO at Cerebras Systems. We are the makers of the largest AI chip in the world. And I’m excited to be here today. Many thanks to Girl Geek X and Elevate for bringing us together.

Savita Kini:

Hi, I’m Savita. I’m Director for Speech and Video Technologies here at Cisco. Many thanks to Girl Geek and ELEVATE for inviting us to this panel. Very excited to be here. Look forward to sharing my experience, how I got into this gigs.

Lamya Alaoui:

Okay, thank you everyone. My first question is for the three of you, we’re going to go through a journey and explore different aspects, but the first question is, can you share a pivotal moment in your career that convinced you of the potential of AI and also how do you stay updated? Savita, I will start with you.

Savita Kini:

Yeah, thank you. There is not one pivotal moment. I’ve been in the enterprise tech space for now over 20 years. That started my journey in networking, moved into solutions healthcare. I also did field roles in Singapore, so I had a global experience. When I moved back here to the Bay Area, I saw all these different forums with cloud and big data, and slowly I started seeing AI come up in some of these sessions.

I had done my undergrad in double E, where I actually had done a research paper in neural, networks, that’s 20 plus years ago. It was so tiny and so simple. And now with all the big data available I could that the trend was something to this new technology because data was available.

I wouldn’t say it was one pivotal moment, it was more like I saw that, “Oh, this is the bigger trend. It’s not the big data, it’s not the cloud. It’s really what we do once you have the data.” To me it was more about looking at what application AI will bring, let’s say, in the IoT space or in collaboration.

I would say it was more a journey of discovery to see what’s the new inflection point. It was probably around 2018, 2019 when I felt that that’s where the new trend is going. In terms of how do I get myself updated, I use podcasts, LinkedIn, a lot of reading, newsletters.

There’s so much information available there, I think there’s a overload of information. It’s more about picking who you listen to, who feels authentic to you and how it applies to your work and what you are doing because it can be too much of an information overload. Maybe Julie, you want to take up?

Julie Shin Choi:

Oh, sure, yeah. The pivotal moment in my career that convinced me of the potential of AI was back in 2015. I was hired to do product marketing at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and my specialty was developer marketing, so developer platforms, up to that point, it was APIs, web services for mobile app development, social apps, Firefox, that kind of thing.

But in 2015 there was a clear shift, it was a movement towards machine learning. As many of you may remember, and maybe not, but 2015 was the first year that Google repositioned itself from being a search company to a machine learning company, and 2015 was probably one of the first years where Nvidia started calling itself a deep learning company.

As I was just working on marketing this platform at HPE, lo and behold, what it was, was it was a machine learning platform as a service with over 70 APIs for functions like speech-to-text, object character recognition, sentiment analysis, emotion detection, all of these little things, these machine learning functions.

What I was really impacted by was, how excited developers were, and I remember launching this thing called Haven OnDemand, which was quickly killed about nine months later, but we got to launch it, and even Jim Cramer, Mad Money, CNN, he picked it up, he’s like, “Wow, HPE launched this machine learning thing.” This was back in 2015, and I knew there was just something very special happening.

As far as how I stay up to date, luckily since I’ve been working in the space for about eight years or nine years now, a lot of my best friends work in the domain, so I just call and we chat and catch up.

Gabriela de Queiroz:

Awesome. I love the whole history, Julie, how things are evolving. For me it was similar to both a few, there was not a single pivotal moment that convinced me. It was a gradual move throughout my career journey, so began with statistics and then moved toward ML, machine learning and AI.

This transition was more like a natural progression where I was one step building on the last, moving from the more foundation principle of statistics to a more dynamic and adaptable approach of ML, and then now finally to this more broader scope of AI.

What convinced me about AI was not just the technological advancement, but the realization that these tools can be used to solve real problems, problems that before we could not solve. Examples would be improving healthcare diagnostics to enabling more efficient energy use or creating more personalized learning experience, for example.

It’s been this cumulative process where informed by my experience and the gradual impact of AI technologies in various domains. For me, it’s a realization that AI is not just a tool, but this transformative force capable of driving significant advancements and solutions for the future. I feel like it’s very painful to be up-to-date in everything that is happening because there is so much. I don’t remember any other time in my professional life where I’m playing this catch up game every day, and because I work with startups and I’m working in AI, I need to know everything that is happening.

Also, it’s a struggle, how do you balance your full-time job with everything else that you need to know and you are in the meetings all day? Anyway. It’s very chaotic. It’s very hard. What I try to do, I try to leverage a combination of online sources, resources, and in-person events. I follow some people on LinkedIn, Twitter.

I subscribe to some newsletters on Substack where we have people that compile weekly summaries. I go there and then I have a weekly summary, and then for the topics that I’m more interested in, I go and click. The other thing is, I would say the advantage of being in San Francisco is that we have a lot of events, so I take advantage of attending those local events and learning from people as well, which is an amazing resource.

Lamya Alaoui:

Thank you so much. I want to go back because there’s clearly a pattern here when it comes to the amount of information available out there. Savita said the problem is like, “Who do I actually trust to listen to?” There’s also a lot of research.

Savita, my question is for you, in your opinion, what is the next frontier in terms of AI research? Because you also have a background in research. What are the challenges that in our industry we need to overcome to get there? Because there is an insane amount of resources out there.

Savita Kini:

Absolutely. I think most of everybody has been overwhelmed with ChatGPT and the models on the LLM site coming out every day. I’m a multilingual person and I can see Gabriela is multilingual, most of us in this panel are multilingual, english is not our mother tongue. And I feel that this planet has billions of people and so many different languages and they’re not part of this new AI ecosystem.

The next frontier, I’m following people in India who are building up multilingual datasets, speech, as well as transcribed for Indian languages. One of their datasets and their models, they just announced a couple of days ago.

I feel that the next frontier of research, LLM is just the beginning, but really speaking, it’s all about how do we make this technology inclusive and accessible. My dad and mom should be able to communicate in their own language with voice assistance. I don’t think we are there.

Just even a year ago, neither Siri nor Google understood me, even now, my daughter laughs when Siri is not reacting to what I said and she didn’t understand. I think the next frontier is really about multilingual speech-to-speech translation without the transcription, because some of the transcription is also not accurate, to be honest.

When I see some of the English transcription because of our accents, it’s not accurate. I think to me, when we build these massive, much more inclusive speech-to-text, text-to-speech and LLM ecosystems and multilingual languages is when we have really started including everybody. And to me, that’s the real hard next frontier. It’s hard. I don’t think it’s happening.

Gabriela de Queiroz:

Yeah. I’m so glad that you touched on this point because I feel your pain every day on that, either to talk to AI assistant or to reply an email. I’ve been in the US for over a decade and almost every email before I send, I go and check and I would say ChatGPT has been done a tremendous amount of helping me on checking on those emails. Even some features inside Outlook, for example, they have been amazing, but I still think that we are a little bit far from where we want to be in terms of language and the multi-language piece.

Lamya Alaoui:

Okay. I would love for us to explore a little bit more on the societal impact. And my next question is for you Gabriela, because there is definitely, I’m also multilingual person and working on project where there is a necessity to use different languages that are not even on the map for some of them.

Gabriela, my question for you is, in your opinion, what measures can be implemented to ensure that the technology is accessible and beneficial to all segments of society? You touched upon real life applications, but I would love to hear from you regarding what measures can we implement?

Gabriela de Queiroz:

Yeah. That’s a great point. That’s an ongoing problem, especially around technology and not even just AI, I think technology, it is a big problem, how do we make sure that people are aware, they know that those things exist?

Especially around AI, one of the things that struck me in the beginning of the whole AI discussion around discrimination bias, that the majority of those discussions were happening here, especially in the US and Silicon Valley and where the majority of the people that were going to be affected the most were not the people here, are probably the people in the underserved and underrepresented communities.

How do we make sure that they are aware? We need to have a lot of efforts, and one of the efforts that I think is very successful from my experience is creating communities, because that’s how you can reach communities that, they don’t have maybe internet connection, they don’t have access to the resource that we have.

Through communities, through education, making sure that we have open education and open resources, so everybody… And translated to their native language, which is very important. That’s the only way that we can make this more accessible to people.

Lamya Alaoui:

Thank you. My last question on the societal impact is for Julie, and I think everyone in this room is keeping in mind because we work in the AI field about ethics, because we cannot speak about AI without speaking about ethics of it.

Julie, how do you think we should address some of the ethical implication of AI, because there is the inclusivity part, but there is also sometimes the use or dual use of AI? So what are your thoughts on that aspect?

Julie Shin Choi:

Yeah. Governance is just so important when we’re thinking about building AI and really filling the table of people that are involved in everything from data curation, so from the very beginning, from data, preparation, which data? What’s the data looking like? Just from that point all the way to, how are we training the model? How are we interpreting this data and training that model? Like that GPT-3.5, 4 or 5, et cetera, the data to training.

We need governance, we need to make sure that there’s checkpoints along the way. Don’t just wait until you’ve spent a billion dollars to train a model and then find out, “Oops, it’s racist.” You know what I’m saying? We got to do better. We can’t just be rushing to the end, rushing to the convergence.

I do understand, businesses these days are in an arms race to release the next state-of-the-art model, but because we rush and we don’t really take time to fill the table of participants thoughtfully, sometimes we get these models that are just not fair. It starts with setting up your team really thoughtfully, making sure it’s representative of different viewpoints and different backgrounds, different genders, everything.

Then, working together with checkpoints all throughout the way from data to training, to deployment to evaluation, and then just being really rigorous about it. Don’t just rush to tell me it’s state-of-the-art. No way. You do that, then these models are not going to be as scalable for safe global use.

Lamya Alaoui:

Thank you, Julie. I want to be mindful of the time. I want to go back to something that Gabriela said earlier, because you talked about the applications in healthcare. And we’re thinking about the future and how fast it’s evolving. Can you share a little bit of how can current AI technologies support in solving global challenges, maybe climate change, healthcare crisis and so on? Because you’re exposed to startups and I think that talking about healthcare is quite important when it comes to AI.

Gabriela de Queiroz:

Yeah. No, that’s a great point. One of the things that I’ve seen in startups as well, they’re trying to solve specific niches. In terms of healthcare is, let’s just start with the doctor or even making an appointment. Let’s think about that as a patient, how do you go about finding an appointment?

Here, in the US for example, it takes forever for you to get to appointment, for you to get a diagnostic. It takes months because first, you go to your general practitioner and then they go and say, “Oh, maybe you should see this specialized person or this other specialty.” By the end, you get something, it’s like three months, four months, six months, seven months. How can we make this in a shorter waiting period? I see that AI can help a lot with that. There is some startups doing interesting stuff.

The other piece is on the doctor’s side, the doctor, when they are attending you, they need to take notes. They are not paying attention to you fully because they have to be taking notes at the same time because they are obligated to do so.

There is a whole also burnout of doctors because they cannot do both works, talking to the patient, adding everything to the computer, making sure that they complete everything in a correct way. There is also an AI way of making sure… I can go more into details, but I think I’m just saying, what are the things that we are trying to solve that’s a pain point nowadays? So that’s another example that I see some startups trying to find a way to make them more efficient for both sides, patient and doctors.

Lamya Alaoui:

Thank you so much, Gabriela. My next question is for Savita. Again, I cannot bypass your research background, where do you see the field in the next five years? And what role will it play in our daily lives?

Savita Kini:

I already touched upon the multilingual data part of it, the speech. I’m in speech and video, so I live and breathe that every day. Even my voice is difficult for some of our models just because I speak fast and women’s voices are different from male voices in terms of the frequency spectrum. It’s much more higher frequencies in our voice. And then you need to have diverse data sets. I think over the last year, Google and Facebook have realized that they didn’t have enough difference in their datasets in terms of diversity of skin tones, ethnicities, gender, age, so there is a lot of research now coming out, for example, with the monk skin tone scale instead of six skin tones. Imagine trying to put a global population of humans in just six skin tones, can you do that?

There is so much perception and subjectivity in how you put people in different boxes, especially when there is so much difference in camera technology and the display technology and so on. I think now last year there was new research that came out with 10 scale skin tones from one of the researchers at Harvard. I would say that the fallout from Gemini that happened last week with Google, all of these points to me one thing, which is, how do we build models that are A, really authentically diverse, not because somebody is saying it, but actually having governance systems and checks that can actually verify?

I think explainable AI is going to be a much bigger deal than it is today. I think it’s almost like the early internet. A lot of people, at least in the Wall Street, they’re comparing Nvidia with Cisco. Cisco had this internet boom and then bust, and is Nvidia going to see the same thing?

I don’t think that will be the issue, for example, I’m not still seeing LLM use cases as much in my daily life other than say, meeting summarization. That’s probably the only thing I’m using. Voice assistance for multilingual speech video technology that is really inclusive, how we transform some of the movie industry, just the online media and entertainment, so independent producers can participate using AI. I see some of those areas emerging in the next four to five years, I would say. I think Gabriela sees more of it in the startup ecosystem, so I’m still so focused internally, I’m just watching two areas.

Lamya Alaoui:

Okay. Thank you so much. We have about five minutes left, and I do have two last questions, one for Julie and one for all of you. Julie, because you were talking about the importance of having a team, a team that is designed and put together in a thoughtful way, keeping in mind a lot of aspects when it comes to cognitive diversity, background diversity and all of that, how important do you think is the interdisciplinary collaboration? I’m thinking about it from an industry perspective in advance in AI, and can you maybe share a story of what a successful collaboration in this space looks like?

Julie Shin Choi:

Yeah. We are really interested in domain specific AI at Cerebras, and this requires a collaboration between the ML experts who work at my company, but really collaborating in an interdisciplinary way with domain experts across certain industries. We announced, Mayo Clinic, for example, is one partnership where the ML hardware and software and algorithm’s teams at Cerebras partner very closely with the doctors at Mayo Clinic, which is the number one hospital in the US, and we’re working together in that way to build these amazing generative AI models that are attacking some of the most intense diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, for example.

Lamya Alaoui:

Thank you so much. My last question, because today it’s about elevating others and lifting up careers, what advice can you give to our audience in terms of either they’re just starting on the AI side of things or in the tech world, or to advance their careers based on your own experiences?

Gabriela de Queiroz:

Yeah. No, that’s a great question, which I do love answering. First of all, you don’t need to know everything. You are going to be overwhelmed because there is a lot of buzzwords, so try not to get overwhelmed by that. Think about what is the minimum that you need to know. Even when we talk LLMs, not a lot of companies are doing that.

I talk to people, I say, “Oh yes, should I know everything that is happening? Everything that is trending?” Sure, it’s good to know, but a lot of the work that you are going to be doing, or the jobs that are open are still for, let’s say data analysis or data science, they still need people working with data, they still need people to do more classical machine learning models.

Try to think about what is the bulk of the problems that companies are trying to solve and then focus on that instead of trying to know everything.

I always joke that the company, of course, they will try to hire the unicorn, the person that knows everything, because it’s so better for them to hire someone with all this set of skills, but it’s impossible. There is no unicorn. They need to hire a team, not only one person. Try to focus on the things that matter the most, that are being asked the most on all the job listing. And one thing that I want to share is, also if you are learning, if you are learning something, try to find the source of, maybe you like regular books, maybe you like video, maybe you like tutorials, try to find one way and then go for it.

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“Chart Your Own Career Path: Taking Responsibility For Your Career”: Eiman Hassan with Alphawave Semi (Video + Transcript)

In this ELEVATE session, Eiman Hassan (Alphawave Semi Vice President of Program Operations) shares her story traversing a career in engineering and operations. She talks about what these phases looked like, lessons learned, and key decision points along the way.

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Eiman Hassan ELEVATE time to be lifting up others redirecting opportunities championing other people in your network

Transcript of ELEVATE Session:

Eiman Hassan:

First off, I want to just wish everyone a happy International Women’s Day, and I want to thank Girl Geek X for planning this event and also for keeping the word geek very positive. I would’ve liked to see more of that when I was younger. It’s a really good thing to be excited about what you’re learning and about the work that you do. We spend way too much time for us to not be thoroughly enjoying this and really putting the energy into it. That’s a very positive thing. I’m happy to be a geek.

All right, let’s go ahead and get started. I’ll just recap. Angie mentioned I’m VP Program Operations at Alphawave. That wasn’t what I had in mind when I first started my journey. I have a slide in the end, I’ll give you a brief snapshot of where things started and where I landed up, but I was dead set on being a circuit designer when I first started.

You can see two paths down there. If I had been stubborn about where I wanted to end up and strictly followed my plan, I’m not sure if I would’ve been happy where I landed up. Instead, I did take a few turns. Usually you end up with a lot more turns in the beginning and bigger shifts. And as time goes, you’ll start to figure out what is the right destination for you.

One great thing about engineering and working in tech, it opens a lot of career options for you. Opens the door to a lot of options. I know many other folks who have started on one path and ended up on another just by not really coincidences and opportunities show up for you and those do come along the way. What works better is you making decisions and really paying attention to what is speaking to you and where you’re finding your strengths along the way.

One thing that, looking back over this jumbled journey, a lot of the challenges and opportunities and big accomplishments actually start to fade into the background. What really stands out for me when I look back are the big decisions that I’ve made along the way, and no one else can really make those decisions for you.

One way to think about this when you’re going through your journey, and we’ll talk about three key stages, is to think about it as an investment portfolio and how you would handle that. Early in your career you have a lot more risk tolerance and you’re trying to figure things out. Then, later on, you’ll start to be a bit more careful. You have more responsibilities and more variables that you need to think about that get impacted. And then further and further you go, there’s a lot more things at stake, and making big decisions does become a bit more challenging. Definitely embrace that early part of your career, learn the most from it, and be open to change.

Move ahead and we can go over some of those key stages. I’ve got a little post-it note on the side for each of the stages, just trying to call out a few of the key lessons that were valuable to me and hopefully they resonate with others. Though I would really like to hear back on some of the experiences others have had, and any lessons they’ve had or questions they have on how to handle challenges in those stages.

Like I said, early days is your discovery stage. You’re trying to learn as much as possible. For me what that looked like, and the picture is a hint, I did move from Toronto, Canada to California. I did take up surfing among other things and really took on a lot of opportunities. The company I joined at the time had a training program that allowed me to explore four different groups in the first year.

What I found is how much you put into your responsibilities really translates very well into how much more value and more opportunities show up for you. That was a really exciting time. I got to do a lot of things that, honestly, I am still surprised that I got to do. There were really great things to be doing as a new grad out of university in the first year.

Be open to that, and start to look at what value you bring to the different responsibilities you take on. That tells you a lot about yourself and what kind of decisions you want to make along that path. Which a lot of the times, and I’m saying really be open to opportunities, sometimes you do need to think, “You know what, that takes me too far off from my path and doesn’t allow me to explore what is right now important to me.” No one else can make that decision. You really need to take responsibility for that, even in your first year.

Now, one really important thing to think about when you’re starting your career is to understand what your core responsibilities are. Like I said, there can be a lot of opportunities, especially if people see that you have strong ownership and you deliver, more and more opportunities can come your way. But you cannot sacrifice your core responsibilities for the new, shiny, exciting responsibility that comes up. You need to make sure you understand what those are and really fulfill those. That’s what builds confidence from your manager and from others that they can count on you on other tasks.

Another one is to ask questions and make sure that you understand what’s being asked, but don’t bombard people with many questions. Take a step first to think, “How much of that do I have a good guess on?” That’s a good way to exercise your assumptions muscle and prove to your manager, whoever you’re working with, that you’re capable of actually making some of these conclusions. Also, the feedback that they will give you if you’ve landed on the wrong conclusion will be much higher value than if you just asked a plain question and just gave your manager homework to answer it for you.

Last but not least is embrace feedback, and that’s throughout your career. It doesn’t mean that everything, every bit of feedback that you get back is fully justified or that you have to take it all completely to heart and act on it, but really be open to trying to understand why someone is saying what they are saying. It could be that they misunderstood your approach to something, or it could be really something you need to work on. Make sure that you’re open to that from early on. If you close the door to it, you actually miss out on a really valuable resource. Make sure to keep that open.

To quickly recap, learn as much as possible and try and propose the answers rather than just a big list of questions, keep an open mind on your journey, and prioritize your core responsibilities. Those are three top things that I would suggest to keep in mind on the first stage of your career journey.

Now in the mid-career, at this point you have probably figured out where some of your core strengths are and you’ve proved them to folks in your organization. Maybe you’ve even had to make a change in career or to a different company, but you really should have a better understanding of where your value adds are.

You want to try and find a balance at this point. You are still going to get some opportunities that are outside of what your core responsibilities are, but there’s a lot more expectation of owning your core responsibilities, and that piece of the pie has probably grown a fair bit. I do suggest to try and reserve time and energy for growth opportunities.

There’s two sides to that. One, you want to push yourself outside your comfort zone with those new opportunities. But also, if you try to work only on your core responsibilities, it could be something that’s recurring that you need to get done, but there can be more and more volume. If you go beyond a comfortable amount of time to dedicate to that, you really aren’t going to have an opportunity to think about what the next step is, whether for your company or for yourself. And you’d be actually missing out, both yourself and the company.

At this point in your career, there is an expectation of more than just doing what you’re told. You really need to be thinking about what are the interdependencies with other teams, how the company works and what the culture is, where the challenges are, and where the opportunities are. Those can’t always just be top down. You really need to be thinking about those, articulating them, and coming up with ideas. And if you don’t protect a little bit of time to do that, you really aren’t going to get around to it. The company loses out, and so do you.

In terms of lessons to take away from this stage, one, understand the company culture and how things work, how people move forward, how they get promoted, what the interdependencies are, and think about how does that resonate with you. It doesn’t necessarily mean this isn’t the right culture for you, but it’s really important that you think about it and figure out how things work and where you fit into it. Reserve time and energy for the growth opportunities.

And last but not least is start to figure out what self-care looks like for you. That’s something that a lot of people are starting to think about more. It’s not always taking time for proper sleep and exercise and maybe going for a massage for example. For me, serving on boards, which is something that I’ve done over the last while and is interesting for me going forward, and participating in events like this and having these talks, mentoring, those are some areas that actually feed positively back into me. Sure, they take some time; but it’s actually a form of self-care for me. So figure out what that is for you, and just do it justice. Make sure to keep time for those things.

Now at this point in your career, you have established your seniority, you know what your strengths are, and you can’t be as open to rogue opportunities. You do have to be more selective and think about, does that really fit with the strategy, say, within your team? Or is it something that really is an offshoot that doesn’t make sense to be involved on? But it’s not just about saying no at this point in your career.

At this point you probably know other people who could do a good job of it and just need someone to champion them to the right opportunities. Make sure you’re thinking about that. This is the time to be lifting up others and potentially redirecting opportunities and championing other people in your network. Make sure not to shut down those opportunities when they come in. Really leverage those and help the organization and other people move forward.

Keep learning and growing, and look outside your expertise area and your industry for inspiration. I’ve been in semiconductor for the whole of my career, but I found that attending different conferences, involvement on boards and other areas has really helped to give a lot of positive feedback and give me a different perspective on things. It also is a great way to clear out a lot of the things that you might be thinking about relating to work. It gets you out of the weeds.

I want to drive quality and expectations and best practices. So this is something now that you know how to do things well, you don’t keep that to yourself. You should be growing that to other groups within the organization or to a mentor; really sharing that and helping to refine your own best practices.

In terms of key lessons, you want to identify and articulate your value proposition. There was a great talk as part of the conference on that. I highly recommend to review that. At the opportunities that don’t really fit on your path, make sure that you’re championing the right people for those. It helps whoever is asking you keeps that information and requests coming to add value into your network and helps you champion people that you’re seeing add value in the organization and need some support. This is the time to give back. And then, exploring the wider ecosystem to gain context and perspective on what you do.

When you look back, what will you remember and what will you be most proud of? Like I said before, for me the things that I’m most proud of when I look back are the big decision points that I took along the way.

Try to fast-forward and do an imaginary look back on your career. What do you want to see? Really imagine that next step and make sure, is that where you want to be? And if so, what steps are you going to take to get there? And if it’s not where you want to be, what do you want to imagine?

Take some time, especially between the intermediate stage and this stage of your career. I find a lot of people get to a frustrated point where they’re not seeing opportunities come to them and they’re seeing other people move forward. Take some time to imagine what the paths are for you, which one is the right one, and start to work towards that. It’s really something that you need to own yourself. The more you articulate to others, the more opportunities will actually come your way.

We’re a little tight on time, so I’ll just spend a couple of minutes on this and then we could take a look at the chat for any questions. This is just a snapshot of my journey. Like I said, I started out on analog design, moved into a couple of different stages. In the middle there is where I made a big decision to move into operations, and it’s really been a great fit for me.

I mentioned about serving on boards, that’s something that I started in the mid of my career and is still something that I’m pursuing. And with a few moves along the way; acquisitions and being acquired and being part of a company that acquires another has really taught me a lot of things. I’m at Alphawave Semi now, which was a startup a few years ago. I’m really enjoying working with the executive team now and helping to figure out the next steps.

Let me take a quick look at some of these questions here. I don’t know if we were set up for anyone to ask questions in audio, but I’ll just take a look at the questions on the chat.

Setting time to reflect and set goals, it’s very important, and really helps you to think, “Are you being too rigid with your original plan? Or have you been open to other opportunities that are coming your way?” And are you driving towards them? If you really see something on the horizon to be brave to actually speak up about it. The first time I decided I wanted to serve on a board, I was very nervous to actually bring that up.

Let’s see here. You’d be surprised what skills you can learn outside your core responsibilities; that might become things that give you an edge. Absolutely. And honestly, getting involved in areas that are outside your core work becomes a safe place for you to exercise some of these things like negotiating and talking about your next chapter, what you want it to look like. Sometimes talking about it to a friend, or even somebody that you’re just meeting at a conference, that can help break that ice and make it easier the next time you need to talk about it with your manager.

Speaking to self-care, that’s something that we really need to put time towards, but think about what it means to you. Nobody else can describe what is important to you. It can come in very, very different ways.

Let me see here if we have any more questions. In terms of the talk, I think it was better to just look at the agenda. I think it was one of the main talks of the sessions yesterday, so take a look at that for the value proposition talk.

“When you move to US and then come back to Canada, how do you make that decision?” That was actually a personal decision for me. I have a lot of family here, and it was a very exciting stint to be in the US.

But I think that’s the time for today.

Angie Chang:

I think the talk about the unique value proposition was the Corliss Collier keynote.

Eiman Hassan:

That was the one, the keynote.

Angie Chang:

On how to build your personal brand, I believe. Yeah, you can go back and rewatch that. Thank you so much. This was really great. Thank you. And we will move on to our next session. See you there.

Eiman Hassan:


Angie Chang:

Thanks everyone.

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“Insights On TPM Career Paths, Pivots & Leadership”: Cynthia Harbor (CACI), Linda Avendaño (fmr Google), Shayla Gibson (Treasury Prime), Stephanie Pei (Roku), Yulia Eskin (Envoy) (Video + Transcript)

In this ELEVATE session, Shayla Gibson (Treasury Prime Technical Services Operations Manager) moderates a panel about technical program management (TPMs) with Cynthia C. Harbor (CACI Senior Technical Program Manager), Linda Avendaño (formerly Google TPM), Stephanie Pei (Roku Senior Director, Consumer Experience Program Mgmt), and Yulia Eskin (Envoy Staff TPM) as they share their insights on technical program management (TPM) career paths, career pivots and leadership.

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Cynthia C Harbor ELEVATE ask to be invited get in the room where decisions are being made

Transcript of ELEVATE Session:

Shayla Gibson:

Thank you. Thank you. I want to kick it off while giving everyone time to introduce themselves and tell a little bit about themselves. Linda, you want to start with yourself and then we’ll just go around from there?

Linda Avendaño:

Sure. My name is Linda. I studed software engineering. I came to the Bay Area in 2009.

I did a master’s degree in software development and I work in companies like Electronic Arts, Netflix, and then I transitioned to technical program manager, where my last team was at Google, where I learned a lot about organizational collaboration and transformation in finance space.

I am a daughter, a sister, an auntie, a wife, and I love weddings. I’m planning my fourth wedding already with the same person the three previous times. That’s my story.

Shayla Gibson:

I love that. Yulia, you want to go next?

Yulia Eskin:

Thanks. That’s a great story, Linda. Hi, I’m Yulia Eskin. I started my career path as a computer science student. I did my bachelor’s and master’s at the University of Toronto in Canada, and then I moved to the Bay Area in San Francisco about 11 years ago.

Before doing that, I spent some time in academia doing research and then realized that I don’t have the passion for that, so I ended up moving here, working at healthcare tech startups as a software engineer for seven years.

I ended up taking career break and investing in becoming a career coach for immigrant engineers. And then in the last two years I’ve been working at Envoy, a visitor management platform, as a technical program manager.

Shayla Gibson:

Thank you. Thank you, Yulia. Stephanie?

Stephanie Pei:

Yeah, I’ll go next. Hey, everyone, I’m Stephanie Pei. I’m in Santa Monica right now. I work at Roku, in case you haven’t seen the Roku surfboard behind me. I lead program management on the consumer experience side, also have worked on the corporate side at Roku. I have also helped build our women’s Roku group, employee resource group at the company, something near and dear to me.

Prior to Roku, I was at Disney for some time, worked on the business side and also really built out my TPM career there as well. Looking forward to chatting more. Thanks for having me.

Shayla Gibson:

Yes. No, thanks for being here. Your surfboard is getting a lot of attention in the chat. Cynthia, why don’t you take us home?

Cynthia Harbor:

All right. Hi, everyone. I’m Cynthia Harbor and I’m a senior technical program manager with CACI International. I’ve been in IT a little over two decades, so my journey through the tech world has been rewarding at times, it’s been challenging at times. I’ve held several roles over the span of my career so far, navigating through positions such as a business analyst, knowledge analyst, project manager, and now a technical program manager for the past 11 years.

I have the privilege of leading a multi-generational team of about 89 people based in Atlanta, Georgia, where we extend our expertise and support to our clients at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I manage a unique blend of STEM professionals ranging from epidemiologists, statisticians, public health analysts, data scientists, business analysts, project managers, software engineers, testers and support analysts. Together, we embody a diverse range of skills and experiences united by a common goal to be ever vigilant.

In my role, I navigate the delicate balance between the tactical and the strategic. This means not only managing the intricacies of the day-to-day project operations, but also steering our efforts towards achieving overarching business goals and objectives. Leadership and management are different to me, and being both a leader and a manager, one thing that intersects is nurturing of talent. I’m deeply involved in the recruitment process and I take pride in coaching, mentoring, sponsoring the incredible individuals on my team. Their growth and success are my priority, as well as managing my program’s P&L, and also growing my program through business development efforts. I do some proposal writing as well. Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Shayla Gibson:

Thank all you ladies for being here today. For the audience, definitely use that reaction button. If you like what they’re saying, give us a round of applause for these amazing women. As we mentioned at the top, I am Shayla Gibson. I’ll be the moderator here, and so I have some nice juicy questions for these ladies and I’m ready to get started.

This first question is going to just open up the floor to anyone that wants to answer. And I’m seeing we have a lot of different people in the audience from different walks of life. In your opinion, what is the difference between a technical project manager, program manager, product manager, all the TPMs, and how would you explain it to someone who’s unfamiliar with the term?

Linda Avendaño:

I can start by saying the difference between a project manager and a program manager.

A project is something, it’s a goal, where you have a team, you have a budget, you have a timeline. It’s like doing your bathroom, you want to redo it, you want to paint it, you maybe want to change the vanity. It’s all very defined, but when you are managing a program, it’s a set of intertwined, inter-collaborative projects that need to go through a final overarching goal. It’s more like remodeling your whole house. You need to tear down some walls, you need to change the electric installation. You might need a new faucet somewhere or new electric plugs. You have to call several contractors and you have to actually check their budget, see if they fit with the overall project, coordinate the times and the days where they can come into your house, coordinate their priorities because the electrical things need to be there before you actually get your appliances delivered to your house.

That’s what the program manager does: coordinating several projects with different teams with different timelines with different priorities to go through or to deliver a final call. I can add for the product manager, a lot of product managers does what I just described, but actually the product manager is the one setting the guideline, the strategy when we talk about a set of features and functionality that needs to be delivered.

The program manager works with the product manager, when the two are together, basically the product managers define these strategy and the program managers understand the technical part, understand the priorities on team and help to align those same features and products into a timeline with a budget and with a team or resources.

Yulia Eskin:

Something to add to this is that when we think about programs, sometimes they don’t have a timeline. It can be ongoing programs such as engineering onboarding is something I run here at Envoy.

Another thing that I do as a TPM that’s completely not project related, in fact, I almost do no project management at all, is create processes for my organization. I work in the engineering product design organization, and so I work on our release management process, on our incident management process, and that means designing it with all the stakeholders, aligning everyone on it, getting everyone to agree, and then rolling it out and often being the first person that will be the operator of that until it can be handed off to the right people.

Stephanie Pei:

I think something to add here is, it depends on… both of these responses, spot on, but it also depends on the environment you’re in, a bit of the company culture in terms of how they view, in some ways value program management project and product. Sometimes there is overlap. I think there’s not necessarily a one template answer.

It depends on the industry, depends on the company culture. I work at Roku and program management here is awesome, I love it, and so I actually do work on strategy areas. I work on a lot of structural things and so it’s different on the business side, it’s different on corporate, it’s different on the technical side. Depends on the needs of the organization and also it’s also on you on what you want to work on too.

I think we are drivers of our own career and have to navigate that. That’s just my quick comment. And Linda, I love what you said about the house ’cause now I’m gathering if you need to redo a house, talk to Linda and if you need to plan a wedding, talk to her as well. I’m taking down the notes, so thank you.

Shayla Gibson:

I know, I’m going to be reaching out to Linda so often after this.

Linda Avendaño:

Thank you for the call-out.

Shayla Gibson:

All right. All right. I think I want to touch back on all of your amazing backgrounds that we talked about earlier today, and I’m going to ask a question to Yulia and Linda, but Stephanie and Cynthia, please chime in. Your background, you started more on the tech side as software engineers. Can you tell us more about your journey to technical program management?

Yulia Eskin:

Sure. When I worked in software development, I worked for about seven years and the last three years of those seven years I was a tech lead. Definitely as a lead you start to experience what it means to work cross functionally and more collaboratively with other teams.

What I enjoyed is I enjoy working on complex problems with very technical people. And as a software engineer or lead, you’re very, very, very in the details. You do call reviews, architecture, you know all of the details. I would say that I had a meaningful interaction with a director that joined, director of engineering, and she asked me, where do you want to be in five years? My instinctual reaction in my own mind, I didn’t say to her, was that I don’t want to be doing this. It kind of surprised me that I had just a very quick instinctive reaction and it took me a couple of years to really understand this, but what I realized is that I really loved connecting the dots.

I really loved making sure that we are executing and moving towards the same direction. What I realized after doing it for seven years is that I just wasn’t as interested anymore in solely the technical pieces of it and that I really wanted to grow more in leadership and management. I think that just became the first turning point for me. Then I left that job, it was the pandemic.

I took a career break, started investing in my leadership skills, became a coach, and two years later I wanted to go back to tech, but I just didn’t feel like being an engineer manager or software engineer was just the right fit anymore. I wanted something bigger impact than that and that kind of what led me to the technical management role. I think that the technical parts of my experience definitely helped me excel in this role and it’s something I use every day. But I would say that I think the biggest surprise to me was that it’s completely a leadership role and I don’t think I realized that moving into this role initially.

The best analogy I can make is that it’s quite similar to a director role where you are kind of sitting in the organization managing multiple, not managing directly as a people manager, but you’re working with a lot of teams, driving initiatives, aligning stakeholders. The work you’re doing is very organizational and leadership based. Yeah.

Linda Avendaño:

As a software engineer, I was also a tech lead, especially at Netflix. And because of the nature of the team I was working on, we had to collaborate with very different things from the content creation teams. The one that create the stills, because we sent emails about the upcoming releases at Netflix. We had to deal with that kind of team, but also we managed translations across the UIs and across our messaging. I also had to deal with translators and people in the editorial part, and I guess the bias played in a little bit because I was the only woman at the team. Every time we had to interact with a new team, I was sent there to establish the collaboration, right?

I realized that I was very good at talking to non-technical people about technical stuff and they liked me and I came back to my team and say, hey, these are their ideas.

I already talked to them, the technology can do such and such and such, so let’s plan and do something for them. The role rowing me just because I wanted to help these teams to work with us to achieve a higher goal, right?

One advantage for me is that because I was already technical, it was easy for me to move to the project management side. I took some courses, I did some educational programs, and I found my big break at Google where I was actually contracted or employed as a technical program manager.

I love it. I just love to help people, especially my own co-workers, enable them to use the technology that we can develop in-house for them to do better their day-to-day work.

Shayla Gibson:

I think we got a great question that also relates to this. What are some of the managerial responsibilities or responsibilities at all for program management? And that’s open to anyone.

Cynthia Harbor:

It could range from anything to operational things like, well, for me, in my experience, I do federal contracting, right? We support the federal government in different capacities, but it could range from anything like time cards, that’s a big one because we have to get paid. That’s really important, but it also means professional development for staff as well. It could also mean addressing a new business need and sort of unpacking that.

We recently did some work around some analysis and reporting type work and some data visualizations and stuff. You create an effort around that. I may have to assign a project manager, work alongside them, making sure I’m interfacing with the executives, that they’re getting the information that they need so it can kind of run the gambit. It kind of gets back to what Stephanie said earlier, it really kind of depends on the environment that you’re in, right?

Shayla Gibson:

Thank you. Thank you. You know what, Cynthia, I’m actually coming to you. I want to hear from you more. I would love your opinion on how you prepare your teams and the programs for the integration of AI, machine learning and all the other cutting edge technologies that are coming out there. You’re unique in that you have seen both sides of the coin. You’re an entrepreneur and you work in a government capacity. What does that look like for you?

Cynthia Harbor:

Right, challenging. I love it. I love it. I do run a small business, Knowledge Maven Media. It sits at the crossroads, technology, culture and community empowerment. For example, through my company, I offer mentoring for women in tech at inclusivelyher.com. But whether it’s machine learning, AI, data visualizations, fire, any type of innovation, whatever it is, it’s important to remember that technology is simply the enabler and not the… We are using it to what end?

We’re getting efficiencies, we’re getting improved ROI. It plays a role. It is a tool. Ways in which you can get up to speed on what innovations are happening in the industry is platforms just like this, Girl Geek X. I think I sent this [ELEVATE Virtual Conference] to about 50 people.

And other industry conferences alike is where you need to be. Companies that are doing bleeding edge tech, read their press releases, read their white papers, go to their booths at conferences, read industry rags, magazines, newsletters, blogs, YouTube.

I read Fast Company, CTO, IT Professional, I read the PMI Journal and I also read Stanford Social Innovation and MIT Tech Review, okay. You join professional organizations dedicated to specific tech. There are tons of community practices and other affinity groups that probably speak to what you’re interested in. Those are different ways to sort of stay on top of the latest and greatest and things that are happening.

One thing I do love about the company that I work with is that they have an amazing learning management system. There’s a connection to LinkedIn, to Linda, all these different platforms that will sort of bring in the type of education needed and to fully understand what’s happening in the current marketplace. Those are some ideas.

Yulia Eskin:

I can add also that in my company, one thing that we did is we gave everybody ChatGPT licenses. It’s like $25 a person a month, not too bad, just to allow people to explore. It wasn’t even for any particular use case. And of course people started to adopt it.

Another thing that we did is we ran a hackathon related to AI and that had a huge success. And of course we use tools, Zoom nowadays, a lot of related tools like Kriwatch, Gong, they already have an AI integration where they summarize the recordings and things like that. And that’s definitely something that we use as we send it out to meeting participants.

Linda Avendaño:

I just want to add that even though it’s enticing to say we are going to go full AI in our company or with our programs or with our product, it’s wiser to sit down and understand what’s the business case for us to use AI.

Because AI, it’s a great tool, but there are a lot of implications around AI that even the companies that do AI haven’t been able to fully understand. Cynthia is going to talk a little bit, or maybe you already touched on this, about the legal implications, the privacy implications, if you want to grow it in-house, you have to have the knowledge for that. If you want to outsource it, what are the things that you need to take in account regarding security, privacy, IP, et cetera, et cetera. Just something to think about before really jumping AI full mode.

Shayla Gibson:

That is a good point. We’re living in a technology age, so make sure we do our research before we definitely dive into those technologies. All right. We’re getting a lot of questions in, so ladies be prepared afterwards. But the next question I have is actually for Stephanie, and I think actually someone asked this in the chat as well. For individuals that are listening in and moving through their careers, what advice do you have for them moving from a mid to senior level roles?

Stephanie Pei:

Sure. Well, I can share a little bit about what I’ve done and then maybe some advice. Everyone’s a little different. It’s never cookie cutter. From a program management side, I actually started on the infrastructure like data centers, and then I moved into software at Disney. And then I worked so closely with engineers, worked on some product stuff, but then I wanted to learn more about the business.

I naturally have this curiosity, and I think what’s really important to stay curious and just look around in terms of what are the opportunities you can learn. Then I moved over to the business operations side for Disney Studios. First I learned around how to launch direct to consumer products, and then I wanted to learn, well, how are we making money off that? I learned the business side and it’s eyeopening. And I moved around.

I used the fundamental program management skills and basically moved around based on my interests. If you have the basics down, you can adapt just around to anything. And so with that said, I made the move to Roku and I worked on corporate program management, a little different. I worked on mergers and acquisitions, worked on, not sure if you remember Quibi, that was one of our really fun deals that I got to work on, building out due diligence, risk planning, getting to day one, 30, 60, 90 day planning. Very much mergers and acquisitions, government affairs, legal, finance, people space, very much the corporate area. Helped build out a team there, loved it.

Then I moved over, was asked to help build out the similar structure for consumer experience. I’ve moved around, but it’s also, you have to be in the driver’s seat of your career. If you stay doing the same thing for a long time, that’s fine, but you become very specialized in that one area and the industry is constantly changing. I like to mix things up.

I’ve just moved around and with every move I was really fortunate to maybe get a promotion or some sort of pay increase while I made those shifts. I think staying curious and looking around, asking questions, that’s what you’ve got to do, I think, to get those opportunities.

Cynthia Harbor:

I love that answer, Stephanie. I would add to that, ask to be invited. Get in the room where decisions are being made and all of the projects are being discussed. That way you get exposure.

And that way from a program perspective, you can kind of see what are all the connecting dots, because being manager requires that you have sort of a high-level overview of everything that’s going on. Ask permission to get in the room where the decisions are being made or where people are discussing all of the projects or the program. It couldn’t hurt

Stephanie Pei:

And not everyone has a luxury to sit at the table and be there, but there’s a way in of, hey, do you need help with something? I see you doing these materials, do you want me to help you get some of those together? Do you need me to help you build out whatever XYZ roadmap, help write the executive summary for you? There’s ways to position yourself to be really helpful and then that’s kind of how you get invited more to, I think, more opportunities.

Yulia Eskin:

I would definitely add that that’s, I think, the secret sauce of a good program manager is you identify the problems before anyone else is and you don’t even offer to help. You jump in and do it a lot of times. And then people start to see you as that person that just gets things done. You don’t need to be told, you don’t need to be even asked. You just see it and you do it.

Shayla Gibson:

Stay curious, ask to be invited and keep asking questions. It’s the theme that’s going on here and I love it. All right. I have a hot topic that’s going on, a lot that usually gets asked quite often and this is open to everyone. I know you all had some experience in mentoring, whether being a mentee or mentoring someone else. What are your thoughts on mentorship programs specifically for women in tech? Have you participated in them? Any thoughts you have on that?

Linda Avendaño:

I’ve been both a mentor and a mentee. When I’m a mentor, I like when my mentee already knows or has an idea of how I can help because that’s also something that you need to define as a mentee with your mentor, exactly what kind of help or what kind of resources are you looking from them? It’s their time and you have to respect that. And for me, my best mentors have been the people that have been my manager for some time and then I transitioned to a different team or a different role and then they mentored me to continue growing my career.

They have helped me to move to different teams to be better at current roles, even to get hired at some companies. That has been good for me to have those mentorship relationships. When I am the mentor, my main goal is to help, especially women, but also anybody to don’t self-doubt about themselves, to know that they are in the right place at the right time and they can take up the challenge, right?

Let them know that they already have the skills so they can grow the skills, and to make sure that we as women have better visibility. Because also that happened to me in the past. I was doing a lot of work, but zero visibility. Then I realized that that was a problem with me not getting the big projects, right? That’s something I tried to give my mentees to make sure that their work is also visible.

Stephanie Pei:

I think something to add to what Linda said is I think as a mentee, you’ve got to be intentional, know your goals and what you want to achieve, because if you have a sense of what you want, then it makes the mentorship mentee relationship easier. I’ve been a mentor, I’ve been a mentee. I’ve built out mentorship programs also, and they’re actually very hard and it’s because it’s a two-way street. And as a mentor, it takes time and it’s energy. You’ve got to make sure you’re making the most out of that time.

Some advice for mentees is as you find the right mentor for you, depending on what your needs are and what your goals are, opening up that two-way street and really showing, hey, I know you’re helping me, but I can also help you. Find ways where it’s a mutually beneficial relationship because then the mentor, they’re benefiting too. That’s just something that has worked for me.

Cynthia Harbor:

Well, I will add to that, that if I’m privileged enough to mentor someone, I don’t take it from of the position where I sit high and look low. I see myself more as a coach. And even in my own life I have mentors for different aspects of my life. There’s a mentor that I have in my personal spiritual life. I have a couple of mentors in my professional life because there are different aspects of my professional career that I’m focused on. Being an entrepreneur, I have to have a mentor for that. Being someone who’s trying to grow her career in corporate, I have a mentor for that. Don’t look at it just sort of like one person. It could be multiple people providing support for you in different facets of your life as well.

Shayla Gibson:

Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. I think it’s important when we’re talking about mentorship to also talk about sponsorship as well. And sometimes we do need both a mentor that shares knowledge and provides guidance in all aspects of our lives, but also someone who says our name behind closed doors and advocates for us as well. I think this is a really good conversation.

Stephanie Pei:

Decisions are made for you when you’re not in the room. You’ve got to ask yourself, who’s going to speak up for you? Who’s going to say, oh, this program’s coming up, this cool thing we’re working on. Who’s going to say your name? And that’s what a sponsor helps with, positioning you for those opportunities. That next pay raise, that next cycle of when you’re looking at reviews, who’s going to speak for you? I think those are important things to think through. Anyway.

Shayla Gibson:

You guys are dropping gems, all types of gems. All right. We’re getting close to the top of the half hour, our time here. Just a few more questions. I’ll definitely take some from the Q&A as well. If you guys have questions in the audience, make sure you come in there. But this is a special day. We’re all here for a reason. What does International Women’s Day mean to you? And feel free to jump in.

Linda Avendaño:

For me, it’s about celebration. I think we have come a long way. Even I can see it from when I started my career to now because as I was having my first job, it was not until I got my first job that I learned that technology is not a field for women.

I was lucky enough that when I was growing up in my house, I said I wanted to be an engineer and everybody was just delighted about that. I never heard, oh no, don’t do that because that’s a man’s team.

It was until I get my first job that I start hearing that message. Now we are here 20 plus years later and I think we have gained very good battles in taking our place here in the STEM field and be good at it and be recognized at it.

I know we still have to walk more and gain some more models, but for me, we are heading in the right direction. I think we are achieving what we should be achieving as women in terms of getting visibility, closing the pay gap and really make sure we are in the room where the decisions are made, as Stephanie mentioned.

Cynthia Harbor:

My grandmother used to say that you can be a maid or a doctor, it doesn’t matter, but the problem surfaces if that’s all you think that you can do. We had very limited archetypes for me growing up, I only saw women in certain roles. Wives, teachers, commendable, love teachers. My mentor is a teacher.

I grew up along the coast of South Carolina, so big tourist area. Working in kitchens, dishwashers, cooks, maids, janitors. That’s what I saw. And these are admirable careers, these are hardworking people. But that’s all I saw.

Something inside me said, this is good, but is there different? Not necessarily better, but I looked for different. And so what this day means to me is it’s potential, it’s possibility, and it’s also me feeling empowered enough because I’ve seen enough and I’m curious enough, Stephanie, to sort pursue that passion, those things that I’m most interested about. It really comes back to possibilities. What do you want? And go get it.

Shayla Gibson:

Go ahead and get it.

Cynthia Harbor:

Go get it.

Yulia Eskin:

For me, being raised in a Russian Jewish home, this holiday is actually one of the biggest holidays. It’s like Valentine’s Day in Russian culture. And so my dad would always get a bouquet of flowers for myself, my sister and my mom, separate one for each girl.

The older I get, the more I realize that in terms of my identity and femininity, it’s something I want to bring fully into work. I struggled with that earlier in my career. I felt like I needed to be more like the boys and be less emotional and less, less, less, less. And now it’s like, no, that’s my strength. That’s who I am. I want to bring my full person into work.

Stephanie Pei:

It’s your superpower, Yulia. We all have it and we’ve been told to hide it. It takes courage and support to be our full self. I think back to your question around what this day means. I have such mixed feelings because I’m blessed and grateful, but I also know there’s more work to do. I look at it of the progress we’ve made in the last few decades, but then I’ve got this fire in me of, I don’t know if it’s anger, but well, we still got more to do.

When I say we, it’s not just us in this room, it’s allies, advocates or male counterparts. It’s just there’s a lot to do still. And I’m excited for it and I think it’s part of my purpose, to be honest.

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“Learning in Public & Working Out Loud”: Erin Doyle (Lob) (Video + Transcript)

In this ELEVATE session, Erin Doyle (Lob Staff Platform Engineer) found that one of the most effective ways to increase her visibility as a technical leader, to management as well as peers, is to adopt a habit of working out loud and learning in public.

She shares her techniques, which offer numerous benefits where you can greatly help others while also helping yourself. This approach to working does require some courage to be vulnerable and share your imperfections, and it also makes the great work you’re doing very visible in an authentic and humble way.

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Erin Doyle ELEVATE being open about what you dont know lowers barriers for others

Transcript of ELEVATE Session:

Erin Doyle:

Hi, everybody. I’m really excited to talk to you today about learning in public and working out loud. I’m Erin Doyle. I’m currently a staff engineer on our platform team at Lob. And prior to that, I’ve been a full stack web developer. I’m also an instructor for Egghead, where I have a couple of courses talking about web accessibility. Jumping in.

As our world grows more and more online, our work more remote and asynchronous, the way we interact with others needs to be more intentional. We can easily fall into the habit of doing our work and growing our skills in silence and isolation, but if we make a concerted effort to instead adopt a habit of working out loud and learning in public, we can reap numerous benefits. While this approach to working does require some courage to be vulnerable and share your imperfections, it also makes the great work you’re doing very visible in an authentic and humble way, and it lifts others up along the way.

Let’s talk about learning in public. Learning in public is a method where, as you learn a given thing, you share your learnings as you go in a public way. Sean “Swyx” Wang, who is an evangelist for learning in public, describes it as, “To have a habit of creating learning exhaust.” How do you do that? You don’t need to put together a perfectly written dissertation on the thing you’re learning about. You don’t need to be an expert before you can start sharing. Just keep the barrier to entry low, or else you’re a lot less likely to do it. It can be brief, messy, honest. Just be where you’re authentically at in your journey.

Tthere are a lot of options for mediums for how to share these learnings, but the more visible, accessible, and persistent, the better. You want to make this information easy for others to follow along with if they choose. Find a medium that allows you to simply broadcast information and it’s easy for others to subscribe to if they’re interested. The medium should be easy to find in the future for those that need it later, and that can include your future self. When you’ve forgotten what you learned, which you will at some point, and now you’ll be able to reference back to a leader. So let’s go through some examples of what that could look like. This could be a simple post in Slack, or whatever chat app your company is using, with a today I learned. Here’s an example of a channel that someone created at my company, specifically for this purpose of sharing these kinds of posts.

You could record a quick video demonstrating how to do something you just learned. Here’s an example of a video I recorded. I had been testing out a Chrome extension to mock responses from our API so that I could test our retry behavior whenever a request failed. I knew this would be a useful tool for the rest of my team to learn about.

Instead of trying to put together a fancy, edited, polished video that would’ve taken way more time than I had, I just hit record and I started talking and walking through it. It’s okay if this is messy or if something goes wrong in the middle or if you stutter. You’re really just trying to recreate that scenario of if you were working in an office and you invited one of your teammates to come look over your shoulder while you showed them how to do something. But what’s even better is that this is persisted. So it could be found later, it could be watched again, it could be paused, fast forwarded, slowed down. And it’s available to people that weren’t even there when you originally did the walkthrough.

Podcasts. This may seem like a really big leap. But I’ve got a colleague, Benny Kitchell, that actually started a podcast to speak about his journey learning about system design. Here in this post, where he announced the podcast, he says, “To battle both of these with a single swing of the ax,” referring to speaking confidently about tech and system design, “I have decided to start a podcast specifically about my journey with deep diving into system design. A space where I will not be shy about speaking about the things I’ve learned, and I will accept any mistakes as what they are, just another step to the top.” Wow. What a courageous way to share what he doesn’t know and what he’s learning.

This demonstrates that you don’t have to keep it in your company. You could go to social media and share there. Here are some examples of posts I’ve made to Twitter, which maybe no one else cares about or sees, but I can use my posts like a collection of resources I know I found useful in the past that I can reference back to whenever I need to in the future.

Perhaps there’s someone out there following me that will find some of this useful as well. Or you could blog about it. Here’s an example from my blog. There’s honestly not a lot there yet, but it’s something I’m working on.

I had seen Tanya Rasha do this on her blog. She was tired of starting from scratch every time she got a new Mac. She wrote down all the tools and configurations that she liked so it’d be much easier for her the next time. I did the same thing for myself. It’s nothing fancy. It’s written specifically for future me, but just like I found Tanya’s blogs posts super helpful one of the times that I needed to set up a new Mac, maybe there are others out there that will find mine useful to them as well. The options here are really endless as long as it meets the goals of low barrier, visible, accessible, and persistant.

Now let’s talk about the benefits. Even if no one else finds the information you’re sharing useful, you are finding it useful. You are helping solidify your learnings by repeating them outside of your head. A Stanford University study published in the Journal of Science Education and Technology looked at what’s called the protégé effect, where students teach others what they’re learning. The study found that when students were asked to tutor others, they worked harder to understand the material, recalled it more accurately, and were able to apply it more effectively. And these students scored higher on tests than the ones that were learning for their own sake.

In the scholarly article Brain-Based Teaching Strategies for Improving Students’ Memory, Learning, and Test-Taking Success by Judy Willis, it states that learning in more ways than one improves retention of information. For instance, instead of just listening to a podcast, which involves auditory learning, find a way to rehearse the information both verbally and visually. The more regions of the brain that store data about a subject, the more interconnection there is.

This redundancy means students will have more opportunities to pull up all of those related bits of data from their multiple storage areas in response to a single cue. This cross-referencing of data means we have learned rather than just memorized. And then when memory fails us, which we should always be prepared for, you are helping future you by persisting your learning somewhere you can access if you need to later.

The other benefits to learning in public are less obvious than tangible, but equally valuable.

When you learn in public, you are also sharing that recently acquired knowledge with others. You’ve done the legwork on a given topic, so you can aggregate, summarize, and TLDR the details to potentially shortcut that learning for those following along.

Another benefit to you beyond solidifying and persisting that knowledge for yourself is showing management what you’ve been learning. You’re making it very transparent that you’re continuing to invest in your skills and understandings of things relevant and important to your work, and that you’re trying to help and lift up others in the process, but much less obvious is that you’re planting seeds for a culture of psychological safety. You are modeling to others that it’s okay not to be an expert in everything, even at a high level of technical seniority.

Not only are you not an expert on everything, there are some things you may know little to nothing about, and that’s totally acceptable. Showing others what you’re learning about normalizes that not knowing and can foster an environment of continual learning and sharing. Being open about what you don’t know lowers the barrier for others to be open about what they don’t know, and it makes it easier for them to ask questions and ask for help in the future without fear of judgment. By modeling your imperfection, it helps create a safe environment for others to be comfortable with where they’re at at their growth as well. And from the book Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well by Amy Edmondson, she says, “All of us are fallible. The question is whether and how we use this fact to craft a fulfilling life full of never-ending learning.”

Now let’s shift and talk about working out loud. Working out loud is similar to learning in public and has similar benefits. This approach is where you can share publicly your progress as you work on a given task. This can be as big as a project or as small as troubleshooting a single issue. As you work on a given task, you can essentially talk out loud and log your thoughts, your theories, your actions, and the results as you go. And so how do we work out loud? Again, there are numerous options for where to post your progress, but the goals remain the same. Keep it simple, easy to subscribe to for those that want to, but not somewhere that could be annoying for those that aren’t interested. And make sure it’s persisted somewhere for referring back to later.

Here are some examples. You could create a channel or thread in your company’s chat app where you can dump your progress on a project or an issue you’re troubleshooting, and those that want to follow along could join the channel or thread. Here’s an example of a project I was working on to improve and clean up some things in our Elasticsearch clusters. I didn’t know much about our Elasticsearch implementation or usage at the time. I simply knew we were seeing some issues and we’d need to do some research and put together a project plan to resolve the issues we were seeing. So I started this channel to document all of our findings, plan tasks, and status as we went.

Here’s where I started off the channel with a summary of what we knew, what we didn’t know, and what my initial thoughts were for a plan. What’s great about this approach is that you can easily add links to relevant resources so it’s all captured in one place. This also makes it easy to document decisions as you go. Here, I explain a decision we’d made after research and testing. I include what the benefit of the approach is and any implications. And if anyone had any questions or concerns, this makes for a great place to have that discussion and have it documented.

Here’s an example of where I made a discovery. All in one post, I am providing a status update, sharing an observation with others that may be unaware of it, and educating them on it, including useful links to resources and including screenshots, clearly demonstrating and documenting the details.

Another approach is to start a document that’s accessible to and discoverable by others that you use as a diary or log as you go. Here’s an example of a diary document I created when I was troubleshooting some Postgres database role permission issues. I listed exactly what code I ran with which user, and then exactly what test I ran with the results of the test. Here, I ran a query, I listed the results, which matched my expectations. And here, I ran another query and listed the results, which did not match my expectations. And so then I was able to note that discovery right there.

Let’s talk about the benefits. The most obvious benefit is that you’re making it very easy for management and others to see the work you’re doing in a very unfiltered and genuine way. So this is another way to increase your visibility. Additionally, you’re documenting the history of a given work effort, what your steps were, what your reasonings were based off of, what you tried and what the results were, and how you came to a certain outcome. When someone, or even you, if enough time has gone by and you’ve forgotten, asks, “Did we try this?”, or, “Why did we decide to do it this way?”, or, “What happened when you did this?”, or, “I wonder if we could have done it this way instead.”, you have that audit trail that you can refer back to. And that could keep you from repeating previous mistakes or going down a path you’d already tried, and provide a much greater context around the outcomes and the decisions that resulted.

Similar to learning in public, working in public has the potential of helping others learn from the work you’re doing. You’re, in effect, documenting how to do or solve a given thing, which others may find quite informative. By showing your work, you’re sharing your thought process. You’re demonstrating how you work from A to Z through a given problem. You may be working step-by-step through designing or implementing a solution or troubleshooting an issue, and allowing others to see your process could be very educational to them.

By working openly like this, it also makes it very easy for stakeholders to keep up with your status, as well as allowing others to weigh in, ask questions, even collaborate with your effort. The intentional benefits here are similar to learning in public. Working open like this reveals to others that you don’t always have the answer, and that you have to go through a process to figure things out. It normalizes that journey from clueless to gaining understanding.

Through this approach, we can model to others that being a software engineer is just a constant cycle of not knowing something and going through an intentional process to learn or solve that thing, no matter what your level of seniority or experience. We can show others that we can approach any unknown topic with assurance and confidence, rather than fear of that phase of cluelessness before we reach understanding. No matter who we are, we’re all on that pendulum that swings between the state of cluelessness to mastery and then back again.

Finally, to sum up, by shifting your approach to learning and working to be more public, open, and transparent, you improve your own learning, understanding, documentation, and visibility.

From that learning and working, you’re lifting up others, creating efficiencies, improving communication and collaboration, and sowing the seeds of psychological safety within your organization. Employing these techniques takes some courage to really open yourself up and show your authentic and perfect self at times, but the benefits to you are great, and the benefits to others can be even greater. Thank you very much.

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