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Angie Chang: Thank you all again for joining me for this Strava Girl Geek Dinner in the middle of a pandemic.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Post pandemic now being virtual, you get to see more people across different time zones that we wouldn’t otherwise been able to see.
Camille Tate: I was being truthful, we do have a team of all stars and we’re going to talk about a variety of topics that you all may have an interest in.
MacBeth Watson: So what I did was I took a bunch of short term contracts and tested the waters and figured out what was right for me, what I really enjoyed solving, what problems I enjoyed solving.
Tara King-Hughes: I said, okay, I’ve got to do something with this and that led me to a career in development and in development, I always wanted to connect the dots and X, Y, and my boss was like, “Well, maybe you should be a dot connector.” And then that landed me in product.
Shailvi Wakhlu: I always really encourage people to focus on growing their own functional expertise that extends beyond that specific use case for that specific consumer and think towards other use cases and what would be your skill set that will continue to apply in those different situations.
Danielle Guy: Look inside, find what makes you happy, what brings you joy and don’t be afraid to prioritize yourself. When you look into your next adventure, your next company and role, make sure that your values and beliefs align with whatever company that you’re looking at.
Elyse Kolker Gordon: You can do it, you got to put yourself out there to be able to do it.
Angie Chang: Welcome to this Strava Girl Geek Dinner. My name’s Angie Chang and I’m the founder of Girl Geek X. Sukrutha, do you want to say hello and tell us a bit about yourself?
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. Hi, I’m Sukrutha and I’m dialing in from San Francisco. Angie and I work together on this. Obviously, we’re backed by an amazing supportive team behind us, Amy and Amanda, thank you. We are excited to have you all join us tonight for Strava sponsored virtual dinner. Pre-pandemic, we would have obviously met in real life, but post-pandemic, now being virtual, we get to see more people across different time zones that we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to see.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: I use Strava on the daily, and the magic of Strava is being able to bring people together all across the globe with one focus, just trying to motivate each other to work out. So whether it’s a walk or run and I really appreciate the partnership we’ve had with Strava. This is not the first time they’ve sponsored.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: I’m excited to introduce our first speaker, Tara. She’s the senior director of product management at Strava where she leads a team of product managers. As a product leader, she focuses on solving the right problems to build minimum lovable product. I love that. In her spare time, she mentors underrepresented groups and helps them build rewarding careers in product. So welcome, Tara.
Tara King-Hughes: Okay. Thanks. Well, I’m going to tell you a little bit about Strava.
Tara King-Hughes: Strava is a global community. We have over 85 million athletes with more than 80% residing outside the US, We have athletes in 195 countries. Strava members upload approximately 40 million activities a week. That’s more than 5.3 billion activities shared to date.
Tara King-Hughes: Our mission is to connect athletes to what motivates them and help them find their personal best. There are over 30 activity types on Strava, ranging from cycling to wind surfing, and we want to continue to expand this list and to support as many activities as our community needs. I’ll now hand it back to you, Angie.
Angie Chang: Our first lightning tech talk will be from Lucinda Zhao. She is the lead senior ML engineer at Strava and she enjoys developing algorithms and applications that bring better insights to millions of athletes on Strava. Before Strava, she worked at Uber on applied machine learning with location sensor data. She spends more and more time exercising ever since joining Strava in 2019. Welcome, Lucinda.
Lucinda Zhao: Hello, I’m Lucinda and I’m a senior machine learning engineer at Strava. Today I’m going to give a high level introduction on the problems, machine learning engineers. The machine learning team at Strava is relatively new and small, the team was built less than two years ago, yet we have good autonomy to discover and decide what to work on within Strava that could greatly benefit from machine learning.
Lucinda Zhao: With tens of millions of athletes on platform and billions of activity records, we have regionally unique data to leverage, to create values and to personalize athletes’ experiences. As we may be expecting a company of a relatively smaller size like Strava, our work scope is pretty end-to-end from data exploration to helps pipelines to model training and validation and a model serving and integration.
Lucinda Zhao: We leverage open source tools as much as possible. Since the team is new, almost all projects start from scratch. Here listed a few projects we have worked on. Some of them may sound familiar and some may be Strava specific. We work on PYMK which is short for people you may know. This is like social network, essential.
Lucinda Zhao: At Strava, we suggest fellow athletes for you to follow to help discover and connect in the community. The suggestions are based on athletes’ activities, interactions, etcetera. We also worked on dynamic notification scheduling. The goal is to intelligently send notifications of different content at different times and cadence to enhance user interactions and provide a good amount of information without too much interruption. We also worked on activity type classification. This is Strava specific.
Lucinda Zhao: Basically, when you upload an activity to Strava, you need to specify the sport type, whether it’s a run, ride, or swim, for example, and athletes could compete with each other by comparing the records of the same sport type and the same location. And that activity becomes the segment and each segment has its own leaderboard. Segments and leaderboard are one of the key features of Strava, incorrect types may lead to inaccurate leaderboards. Activity type detection aims to detect activities of wrong sport types automatically, and such as a correction to help improve data integrity and user experience.
Lucinda Zhao: The last one I like to talk about is segment effort estimation. Strava recently launched the new navigation and maps through which exploring segments and routes has never been easier. In the new map, Strava recommend segments based on intense, for example, as you can see on screenshots, whether it’s popular segments or discover new places or break your records. The names are quite self explanatory. In the break your record and climb leaderboard intense, we recommend segments that we think you have a good chance to score a better rank.
Lucinda Zhao: Let’s take a closer look at the segment effort estimation at this particular application. Under the hood we may have tens of thousands of segments for a given map region. We filter them down to a smaller pool, say, of a few thousand, run a model to get an estimated best effort for all the segments for the given athlete and compare the estimation with the leaderboard or personal records, rank and [inaudible] selected segments in the app. If I take a closer look at the data and model, your [inaudible] projects are composed of two: parts offline training and online scoring.
Lucinda Zhao: For offline training, we take the best effort from the past and records of the label for given athlete and segment here. The future and aggregate past segment efforts to characterize a given segment, which is a segment of features in the chart. Similarly, we filter and aggregate his or her activities on Strava to characterize a given athlete, which are the athlete feature in the chart was labeled and [inaudible] a model can be trained and evaluated.
Lucinda Zhao: The number of segments we have at Strava is at 10 million scale. The number of athletes at Strava is at 10 million scale and the segment efforts is at 10 billion scale. The final model is training model 100 million segment are athlete players. For the online estimation part, the features I mentioned previously are pre-calculated and stored in the productive database which can be batched in real-time based on ID with the train model and features we can provide pretty reliable personalized estimations for arbitrary athlete and segment players.
Lucinda Zhao: Finally, a little bit about the model serving integration. The most common ways to have a standalone surveys. You already in person where you registered [inaudible] model, expose it as an import and do the RPC call with provided features and get output in real-time. However, for this particular application since we may run predictions on some of our segments under the hood for each [inaudible], the size of the input features could be quite large. So it makes more sense to move the model to the data rather than to move the data to the model.
Lucinda Zhao: As a result, we have the models served within the scholar server, always [inaudible] settings. Besides to achieve desired latency would also routine the model complexity to improve the inference efficiency with a bit of sacrifice on accuracy. Details only [inaudible] but hopefully it provides a high-level picture of the workflow.
Lucinda Zhao: Of course, we’re planning a lot more in the future. For example, we may want to recommend challenges, competitions, or local events that athletes can participate in. Maybe it can recognize segment the athletes who are similar to you with a lot and so on and so forth. This technology is in detail, we strive to create unique values and experiences for our athletes. That’s all from me. Thanks for listening, I’m handing it over to…
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you. I’m going to do a quick intro for you, Sara. Welcome. I’m glad to see everybody dialing in from all around, like I said, all around the globe in various time zones. Welcome, Sara.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Sara is is an engineering lead and manager at Strava on the foundation team. She enjoys developing the systems and infrastructure that makes Strava reliable and performance for all the athletes that rely on Strava. That’s amazing. She’s passionate about helping individuals navigate their careers and building inclusive and sustainable teams and culture.
Sara Shi: Thank you for the intro. Hi all, thank you for having me here at this Girl Geek event. My name is Sara Shi and I’m here to talk to you about scaling on-call culture with a growing product or, how I learned to stop worrying and love ownership. I hope there’s some people out there that get the Dr. Strangelove reference, but if you don’t, it’s a good classic film that you should check out.
Sara Shi: A little bit about me. I’m based out of San Francisco as an engineering lead and manager on the foundation team. Our team is more traditionally known in industries as infrastructure or site reliability engineering team. I joined about three years ago in 2018 and before then, I’d never been on call in my life, but we’ll get into that a little bit more later.
Sara Shi: At Strava, we like to say that everyone should have time for the preferred activity type, and contrary to what you might believe, not all of us at Strava are crazy triathletes. In fact, I’m going to go as far as to say that my preferred activity type is eating so that isn’t quite something I can track on Strava. A little bit about Strava, as Tara mentioned in her introduction, we are a global community with over 85 million athletes, adding over 2 million athletes every month.
Sara Shi: We are a rapidly growing product. To give you a sense of the scale that we operate at, we have over 5 billion activities to date and every week we upload more than 40 million activities. And we’re a distributed company. We’re about 250 plus engineers or employees and about 85 people in the engineering org. So all of this might seem like it’s a sales pitch but I’m telling you this just to give you some background on what on-call is like at Strava and the scale at which we operate.
Sara Shi: Strava’s on-call journey, or at least as I’ve known it. As I mentioned before, I’d never been on call before my time at Strava but back at the beginning of 2018 or 2019, the time came for me to go on call and I asked for access to PagerDuty. The response that I got from my colleagues was, be careful what you wish for. That’s not quite what you want to hear when you’re just asking for access to on-call software but I soon came to understand why.
Sara Shi: Back in 2019, we had about 50 engineers. In terms of scale, we had crossed the two billionth activity mark sometime during that year. But when I went back to look at PagerDuty metrics, the top 10 most paged engineers at Strava handled 91% of all incidents. That’s not great. It’s not great for our engineers. It’s not great for the product and it’s not great for the athletes that depended on those. So we resolved to change this, but we knew it would be a long journey. So what did that long journey look like? Well, it’s easy for me to look at the metrics in retrospect.
Sara Shi: In 2020, Strava had grown to about 70 engineers. We crossed a 3 billionth activity mark that year but this time holding steady with my top 10 most paged engineers metric, the top 10 most page engineers handled 69% of all incidents. It’s still not great, but definitely improvement. That brings us to 2021 or this [inaudible] August. We are now at about 85 engineers, well past our 5 billionth activity, and this year, so far, the top 10 most paged engineers handled 60% of all incidents.
Sara Shi: You might imagine that you’d want something where every engineer was responsible for an equal proportion of incidents but that isn’t particularly realistic based on how different services run, how different teams operate, and what different teams consider high urgency. That being said, we’re still not where we want to be and there’s definitely room for improvement, but that’s not what I want to talk about. I’d like to walk you through where we started and what we changed to get the improvement that we did see with our growing scale. So I’m going to cover this in the context of three areas. Technology, people, and culture.
Sara Shi: So, technology, where do we start from? This may feel pretty self-explanatory but you can’t have a successful on-call culture without the right technology. The pillars of observability and metrics logging and tracing provide visibility into our systems and applications while alerting enables us to respond to the conditions that require attention. These two together allow us to investigate and diagnose issues that arise within the systems. Fortunately, in 2019, we had already configured or were in the process of configuring many of our tools. I want to note that it’s a seriously non-trivial effort to configure each one of these components on their own but thanks to the hard work of many engineers on my team, we had a solid foundation to work on.
Sara Shi: How did we improve from here? To shift the ownership of those 91% of incidents from one group of engineers who didn’t necessarily have all the tools they needed to succeed, we invested heavily in building tools and documentation to enable individual team ownership of their own observability and alerting. For example, we built tracing libraries and of course shared libraries into every one of our services so that any service owner can simply follow the library version and get tracing for free. Or for another example, we wrote a product called [inaudible] which enables people to write their own grip on a dashboard easily.
Sara Shi: We also wrote docs on how to use a variety of the tools available and gave the recorded tech talks to demonstrate how to use those tools. We simplified the friction of using these technologies so that our developers would be able and excited to own their services from end to end. So on to people, where did we start from? Back in 2019, we had about three main rotations, but the input rotation responded to nearly all incidents. In the process, we are exhausting a small group of individuals, siloing product knowledge, and struggling to maintain core triaging incident response skills across the rest of the engineering org.
Sara Shi: How did we get better? Beside just forget about it altogether, we started from scratch. We established rotations on the minimum of eight people and up to 10 people. These numbers might seem kind of arbitrary, but they allowed us to avoid exhausting any one individual. Engineers could expect to be on call for about one week, every two to three months, which is just enough for engineers to maintain their core triaging and incident response skills.
Sara Shi: We also established product rotations per product area and team rather than grouping engineers into the broad rotations that didn’t really make much sense. It seems like that’s intuitive, but it was quite a challenge to draw the product area lines, but I’ll get into that a little bit later. We also established primary and secondary rotations across the product areas and teams. If you’re not familiar with the concept of primary and secondary rotations, the idea is you have two rotations, ideally sibling teams on call at the same time to cover for one another in some capacity.
Sara Shi: Typically, the primary rotation for one product area or team is the secondary on another product area or team and vice versa. Our secondary rotations catch any alerts that might fall through from the primary rotations or provide coverage than someone on a primary rotation needs it. This means you always have someone to call in for backup or to cover for you while you go do your preferred activity type. I’m actually on call right now, but thanks to Jacob on the activities team, I’m getting coverage as I’m giving this talk.
Sara Shi: Additionally, we establish the role of incident managers. You may remember in my talk description that I said, even our CTO is on call. He’s on an incident managing rotation. Incident managers, helping [inaudible] incidents to delegate responsibilities, manage external communications and communicate overall business impact to stakeholders, giving us engineers the ability to focus on what’s going on in hand. Finally, culture. Where did we start from?
Sara Shi: Well, we had set product level objectives, latency, request ability, et cetera, across the company. We had relatively good playbooks or sets of instructions for responding to, diagnosing and resolving incidents, mapped to specific alerts and errors. We had effective long-term remediation and prevention. We do and still to this day, take advantage of a weekly meeting called incident review, in which we review all incidents that happened during the week, assign immediate action items and identify where we need to plan out longer term remediation strategies and we have a blameless culture.
Sara Shi: We focus on the contributing causes of incidents without focusing on any individual or change behavior or resolution time. We can always assume that everyone did the best that they could with the information available. Being on-call can be stressful and we want to provide a psychologically safe environment to work, learn, and grow in being on call. So how do we get better? Ownership. How do you know who owns what as your company grows? As teams change, as product focus areas shift? How do you prevent features from being neglected or lost? Maybe at a large tech company, you have the resources to hire a new team for every product area.
Sara Shi: For a company like ours, that’s just not possible when we’re trying to grow modestly in line with our scale. So how do we start this ownership journey? Well, it started with sitting down with a spreadsheet. We conducted a product survey and feature audit in that teams to product areas and features. This was quite a monumental task, especially over areas that have been neglected over the entire 11 year history of the company. This spreadsheet ended up being a whopping 336 line items and I’m sure we didn’t even hit everything with the survey and audit, but it gave us a good starting point to work from.
Sara Shi: From there, we were able to map product features to services and services to teams and with the join we’d already built, it was easy to ascribe ownership of observability and alerts to those teams. The things that I’ve just discussed are a sampling of where we’ve improved. We’re constantly learning, iterating on our processes and on call culture, and maybe in another year I’ll have another update, but in the meantime, what should you walk away with or what should your company strive for? A solid technological foundation, implement observability and alerting, build tools and write documentation that allow any individual to own their own alerts, logs, metrics, and traces with ease.
Sara Shi: Take care of your people. Start with a fixed core number of people per rotation and create rotations per product area. Set up the backup cavalry primary and secondary rotations with the right on-call training and preparation so that you can give your people psychological safety and work-life balance and designate incident managers to help with managing everything else flying around during an incident. Finally, build a sustainable culture. Set service level objectives so that your company level objectives don’t feel so impossible to tackle. Write playbooks that any engineer from any team can pick up.
Sara Shi: Make sure you have long-term remediation and prevention strategies, whether that’s a post-mortem culture or a weekly incident review meeting like ours. Promote a blameless culture where your engineers can work collaboratively and openly learn from their mistakes and own what you built. This is important. Don’t let us become an afterthought. Build this into every step of the process. I hope you’ve learned a thing or two that you can take back to your own companies. Thanks to Girl Geek for hosting and thanks for listening. I will pass it back.
Angie Chang: Thank you, Sara. Really liked that talk, especially about the culture aspect and creating that playbook. So thank you so much. Our next speaker is Michelle Dobbs. She is a senior server engineer at Strava on the competition and community team. She enjoys developing scalable systems to improve the athlete experience for all and is passionate about improving developer productivity and operations. In her free time, she enjoys cycling, basketball, and learning to play piano. Welcome, Michelle.
Michelle Dobbs: Excited to be here. Hey, everyone. My name is Michelle Dobbs, I’m a senior server engineer here at Strava and I joined the competition and community team back in March of this year. I’m based out of the Strava Denver office and I actually just returned back to Denver’s altitude yesterday, so if I’m a little out of breath, I’m just not acclimated to the lack of oxygen yet. Prior to Strava, I was working at Amazon Web Services on a space and satellite project called AWS Ground Station. One of the things I definitely learned from having your full production service require satellites orbiting the earth is how to get a little creative sometimes with your testing strategies.
Michelle Dobbs: Before I dive into how we load tested our new group challenges feature back in June, I want to give a brief background of Strava challenges and what it meant for us to launch group challenges. Global challenges have been around on Strava for several years. These are challenges that are surfaced to all Strava athletes and everyone has a chance to join and complete the challenges to earn digital badges or discounts or products from some of Strava’s partners. For most athletes, the leaderboards of these challenges can be a bit out of reach since it can include so many thousands of people. So, often these challenges can be more about pushing yourself individually to reach a goal that many others are also striving towards.
Michelle Dobbs: By launching group challenges, Strava made a challenge experience that’s more personal, customizable, and competitive. Athletes can challenge their friends to a specific goal of mileage to run or total time span active and they’re able to view leaderboards and send comments back and forth to this smaller group of athletes. This feature was developed reusing some of the same backend as global challenges, but there was also a sizeable amount of new code. When we launched this back in June, we wanted to do everything in our power to ensure both that the new feature was working correctly and that the existing global challenge features were not negatively impacted by the launch.
Michelle Dobbs: What can we do to increase the likelihood of a smooth launch day? Throughout the development of the feature, we ensured that we had third unit testing and code reviews for the new logic added to our challenges services. We also launched a beta testing round with athletes well ahead of launch so that we could gain insight into what pieces of the system might not be functioning as expected. And that’s both on the user experience side and also on the software performance side. But the missing piece that both these strategies have is the ability to gain insight into the performance at scale.
Michelle Dobbs: We need to be sure that when our millions of users have the opportunity to explore and play around with this new feature, they aren’t met with bad performance or high latency while our engineers have to scramble in the background to repair issues post-launch. With this load testing goal in mind, we developed a high-level testing plan that we believe would have the best chance of exposing any performance issues ahead of launch.
Michelle Dobbs: First, we’ll create hundreds of thousands of challenges and add athletes to them. Next, we’ll drive activity, upload traffic, so that the business logic of leaderboards and challenge updates is exercised. Lastly, we’ll leverage our metrics and dashboards so that we can identify where any bottlenecks might exist.
Michelle Dobbs: Once this plan was developed, our next task was understanding how we would run it logistically. Do we want to use Strava’s pre-prod staging environment to avoid unnecessary prod impacts or do we want our load test to be as realistic as possible, running in production with the competing traffic and capacity that it will have on launch day? Staging had the added challenge of lacking like a consistent activity upload pattern, whereas, our users in prod are constantly uploading new activities of all kinds that would exercise the code path that we’re interested in.
Michelle Dobbs: As you might expect, our solution here was to use a mix of both production and staging. We developed a four-phase approach that used Cron jobs to create challenges called the challenge-related endpoints for steady-state traffic and to delete all the test challenges. We planned to run these Cron jobs in four separate phases, a small-scale testing phase and staging to validate that the jobs code worked as expected, a larger scale test in staging using fake activity creation to stimulate prod uploads.
Michelle Dobbs: A small-scale testing in prod to ensure that load tests acts as we expect and, again, that athletes will not be impacted by the test. And then one last large-scale test in prod with hidden challenges that were created in the background for random athletes. We used existing traffic patterns on the global challenges side to estimate what we imagined was the ceiling for how many challenges might be created on launch day. And then for these larger-scale testing phases in staging and prod, we tried to hit those ceiling numbers that we’d estimated.
Michelle Dobbs: Once these phases were determined, our next question became, what exactly should we test? So the graph here is a pretty simplified version of the architecture for this feature. The athlete begins interacting with the group challenges feature through the high-level Strava APIs. Those APIs then call into the challenges service, which has several dependencies of its own. So we needed to understand what we would gain and lose by having our testing enter the system in different places.
Michelle Dobbs: The first decision we made was to have the testing entry point be in the challenges service rather than in the Strava API. The Cron jobs code became much simpler by moving it to develop against the challenges service, just due to the authentication methods required for each of the systems. We also did some due diligence there to investigate the Strava API code that called into the challenge of service, just to ensure that there were no risky areas that we needed to include in the test.
Michelle Dobbs: Next, we wanted to consider communication safety, so when users join or are invited to group challenges in production, there are several different notifications they may receive over the life of the challenge, like push notifications or emails. And we needed to ensure that when athletes were added to hidden challenges in production, they would never receive notifications. The negative side of this decision is that it eliminates a dependency from our load test. But we determined that our load to the notification service would not actually be significantly different from its existing steady-state load from other Strava features.
Michelle Dobbs: Having the confidence that we wouldn’t send unnecessary notifications was worth removing this piece from the load test. Before we ran the test, there were a couple of other safety precautions we wanted to take. We needed to be able to quickly stop all the load test traffic if there was a negative athlete impact in the production phase of testing. So we created a feature toggle for this purpose and ensure that all the on-call engineers understood when testing was happening and how exactly to stop it if it was suspected to be causing issues.
Michelle Dobbs: We also made sure that in staging, the feature toggle actually worked, which is key. When generating challenges, we also use the same random string names so that it was very easy to identify exactly which challenges are related to the load test. Lastly, to validate that no notifications are being sent, we added logging and feature checks that we could verify in staging and prod that no notifications were ever going to be sent for the test challenges. Once we ran this, what did we find? In staging, we discovered a missing index on a table that was causing queries to become extremely slow once the table had a large number of rows. This could have caused a complete service outage due to how slow those queries became like both on launch day and if we had chosen to run the load test in production.
Michelle Dobbs: We also found a small race condition in some of the notification generation logic. After correcting these issues and staging, we continued with the production test phase and found a couple more issues. There was a periodic challenge job that caused contention in the database with athlete traffic and increased the latency of non-group challenge-related calls. We were able to fix this by more evenly distributing that jobs load over time and over different service components. We also found an edge case bug that was affecting two to 3% of all create challenge requests in prod, which we didn’t catch in the beta test phase due to the low volume of that test.
Michelle Dobbs: All of the issues we discovered we were able to fix before we launched the feature in early June and we didn’t have to push back any deadlines. That was great. So after finishing the load test, we took a step to analyze how we could’ve made our testing better. The biggest pain point for the load test was the ability to upload quality activities in staging. Because we had no way to do this programmatically, we had to do generation of manual activities, which are completely separate from the Cron jobs that ran the rest of the load test logic.
Michelle Dobbs: Manual activities are also less useful than the activity uploads that you might see in prod, just because they’re less diverse activity types and they never contained GPS data. So what do we do in response to this finding? We didn’t have time to implement any of these changes during the development of this load test without pushing back our deadline. But thankfully Strava has this awesome concept called Guild week where engineers across teams can work together to develop solutions to problems that span across all of Strava. After identifying these pain points during load testing, I was able to propose a Guild week project, get buy-in from other engineers and then spend a week with them making the staging activity process better.
Michelle Dobbs: We built a new service that only runs in staging and allows programmatic generation of full GPS activity uploads in staging. Along with being able to use this programmatically, like in the Cron jobs for this load test or another testing code, we also created a UI where Strava employees can go and clone their own product with these, into their staging accounts with just one click. Not only did our load test secure a smooth launch for group challenges but also led to work that helps improve the development and testing experience for devs across all of Strava engineering.
Michelle Dobbs: What are key takeaways from this load testing process? First is staging first. We caught multiple issues in staging that would have really impacted production if we had started testing there, one of which could have taken the entire challenges service down. It was super important to start testing in staging and find the big bugs first. Next is isolate systems when needed. Isolating certain parts of our load test made the load test safer and simpler to write. As long as you’re aware of what you’re cutting out and the trade-offs that are involved, it can be really beneficial to make the tests run more smoothly.
Michelle Dobbs: Next, we have timing awareness. We caught multiple bugs through the testing process and because we started load testing sufficiently early, prior to launch, we didn’t have to push back launch at all to fix them. If you’re load testing without expecting to have to fix anything, you’re probably confident enough in your architecture to just not load test in the first place. Lastly, pay attention to pain points. Even if you don’t have time to fix issues with your testing environments or set-ups during the load test development, take note of the issues and then advocate for working on them later.
Michelle Dobbs: You have the potential to not only benefit future load tests for your team but also potentially multiple aspects of testing across your entire company. Hope you all found some of this info helpful or interesting. I’d really like to thank Girl Geek for hosting this event and I’m really looking forward to the amazing panel we have coming up. Thank you.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you. That was just super insightful and things for us to pay attention to when we’re rolling out whatever our big launch might be at our respective companies. Next up is Camille.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Camille is the head of talent at Strava where she leads an amazing group of talented professionals in building diverse teams. 16 plus years recruiting veteran, she enjoys the day-to-day foundational building of talent acquisition, establishing a path for teams to attract and retain exceptional talent. She is a sought-after speaker, panelist, and contributor to the human resources and talent acquisition community. Welcome, Camille.
Camille Tate: Thank you so much for having us. I truly thank you, Girl Geek, for this partnership and setting this event up. I also am so excited and glad to have the opportunity to have listened to those amazing lightning talks. I learned so many things, even though I work at Strava. Thank you for that.
Camille Tate: I want to spotlight our amazing panel, throughout this panel discussion, you might hear me say amazing and awesome over and over again, just because this panel is truly a team of A-players and all-stars. I would like to introduce them and let them introduce themselves in a way I know that they can. We’ll start with Shailvi first, if you want to come on Shailvi and introduce yourself.
Shailvi Wakhlu: Hello. Hi everyone. Thank you so much, Camille, and thank you so much Girl Geek for hosting us. My name is Shailvi Wakhlu, I go by the pronouns, she/her. I am based out of San Francisco and I’m the Senior Director of Data at Strava. I lead the analytics and the machine learning teams. You heard from our wonderful teammate Lucinda who’s on my team earlier today. My one fun fact, similar to Sara, I also like activities that are food-related. So my favorite activity is looking for new things that I can fry in my air fryer.
Camille Tate: Love it, me too, Shailvi. Next, we have Elyse.
Elyse Kolker Gordon: Hi, I’m Elyse Kolker Gordon, my pronouns are she/her and I’m a Senior Director of Engineering at Strava and I am based out of San Francisco. My fun fact to share with you is that I have technically been a professional musician. I have been paid to play the drums in a concert. So yeah, and excited to be here tonight.
Camille Tate: Wow. Elise, I learned something new, that’s good to hear. Now I’ll pass it on to Tara.
Tara King-Hughes: Hello everyone. My name is Tara King-Hughes, I’m the Senior Director of Product Management, calling in from Atlanta on the east coast. I’ve been with Strava since February and it’s just been a wonderful time partnering with so many to build products and features that our athletes love. One fun fact about me, I’m a Marvel junkie, love all things action movies. So that is my thing. If I can just chill and not be focusing on fitness, it’s binge-watching a good action flick.
Camille Tate: We have that in common, Tara. Awesome. I’ll pass it to Danielle.
Danielle Guy: Hi everyone, I’m Danielle Guy, my pronouns are she/her. I am a Principal Technical Program Manager at Strava, and I joined right along with Tara in February. I am based out of Las Vegas, Nevada, the lone wolf, holding it down. A fun fact about me is that I am actually afraid of chickens. We go way back with an unhealthy relationship, but an additional fun fact is I’ve been trapped two times by chickens in a bathroom, both of them in Hawaii.
Camille Tate: Such a cool fact, Danielle. We pass it along to MacBeth.
MacBeth Watson: Okay. My name is MacBeth Watson. My pronouns are she and her and I’m based out of San Francisco. Right now my title is VP of Design. I’m a member of our senior leadership team and all that involves but I’m deeply involved in both marketing and product. And then I lead the design teams, which includes, at Strava, brand design, product design, copywriting, user research, as well as creative ops. It’s a pretty broad team that supports across the company. And then before Strava, I was at places like Pinterest, X-Box, and Starbucks. And then my fun fact or random fact is I think sprinkles are really good luck and so I pretty much put them on everything and I have an entire shelf in my kitchen for sprinkles.
Camille Tate: That’s awesome, MacBeth, thank you. I was being truthful, we do have a team of all-stars and we’re going to talk about a variety of topics that you all may have an interest in. First, we’re going to talk about working in consumer tech. So we might have a lot of people attending this event tonight that would benefit from how you all got into consumer tech. So give us a quick elevator story on getting into the industry. So, we’ll start with Shailvi and how you got into consumer tech.
Shailvi Wakhlu: Yeah. I started my career as a software engineer in Monster.com, which was a job search engine back in the day. It was one of those original dotcoms that had a Super Bowl commercial. So, really it was one of those moments. But yeah, I loved working in a place where I had impact directly on people and really enjoyed that space.
Elyse Kolker Gordon: I accidentally wound up in consumer tech. In college, I thought that I wanted to be a video editor, was lucky enough to have taken a few coding classes and found my way eventually to be an engineer. Worked in a consultancy at first and got to work on some really cool projects, including the first online live streaming Olympic player. Then went from there to do more video at Vevo, which does music video online, and now at Strava.
Camille Tate: Thank you. Tara.
Tara King-Hughes: Okay. For me, it started off with, I really wanted to just focus in undergrad and really focused on helping children and I got this amazing, amazing internship. I realized the system to help protect children was broken and I said, okay, maybe I can be more effective outside of the system within it. Just like with any internship, you get busy work and the busy work was working on the company’s website. Lucky for me, my mother had put me in over seven computer camps and I was like, “This is not what I want to do.”
Tara King-Hughes: But the computer camp skills actually was brought to life and then it connected me with technology and I said, okay, I’ve got to do something with this. That led me to a career in development and in development, I always wanted to connect the dots and X, Y and my boss was like, “Well, maybe you should be our dot connector.” And then that landed me in product, where I can take my love of the human mind and tech, and build consumer products.
Camille Tate: Awesome. Thank you. Danielle?
Danielle Guy: Yeah. I started my career in consumer tech also unintentionally. I was in graduating college right after the economic recession in 2010 era and it was very difficult to find an entry-level civil engineering job, which is what my degree was in. So I took an internship at a local company in Las Vegas named zappos.com. I hope some of you have heard of them, and I worked in the project management department and fell in love with the company, the culture, the role, and just continued learning on the job, went through lots of trainings, and here I am 12 years later.
Camille Tate: All right. MacBeth, how did you get into consumer tech?
MacBeth Watson: Yeah. When I graduated college from — I have a degree in visual communication and design, and so the spectrum is pretty wide. So I wasn’t sure. So what I did was I took a bunch of short-term contracts and tested the waters and figured out what was right for me, what I really enjoyed solving, what problems I enjoyed solving, and wound up at a number of different places, but the major one was Starbucks corporate working on their website and they had a label back in the day, like music label. So I got to design that website and some of those kinds of things, which was really fun. And ever since then, I’ve been in tech.
Camille Tate: Awesome. I love that because talking and hearing from all of you ladies, it just proves there’s not just one way to get into the industry, there’s multiple different paths and experiences you can have to get into our industry. So thank you. I actually want to direct a question to Shailvi and MacBeth about pointers or advice you would give on achieving a sustainable career in consumer tech. So, Shailvi?
Shailvi Wakhlu: Yeah. I feel very strongly that in consumer tech, there is a natural affinity heading towards just looking at things from a consumer’s perspective, which is great, but I always really encourage people to focus on growing their own functional expertise that extends beyond that specific use case for that specific consumer and think towards other use cases and what would be your skillset that would continue to apply in those different situations. I think that is what takes someone up and further in their career because they’re able to adapt to new psychology of the users that they’re trying to support and build out those unique use cases more effectively.
Camille Tate: Thank you. MacBeth?
MacBeth Watson: Yeah. Completely plus one to what Shailvi just said. Adaptability is really huge. I would also say that a lot of it also is that passion and drive to push yourself into places that may not be a one-to-one match. For example, for me, I went from designing webpages to that kind of like, okay, this is what I know. And then I switched to Xbox where I was designing operating systems for Xbox. And it’s like, yes, it’s similar, but it’s different enough to kind of push those other skills. I worked with a very different team. You learn your way through it, but I think it’s also being aware of when you’ve reached that point of what are the challenges that you’re facing? Are you still challenged and then pushing yourself further so, and exploring other options.
Camille Tate: Yeah. Great. Thanks for that. Next, I want to jump into the topic of how do you become great at your job. Obviously, you all are on an executive panel discussing Strava and the work that you do, you’ve been successful in your roles. I have a question for Elyse, Tara, and Danielle, in terms of, from your experience, how do you excel and become great at what you do in your respective roles? We’ll start with Elyse.
Elyse Kolker Gordon: I think from my perspective, starting as an engineer and then in leadership also, it’s being willing to seek out and say yes to opportunities that seem outside of your comfort zone and seem like maybe it’s you’re not ready, but to do it anyway. I think you’ll often surprise yourself and now working with people from a management perspective, I get to see people do that, which is really cool to see. So you can do it. You just got to put yourself out there to be able to do it.
Camille Tate: Thank you. Yeah, Tara?
Tara King-Hughes: I think always be a student because you always want to continue to learn. You don’t necessarily know at all and the great thing about technology, it always evolves, so you want to always stay ahead. Being an active listener, really sitting in and listening to the people around you because you can learn so much. I think you can gain so many insights when you just pause and open your ears. I would also say that sharpening your negotiating skills, especially if you’re in products because everybody wants everything to be number one priority and there have to be trade-offs and so you have to really learn how to negotiate that.
Tara King-Hughes: Then also sharpen your decision-making skills under fire. I would plus one what Elyse said by watching other leaders on how to best handle that with an even temperament will help you go far.
Camille Tate: Yeah. That even temperament will help you to go far. Danielle.
Danielle Guy: Yeah. Definitely remaining calm. Part of a TPM’s responsibility is to be that first line of defense with escalation for teams. When they come to you with a problem, it is best to present calmness back to them so that they can impact, have that temperament when they’re moving into their conversations to find the proper solution to whatever they have going on. Also, developing a growth mindset. Looking at challenges or failures as opportunities to grow and expand on your abilities so that it enables you to be a better partner with your colleagues so you can solve problems more effectively.
Camille Tate: Thank you, Danielle. We’re going to talk about building products. I know that’s what some people came here to talk about how we build inclusive products, but I want to interject a fun question to the panel. I did tell the ladies before we started that I probably am going to catch them off guard with the fun questions. Here it is, if you had to describe your work, what you do every day with a song, what would that song be? Elyse, I know you have one because you’re the musician on the panel.
Elyse Kolker Gordon: I mean, I like this question but I don’t know if I can come up with a song this fast.
Camille Tate: Or even the song that you listened to that gets you motivated. If you’re on a project and you crank it out and you get stuff done.
Elyse Kolker Gordon: I am totally blanking on the name but the first song on the Baby Driver movie soundtrack is very good pump up, need to get in the zone, get excited song. So that’s been my go-to for a while.
Camille Tate: Okay. Shailvi, do you have a song that you listen to or describes your work?
Shailvi Wakhlu: As soon as you said that question, the first two songs that popped into my head, I think they apply, it was, “Under Pressure” by Queen and “Delicate” by Taylor Swift. I think my work is somewhere between those two.
Camille Tate: I love that because I love Queen. Tara, quick song?
Tara King-Hughes: Like Shailvi, I do have one song by Taylor Swift but my first one is “Work That” by Mary J Blige because you always have to work it in product. And the second one is “Shake It Off” because there’s so much stuff that comes your way you just have to “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift.
Camille Tate: Okay. Lastly, Danielle and Macbeth.
Danielle Guy: Yeah. “Under Pressure” was the first one that came to my mind, but I’d also say “Eye of the Tiger”. Coming in and seeing my list of to-do’s that I have to do and just gearing up and getting into it.
Camille Tate: Thank you. Macbeth?
MacBeth Watson: I would say there’s a song called “Confident” by Demi Lovato and you have to find it some way or another to show up every day.
Camille Tate: Yeah. Thank you for indulging me, ladies. So let’s talk about building inclusive products. What do you all think are the best strategies and pathways to building inclusive products? We can start with Tara.
Tara King-Hughes: Well, first of all, you have to take a very deep breath because it is not easy to build a framework for inclusive product and in fact, just take several deep breaths, but you have to do it because it is absolutely the right thing to do. It’s imperative to include in an inclusive lens throughout the product development life cycle. And if you don’t necessarily have all of the lenses covered, put together an advisory board to help broaden the lens. I think also too, making sure hiring diverse staff, making that a priority, will also help tremendously.
Camille Tate: Danielle?
Danielle Guy: I’d say to come up with a plan, surprising coming from the TPM, but you can’t boil the ocean and there’s a lot of dimensions with inclusivity, so we need to focus in order to make progress. So come up with all the dimensions that you want to target and then lay them out in the phase plan and then get started on the first phase.
Camille Tate: Okay, awesome. Thank you. I’m going to use that, you can’t boil the ocean. In the interest of time, I do want to ask you all some questions about change management and leaning, we’re obviously still in a global pandemic and you all are leaders at Strava. So I want to talk about how ways of work and what change management tools or techniques have you all embraced during this time. So Shailvi, do you have any tips?
Shailvi Wakhlu: Yeah. Absolutely. I think one thing that has become very, very apparent during the pandemic is that everybody’s in a different location. Everybody’s trying to collaborate across a lot of different things and documentation is something that has almost become an absolute requirement in this thing. It’s to not just make sure that you have a plan that is securely communicated, but also make sure that everybody in the team feels included in that plan. They have that transparency on what those pieces are. I think at Strava, we’ve definitely invested a lot of effort into doing that. I’d love to hand over to Danielle to maybe refer to our V2MOM progress, which was such as a fun thing that we rolled out.
Camille Tate: Yeah, Danielle.
Danielle Guy: Yes. Shailvi’s definitely singing my song on documentation and communication. We implemented a V2MOM this most recent cycle for planning and it stands for vision, values, methods, obstacles, and measures, and it actually comes from Salesforce and so we implemented it. It’s similar to OKRs, for anyone not familiar with V2MOM. With this, it allowed us to align what each team was working on across the organization. Everyone was aware, we could highlight dependencies and prerequisites early. It also allowed leadership and cross-functional partners to understand what each of the product teams were working on.
Danielle Guy: With that, we also implemented a more consistent way of documenting our work with backlogs, roadmaps, and we have a status that goes out every Monday so that everyone’s aware of what we’re working on. And I’d like to add to documentation, is to maintain focus. It’s very easy right now with most of us working from home to extend our hours and to have a difficult time in disconnecting. With our most recent cycle, the leadership team all has the same alignment on maintaining balance. We set some guard rails in place to ensure that that teams didn’t overplan them with the amount of time that they had available and that they could still balance the work and their life, along with not being burnt out.
Camille Tate: That’s awesome. That’s great. MacBeth you have anything to add?
MacBeth Watson: Yeah. Actually on a much more something that anyone can take on through is this is one of the things I found is making sure that it’s safe for people to try different approaches. We do not know how to handle this. We are still learning and so how to create an environment where people can try what works for them as well as what works for their teams and by knowing what the goals are and things like that, it really helps. But to be able to check in on that and be intentional, like going back to the office, does that work for this of meeting? Maybe not, maybe it does, things like that and trying different tools.
MacBeth Watson: You may try them for a week and walk away from them but it’s worth the effort and know that no one’s got it right. So you can definitely do it.
Camille Tate: Thanks. Macbeth. There’s a comment in the chat, psychological safety is crucial for innovation within teams. Thanks, Eilene. Yeah. So I want to talk about pivotal career moments and ask you all, this will be our last question in the interest of time, but I want to, there might be a lot of people from various backgrounds here with us tonight.
Camille Tate: I wanted to ask all of you, what are some tips you would give someone who’s at a crossroads in their career, or who wants to transition into the consumer tech industry, whether it be design or product or engineering or data. Can you talk a little bit about that? We start with Elyse.
Elyse Kolker Gordon: Yeah. I mean, I think this goes back to my how do you learn and grow answer. It is like you really leaning into the opportunities. When I was thinking about this topic in advance, I actually was thinking about — I wrote a technical book, which sounds glamorous, but I can assure you that is not a glamorous endeavor and thinking about that I did that with this vague feeling that it would open doors for me and that part was true.
Elyse Kolker Gordon: It definitely helped me move forward in my career, established me as a subject matter expert, got me more opportunities to speak. Probably has helped me with finding jobs. I think that was a very scary thing to do. I had no idea what I was doing. I’d never done it before, being an engineer doesn’t prepare you to be a book author, really. Those are not really adjacent skillsets. I think that’s a good thing to think about is like lean into that fear and being willing to try.
Camille Tate: Yeah. That’s awesome. Leaning into fear. I like that. Thanks, Elyse. Tara, you have any pointers or advice on people that may be at a crossroads or want to get into consumer tech or product engineering, design, program management?
Tara King-Hughes: The only thing that I’d add to what Elyse just said, is just network. So if you see someone out, maybe on LinkedIn, who is in an area that you’re interested in, reach out to them and see if they would mentor you or just have one or two Q and A sessions. There are so many resources out there, free resources that can help you learn and hone in on your craft, and don’t be so hard on yourself, it’s consumer tech, it’s not rocket science, you will definitely get where you want to go.
Camille Tate: Thank you. Danielle?
Danielle Guy: Yeah. Plus one to all of that, for sure, and in addition, I’d like to add, look inside, find what makes you happy, what brings you joy. And don’t be afraid to prioritize yourself. When you look into your next adventure, your next company and role, make sure that your values and beliefs align with whatever company that you’re looking at or whatever role you’re looking at. I think that’ll take everyone very far if they do that.
Camille Tate: Yeah. That’s great advice, Macbeth and then Shailvi.
MacBeth Watson: I think one of the things I have used between each of my big things is recognizing that the skills I have connect to the skills I want to learn and really focusing on what are those things that I want to learn and how do they connect. If it’s a different industry, if it’s a different space. Even if you’re a coach, you could be an amazing manager in a tech company. There’s so many ways to transverse across skills and how they apply into a tech industry that it’s actually just thinking through some of those kinds of things or having the conversations with some the other women have mentioned.
Camille Tate: Okay. Shailvi.
Shailvi Wakhlu: Yeah. Plus one to all of those wonderful thoughts. I think for me, when I think about it, I think of getting comfortable advocating for yourself is so important. I think it’s the best skill that you can learn. I think it’s the best investment that you can make in your career. If you prioritize looking for places that treat you with respect, that provide you a good learning environment and that really have respect for what you bring to the table. So I’d say, go out there and look for those opportunities. As Tara also mentioned, get the help that you need, find those mentors and move forward.
Camille Tate: Thank you so much. Thank you to the panel and I wouldn’t be head of talent at Strava if I didn’t mention that we are hiring, you can go to our website www.strava.com/careers and take a look at what we have to offer. Thank you to Girl Geek for this partnership again, and I’ll transition it back to Angie.
Angie Chang: Thank you. That was awesome. Thank you all so much for speaking on this panel, to all the Girl Geeks who gave lightning talks, those were all really great. These will all be hosted on YouTube later, so you can check them out if you missed them they’ll be emailed to everyone who signed up. So keep an eye out for that.
Angie Chang: The jobs that Camille mentioned, they’re all in the emails from Zoom. We’ll send out another email with the survey and thank you all again for joining for the Strava Girl Geek Dinner in the middle of a pandemic, it is still ongoing, and hopefully one day we’ll see you again soon in person!
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Angie Chang: I want to say hi to everyone. My name is Angie Chang, the founder of Girl Geek X…
Morgan Cole: And welcome to Girl Geek X Opendoor Dinner! I’d like to spend just a few minutes chatting with you all about how you can start or continue cultivating a successful career by prioritizing your own self-awareness…
Heather Natour: One of the things I love about Opendoor is seeing that demonstration of leadership every day with every single person I work with. And I’ve personally seen that leadership demonstrated by these particular panelists…
Annie Tang: …Really keeping in mind that execution matters. It’s not all about like coming up with cool ideas. We need to keep a high bar for what we do.
Maggie Moreno: There’s no shortage of good ideas, only people to make those ideas a reality…
Amy Yang: I’m going to give you a flavor of the type of problem and a project data scientists are working with at Opendoor. Specifically, this is a multiple hypothesis testing problem…
Sumedha Pramod: I’m going to start with an opener. We actually filled out a variety of customer experiences and dashboards, which spanned from educating the customer on buying and/or selling their home, all the way through to actually digitally closing on their home…
Angie Chang: Thank you all for sharing your insights and your journeys with us! Really enjoyed all the talks and the conversation about this is what leadership looks like. Cool. We are going live with our Opendoor Girl Geek Dinner. I want to say hi to everyone. I see people are joining us. Can you chat to us where you’re coming in from. I’m coming in from Berkeley, California. How about you, Sukrutha?
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Hi everyone. I’m Sukrutha. I’m dialed in from Yosemite this weekend.
Angie Chang: Cool. Awesome. Quick intros. My name is Angie Chang, the founder of Girl Geek X. When we started Girl Geek Dinners over a decade ago, I was the only female engineer at a startup, and I really just wanted to meet other women in tech.
Angie Chang: I started asking companies to host Girl Geek Dinners, so that we could go to different companies and hear from the women on stage about what they’re working on. And then also be able to meet other amazing people like yourselves, which we’ll be doing after the talks. I was able to meet people like Sukrutha. So Sukrutha, why don’t you just tell us a bit about you and what you’re up to?
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. I met Angie because I was looking for things to do outside of work and that’s how I ended up finding out about Girl Geek Dinners and Angie. Honestly, I think everybody is craving a network now more than ever, and this is part of why us doing it virtual makes it possible. We encourage you to have your respective company that you work at to sponsor a Girl Geek Dinner. We hope that at some point in the near future, we’ll be able to see you all in real life.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: By day, I also work at a large company, namely Salesforce, and we’re also transitioning back into the office. The way people are working right now is so different. We can work from anywhere, so we should also be able to network from anywhere. So yeah, I look forward to tonight’s content and the speakers are all amazing. Over to you, Angie.
Angie Chang: While we wait, we have a few minutes to say some things. I wanted to quickly say some things that we’ve done since we started. We have a virtual conference every International Women’s Day called Elevate and it’s March 8th. And it will be again, March 8th, in 2022. And all the talks are recorded and hosted at youtube.com/girlgeekx – you can actually find all those conference talks, all the Girl Geek Dinner events, and tonight’s talks. If you have to drop off, go make dinner, we totally understand that. Everything’s available on YouTube later in case you can’t stay for the entire hour or two.
Angie Chang: And pro tip, look at the playlists, because they’re actually categorized into different things like career journeys, management, engineering, machine learning, and you can dig into what you’re interested in and see what other girl geeks have spoken about over the years on those topics.
Angie Chang: We also have a podcast. So if you like to listen, like I do, we have two seasons, I believe, of podcast and we have another season coming out this summer, so stay tuned for that. We’ll have some new content coming out.
Angie Chang: And then we also are going to be contributing to our local community here in the San Francisco Bay Area and adopting a middle school/high school and really contributing to enriching and helping support the students there who are interested in STEM. So stay in the lookout for news on that.
Angie Chang: That’s another opportunity where we can see you and hopefully engage you with some students and get them inspired to stay in STEM. So a quick note, I want to kind of say, who is here tonight. I looked at our attendee list about half an hour ago, and I saw that we have about 45% of you, have over a decade of work experience.
Angie Chang: Often when I go to networking events, people always say everyone’s junior or they just got out of college or they’re looking for their first job out of a bootcamp. That might be true, that might not be true, but also at the same time, there’s a lot of really, I would call mid-career people, who are out there, and continue to come back to these events, so I really say thank you for coming back! And continuing to dig in and learn more about companies and the people that work at them.
Angie Chang: And I’m really excited that tonight we are going to be listening to the women at Opendoor. If you haven’t heard of Opendoor, it is a real estate startup company and I’m sure the women will be talking more about what they’ve been working on at Opendoor, so I’m going to turn it over to them, the experts.
Angie Chang: Our first speaker, the keynote speaker, is Morgan Cole. And Morgan Cole joined Opendoor in 2017, where she’s helped many, many customers transition to their dream homes and served as a people leader for sales and support. And she’s currently supporting learning development team as a senior trainer and curriculum specialist with an emphasis on instructional design, internal partner relations, and creative problem solving across multiple organizations. So when she isn’t navigating the world of L and D, you can find her spending time with her sour patch, pup, Arthur. So welcome Morgan.
Morgan Cole: Hello. Thank you so much for the warm welcome, Angie. I really appreciate that. I am going to go ahead and share my screen and then we’ll go ahead and get rolling. All right. Can you see that okay?
Angie Chang: Yes.
Morgan Cole: Very good. All right. Hello everyone. And welcome to Girl Geek X Opendoor Dinner! My name is Morgan Cole, and I’d like to spend just a few minutes chatting with you all about how you can start or continue cultivating a successful career by prioritizing your own self-awareness.
Morgan Cole: Now, before we dive in, I should share just one quick tidbit about myself. I am a words of affirmation girl. It is the love language that rivals all others, in my book. So that said, I am going to need your help just to make sure we’re all on the same page this evening. So if you all are ready to kick off this conversation, just take two seconds for me and go ahead and type the word yes, Y-E-S in the chat box at the bottom of your screen, just let me know you’re ready to rock and roll. Go ahead and type Y-E-S. Oh, they are trickling in. I like it. Very good. Very good. That was a test, and you all pass with flying colors. So let’s do it.
Morgan Cole: So a few years ago, Dr. Tasha Eurich, who is a best-selling author, she’s a psychologist and founder of the Eurich Group, her and her team, they conducted a study with nearly about 5,000 participants. And the purpose of this study was to better understand the meaning of self-awareness. Here we are. The research team’s findings, they were actually pretty astounding, they learned that there are actually two types of self-awareness. The first one is internal self-awareness and the second is external self-awareness. Now, the thing to note here is that these are not mutually exclusive, meaning it is possible to possess one or both types.
Morgan Cole: Now, before I dive into each type of awareness and the role that it plays in our professional and in our personal lives, I am curious to know your thoughts on this next question. So if you look on your screen here, you’ll see the question reads, how many people do you believe are actually self-aware to some degree? Do you think it’s A, 10 to 15% of people, B, 15 to 20%, C, 20 to 30%, or D, 30 to 40%? If you had to guess, how many people do you think are actually self-aware? Go ahead and type in A, B, C, or D in the chat box for me and let me know your thoughts.
Morgan Cole: Oh, a handful trickling. It’s a mixed bag. Very good. Thank you all so much for the responses. I appreciate that. So while you all are still continuing to put in your choices, I’ll tell you the not so fantastic news is that the average human believes they’re self-aware, but only 10 to 15% of those people actually fit the criteria.
Morgan Cole: The good news is that self-awareness is a learned behavior. What that means is that we can strive to inch just a little bit closer to fully understanding how we tick and what truly motivates us and how to dissect the depth of our perceptions of the world around us. And it also aids in stronger leadership competencies too.
Morgan Cole: Going back to the two types of self-awareness I spoke about a few seconds ago, let’s explore internal self-awareness first. Now internal self-awareness, it represents how clearly we see our own values and passions and aspirations, your thoughts, your feelings, your impact on others.
Morgan Cole: Studies have shown that this type of awareness correlates with higher job and relationship satisfaction, as well as just general happiness. Meanwhile, external self-awareness, it represents understanding other people’s perceptions of our value systems and our thoughts or our feelings, right?
Morgan Cole: Essentiall,y folks that drift toward external self-awareness, they typically understand how others view them and they’re more skilled at showing empathy and taking in other people’s perspectives as a result.
Morgan Cole: The takeaway here is that it’s most impactful to try to strike a balance between both subtypes of awareness, rather than over-indexing on one or the other, because here’s the truth, being crystal clear about who you innately are, your own behavior patterns, and what you need and want is form of leadership.
Morgan Cole: Self-awareness – it catapults your ability to clearly articulate your desires and ask for help in forging the appropriate path to get you there. This next slide, it’s a quick map that actually breaks down four self-awareness archetypes, which is basically how we present to the world based on the depth of internal or external self-awareness that we possess. I’m going to save you a bit of time, and I’m just going to give you a quick overview of these four categories. No need to read through each line.
Morgan Cole: The top left quadrant, it shows how high internal self-awareness and low external self-awareness is typically referred to as introspective. It depicts people who clearly understand themselves, but they rarely challenge their own views. And in some cases, this particular quadrant can limit their interpersonal relationships.
Morgan Cole: Now, the bottom left quadrant symbolizes seekers. These are folks with low internal and external awareness. And people that are currently navigating this quadrant, they might be in a state of self-discovery and may perhaps be a bit unsettled or in a state of flux in their personal or professional lives. Now going over to the bottom right quadrant, low internal and high external awareness, those are telltale signs of a people pleaser. This means that someone may be hyper-focused on how other people view them, sometimes to the detriment of their own personal or professional contentment.
Morgan Cole: And in many instances, folks that work through this category, they’re known to make decisions that are not always in service of their own success. And in some respects, it can be considered a self-saboteur. And last, but certainly not least, at the top, right quadrant, that depicts high internal and external awareness, which insinuates that a person is keenly aware about themselves or the external environment and they value candid feedback from other people. There was a study specifically from Gallup that show people in this particular category are generally proven to be good leaders in a plethora of environments because they intentionally seek out balance and inter and intra personal skills. So those are the four archetypes.
Morgan Cole: Now with those four archetypes in mind and in the spirit of bravery and transparency and leadership, I would love for you all to just take a few seconds, just to think about which one of those four categories you believe you are currently in, in your career. Go ahead and just write it down on a sticky note, or perhaps the note section on your phone or a piece of scratch paper, whatever you have nearby in your home. And this is only for your personal use. But take a look at those four categories and jot down which category you believe you’re currently in. Now, I wouldn’t ask you all to do anything that I wasn’t willing to do. So in my case, I’m actually going to share my self-awareness experience aloud. So full transparency, I toggle between being aware and the people pleaser. I do.
Morgan Cole: And I’ll share an example that clearly depicts this. Two of my former leaders at Opendoor, they taught me very early on in my career that in order to gain sustainable success, it was going to be my responsibility to always ask questions, to always raise my hand for help and to speak up and finish what I started. But here’s the only problem with that, I interpreted most of those tasks as signs of weakness, almost like a bird’s eye view of my professional inadequacies or inefficiencies.
Morgan Cole: And let me just tell you this, thank goodness for patient and nurturing leaders, because it took about two years for me to really get over this hump. And while it sounds a little half witted for me to say now, I truly believed asking questions or raising my hand for help would inadvertently highlight the things that I had not yet mastered. And my aha moment was, “That’s the point, Morgan. That’s the point.” I needed to acknowledge the things that I had not mastered because you can’t fix what’s hidden and you can’t practice what you refuse to acknowledge.
Morgan Cole: So when I finally came to terms with what was holding me back, myself, I held onto this quote from Thomas Edison that I love, and it reads, “Having a vision for what you want in life is not enough. Vision without execution is hallucination.” So while I could go on and on about this topic for days, I do know that time is of the essence, but I want to leave you all with a parting gift. So I challenge each of you to take about 30 seconds, and I want you to recall a book or an author or a podcast or perhaps maybe even an article that has been especially helpful in building your leadership skills or self-awareness or interpersonal skills, anything that has helped you in your career.
Morgan Cole: Go ahead and take a few seconds to just think of that one resource, or maybe there’s a few of them that you always go to when somebody asks you for a recommendation. And once you have that resource in mind, I would love it if all of you can go ahead and type it in the chat box below for me. And while you all are typing and putting in your resources, I’m going to share three books that have been especially impactful for me.
Morgan Cole: Now, the first one is called The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks. It’s really a good book about getting out of your own way. And it was really helpful for me about a year and a half ago. The second one is a person that we all know and love, Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead. It’s a classic. I would venture to say reading it once a year is always a good idea. I always get gems from Dare to Lead. And the last book that I loved is actually called Get Over It! by Iyanla Vanzant. It’s a really great self-help book that talks from a professional and a personal standpoint about removing yourself from yourself, so that you can present your best self when you are in a professional setting. So just to recap, my top three books, The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks, Dare to Lead by Brene Brown, and then Get Over It! by Iyanla Vanzant.
Morgan Cole: Now, let me see what you all have in the chat box here. I’ve got a couple coming in, The Power of Gentleness. Ooh, very good. Thinking Fast and Slow. Thank you all. Continue to go ahead and put them in as you see fit. And as books and articles come to mind, please continue to trickle them in for me. This is actually my first time reading about some of these titles. So thank you. Thank you to everybody who’s sharing so openly. This chat is chock-full of resources, and it’s an endless gift to each of us. There’s an African proverb that says, if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. And tonight’s conversation and your willingness to offer resources to cultivate your peers will continue to build an equitable bridge between different ethnicities, self identified genders, and neurological differences in this ever evolving world of business.
Morgan Cole: So take that sticky note or that note on your phone with your self-awareness type on it that I mentioned earlier, and the plethora of resources that you now have in this chat box, and I would love for all of you to use it as a first step to discovering how you can continue to evolve into the best version of yourself in business and in life. So thank you all so much for your open hearts and your listening ears and collaboration and huge thanks to Girl Geek team for cultivating a platform that acknowledges and celebrates women in tech. I am so, so appreciative.
Morgan Cole: For our next speaker, I would love to introduce the one and only Annie Tang. Annie is a Senior Design Manager for Seller at Opendoor where she works on drastically simplifying the home selling experience. And in her time at Opendoor, Annie has worked on designing various aspects of the Opendoor consumer experience like trade-ins, buying and mortgages, but outside of that, she loves to hang out with her sweet pup. So without further ado, Annie, I’m going to pass it off to you.
Annie Tang: All right, here we go. Sorry. I don’t use Zoom every day. Oh my gosh, Morgan. That was such an amazing and inspiring talk. This is actually not my first time hearing it from Morgan, but actually I always feel inspired the second time around too and it really got me thinking about the internal self-awareness piece, especially because I think as we think about self-awareness, it’s easy to think about the external piece, at least for me. And so this really got me thinking about the internal piece. With that, I’ll transition over to my talk for the day and that is about design and strategy at Opendoor. So like Morgan said, I’m the senior design manager for Seller. Seller is one of our teams here at Opendoor and I manage the team of designers that work on that experience for our customers.
Annie Tang: A little bit about me. I started out at architecture, so did not study UX design at all. And worked at a couple of various larger scale companies before I found my way to Opendoor. And the reason why I joined Opendoor about four and a half years ago was really I wanted to work on a very complex real-world problem. And at the time, it was a pretty small startup and I was really excited by the opportunities that it gave.
Annie Tang: But most importantly, I was really excited to design for online and offline experiences where I wasn’t really selling an app or an interface, but I was actually thinking through selling a service that included both the digital experience and a real world component to it, and that felt really exciting to me.
Annie Tang: And so today, I’m going to talk to you a little bit about design and before I get into it, I wanted to get a signal maybe in the chat, you can put it in the chat if any of you guys have been watching Mythic Quest, it’s been a favorite around our house lately. Angie definitely has. There’s a couple other people. I personally am loving it. My husband and I really love to watch this show. But one gripe, I will say, that I do have about this is that it really centers around this myth of the creative genius where you’ve got this creative director who over the course of the night comes up with these amazing visions for the new game and the art director and team just creates it and there’s no research or anything and makes for great TV!
Annie Tang: But unfortunately that is not really how design actually works in real life. And so over the course of designing and my design career, what I’ve realized is core for design and for product design actually, and creating products is that the genius-ness, the coming up with the ideas isn’t actually the hard part.
Annie Tang: And it’s a good thing and a bad thing. It means that even if you feel like you’re not an ideas person and you don’t have that, it’s not the end-all be-all to being a designer and also at the same time, being a designer doesn’t mean that you’re just the one coming up with ideas and other people execute.
Annie Tang: A lot of being a designer is validating the idea, effectively communicating across the company and figuring out how to build it out. And so I’m going to go over that little bit with a two-part agenda.
Annie Tang: I’ll talk through some of the principles that we have within design team at Opendoor that help guide us to make sure that we’re really being diligent about how we design for our customers. And then I’ll also walk through a case study for what we did for our Seller experience last year where we designed the experience end to end when COVID hit and really helped our customers figure out a way to sell their home faster and on their own time.
Annie Tang: Principle number one that I have with our team is we always start with research, we never forget the data. Every idea should be backed by reasons why people’s lives will be better with it. What we do is we spend a lot of time talking to our customers, our users, to discover problems and validate possible solutions before we even get into any ideating phase. It’s really important for us to really empathize with our customers and really understand what those needs are.
Annie Tang: A couple of ways that we do this, at a high level is qualitative research and quantitative research. On the qualitative level, that’s really talking to our customers, doing user interviews. An insight that we might get out of qualitative research could be something like I have here, which is, meet Linda. Linda’s looking to sell her home and buy a new one. She is completely overwhelmed with the process of coordinating two transactions to line up her move, and that’s the buy and sell transactions.
Annie Tang: We’re talking to customers and really getting at what is really difficult for them in their process. Quantitative research is really about sizing this opportunity. So it could amount in something like this, like Linda, 70% of home sellers in the United States are simultaneously buying and selling a home at the same time. This basically tells us this is a real need. And actually, a ton of people are experiencing this need. And so that really centers around a problem that we can obsess over then that we can ideate upon. So the second principle that we really adhere to is first visualize the experience, not just the UI.
Annie Tang: I’ve worked with tons of designers over my career, designers junior and senior. I’ve seen so many folks, when we get a new prompt, or we get a new idea, we immediately hit the pixels and we design out a shiny experience, and it’s really, really amazing.
Annie Tang: We forget that actually the customer needs to be the star of the story. It’s not about the UI. And so what we really emphasize is when we start thinking about new ideas or solving problems, we think about the story, we think about the customer and how they experience the flow from end to end. And sometimes when we do storyboards like this, sometimes we do flow charts, but it’s really about putting the customer at the forefront of the story first and then the UI and the pixels fall to support that.
Annie Tang: Here’s an example of some work that we do when we put together flows and comps. You’ll see that we have the digital experience, but also first, we have images that support kind of telling a story of what happens in real life. We’ve got text updates and someone on the couch receiving them, we’ve got a walkthrough prep and imagining that a customer is cleaning their home and getting ready for a walkthrough before they log onto their mobile app to do that walk through. Really putting it situational with the designs is really core to how we try to think about designing new products.
Annie Tang: And then the last principle that we have is really that execution matters and we sweat the details. Again, design isn’t just about the idea and the strategy, equally important is the craft and the execution. Actually, a lot of times what I’ve seen is the final idea that gets executed might not be the most novel thing, but if we execute it really well and really diligent about it, and we track it, and we learn from it, that’s really what makes a product successful. What we really enforce is every detail, every pixel of experience matters, not just the strategy, also exactly how we execute it so that we’re delivering a high quality experience to our end customers.
Annie Tang: With those principles, I’m going to walk you guys through a tactical case study to kind of bring this to life and show you guys at a high level how we go about big design projects at Opendoor. What this case study is at a high level, I’m going to walk you through how we ended up designing a centralized dashboard for our Opendoor experience, where the design team created a vision to unify several parts of our experience, which guided a lot of the product roadmap throughout 2020.
Annie Tang: Starting with the problems and the research. What did we find? In 2019, throughout the course of the year, what we found is that our experience that Opendoor was just really disjointed. Customers were telling us that they were getting dead ends, that there was a lot of long wait times in between parts of the experience, and one thing that we give to our customers is they come to us and we give them an offer on their home.
Annie Tang: Starting with the problems and the research. So what did we find? So in 2019, throughout the course of the year, what we found is that our experience that Opendoor was just really disjointed. Customers were telling us that they were getting dead ends, that there was a lot of long wait times in between parts of the experience, and one thing that we give to our customers is they come to us and we give them an offer on their home. There was a really long wait time and they didn’t know what was coming up next. There was a lot of scheduling coordination going on. There’s a lot of things happening and a lot of dead ends and people didn’t really know what the next step was, and that was really impacting our customer experience.
Annie Tang: At the end of the 2019, what we did is we got together a group of cross-functional leaders, PMs, designers, engineers, and operators and we did a sprint over the course of a week. What we really wanted to do was figure out a strategy to solve those problems that we have identified from our research team and try to help to come up with a visualization of an end state, a future state that we want to aim towards by the end of the year that would solve all the identified problems that we had, and that would hopefully guide our work. And that way we can break it out into chunks that we can kind of slowly build towards over the course of the year.
Annie Tang: And the output of that sprint, what we created was a single narrative for that in-state. So we actually did, was we created a deck that included pieces like the images that we see on the right where we actually just laid out a story for our customer, Jill, who was looking to buy and sell, and we put together a couple screens, but really focusing on the story and how she feels and what she’s interacting with. We created this vision deck, and we actually tested a couple of these high-level concepts with potential customers.
Annie Tang: What we aimed to do is we really want to show strong concepts that were new to the experience that we could refine at a later time, but it was really about thinking about this new experience for our customer (Jill) that would solve all of her needs by the end of the year.
Annie Tang: A couple of the big ideas that came out of this was the idea for the Opendoor dashboard where we would centralize all of these disjointed experiences into one place where our customers can come back to see what’s next.
Annie Tang: But a couple of different ideas too, was like this idea of an instant offer. Previously we were having customers wait 24, 48 hours. What if we can give them an instant offer? As they were telling us information about their home, we can update their offer live.
Annie Tang: What if we could give them clear milestones? We always internally call it pizza tracker kind of like the Domino’s pizza tracker, but what if we could make it super clear like that for every stage of this buying and selling process on their dashboard?
Annie Tang: Another big pain point was that customers were having to schedule these inspections and figure out how to line up having people come to their homes. What if we leverage technology and help customers do self guided inspections where they could just upload a couple of photos of their home and we could do the inspection without having to actually go into their home?
Annie Tang: All of these ideas culminated into this vision deck and what was really cool that came out of it, is once we had an aligned vision where we were wanting to go towards for the end of the year, we could then formulate a roadmap and piece off different projects that each team would then take to work towards that vision. And we could get really tactical and figure out what the right way to execute towards it would be.
Annie Tang: And the great thing about this is that the sub teams then had a more or less unified idea of where we wanted to head towards and build towards for the year. So these are just some screens about how we sweated the details. We started from each project then, went through various rounds of research and low fidelity mocks on the left side to high fidelity mocks in the right side. Ultimately, whittling down to one experience that we ultimately shipped. I have Q and A on here, but we’re actually going to save Q and A until the very end, but that’s it on an example of how we design at Opendoor, both on a principle level and also in terms of case study.
Annie Tang: And with that, I’m going to introduce Amy. Amy is a Senior Data Scientist on the advanced analytics team at Opendoor. Her responsibilities include defining and leading pragmatic, casual learning practice at a company level using advanced experimentation and decision science techniques. So welcome Amy.
Amy Yang: Hi everybody. First, thank you, Annie, for the great showcase of all the cool design work your team have been working on. I’m a senior data scientist at Opendoor. I’m going to give you a flavor of the type of problem and project data scientists are working with at Opendoor. Specifically, this is a multiple-hypothesis testing problem. As you all know, this multiple-hypothesis testing problem means when we do more statistical tests, we’re more likely to make a type one error, which is a false positive discovery.
Amy Yang: Here is an illustration where we test 20 kinds of colors of different colors of jellybeans and how they show a correlation with acne. One out of the 20 tests will show a significant correlation, even though it’s purely out of random noise. That’s telling us whenever we do statistical tests, we want to control the overall type one error rate in case there is cumulative inflation by… The more tests we do, the more likely we are going to see a significant result.
Amy Yang: At Opendoor, the problem came up frequently specifically for product improvement, sometimes we want to track multiple outcomes of interest, not just one. When we want to evaluate the effect of certain product change, long-term or short-term outcomes, we are encountering this problem. Or if we want to dissect the data set into multiple subgroups and then do a statistical test within each subgroup, we are encountering the same problem.
Amy Yang: Sometimes we want to run an experiment with multiple treatment groups, not just one case which is one control group., where we have multiple treatments, we want to test each one compared to the other one, which one give us a [inaudible]. So other scenario we’ll generate this multiple hypothesis testing problem. If you look at the literature, you will find out statistically, there are ways to control this type of type one error rate inflation by adjusting your p-value.
Amy Yang: For example, some common measure you will see are Bonferroni corrections or a Holm’s method, false discovery rate control. Those are all thoroughly researched statistical methodology to control this problem. However, practically we have some objections when using this type of statistical method.
Amy Yang: People will say p-value adjustments are actually pretty arbitrary by the number of tests we are going to consider. How do you decide what’s the correct number of tests we are doing to adjust? Should we adjust tests we have done in the past? Should we adjust tests have been done in other teams but not specifically our teams.
Amy Yang: This number becomes very arbitrary and sometimes people will use this arbitrary concept to falsely adjust the total number of tests. The other objection is when we reduce the type one error, we are inherently increasing our type two error rate, which means we don’t have enough power to detect a significant true result which also means we are going to increase our total sample set.
Amy Yang: To solve this controversial problem as a data scientist, we come up with a very practical recommendation and strategies not only for researcher and the data scientists, but also for leaders and stakeholders who are going to review and read those report.
Amy Yang: For example, we would recommend not just focus on interpreting the p-value part, but also focus on the true magnitude or the effect size of the finding from the data. Also, we want to pay attention to the quality of the study and the data set.
Amy Yang: Focus on more from the design and the data quality side of the report and the study, not just purely based on the p-value from the study. For researcher and the data scientist, we come up with a set of statistical methodology recommendation, for example, when handling correlated outcome or metrics.
Amy Yang: We have this index method that can utilize the correlated information from multiple outcomes. Try to aggregate the common information and reduce the type one error rate, or we have this Bayesian multilevel modeling method. Completely move away from the frequent test p-value based decision making process and move to a more Bayesian probabilistic recommendation system.
Amy Yang: Practically, we also give recommendations. One of my favorite recommendation is rewrite the error rate into family-wise error rate control system based on theoretical related test groups. Let’s say you have two set of tests. Three tests, all measuring user satisfaction. You may have different metrics, but you are going to run three tests, they are all follow the user satisfaction category. You have another set of tests which are testing the total error rate or page load speed, which can fall into the safety metrics category. In this case, instead of submitting the total error rate across all the tests equally, you can divide them by the two family. So each family can share their own overall error rate.
Amy Yang: Now that’s just one project data scientists are working on at Opendoor. I also want to use this opportunity to introduce some of the other projects data scientists work with at Opendoor. Why is Opendoor investing so much on data quality and data rigorous and that data science role? It’s because Opendoor business is really unique and it’s very complex.
Amy Yang: If you think about housing transaction, it’s very important, and maybe you only do one or two housing transactions in your whole life. It’s very complex, the transaction process. Second challenge is our data is super sparse. Due to it’s a rare event, we don’t have repetitive interaction with a customer. Sometimes we only serve the customer once or twice in their whole lifetime. It brings a lot of analytical and statistical challenge. We don’t have the luxury of the e-commerce or internet type of traffic.
Amy Yang: A lot of the decision we are making need to depend on statistical influence and statistical expertise at Opendoor. The last point is optimization. We want to produce the best user customer experience with constrained amount of time and constrained cost. We want to work within limited costs and trying to optimize within the constraint and the produce the best customer experience.
Amy Yang: I’m going to share with you some other typical projects our data scientist team work with, for example, in the buyer team, we study the local housing demand and the price elasticity, and we feed that information to our resale pricing team in order to better or more accurately price the resell price for the home we acquired.
Amy Yang: In the seller team, we try to target specific seller group and provide more customized seller experience by serving based on seller input. Their characteristic provide a different type of unique service. So that’s our optimization model our data scientist team work on. From pricing side, we want to understand how to combat risk, adverse selection, and the competition and build other factor and the macro information into our pricing model. So that’s an overall introduction for the data science team and some of the cool project we’re working on.
Amy Yang: I’m going to introduce our next speaker, which is Maggie. Maggie is a Senior Software Engineer on the sales and the support team at Opendoor. Maggie has been a part of a wide range of projects at Opendoor, and recently she co-designed and is currently implementing a new role-based access control system for the company internal tooling. Outside of work, Maggie is a competitive swing dancer. Welcome Maggie.
Maggie Moreno: Thank you, Amy. Hi. I’m Maggie. And I’m going to talk about role-based access control at Opendoor. In this talk I’ll go over what role-based access control is generally, what the design goals were for Opendoor’s RBAC system, technical design of our RBAC system, and some challenges and recommendations from our experience. If you aren’t familiar with the term role-based access control, I can almost guarantee you are familiar with the concept. At a high level, in an RBAC system what a user can and cannot access is based on their assigned role. There are three main data entities, users, roles, and permissions. Let’s take GitHub as an example.
Angie Chang: Hey, Maggie. Real quick. Can you share your slides? I don’t think we see them.
Maggie Moreno: Oh, yeah. You know, it goes to show all the preparation in the world…
Angie Chang: Perfect.
Maggie Moreno: Let’s take GitHub as an example. Can you guys see my slides now?
Angie Chang: Yes.
Maggie Moreno: Excellent. Thank you. GitHub. I am part of the backend infra team, which means that my role is an administrator on the web Repo, which means that I can access admin features like merging pull requests without all the checks passing.
Maggie Moreno: For Opendoor’s role-based access control system, we have some very specific design goals. As a result of going public in 2020, we needed to comply with the Financial Operations Act, widely known as SOX. SOX compliance can mean different things for different companies, but the most pertinent part of SOX compliance for Opendoor was showing that only authorized employees were allowed to perform financially sensitive actions.
Maggie Moreno: Other goals for the system included easy use of maintenance for engineers, straightforward management for IT, and peace of mind for security. Security was a bigger concern than usual for our new RBAC system because we would be trusting the system with protecting financially sensitive actions from both internal and external users. We wanted employees to follow a clear process to change role and permission assignments.
Maggie Moreno: In our design, we assigned roles to users in Okta, an industry standard authentication and authorization tool, bringing a lot of advantages for security and IT. We already have moved towards using Okta for authentication for our internal tooling and this change felt like a natural extension of prior work.
Maggie Moreno: We store our permission to role mapping in a separate service config, which means that changes were handled through GitHub. It also means that for every API we call a role to permission service Gatekeeper to check the users roles. API end points are tied with permissions directly in the code, which is easy for engineers to implement and maintain. And once we get the users roles from Gatekeeper, we check whether they match the permissions for that API end point.
Maggie Moreno: Our biggest challenge for this project we encountered in the design phase. We had a big challenge understanding what SOX compliance would mean for Opendoor and what actions we should take to limit access first. Like many companies, Opendoor has a few different deployment environments for our internal tooling, and one of our biggest questions was whether we could limit our RBAC gating to one of these deployment environments. After further exploration, we discovered that that was not the case and this significantly changed our design requirements.
Maggie Moreno: Additionally, this project stress tested how major engineering design decisions are made at Opendoor. Getting alignment on the critical design decisions was especially difficult given the lack of clarity on the scope of the project. If you happen to find yourself in a similar situation in the future, we recommend that you clarify and align on your RBAC project goals before you start the design process. We also recommend involving cross-team stakeholders early in the project and communicate to engineering management early and often if the project needs more resources. Thanks.
Maggie Moreno: The next speaker is Sumedha. Sumedha is a Senior Software Engineer at Opendoor on the seller core experience team. She builds out various tools and interfaces to help customers find a home selling experience which best suits their needs, whether that is listing or selling their home using Opendoor services. These range from dashboards to see their home value to a digital closing experience.
Maggie Moreno: She also manages and maintains Opendoor’s design systems and React UI component libraries, which power the Opendoor site and admin tools. Outside of work, Sumedha is an avid baker and always trying to find ways to fit more plants into her environment. Welcome Sumedha.
Sumedha Pramod: Hi. Thanks Maggie. Sorry for taking over a little bit early. Role-based access control and SOX compliance are so important now that we’re a public company. It’s really great to see what went on behind the scenes to make that all happen. Hi. I’m Sumedha.
Sumedha Pramod: On the Seller team at Opendoor, we actually filled out a variety of customer experiences and dashboards, which spanned from educating the customer on buying and/or selling their home all the way through actually digitally closing on their home.
Sumedha Pramod: As you can imagine, the UI gets increasingly more complex as the functionality gets more and more important. This means that customers need to be 100% sure that they’re trusting their home and their money with Opendoor and that the site that they’re on, and that they’re signing contracts on is legit. Delivering on these expectations while continuing to add new features requires pretty thorough testing and it also helps us as a company build trust, brand, and consistency across all of our customer experiences.
Sumedha Pramod: With different UIs, it’s not as straightforward to catch a lot of UI changes and things like colors, font sizes, mobile responsiveness, and all those little nitty gritty things aren’t as easy to catch. Especially when there’s a ton of engineers working on the same UI, it’s pretty easy to miss if one person’s change unintentionally impacts everyone’s experience. I spend a lot of time personally staring at my team’s customer experiences, so I tend to notice some pretty nitpicky changes, but that doesn’t mean that an engineer from another team has the UI memorized the same way. This is amplified even more with design systems and shared component libraries, because a lot of these components that are changing are used across tons of different experiences.
Sumedha Pramod: At Opendoor, we have a bunch of micro front ends and a single change to a shared component like the button here on the left-hand side can have an unintended side effect on pretty much every experience at Opendoor without people really realizing it. UI regression tests are one of the ways that we found to actually help mitigate a lot of these unintentional UI side effects.
Sumedha Pramod: It allows us to compare screenshots of the UI or visual snapshots against a predefined baseline. It really helps us catch a lot of these really nit picky things. And it also helps us QA the user experience in a way a lot easier. And it helps us QA against design expectations. Additionally, we can also develop a lot of these components in a completely isolated environment without any kind of network calls. We don’t have to worry about data loading or any of that, we can really focus just on the UI and the pixel perfect stuff.
Sumedha Pramod: At Opendoor, we use a combination of two frameworks called Percy and Storybook, which are two different open source tools that enable the development and documentation of UI components and also automating a lot of that UI screenshot testing. In this example, you can see that we have a dashboard being rendered, but what we can actually turn this pretty simple unit test into something that renders a component.
Sumedha Pramod: If you want, you can have it mock out some data calls, do all that stuff, and you can actually render that and test it against a specific baseline. UI regression testing or UI visual screenshots don’t actually replace your standard unit tests or smoke tests or integration tests. Since those actually validate the expected behavior and experiences, this is really just to focus on the nitpicky UI things, so things like the CSS changes that I mentioned earlier.
Sumedha Pramod: Also you have all those other tests to validate behaviors such as whether or not a [inaudible] pops up when a user clicks a button or typing something in an input field will enable a button somewhere else. And this isn’t just useful for engineering, it’s been extremely helpful when QAing new features and designs. It’s also greatly reduced the amount of back and forth as we’re launching new features with design where we’re like, “This is a little bit off, this pixel is a little bit off.” As we’re developing, we can send these over and we can make sure that any future changes isn’t actually breaking that experience.
Sumedha Pramod: All of these things combined allow us to develop really beautiful and seamless experiences for customers and really make one of the most expensive and biggest transactions in people’s lives a little less scary.
Sumedha Pramod: Now, I’ll turn it over to Heather for our next segment. Heather brings 22 years of engineering experience to Opendoor, having led teams at Lyft, Capital One and Blackboard. At Opendoor, she leads the engineering organization focused on the core product experience for home sellers along with growth initiatives and retail partnerships. Heather lives in Berkeley, California with her husband and two boys. Welcome Heather.
Heather Natour: Thank you, Sumedha. And thank you so much for presenting on the Storybook and Percy testing. I’ve personally seen the impact of that on our quality and productivity. And I’m really excited to host this next session which will be a Q & A with our panelists.
Heather Natour: I’d like to invite everyone back to come back on the screen. And while they’re doing that, I wanted to talk about leadership in this Q & A, and as an engineering leader, I believe we should be creating opportunities for leadership at all levels, whether you’re an intern or a staff engineer.
Heather Natour: And one of the things I love about Opendoor is seeing that demonstration of leadership every day with every single person I work with. And I’ve personally seen that leadership demonstrated by these particular panelists.
Heather Natour: I’d love to ask each of you first, what do each of you believe has contributed to your ability to demonstrate leadership at Opendoor? I think we have everybody on now. So Morgan, maybe we’ll start with you.
Morgan Cole: Sure. Thank you, Heather. I appreciate the question. There’s two things that come to mind for me. The first piece I would say is, it sounds pretty simple, but I have practiced the art of assuming good intent at all costs in every scenario. Because I think sometimes in leadership, it can be quite easy to become a little bit defensive because you want to do well and you want to show up correctly, and so I think if you operate from a perspective of no matter what’s thrown at me, I’m going to assume that this was thrown at me with good intention, it will help calm that defensiveness so that you can respond in an appropriate manner. So that’s the first piece.
Morgan Cole: The second piece I would say is the team that I’m on specifically has done a really good job of teaching me how to lead collaboratively. I think it’s super important that whenever you are leading, whether it’s a new project, whether it’s a team, whether you’re just building new relationships with other partners throughout your business, it’s vital, it’s paramount that you don’t look at yourself as the single source of truth, but rather you work in conjunction with the parties that are involved to make sure that you all are leading in the same direction. So the two that I would say is assuming good intent and leading collaboratively.
Heather Natour: Yeah. That’s so true and really insightful, Morgan. I really appreciate your thoughts. How about you, Annie?
Annie Tang: Hey guys. I am unable to start my video, but I’m here. If whoever’s hosting could start my video for me, that’d be great. If not, no worries. Oh, here we go. All right. I’m back. This is such a great question. I think that my ability to demonstrate leadership at Opendoor has really been stemmed from as a designer and as a design leader related to what I was talking about in my talk, really helping everyone at the organization really obsess over problems, over ideas, and really… One of the key values that we have at Opendoor now is to start and end with the customer, and I think a lot of being about a designer is building that empathy and really obsessing over our customers. And that ultimately gets you to obsess over problems rather than solutions, so I’d say that’s one aspect.
Annie Tang: And the other aspect is really keeping in mind that execution matters. It’s not all about coming up with cool ideas and cool visions and stuff. That at the end of the day, we need to keep a high bar for what we do. And so execution really amounts to making sure that teams are working really collaboratively, that designers and PMs and engineers are working collaboratively and are in sync, can we do these workshops to make sure that people are in sync? So I think the dual sense of just making sure that we’re obsessing over customers and problems, and also making sure that we’re really executing to high level is kind of my leadership style.
Heather Natour: Yeah. That’s really great. And I agree, I’ve seen so much of that at Opendoor, the collaboration, especially collaboration that you facilitated. And it’s certainly a differentiator, I think, how much Opendoor obsesses over their customers. So that’s great. Maggie, what are your thoughts on the topic?
Maggie Moreno: Yeah, I feel like one of the best things about working at Opendoor is that there’s no shortage of good ideas, only people to make those ideas a reality. Opendoor’s business has a lot of different facets and there are opportunities everywhere for taking on more responsibility. So for me personally at Opendoor, I just feel like getting more leadership opportunities and developing myself as a leader has mostly just been a matter of raising my hand.
Heather Natour: Yeah, that’s very true. And I think the business complexity at Opendoor is really interesting and absolutely creates those opportunities. I love that. Amy, how have you experienced leadership at Opendoor?
Amy Yang: Hi. Not only the complexity of the type of problem Opendoor trying to solve, but also I would say, I admire this whole industry is still very new and young, like a startup feel when you join Opendoor compared to… I used to work at a more mature, larger technical company. I can definitely feel the culture difference here. Not everything is perfect is set up already. You don’t see maybe a perfect data engineering team prepare a perfect data that can be consumed by data science team. A lot of times you need to do the heavy lifting and see where the gap is, where the problem is, not just complaining for the missing pieces, but actually propose a solution and just do it. So that naturally you creates a gap create an opportunity for emerging new leader, especially for me coming from an IC now transition into a leadership role.
Amy Yang: The other thing I want to mention is this one team, one dream culture that is core value for Opendoor. So when you see area for improvement, even not within your immediate team, maybe it’s a cross-functional team, but you can contribute. There is nobody will stop you and say, “No, just do your own team’s work.” There’s always collaboration opportunity and you can just extend your influence outside of your immediate team and service area.
Heather Natour: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s spot on and the sense of ownership that everyone has and doing that as a team, it’s so much more powerful, it becomes real multiplier. How about you, Sumedha, how do you feel the Opendoor experience has allowed you to demonstrate your leadership?
Sumedha Pramod: Okay, sorry about that. Honestly, one of the best ways I’ve been able to actually demonstrate leadership and grow is every week, every other week we have these kind of architectural meetings, and it’s really allowed me to not just have ownership of the code and the surface areas that my team operates in, but really expand that beyond that. And gives us a lot of opportunities to propose and facilitate a lot of discussions that have impact beyond just your specific team. And so really getting to establish that level of ownership at a much, much, much broader level and really expand your impact across the company. Yeah, that’s been really one of the most unique and interesting ways that I’ve been able to really develop leadership here.
Heather Natour: Yeah. I’ve seen that there’s a lot of people and we really want to include everybody in that process, and I think it’s really elevated a lot of amazing ideas, much more long-term thinking and has really pushed the organization to the next level. That’s a great example. Clearly each of you have developed deep domain expertise, and so on top of that, each of you have considered the direction in which you grow and whether it’s moving to people management or focusing on deepening your multiplying impact.
Heather Natour: Were there specific things you considered in order to decide which direction to take your career? And maybe we’ll start with Maggie.
Maggie Moreno: Thanks, Heather. I have been thinking a lot about going into people management. So I’m working on that transition right now. About a year ago, I got the opportunity to be a tech lead for a team, and I found that performing the leadership role was a lot more rewarding than being an IC. So I’ve really been taking on pursuing that and getting involved with the crafting of our transition role and starting to craft those documents.
Heather Natour: That’s great. And I think your selflessness that you demonstrate every day is really a huge impact to the rest of the team. And so it’s really great to see you moving into people management. Amy, how about you, you mentioned you were recently transitioning more from IC to leadership, what were some specific things you considered?
Amy Yang: Yeah, I think I’ve summarized the decision making process. I consider two factors. One is what my strength is, two, what my passion is about, three, is what’s the company goal is. I think the perfect position is how the three factors can align the best. Sometimes what you want to do doesn’t really align with the bigger picture of what the company want to go. Either the long-term goal, I haven’t seen sometimes, especially technical, a very deep technical person, they just want to utilize specific technology or tooling but that doesn’t necessarily solve the immediate business problem. That is a misalignment. I think the perfect position are when everybody would try to evaluate what’s the best role is. Do you see opportunity or can the next position that help you align the three factor better?
Amy Yang: For me, I joined Opendoor relatively recent, end of last year. I joined as a senior IC. Now I’m in the tech lead position. I enjoy my current position. It gives me both the freedom to do some project roadmap planning management, and also stay close to the technology while I’m still learning about the business, but eventually, based how I feel, how I evaluate the three factor alignment, I will make my decision for the next step.
Heather Natour: Yeah, that’s great. It’s so great that you’ve gotten these opportunities so quickly and yet, you can always change your mind and feel supported in how you grow here, I think that’s great. Sumedha, how have you thought about your career direction?
Sumedha Pramod: For me, it came down to as simple as I really just like writing code, as nerdy as that sounds. Writing code and really spending a lot of time diving into our customer experiences, whether that’s from a product design or even engineering standpoint. Obviously, as I grow more as a senior IC, it’s definitely less about doing a lot of the nitty gritty code myself, but really figuring out how I can better enable those around me to accomplish whether it’s technical goals or OKRs or things like that. And then also, how can I set some technical standards around best practices while really starting to think a lot more big picture about our systems and those are the challenges that really excite me and made me really want to go down the route of becoming a more senior IC for sure.
Heather Natour: That’s great. It’s hard to debate not liking to code. Annie, you’ve provided leadership at Opendoor for quite a while, how have you thought about your career direction?
Annie Tang: Yeah, so I started off at Opendoor long time ago as a senior designer as a senior IC, and I worked on much of the end to end experience and various part of the experience. And then, about two and a half years ago, I moved to management. And I think one guiding principle that I really had about my career has always just been to optimize for growth because I am happiest when I am learning and challenged. And so I was honestly really happy being an IC. I loved designing, I learned a lot, especially going from designing, just digital experiences at previous gigs to Opendoor, where I was really challenged and designing these online and offline experiences. And as Opendoor grew, I got the opportunity to manage.
Annie Tang: And when there was the opportunity, I was actually really excited and I actually told my manager that I wanted this opportunity. And I think that’s one thing that I would advise everyone too, is I actually don’t believe there is a certain stereotype for ICs, like if you are this way, you’re a great IC or if this way, you’re a great manager. If you’re curious and you want to grow into one or the other, make it known to your manager. It might not be that immediately you can do it, but that’s one thing I always tell, especially females. If there isn’t a right or wrong answer, if you’re curious about something, just to say that, because that’s ultimately how I ended up in management. I was really curious about it. I saw an opportunity, I told my manager and he helped me work my way through it.
Annie Tang: And as our company grew, I got to scale our team and I have really found a lot of enjoyment in supporting my team and not being the hands-on IC. I also haven’t ruled out though that maybe in the future or next gig, I want to be an IC again. And so I believe that there’s a lot of fluidity to this.
Heather Natour: Yeah. That’s excellent advice. I wholeheartedly agree. I have similar experiences. Morgan, you inspired us with just your self-awareness talk. How do you think personally about your own career direction?
Morgan Cole: Sure. Well, let me just tell you Heather, my career has been nothing short of a jungle gym. I have been a senior manager, an entry-level IC, a senior IC, a lead, back to management, back to IC. All of that’s happened in the span of about six years, and in different sectors too, whether it’s sales, whether it’s marketing and advertising, leadership and development, or learning and development, rather.
Morgan Cole: My decision-making process generally speaking, is with regard to the skills that I like to nurture. That’s basically how I base my decisions. So the trajectory of my career, it’s based on the skillsets and the acumen that I hope to cultivate at a specific time. And whatever those skillsets are, I am going to look for a position or role in which it will specifically help me get to that next step, and I’m less concerned about what the title is and more concerned about what the end result could potentially be.
Heather Natour: Yeah, that’s great advice. It’s sometimes hard to take the time to even think about that, but I think it’s really important. I appreciate all of the panelists’ thoughtful answers and that’s a wrap for the presentation portion. I also wanted to thank the Girl Geek team for all you do for the community.
Heather Natour:Here’s my LinkedIn – feel free to connect with me and reference this event if you want to hear more about Opendoor. I’ll invite Angie back on the screen to share the next portion of the breakout sessions.
Angie Chang: Awesome. Thank you all for sharing your insights and your journeys with us. Really enjoyed all the talks and the conversation about this is what leadership looks like. We will be sharing some Opendoor jobs via email. Keep an eye out for that.. that’s actually an event survey, and also links to the Opendoor jobs!
Here is a list of recommended resources – crowdsourced by attendees to help each other evolve into the best versions of ourselves in work and life!
Sukrutha Bhadouria: We will move on to our next talk. Our next talk is going to be given by Ashley. Ashley leads OpenAI’s developer ecosystem and creative application strategy, where she helps accelerate developers and startups build new applications with positive impact. She has also helped lead the launches of OpenAI’s research and commercial products, including Usenet, Jukebox, Rubik’s Cube, Multi-Agent, Image GBT, GPTC API, CLIP and so, oh my goodness. That was a lot. Welcome, Ashley.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: Excellent. Thank you so much for having me. Let me go ahead and share my screen. All right. Excellent. Let me bump this over here.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: Okay, great. Well, thank you everybody for joining this session. I am very excited to walk you through prompt design and engineering with GPT-3. As mentioned, my name’s Ashley and I’m the technical director at OpenAI. So, just a quick introduction here. If you haven’t heard of OpenAI before. So, we are an AI research and deployment company with the mission to ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all of humanity.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: And what’s unique about us, is we’re actually made up of three distinct pillars focused on engineering startup, research lab, and safety and policy group. And so, a little bit of background here in the lead up to GPT-3. So, nine months ago, we launched our very first commercial product, which was the OpenAI API.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: And this has really become our core platform for accessing our latest AI models. And unlike most AI systems that maybe you’ve interacted with before that are typically designed for one use case, our API actually provides a general purpose text in, text out interface, which I’ll walk you through in a live demo in just a bit.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: And so, this enables our users to try it on virtually any English language task. Since launching, we’ve already seen 200 production-ready applications built using the variety of capabilities that GPT-3 offers. And so, what we’ve seen is actually this incredibly new ecosystem of applications. Spanning things from legal to HR, game development, customer support, productivity, science and education, and both new companies being developed and startups as well as other companies integrating the API. So, a little bit about GPT-3. So, this model doesn’t have a goal or objective other than predicting the next word.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: And so, the key thing to take away here, and this is going to be key as we begin to dive into this prompt design, is it is not programmed to do any specific task. So, this single API can perform as a chat bot. It can perform as a classifier. It could do summarization because at its root level, it’s able to understand what those tasks look like purely from a text perspective. So, really the best way to really… If there’s one thing to take away about GPT-3, it is really just trying to predict the very next word based on all of the previous text it’s seen beforehand.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So, prompt design and engineering. What do you need to take away here? So, if you have ever played the game charades, this is actually a really great exercise for figuring out how to program with GPT-3. Because what essentially you’re trying to do, again, if it’s just trying to predict the kind of task that you’d like it to perform, you basically want to provide enough context, but not have to give all the information at once. And so, you want to be able to just provide some guidelines about what you’d like GPT-3 to do.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So, for example, if you want to do classification, want to be able to provide some information about what you’d like done and then maybe a couple of examples. And then try to even provide some counterexamples as well. And so, I’ll show that in just a second. Before we dive in, I just want to highlight some of the settings that are going to come up. There are things called Temperature and Top P. These again, back to thinking about prediction. So, these are not necessarily creativity dials, but they’ll control randomness.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: Another thing we offer is “Best of.” And so, again, GPT-3 in the API is trying to think, “Okay, what is the best response here?” And so, what is the highest average value of the tokens being generated. Frequency, we also… Basically it’s saying, “Okay, we don’t want to repeat what’s already being generated.” And then the Presence setting is also trying to figure out, “Okay, do we want to change topics here and being able to move forward from that?”
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So, we can come back to that, but I’m going to go ahead and move over into… This is the OpenAI beta site. And so, let’s just move this down here. So, this is the Playground setting. So, here on the right hand side, you’re going to see all of these settings that I was just talking about. So, for example, you can determine what the response links will be and to generate with. As I mentioned, this is the Temperature setting. So, we have it currently set to 0.7. So, that’s a pretty standard setting. We also have the Frequency Penalty, the Presence Penalty, and Best of, which I had mentioned. We won’t dive into these just quite yet.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So, what we have here is what’s known as a prompt library. And what we’ve done is, actually with our developer community, figured out what are some of the best prompts that people are able to get really good results on and what are those settings?
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So, for example, let’s say we want to summarize for a second grader. If you’ve ever received an NDA or any type of legal documents. Actually I, myself, am not a lawyer. And so, many times if I’m reading a legal document, I really don’t know what the essence of that document is really saying. So, actually this prompt, Summarize for a 2nd grader, is really helpful because essentially it is transforming more dense text and simplifying that into maybe how you would explain that to a second grader.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So, the prompt here. This is actually talking about Jupiter. So, it’s saying that it’s the fifth planet from the sun, the Roman God it’s named after, et cetera. So, again, as I was talking about before, you’re providing the example, so you’re already telling GPT-3 here, “My second grader asked me what this passage means.” You’re already putting that context of putting it into something that a second grader understand, then you’re separating it here. And then you’re actually putting a content that you would like summarized. And then you’re telling GPT-3, okay, you’d like it to be rephrased in plain language a second grader can understand. Here, it will also tell you, “What are some of the ideal settings for a prompt like this.” So, let’s go to Playground.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: And just a second, there we go. So, then all the settings, everything pops up in my Playground setting. And so, here the prompt is, and let me bump this up and let me hit submit. So, “Jupiter is a big ball of gas. It’s the fifth planet from the sun. It’s bright. You can see it in the sky at night. It’s named after the Roman God, Jupiter.” That’s pretty good. It pulled out kind of all the main pieces that we’d want from the prompt and the original text.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: Now, the cool thing here is, too, let’s say you don’t want to use Jupiter… Or figure out more about the solar system, but let’s say you did want a section of a legal document. What you could do is you can just edit these prompts right in your Playground. So, you could delete this and go ahead and delete this as well. And then you could go ahead and copy and paste your own text in there as well, because you’re still retaining those key guidelines. Again, imagine if this is a game of charades or even if you’re working with a coworker and you’re trying to give a set of instructions. So, the key instructions here are asking the second grader–saying, “My second grader asked me what the passage means,” and you want it rephrased. But you can always insert different types of content here.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So, let’s do another example. So let’s go back to the prompt library. So, a very cool thing we also understand. Remember how I said GPT-3 is focused on text. However, it is able to transform text into emojis. Which actually, thanks to one of our developers who discovered this, we were actually not aware of this capability beforehand. So, if you want to convert a movie title into emoji, you could give some examples. So, Back to the Future might be, you know, boy, man, a car, and a clock. Batman might be a man and a bat. Game of Thrones will be some arrows and some swords. And again, you’ll have the settings on here to get you started.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So, we can open this up again in Playground. And so, let’s see what we’ll come back for Spider-Man. So, it’s got some spiders, some webs, and that’s pretty good. Let’s see if… What it might come back with if we try it again. All right. So, it looks like it’ll repeat itself on that one. But also, you can begin to combine some of these as well.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So, you can imagine using chat. So, obviously chat bots are a really popular application. And as I mentioned before, you can think about in customer support scenarios, you can think of in all different types of applications.
Ashley Pilipiszyn:Many of us have already interacted with chat bots before. So, let’s say you want to customize your chat bot. So, the base prompt here is, “This is a following conversation with an AI assistant. The assistant is very helpful, creative, clever, and very friendly.” And so, we’ll begin this dialogue. So saying, “Hello, who are you? I’m an AI created by OpenAI. How can I help you today?” Let’s say, “What movie do you recommend I watch this week?” And we’ll set AI. And submit, oops. My apologies.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: Looking at works of Christopher Nolan. Interstellar, Inception, The Prestige. That is actually a little bit freaky. Christopher Nolan is one of my favorite directors and I love, actually, all three of those movies. So, very spot on actually. But you can begin to actually customize these even more. So for example, let’s say, “The assistant is very creative, clever, very friendly, and an expert on sci-fi.” So, let’s say, “Which books should I add to my reading list?” The Left Hand of Darkness. The Gate to Women’s Country, The Ship Who Sang. Interesting.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So anyways, you can begin to play around and begin to add that additional context. So, for example, we’ve seen people say, “Okay, this AI chat bot is a science teacher or a bookstore clerk,” and you can begin to actually create these various personas to kind of probe GPT-3, or nudge GPT-3 into the direction, or have that context that you would like it to have. So, let’s do one more.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So, I mentioned earlier before, Classification. So, you can imagine this being a really useful example. Whether you think of product classification, here is an example of a list of companies and the various categories that they’ll fall into. So, if we open this up in Playground.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So, again, we’re telling GPT-3, “Okay, Facebook. You want the tags, social media, technology.” LinkedIn will also have that, but maybe enterprise and careers. McDonald’s, you’ve got food, fast food, logistics. And so, this is an opportunity also to create different types of tags. So, let’s see. Logistics transportation. Let’s add… What’s another one. See what comes back for TikTok, social media entertainment. So, that’s pretty good.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: But you can imagine again, applying this to a variety of different products. So, let’s say you’re building a different kind of app for different types of clothing or different types of foods. These kinds of things. And so, you can begin to actually add all of these different capabilities together. So, let’s say for example, the chat bot from the previous example also was able to then help you classify the different products you had in your application.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: And so, as I had shown before for the different startups we’ve seen, et cetera, all the different applications you’re seeing with GPT-3, all boil down to these prompts. And so, your ability to actually help GPT-3 understand, “Okay, what is the end result that you’re trying to get GPT-3 to do,” is really where a lot of interesting things can happen. And so, some of the best applications we’ve seen have been ones where you actually combine these capabilities. So, not just doing a single classification or a single chat bot, but actually being able to integrate those because that’s where GPT strengths lie. As I said before, GPT-3 can do a lot of different things. It’s not programmed to do one or the other, but it actually is very good at, essentially, multitasking.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So, with that, I wanted to… I’m not sure if any questions have come through, but I wanted to leave a time for just a few questions. But I know this was a very, very rapid fire, deep dive into prompt design and engineering. If A), you have any questions, please feel free to email me. If you are interested in getting access to GPT-3 or building an app or product with GPT-3, again, please email me. I’d be delighted to discuss and very excited to have more people join our developer ecosystem and build with GPT-3. So, thank you so much. And I’d be happy to take any questions with the remaining time.
Angie Chang: There’s some questions in the chat. Most of them were like, “How do we get access to GPT-3?”
Ashley Pilipiszyn: Okay.
Angie Chang: You just answered that question, but if you would like to look in the chat, there’s a question about how OpenAI overcame bias about, for example, food suggestions, American versus Western food, or summarizing New York Times, Wall Street Journal, short article or headline. Let’s see if you can answer in three minutes.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: Okay, awesome. So, and I can not see the exact question, but I think… So, on the question of bias. So, excellent question. It is a, first of all, a very big industry-wide issue at OpenAI, especially we’re really focused on addressing this. Especially with our safety and policy work.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: Actually, I highly recommend checking out if you haven’t last week, we released a new research release about multimodal neurons in our latest clip model, which is our most powerful vision model.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: And the reason I bring this up is because, this is kind of demystifying what’s happening underneath the hood with these AI models. Because obviously, these models are trained on all of the internet. And so, they’re basically integrating what they’re learning from us on the internet. And so, what this multimodal analysis allows us to do, is actually peek under the hood and understand, “Okay, so how are these associations being made?”
Ashley Pilipiszyn: And this allows us to figure out, “Okay, then how can we begin to address these,” by identifying where these associations are happening. And so, this is really borrowing a lot from neuroscience. So, but to address bias in the case of prompt design and engineering.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: There is an opportunity actually to address some of this in text form as well. And so, whether it’s modifying your prompts. So, I think the example was for like foods or recipes, being able to provide a little bit more context to be able to help nudge where you’d like GPT-3 to go. And this actually will help with giving examples as well.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So, actually one quick example that might help address this is… Question/answer. So quickly, what you can do in a situation like this is you also can provide, for example, a question that’s rooted in truth. I would get the answer. If you ask me a question that’s nonsense, or it doesn’t have a clear answer, I’ll respond with unknown. And so, you can also provide facts or essentially give those examples of how you’d like GPT-3 to respond. So, that’s another way again, is through that prompt as well.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: And then the second question… Angie, I forget what was the second question on?
Angie Chang: It was on headlines, for summarizing media company headlines.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: Oh yes, yes. So, summarization, I guess more broadly. So, GPT-3 is excellent at summarizing. Actually, it can do data parsing and summarization. And so, if I’m understanding the question correctly, could you take a variety of headlines and then summarize a bunch of different headlines and what’s the TLDR main takeaway from that? GPT-3 would be very good at that. Pretty much summarizing, again any text, it will be quite strong at.
Angie Chang: Great. Thank you so much, Ashley. That’s all the time we have today. I know people will be definitely signing up to join the GPT-3 beta and trying it out. And thank you for leaving your contact information on the slide..
Ashley Pilipiszyn: Yes.
Angie Chang: Where you can get in touch with Ashley directly.
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Sukrutha Bhadouria: And we will move on to our afternoon keynote, which I’m super excited about.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Our afternoon keynote is with none other than Ashley Dudgeon. Ashley Dudgeon is VP of Software Engineering at Salesforce, where she has worked for over a decade. She began her career as a software developer after graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in computer science. She believes cultivating engaged, innovative, and transparent organizations is a prerequisite to building amazing software, and I have had a courtside view of that. Welcome, Ashley.
Ashley Dudgeon: Thank you, Sukrutha. Thanks so much for having me.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: So we’re going to get it right in! As they say, every good story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, not necessarily in that specific order, with so much of what defines a person is really based on how their story actually began. So I’d like to rewind a little bit, if you don’t mind, and I’d like to hear about your early years.
Ashley Dudgeon: Sure. So since we’re talking about resilience today, I’m glad that we are starting from the beginning. So while I certainly didn’t know it then, it was during my childhood and upbringing that taught me that resilience is not only critical to surviving, but it is the key ingredient to thriving. So my family and I immigrated to the United States as refugees. We had escaped Vietnam after the war, when I was only an infant. We’re now what history calls the boat people, fleeing to the wide open seas, packed in small ill-equipped fishing boats, willing to risk death for a better chance at life.
Ashley Dudgeon: I have no memories of this, of course, but it was the most influential event that has shaped who I am today. And while I never knew it or felt it, growing up, we were quite poor. My parents would move from orchard to orchard, harvesting tomatoes, cucumbers, or whatever was in season, from sunrise to sunset, to provide for their six children. When my father saved enough to start his own business, my mom would mow lawns and rake leaves beside him in these pristine neighborhoods that felt so foreign to our own. And despite our hardships, my parents provided a privileged and happy upbringing for my siblings and me. We had everything we needed. We had food, shelter, safety, and a loving environment.
Ashley Dudgeon: We played like normal children and focused on school and not because we were forced to, but because we figured early on that access to education would be the greatest gift that my parents could ever give us. So for us children to excel academically would mean that all of their sacrifices would have been worth it, and would also mean that we contribute back to a country that had given so much to us. And I’d say my high school years were also pretty transformative. I went to school in East San Jose. The student body was made of the surrounding lower and middle-class families. There were gangs and teenage pregnancies and drugs, but I also found myself amongst some of the smartest and brightest peers, many of whom I still have contact with today and have built their own successful careers.
Ashley Dudgeon: And I think we were really fortunate to have a set of AP teachers that believed in us and successfully prepared us to get into top universities. They had the audacity to coach East Side kids mock trial and send us in to compete against schools whose teams were coached by their attorney parents. We actually ended up making it to the semi-finals, which I thought was pretty remarkable. And I was also on the tennis team, with a coach that insisted that we compete in the top league, even though we were consistently coming out near the bottom. We would drive to these richer districts and get clobbered by girls who belonged to private tennis clubs and have their own private coaches.
Ashley Dudgeon: It was brutal, but sometimes we would come out on top. I didn’t see the brilliance then, but our teachers and coaches were preparing us to show up, to compete, and pushed us to succeed in a world that was beyond the East Side. They gave us confidence to believe in our abilities so much that we began to believe in them as well. One teacher, in particular, so inspired us that we gathered annually for the past two decades, hoping that he continued to see the impact that he made in our lives.
Ashley Dudgeon: And when he passed away a few years ago, we got the opportunity to reunite with all of our high school teachers, and that was just such an amazing and touching event. And so, as an adult, I realize now that much of my determination and unwillingness to accept defeat was seeded very early on by simply observing my parents throughout my life, and then it was also reinforced by the most dedicated and amazing teachers. So those are my early years, and they definitely had an impact and who I am today.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: That’s just amazing to learn more about how it all started and how it has played a part in where you are today. But along the way, you’ve obviously made some bets and you made some decisions, and we all have to continue to make decisions where we continue to question which direction to go in, whether that’s the right one for us and for everyone around us. And I, myself, have struggled with making the right decision, and it’s really hard to say, but hindsight is 20/20. So what’s the bet that you think you took that had a substantial impact on where you are today?
Ashley Dudgeon: Yeah. Oh boy. So I’ve certainly made my fair share of bets. And I have to say a few turned out pretty awful, but in hindsight, I can’t say they were truly losses, because collectively, they’ve led me to where I am today. But there is one big bet that stands out. Because I can still remember how it feels, or how it felt, to carry that immense weight of the decision around for two years to see how it would play out. And I’m referring to my years at UC Berkeley and the huge bet I made when I decided to pursue computer science. I’m totally dating myself here, but let me take you back to 1997. Google didn’t exist yet. About a third of US households owned a computer, and accessing the internet sounded like you were trying to make contact with ET through your telephone.
Ashley Dudgeon: That’s something our children will never know. I was a freshman and I thought I wanted to pursue a degree in business after ruling out medicine. And as one of the pre-reqs, I happened to take a course, Intro to Programming, which I believe was taught in Lisp. And from the start I was hooked. My mind was blown by the fact that you can use the keys on your keyboard to make your computer do things. It felt like magic, but the only problem was the only way to get admitted into the computer science major was to take two years of the curriculum, apply, and then pray that your technical GPA was in the top 50 of all applicants.
Ashley Dudgeon: It was the simplest acceptance algorithm, but it was also pretty cutthroat. I mean, I couldn’t even use the English or Asian-American studies to prop up my GPA. Those didn’t even count. So all I could do was think about what kind of degree I’d end up with if I didn’t get in and what would happen to my life as a consequence. It sounds a bit dramatic now, but remember, I was 18 and I felt like I might’ve already ruined my future by not choosing medicine. Anyhow, it felt like a pretty big gamble. I remember sitting in lecture halls of two to 300 computer science students, and all I could see was this auditorium full of males. I swore that many of them knew how to program before they probably learned how to talk, and come to think of it, I don’t think I had a single female computer science professor my entire time there.
Ashley Dudgeon: So it was no wonder I was constantly fighting this inner voice that told me that I was out of my league, but fortunately, there were also louder counter voices that gave me the confidence and determination to succeed. When things feel impossible, I find courage in all the stories my parents would share with us growing up. I remember the war stories of my mom running, heavily pregnant, from the bombings with three kids in tow, while the fate of my soldier father was unknown. Or, how we shared a two-bedroom apartment with two other families when we first arrived in the United States.
Ashley Dudgeon: And while they were mostly met with kindness, there was also the occasional encounters that reminded them that to some, they were just cheap laborers in someone else’s land, but yet they persevered. So did I believe that I was capable of studying hard and earning a place in computer science? You bet. It seemed like the easiest thing I could possibly do when I compare it to the challenges that my parents faced. And I vividly remember the morning that I made the long trek up to Soda Hall, praying that I would see my name above the dreaded cutline of those who got into the major.
Ashley Dudgeon: It all seems really cruel now how they would so publicly post the names and GPAs of the victorious and the defeated. I remember seeing my name above the line and finally releasing the weight that I had been carrying around for two years. At graduation, as one of the few females in the program, I was asked and accepted the honor of speaking at the commencement ceremony. So in that moment, with my parents in the crowd, I felt invincible. The bet that I had made on myself had paid off. So I guess, in summary, those years in college laid a solid foundation on which I would build my career in technology.
Ashley Dudgeon: And it has nothing to do with the data structures we learned or the compiler we had to build, or the many mathematical theorems I had to apply. In all honesty, I don’t think I retained much of it at all. I hope I never have to ever take a test on that again. But what I did gain was a sense of resilience, defiance, and confidence that has helped me get to where I am today. And while I still find myself amongst the sea of males in this field, though, it is getting better, I actually don’t really see or feel it. So I come to every meeting, and I lead every project without a consciousness of gender. And I find that really empowering. So how’s that for a bet?
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Oh, I mean, the comments that we’ve been getting in, everybody is getting very emotional, listening to you talk through your journey. But you’ve given me great advice, because I had the honor of working with you while we spun up this amazing big project of Work.com. So what advice do you have on negotiating for impactful projects that one can do in order to secure career growth? Because people often feel like opportunities aren’t presented to them, and most people, opportunities aren’t presented to them. And if they feel like there isn’t interesting work, then they need to make it for themselves. So what’s your advice?
Ashley Dudgeon: Yeah. I think the best advice that one can give comes from your own personal experience. So when I think about a time when I had to negotiate for a path to promotion, my mind goes immediately to how I earned my current role as Vice President of Engineering. If you guys don’t mind another story, I’ve got one for you. And I think this story is particularly relevant to tell today on International Women’s Day, because it’s centered around the unique challenges that women face when they choose to have children in the corporate world. I think it also emphasizes the importance of negotiation, which I believe many people, especially women, don’t do often enough when they hit roadblocks in their careers.
Ashley Dudgeon: So to tell this story, I have to take you back about four years. Thanks to the amazing parental benefits that I got from Salesforce, I was about to go on maternity leave with my second child for a long seven months. And I had never stepped away from my career for that long, but I felt completely confident in doing so. At that point, I had had multiple career conversations, with my then boss, about what it would take for me to grow into a VP role. And while I was not quite there yet, I did feel that I was at the pinnacle of my career. I had just successfully led the delivery of a multi-release project, solving a complex search problem that had been left unsolved for the past 17 years.
Ashley Dudgeon: And on my last day of work, heavily, heavily pregnant, I remember I was handing off a high-priority project plan that was solving a critical and deal-blocking gap for a premier customer. So in short, I felt confident in my place in the organization and the value that I brought to the company. I was leaving, or at least I felt like I was leaving on a high note. So when I returned seven months later, I went from feeling confident and secure to being lost and searching for a purpose to anchor me. The team that I had led directly was no longer intact because victory had been declared. My other teams were executing well under their manager. Of course, business had continued while I was out.
Ashley Dudgeon: My responsibilities had been delegated across multiple leaders and there really wasn’t that much to return to. And in some regards, I succeeded in what I was supposed to do, right? I put in place a transition plan that worked, and I built a team that could operate without me. My boss, who had always been a straight talker, told me that funding for our group didn’t quite play out the way that he had hoped, and he no longer saw a path for me to grow in his organization. He had suggested that perhaps the timing was perfect to switch groups and try something new.
Ashley Dudgeon: And if I hadn’t just spent the last six months nurturing a newborn around the clock, I was an emotional wreck because my nanny had unexpectedly quit two weeks after I came back to work. And my infant son was now living with my mom an hour away, Monday through Friday, until we figured out childcare. And if I wasn’t pumping every three to four hours to try to keep up my milk supply through all of this, I might’ve been in a better position to rationalize my work situation. Instead, I felt utterly crushed and defeated. I was struggling to find stable ground at home and at work. I wondered if it was time for me to step back from my career and just bring my son home. It just all felt too hard.
Ashley Dudgeon: And what was punching me straight in the gut was the reality that so many women go through when they choose to have children. It’s an impossible choice between bonding with your child and being present in your career to hold onto your relevance. It’s a part of the maternal experience that I think even the most supportive and progressive companies have yet to fully solve for. Having had two children, I believe the transition back from maternity leave is one of the most vulnerable times in a female’s personal and professional life. And it typically occurs during mid-career. So if we really want more females in senior leadership roles, reentry into the workplace has to be formally addressed.
Ashley Dudgeon: And I’m not saying that every woman encounters this challenge, and I hope that I’m not discouraging anyone from taking maternity leave, because you absolutely should, and you absolutely deserve to. But if you do find yourself in a similar situation, hopefully sharing my personal story can help you be better prepared. So what did I do? Well, I was far too stubborn, or dare I say resilient, to put my ambitions on the back burner. I sought support and encouragement from my most trusted circle, but for the most part, I was unflinching at work, because I believe that’s what strong leaders were supposed to do. I started tapping into my network and reached out to every technical executive that I knew, simply stating that I was seeking new opportunities.
Ashley Dudgeon: And they were actually all really helpful, and it led to a few interviews, but I really didn’t find anything that excited me. And I felt like I had worked far too hard in my career to compromise now. So about after two months, my boss then told me that a new project was on the horizon, and he asked if I would stay to lead it since he knew that I was already talking to other groups. And I won’t lie, it felt really validating when he said that he believed that I was the only one that could deliver it. And that was when I knew I had to negotiate. I was no longer willing to put in the work and hope that it would be good enough to get me promoted.
Ashley Dudgeon: I clearly told him if I committed to the project and help make it a success, he would commit to putting me up for promotion in exchange. The project actually turned out to be one of the most exhilarating projects in my career. It took about a year and a half to build and release, and the reception from our customers was phenomenal. And to my boss’s credit, he followed through with his end of the deal, and I was promoted to vice president in 2019. And in fact, he would later play a pivotal role in pitching me for my current position, which has been the biggest stage and opportunity of my career thus far.
Ashley Dudgeon: So if faced with a similar situation, only you can really make the decision on what path to take and what’s right for you. But I think that the advice that I can give that can be universally applied, is to be resilient. Be clear with yourself about what you want, be committed to putting in the work, and don’t let setbacks discourage you from obtaining your goals. And if you’re passionate about what you do, you’re far more likely to succeed. And in terms of negotiating career growth, I honestly hope that you don’t need to. If you don’t already have one, co-create a plan, a career plan, with your manager. You should be clear about what you want to achieve, work with your manager to align expectations for reaching those milestones, as well as identify the current gaps in skills and impact.
Ashley Dudgeon: And if you find yourself struggling to make progress, be honest in assessing whether or not you have the right skills, the right goals, or the right boss. And if required, don’t be afraid to negotiate. It may be obvious, but negotiations only work if the other party needs what you have to give. Thus knowing when to negotiate is also key to being effective. And if you’re not entirely sure, I say go for it. The worst that can happen is you lose one of the many bets you’re going to make throughout your career. And if you’re resilient and if you’re courageous, then you’ll end up finding a path that’s right for you. So that was a really long story, but I guess that’s my response.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Well, it didn’t feel long. I was hooked, and I was also monitoring the questions and the comments and people are just really resonating, saying that they’re so thankful that you’re sharing your stories. And when you spoke about how you were put up for promotion at that moment, there were a lot of people cheering you on, because it was like almost like they were watching a movie where it has a happy ending. But this is just the middle, I’m sure. The biggest takeaway is to be absolutely intentional in your career growth and focused on what you think you can do and keep at it, don’t give up. So Ashley, on that note, do you have any final thoughts or advice for our amazing listeners who are just hooked and totally queued into your story?
Ashley Dudgeon: Yeah. Well, first I want to thank you, before my time is up, for having me here today, and for you and Angie’s inspirational work in elevating females in tech and for creating a forum to encourage women to learn from each other’s experiences and to uplift one another. And I do hope that I’ve been able to make a small contribution to that today by sharing my story. And while I’ve taken everyone through a really personal journey, behind my narrative is a basic framework that can be helpful to anyone setting out to achieve a goal.
Ashley Dudgeon: First, you should understand what drives you, because that will be your motivation when things get difficult. Next, define what success means to you and be honest about how much work you’re willing to put into it, to achieve your goals. Don’t forget or neglect to revisit and refine your goals as needed. Don’t be afraid to change them, up the ante, or dial them down, because just like in poker, how you choose to play your hand changes with each card that’s dealt on the table.
Ashley Dudgeon: And I encourage you to not be afraid in making the big bets, because those are the ones that will most likely change the course of your life. And finally, be resilient and be courageous. The path to reaching your goal will rarely ever be a straight line. When the road takes an unexpected turn, remember that it is within your power to forge a new one. And finally, it occurs to me that, as I give this advice to all the attendees today, it’s really not my advice to give at all. I’m merely giving voice to the framework that my parents taught me, starting from that fateful night when they set out to sea. So that’s what I have to share today.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you, Ashley. That was just phenomenal. If you do get the chance to check out the chats and all the cheers that you got in the comments. We’re so honored to have you as our afternoon keynote Thank you so much.
Ashley Dudgeon: Thank you for having me.
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Sukrutha Bhadouria: We’re going to move on to our next segment which is our amazing USDS panel. USDS is United States Digital Service. It is a tech startup at the White House with a diverse group working across the federal government to build better tools and services for the American people. Julie will be moderating the panel with Amy, Elizabeth, and Gina. We’re so excited to hear from them. Welcome, ladies.
Julie Meloni: Hello, this is awesome. I haven’t seen you all for a couple years but it’s good to be back in my favorite, most favorite, conference ever. So we’ll just gonna jump right on in so we can get to the good stuff. I’m Julie, I’m an engineer with US Digital Service. I was with USDS from 2016 to 2018, took a little [inaudible], came back in October, it’s pretty awesome. And I’ve got some of my most awesome compatriots here who are much more interesting than I am and I will allow them, and by allow, I mean beg them nicely, to introduce themselves. So we’ll do that in just a second. I should probably tell you what USDS is. I am really out of practice, something about a pandemic.
Julie Meloni: All right, USDS. US Digital Service is a tiny little startup, we say, except that we’ve been around for seven years now so I think that the startup shine is off. We’re just small so, we’re just small. But we’re scrappy and we sit inside the Executive Office of the President in the Office of Management and Budget in the US Federal Government. None of that is important. All you need to know is that we’re a bunch of folks who go out and try to make shit better for everybody. We say citizen-facing services but it’s citizens and people who want to become citizens, because this government owes lots of people lots of things and the technology is really bad. So we try to fix it with a small group of UX researchers, designers, product managers, and engineers of all flavors. We are the flavors. And each of these folks will tell you about that and what they do and some of the gnarly problems that we disentangle. President Obama created our group in 2014, we lasted through the rest of his administration into the next one and we are still here because the work is hard and whoever’s in charge in the White House just makes it hard or harder. Right now, it’s just hard so we’re all glad to be here and we hope that lots of you will come and join us. All right. Amy, we’re gonna go alphabetically. Tell us about yourself.
Amy Quispe: What’s up, everyone. My name is Amy Quispe. I’m an engineer like everyone else here at the US Digital Service. I started last May, so we were already in the thick of it. I’ve been working from home this whole time. And prior to USDS, I worked in a pretty typical tech career I think. So we’ll be hearing more but I’ll hand it off to the next person.
Julie Meloni: E. Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Schweinsberg: Excellent. Hi, I’m Elizabeth Schweinsberg and I am an engineer here at USDS also. My particular specialty is security engineering so I’ve spent most of my career doing threat detection, incident response, and digital forensics. But I’m actually kind of a generalist, it turns out, so I’ve worked at a couple of brand name companies before this, but have been enjoying my time at USDS since August. And to Gina.
Julie Meloni: G for Gina.
Gina Maini: Hey, I’m Gina, I’m an engineer as well and I’ve been at USDS for two and a half years, maybe more than that now. And in the beginning, in my USDS tenure, I worked on asylum adjudication at DHS for a brief bit, and then I worked on Medicare for a few years and then moved off of Medicare modernization to now working on organ transplant, so I’ve done a lot of different stuff at USDS, a lot of fun times, a lot of hackathons, civic hackathons, which I really enjoy. And yeah, that’s me in my USDS tenure. Before USDS, I have no idea why I got this job, I often say that to myself because I’m technically a functional programmer by trade so I had really focused highly on really niche stuff that most people in government don’t even care about. They’re still on COBOL mainframes. And then I got here and had to work with what I had, so I guess more on that later but yeah I’m a SRE library engineer and I guess all around back end developer.
Julie Meloni: I need to learn how to use the chat because I’ve just been chatting away with my panelists and not all of you. So my job in here is to learn to switch that to everyone and try to answer questions as they roll along. But we’re going to hear some really gnarly stories, gnarly for those who don’t know the word, think of the most gross to sing intertwined, intertwingled pieces of crap and that’s the technology that runs the US government and from a state and local and federal position, probably also all governments, let’s just be honest.
Julie Meloni: And our job is to go in and disentangle that and try to make it work. And making it work can be things like taking paper forms and putting them on the internet. I know it’s crazy. It could also mean taking 45-year-old or sometimes 50-year-old mainframes, things that are actually older than me, and making them not mainframes.
Julie Meloni: Or make them some sort of nice hybrid model because there’s not actually anything really wrong with mainframes except that they might fall over and that’s bad, but that’s why we have Gina and Amy and Elizabeth, we have all the… Oh my God, it’s a good thing we’re not on a plane together because if the plane went down all mainframe folks in the government wouldn’t… Yeah, it’d be terrible.
Julie Meloni: All right, so we’re going to talk about gnarly problems and I’ll just give you guys a little heads up, not all of the gnarly problems in the government or in your jobs, really, are technical problems, they’re people problems. So we’re going to talk a little bit about people but also a lot about technology, but also a little bit about people, and how people skills, not just tech skills are what we need. Also, big plug, USDS.gov/apply, come join us.
Julie Meloni: All right. Gnarly problems. Who wants to go first? We can do the star technique situation: task, action, and result or you can just talk.
Amy Quispe: I’m happy to go first. So like I said, I started last May and if you remember anything about last March, April, May, lots of people were unemployed, a lot of people were filing for unemployment, a lot of people it was for the first time. State systems, which have been built to serve unemployment were overwhelmed. I remember just trying to help my family and friends follow yet they [inaudible] the sites back up in various states.
Amy Quispe: So when I joined USDS, my first project was actually something a little unusual, we were working with states. Because unemployment is kind of a weird hybrid of federal and state work and so these state systems were falling over, had to go and fix them make, sure people could get their money, make sure people could live right now, and I think that I saw some really crusty old systems. I gotta say, before USDS, the companies I’d worked for, the oldest was maybe like 15 years, 17 years old. And then I’m working on these systems that are way older than that.
Amy Quispe: I remember my first time running into like seeing a Y2K fix and just kind of being floored because I was like, “Oh, 20 years ago, someone wrote this kind of hacky fix, 20 years into the lifetime of the system thinking that, oh someone’s gonna fix this and make this good down the line.” I’m telling all you right now, never underestimate the longevity of your worst code. Never underestimate the longevity of your to-do’s. And so we started investigating one state system trying to figure out where the core of the problem was. Eventually, we figured out there was one point of the system that was like the point of failure. Everything needed to be written to this one place and one at a time. There was no parallelization, that was the bottleneck.
Amy Quispe: And when we discovered this bottleneck, we realized that we wanted to make different fixes. The people that were in charge of that part of the system did not want us to touch their shit, which was… And so here we’re in the middle of a few different things, we’re in the middle of a technical problem. We’re in the middle of a people problem, we’re also in the middle of a bureaucratic problem, systems that are in place already that have been built over time, both at a process level. And so what we ended up doing was we actually ended up building another system on top of that to do some queuing to slow that down to make sure that things didn’t fall over before hitting the mainframe.
Amy Quispe: And so a lot of times I kind of wish we’d fix things the right way but sometimes you have to figure out how to work around that and I think that that was that project has really informed a lot of how I think about what’s going on and fixing these systems, and also I think it’s gonna make me write better code in the future and be a little less precious about what’s mine.
Julie Meloni: That is a really good point and I’m trying really hard not to ask all of the questions I have on my little list because I want to get through like, the what are you going to take away from USDS when you eventually go back into the private sector or do you stay in the public sector, I don’t know, I don’t know your plans. That’s going to be a super interesting question.
Julie Meloni: I should probably say, US on a tour of duty of model which means we’re not here forever. And one of the reasons that we do that, come in for three or six months stay up to two years, renew again for up to two more years, it’s so that we don’t become entrenched in the technology that we are fundamentally trying to fix or make slightly better. The fresh perspective is incredibly important. It’s really easy to slide into complacency in a large complex organization, be it the government or anywhere, and taking a step back, refreshing and doing something new is super duper important.
Julie Meloni: Also, shit changes really fast. When I was in USDS the first time, Kubernetes wasn’t a thing, really, and now it’s everyone wants to keep kuberentify everything like, “Whoa, where’d that all come from?” And I remember that Gina’s has been here the whole time and now it made a lot more sense. Sorry, Gina, you can tell me that you don’t actually like Kubernetes later, but I needed a prop. So hey, tour of duty, what are you gonna do afterwards? We’ll get to that next, but, Elizabeth, I want to hear about your gnarly stuff and I hope that you guys have different gnarly things because I didn’t pregame that.
Elizabeth Schweinsberg: Yeah, good thing I got to go before Gina because my gnarly thing is a project that I picked up from her and have taken off with. So I also work at Center for Medicare and Medicaid Systems. I turns out because this program is very old, they still use mainframes to, say, pay doctors money. And one of the main projects I’ve worked on is building in security monitoring for it, which has several challenges. The first being, getting the logs off the mainframes into a system that is modern for log processing. Fortunately, that had already been done when I got there. And then it’s making sense of it, mainframes are a different paradigm from the server model that we use today. In a server application, you have the users who run the servers and those are separate from the users who use the application, and there are two different types of accounts.
Elizabeth Schweinsberg: Mainframes, that’s not true. Everybody who can use an application is just a user on the mainframe. So understanding that took a little bit. My most favorite part is mainframes were invented before TCP/IP. TCP/IP was bolted on afterwards. So the thing you do in threat detection is you want to know what IP address people are attempting to log in from. That has been my most gnarly problem because in this instance, people are typically on a internal network so everything’s a 10 dot something IP address to start. But then they don’t write it, they don’t really record it because that was not a main concern. So yeah, learning about the security of mainframes and figuring out what the actual threat models are going to be and how to really fix them while trying to deal with little things like, I don’t know what IP address people are coming from, so it’s been super fun. And there was question in the chat, CMS uses IBM Z/OS as their mainframe. So how about you, Gina? What gnarly stuff have you seen?
Gina Maini: I’m just laughing because don’t you love when the person before you starts a crazy project and then you just completely leave the new person to rock it out? But no, I’m so glad that you took over that project because it’s so important, it’s so, so important. And yeah, you were one of the few people who saw through my insanity and wanted to support me because we’re really… I mean, it’s really radical stuff in the government to teach people that security and compliance are separate topics. In the government, it’s very easy…
Julie Meloni: Wait, wait, wait, Gina, let’s be honest, it’s not just the government.
Gina Maini: Yeah, that’s true. I mean you see it in healthcare, you see it in finance, you see a general laziness in STEM, in certain areas in STEM too, there’s a general laziness about it. But in the government, especially with systems that deal with such sensitive data, teaching our stakeholders the differences between security and compliance have been challenging. So even just getting a security review at Medicare to get the appropriate stakeholders in a room looking at the same view of data and being able to talk about the same semantics was such a huge leap, that was like a light year’s leap. Because now the agency is prepared at least in some positioning to address serious security issues in production, which really before USDS, before our poking and prodding and trying to get data in the cloud, no one had really… There had been attempts but they were not successful so the agency had gone through a few different phases of modernization but it really took a huge amount of people to succeed. And so anyway, that’s that’s a shared victory and you are making the magic continue so thank you.
Gina Maini: But yeah the gnarly problems, I feel like I’ve just had gnarly problems after gnarly… I feel like I don’t have any problems that are not gnarly at USDS. I’ve never seen it, I mean I’ve never seen a government system that was better than I expected it to be. It’s never happened to me yet in the two and a half something years. And I actually forgot I even worked on unemployment, I had forgotten that in my intro, but that’s how I would work.
Julie Meloni: Oh, we’ll get there, We’ll get there.
Gina Maini: Yeah [inaudible]. But there’s so many gnarly problems. The thing that that sticks out in mind is the time that, during an onboarding process at Medicare, I had discovered a massive production vulnerability and it was really just a vulnerability because no one had thought through the process from an end to end life cycle of managing accounts. And so just because I’d had experience thinking about enterprise security, just kind of naturally followed some conclusions and then had to basically vary immediately to my engagement with Medicare, make a decision, do I take a massive bug disclosure to the CIO who doesn’t know me yet and has never worked with me. It’s like, “Hi, you don’t know me, here’s a massive issue that you need to address immediately.” And it was really gnarly too because I was meeting a lot of the security people for the first time so that was their first way of getting to know me and that was really challenging, I think, from a stakeholder management perspective.
Gina Maini: But I think the way that I disclosed it, I ended up building relationships with those people that lasted throughout my engagement with Medicare. So we ended up getting it fixed and it was kind of because I had gone to them as more of an ally than kind of come in from more of a hammer perspective. But anyway, that was one glimmer of the many bizarre situations.
Julie Meloni: I wrote down like five things that popped up in the chat so I’m going to try to like right through them real fast and then we’ll and then I’ll tee up the question for you all so you can be thinking about it. Resiliency. That’s all I’m going to tell you. All right, so a couple things that came up in the chat. Is the current administration throwing large sums of money at us to fix this? Fun fact. The last three administrations have thrown amounts of money to us to fix it. Fixing technology problems, believe it or not, is a bipartisan problem and Congress likes to throw money at bipartisan problems when there is continued success and we have been able to spend money successfully over the last seven years. But we are about 200 or so people, there’s hundreds and hundreds of thousands of federal employees and 400 agencies and a metric shit ton of technology problems that us 200 people can’t solve.
Julie Meloni: We are intentionally small so as a forcing function to spend the government’s money wisely. We get appropriated funds which means we do not have to pay them back. We get a certain amount of money each year, 99% of that money is spent on the salaries for the people that work at USDS. And so as many people as can literally be hired within that budget we will hire them and we are the empowered and entrusted, like Gina said, to go out to the highest levels of government and tell them that their shit’s broken.
Julie Meloni: USDSers have stood in front of Secretaries of Defense and said, “You have a security problem right here.” And that’s fine, that’s who we need to be yelling at so that we continue to have the risk ability and the ability to get in there and fix it, like Gina said. Hello, I got a big vulnerability I’d like to disclose right now, CIO I don’t know, don’t even really know what a CIO does because what the hell does a CIO do. But I’m gonna tell you your shit’s broken and you need to fix it now or it’s gonna be really, really bad. So that is the sort of empowerment and emboldenment, enbiggenment, if you will, that we all get when we join USDS. It’s why there’s a relatively rigorous application or interview process. We really only hire people who’ve got some really gnarly experience and that get any type of organization.
Julie Meloni: Generally we don’t care what school you went to, where you worked, where you’ve done your work, or what you’ve worked in. If you have consistently solved gnarly problems in and around technology as an engineer or product manager or UX researcher and designer, you’re someone that we want to talk to because something is going to need that type of help. But we can’t fix everything. We are also not responsible for anything and we do not have the power to purchase anything. So you know those interview questions where you learn a lot about how does your candidate manage without authority? We ask a lot of these questions because we have absolutely no authority but all the responsibility to make sure shit doesn’t fall over. It’s super fun.
Julie Meloni: And so our budget is not being cut, our budget is attempting to be expanded but each of the last three administrations, Obama, Trump, and Biden, we have been here, we have worked hard for the American people and people who want to become the American people and there’s no sign of slowing down, so we are grateful for that. Applications. Yes, we do have a lot of people applying. Inauguration week was a big week for us, we had about 5,000 applications that week. And we’ve gotten through all of them, we’ve adjudicated them, we are a band of people who want nothing more than more colleagues. So please, yes we do have a lot but like if any of the things that we talked about describes you, apply. If you apply and do not make it through the process, that’s fine. There’s about eleventy billion other places for you to help.
Julie Meloni: Go to codeforamerica.org. Look at 18f.gsa.gov. USDS. Code for America will hook you up with local and state civic tech groups, volunteers. Civic tech is a growing area of interest and there are always ways to help wherever you are, be it your local state or federal area. And talked about empowerment blah blah blah blah, I think I got all my things. All right, how do you build resiliency into systems when people are the problem, Elizabeth?
Elizabeth Schweinsberg: So my traditional approach does not currently work. Normally I start with cookies or some other baked good but I actually haven’t met any of my co-workers in real life and the contractors that I’m working with are also all over the country so the the typical endearing yourself to them through baked goods isn’t working. So I have been trying to build my social capital by answering the problems that they have. So the people who actually run the mainframes are contractors. And these people know mainframes, they’ve spent their entire three, four decade long careers in mainframes with a few exceptions and that is what they know. And having some other person come in and be like I’m going to tell you how your mainframe should function differently, well not function, but how you need to look at your mainframes differently.
Elizabeth Schweinsberg: It can be a little unsettling so in addition to having them give me what I want, I have also been trying to make sure that they get what they want. And in specific, we are doing a hybrid cloud mainframe so some of the things that the mainframe vendors have been in charge of the data is moving to the cloud and that makes them a little concerned because the data that they were responsible for is going to be outside their control. So I’m helping them get more of that information starting with very basic things like we have APIs. The APIs come through a gateway in our cloud. Why don’t we check and let the mainframe managers know if somebody’s trying to use the APIs from an unusual IP address. And they seem really receptive to that sort of thing so there’s a bit of a give and a take and making sure that they get some of what they want has made them more willing to give me what I want.
Julie Meloni: Amy, go. Resiliency. People.
Amy Quispe:Resiliency. People. I think that one way to build resiliency is actually to build process. And another way to build resiliency is to remove process. I think that thinking very intentionally about how you work is really important and how you work with the other people that you’re working with is going to be really important to figuring out what your cadence is, what people can take on, not making assumptions or writing down your assumptions especially since we’re all working remotely. I think that this is also part of building a resilient software system so not just building a resilient team and a resilient way to work but actually thinking about how to intentionally build something. If you can define well what everyone is doing, if you can define how you’re working, then if someone has to leave the team, if someone has to join the team, you have a way to make that work smoothly. And that’s going to make your systems continue to work smoothly no matter what the team is, if you’re building actual teamwork.
Julie Meloni: Awesome. Gina, bring it home.
Gina Maini: Yeah, I echo what Amy just said. I think that’s how you get resiliency, for sure, is some level of process. And the old engineering teams I worked on, right, we called it lore or the playbooks or some document that would be wisened and if you get blamed it it’d be like a tragedy the commons and everybody had contributed. That was kind of what I was used to working like. But then you arrive in government, there are no engineers. You’re it. There’s nobody else coming. That’s kind of what it felt like for us to get started, especially at a new engagement, in the case of Medicare and unemployment with the Department of Labor, you’re kind of coming in and there’s nobody there doing your job which is why it’s so exciting to be there and why we’re so valuable in these spaces. But when you’re thinking about building a product, you’re not actually building a product, you might be working with the policy arm of the agency to craft some kind of pilot, right? And that pilot may be procured by someone who isn’t you. You might be setting up a contract play for the agency to hire the right thing which isn’t very exciting and I think if someone had told me that years ago I would have been like that doesn’t sound like anything I would ever want to do or be a part of.
Gina Maini: But it is the most value add I think any of us really give at USDS is the dollar value that we save American people by pointing out, you don’t need to buy Ferraris if you just want cup holders. Because these systems evolved to buy battleships, these systems did not come about to buy software, so they’re going to look for different signals that are just noise and so we kind of come in there and we tell them what to focus on in the procurement and actually that sets them up and a good procurement and a good contract, these contracts last for 10 to 12 years, maybe more. And so setting up a contract to be really flexible to have the right kind of outcomes is actually, that’s kind of resiliency across decades in government. Because a lot of these systems they span many administrations, many decades of policy and that’s why there’s such amalgamations. There is no such thing as product, there is just policy and then a bunch of contractors scrambling to implement it, right? That’s the reality of the United States Tech.
Julie Meloni: Awesome, we have eight minutes left and I want to address just a few questions real quick but also plug everything that Amy and Elizabeth and Gina have said today. Yeah, we’re talking about working in the government, in the federal government in this case, but everything… Please listen to everything that they said and take those… Elizabeth would you just like to read your mug that would be…
Elizabeth Schweinsberg: No.
Julie Meloni: Okay. Yeah, go for it, read it.
Elizabeth Schweinsberg: Okay. I picked a special mug for today. “Women belong in all the places where decisions are being made.” [inaudible] illustrious RGB.
Julie Meloni: RBG. Yes, that’s much more interesting than what I was going to say, which was all of these lessons you can apply in your gnarly complex hierarchical organizations as well. However, being at the table where the decisions are made, being in the room where it happens, if you wish, that is one of the reasons that USDS was created: just to get technologists at the table. They didn’t tell us that when we applied and we’re going to be an engineer, we’re going to fix it shit. I’m like, why am I reading this bill before it becomes a law? School House Rock did not prepare me for this, hence the title of this little chat.
Julie Meloni: We all know about how bill becomes law, but we don’t know that sometimes bills get sent around in Google docs and your friendly neighborhood USDSers and a whole bunch of other people just randomly comment on them about that’s dumb, that’s dumb, please don’t write API specs into law, just stop at, you should have an API. That’s great, big fan, don’t write specs into law.
Julie Meloni: And so we’re all in the rooms where it happens now and we keep things from that happening but we keep things like, you should share data at the forefront. Don’t make dumb decisions, don’t enable 53 distinct territories and states from creating their own unemployment systems, maybe just have one, maybe share. [inaudible 00:33:54]. And that is a really, really, really important part of what we do. And probably if that had been part of the pitch, none of us would have joined because policy is really boring. Except it’s not really boring when you get to write a law in a bar that enables technology to be put in place and you can see my 2018 Girl Geek talk. But anyway, last question for everybody, most important question. What do you want the takeaway for all of these fine folks who have listened to us, what do you want the takeaway to be and what are you taking away from USDS when you eventually leave us and go somewhere else? You can all fight over who goes first. We don’t fight at USDS, Gina, you can go first. Or Amy.
Gina Maini: Yeah, can Amy go first?
Julie Meloni: No one’s ready to think it through.
Gina Maini: Sorry, Amy.
Amy Quispe: No, I’m fine to go first, I’m was just trying to get the vibe here, vibing over Zoom is so hard and so important. I want to say that one thing that comes up when you’re in the room where it happens is that as technologists, we all have kind of a fresh perspective on what’s going on. But also, we all have just our own personal perspective on what’s going on. One of the values of USDS is find the truth, tell truth. And I think that’s one place where I’ve been really able to be valuable in USDS. I was in the meeting earlier today where I had to just stop and say, “So we’re talking about a technical solution to a non-technical problem and there are also non-technical solutions, non-technical problems, but ultimately we’re talking about non-technical problem.” And just sitting down and laying that out in plain language changed the conversation and I think that that’s one thing that I see USDSers do all the time is bring clarity to the conversation and change the conversation, whether it’s about technology or not.
Amy Quispe: And I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in the future but I hope that you all realize that you can also bring the truth to these conversations. If you are in a place that does not allow you to speak the truth or does not hear the truth, please find a way to get your voice heard and understand how powerful you are, understand that this power is so important in the US Government but in all sorts of systems, including the technology that all of you are creating everywhere, because technology is something that is scalable, it is something that is big, it is something that is powerful and it’s something we are building right now and you have the ability to change the way that the future works.
Julie Meloni: Man, that was such a good quote, we’re putting that on a sticker. We do stickers a lot. Amy: you have the way you change… Okay, change the way the future works, please change the way the future works. I’m old, I need a better future in my retirement years. Elizabeth, you know that means we’re going to wind up with you again at the end, just be prepared. Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Schweinsberg: Okay, so I know we said that we got 5,000 applications the week of inauguration, mostly due to news organizations picking up some comments in the html. Now this is not official. I helped review a lot of those resumes and looked at pretty much all the names that came into the engineering. Just based on names, it was not the most diverse set of applicants. There were a lot of traditionally white male names in there. So apply. Because we really value diversity because everybody has something different and interesting to bring to the table.
Elizabeth Schweinsberg: And yeah, I mean it sounds like a really, a whole lot of people and we’re going to hire some. We have to replace probably a few dozen people this year. And maybe it’s not right now but it will be in the future and there’s also a slew of technology-oriented non-profits that are coming up. We’ve had a couple talks through USDS with them on building tools to help people file for bankruptcy more easily, improve access to voting machines, so there’s some really great stuff out there if you keep your eyes open. The gnarly problems aren’t just in the government or at your large tech firms. 100% the thing I’m going to take away that I was actually hoping to get out of this is all of my jobs have been very operations focused and I am terrible at getting my project work done.
Elizabeth Schweinsberg: But here, I’m working with product managers and designers who really think through how we are designing the programs, talking about how we’re going to build them, and seeing that cross-disciplinary work towards project management, hopefully absorbing some of it, I think will be really useful whatever I do next.
Julie Meloni: Awesome. Gina, you get the last word before Angie kicks us out like she did to me in 2018, because I just can’t shut up about gnarly problems and how everybody can fix them because you have the power. Go.
Gina Maini: So last word. What I’m going to be taking away from this job? Definitely not one thing. This job is really… I don’t think I really understood how government worked before I got this job. So I think I know how the sausage is made now and it frightens me deeply. So I think that’s half of what I will take away from this job. The other thing though is I think I never really understood myself very well in my career in the sense that I worked for a bunch of e-commerce companies and the biggest moral dilemma was if I was gonna disappoint somebody buying a TV on Black Friday. And the thing is getting a TV on Black Friday is a really important problem and I don’t mean to diminish any value that e-commerce has. E-commerce has amazing value it’s so important to our everyday lives.
Gina Maini: But I didn’t feel super satisfied, it didn’t drive me, personally. I didn’t come into work wanting to optimize a pricing algorithm or optimize… It didn’t make my heart sing. Every day on this job I feel that. I feel that spark that I never had and it’s interesting how I used to think I was the slowest engineer or the worst engineer on the team. I think I just was unhappy in a lot of my work and now that I’m here and working on stuff that really motivates me, producing is weirdly not an issue anymore, it’s more about… Oh, I see, a wild cat has appeared. It’s more about actually managing my time well here because there’s so many fires and so many great people to work with. So it’s been more of a time management issue these days anyway.
Julie Meloni: Awesome. All right. Thank you all for hanging in. LinkedIn, it’s a thing that works. I actually use it. I will answer all your questions. I just said that out loud in front of everyone. Okay, don’t forget to love each other, wear a mask, be safe, wash your hands, do a good job. Bye, everyone.
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Angie Chang: We are going to turn it over to Anu. She is the VP of Product at Atlassian. She leads the enterprise business at Atlassian across product lines and also runs a cloud platform team and she’s an accomplished executive with a track record of growing $500 million businesses, building great teams, and shipping blockbuster products. Anu joined Atlassian as a Head of Product for Jira and held a variety of roles at Atlassian and currently serves as the Director of Atlassian Foundation. Welcome, Anu.
Anu Bharadwaj: Thank you so much, Angie. Can everyone hear me?
Angie Chang: Yes.
Anu Bharadwaj: Awesome. Hi, everybody. My name is Anu. Like Angie said, I’m VP of Product at Atlassian. Atlassian is an Australian company. We make collaboration software for teams. I have been at Atlassian for the past seven years and before that I was at Microsoft for 10 years, building developer tools for software teams and Visual Studio for all of your document plans out there.
Anu Bharadwaj: In addition to my day job, I also serve as the Chairperson for Atlassian Foundation, a nonprofit that funds education projects for underprivileged kids worldwide. Today I’m super glad to kick off a Girl Geek X annual event, Elevate, with all of you, wonderful people. I’ve been seeing the chat window. It’s incredible to see what you all done to survive the last year and many of you thrive through it. We’ve had over 3000 registrations for this event today. That’s pretty massive. It’s exciting to be in your company. Our theme at Elevate this year is resilience. And what better theme to choose since the whopper of the year that we’ve had in 2020.
Anu Bharadwaj: Women have always had to be resilient to stay the course in their careers. Resilient to overcome challenges that are unique to us and threaten the thwarters as we rise up. Resulting in far fewer women executives compared to the number of women that start out in entry level roles. Over the last year, that resilience has been further tested as we’ve dealt with the crisis of the pandemic battling to keep work and home running. Today, we come together to celebrate our resilience and hopefully come away inspired to build more reserves of it. So, buckle in as we kick off the day with a big warm welcome to all of you, strong amazing women from all over the world.
Anu Bharadwaj: Let’s start with paying a little bit of attention to the word resilience. Take a moment to reflect on what resilience means to you. People and systems both need a strong dose of resilience to stay healthy. A few months ago, someone came to me and said they were shooting a movie about Silicon Valley technology leaders and how they work and collaborate and build software and teams. They did an interview with me about my work, which was great, and said they’d also like to film what tech leaders do in their spare time to relax and unwind.
Anu Bharadwaj: Angie talked about how she likes to meditate. They asked me, “Do you like to do yoga or play music or meditate just to calm your mind? What do you like to do? And we would like to film you doing that.” And I said, “I kickbox.” It wasn’t quite what the movie director expected, but the camera crew did come to my gym to shoot a video of me while I was fighting.
Anu Bharadwaj: I’ve learned martial arts for many years since I was a kid. And to me, this is indeed a way that I relax and unwind. I’m bringing this up though, because as a kid, when I started learning martial arts, I wasn’t very good at it. When I wanted to give up, my mom said, “Anu, when someone tells you that you’re beautiful or smart, how do you feel?”
Anu Bharadwaj: Beauty and intelligence are lucky qualities that you inherited, but they aren’t anything to be proud of. But when someone says you’re kind or resilient, how do you feel? When you’re kind, you made a choice to care for another person, a choice to be proud of and when you’re resilient, you accomplish something in the face of difficulties. You won your kickboxing match despite losing before. That is something to be proud of.” Now more than ever I appreciate the wisdom of her words.
Anu Bharadwaj: Resilience is the capacity to deal with setbacks yet continue to grow. It is also the cornerstone of mental health. Good mental health does not mean never being sad. It means having the ability to cope with the vagaries of life without being paralyzed by them. But why do we have to talk about resilience as a group of women? As a young woman, starting out in technology, I saw women’s groups around me and I didn’t understand it. I didn’t get it. I thought, why do they need a group? I was raised with the idealistic and naive notion that men and women are born equal and are treated as such.
Anu Bharadwaj: Now 17 years later, I acknowledge the privilege of the sheltered childhood and I’m grateful for it. I graduated with a computer science degree, like Sukrutha talked about. When Microsoft hired me from school for my first job, I was an engineer. I was ready for it and they said, my first job was to write code for video games [inaudible]. When I heard the job description, I was like, you pay me for this shit? I’ll do this job for free.
Anu Bharadwaj: When I started out, it felt strange to see fewer women engineers at work than men, but the thrill of checking in core to a system that millions of people use day in and day out, felt incredible enough to forget any discomfort. People asked me about my job and what I do at work. I get the occasional remark that I learned to ignore. Like, “Oh, a girl developer, or you might want to comb your hair so your office workers take you seriously.” Or speaker feedback like, “The talk was very technical, but having an attractive speaker deliver it was a good idea.”
Anu Bharadwaj: I cried at that speaker feedback. I’ve worked so hard on creating the content for my talk, but the feedback had reduced me to a mouthpiece. I wish I could say these were exceptions, but unfortunately, as I’m sure you’ve all experienced, they’re not. Through seventeen years of my career, I’ve faced a slew of them. “You’re a woman yet you’re good at Math.” “But you’re a female manager, I expect you to be more caring and warm.” “Can you smile more in meetings? You need to be better light.”
Anu Bharadwaj: Like any average person, I have strengths and weaknesses that I try to improve on. As I diligently worked on the feedback I received, I grew increasingly frustrated with how unfair it was. I was intimidating, but a man exhibiting the same behavior was an assertive leader. Turns out I was not alone. Nearly all my women coworkers were going through a similar obstacle race of double standards.
Anu Bharadwaj: What’s worse, unconscious bias did not spare women either. There were many instances of women judging other women unfairly. That’s when inspiration struck. One of my favorite childhood PC games is Wolfenstien 3D. I’m not sure if any of you played this before, but I loved playing this on my PC Pentium 486. It had four interestingly named difficulty levels, the image at the bottom. So the gamer in me decided that being a woman is like playing a video game at the highest level of difficulty. AKA Beast Mode. Sure. Others may have it easier, but I’m going to blaze a trail of glory, defeating 3X the monsters that mere mortals do. Yeah! Bring them on.
Anu Bharadwaj: I confess that this kind of thinking also helped with my guilt. Having worked with nonprofits for over a decade. I understand how severe gender inequity is. Women lose wealth, health, and even in their lives due to this. It gets worse for women of color.
Anu Bharadwaj: Compared to that, surely the inconvenience I faced in my cushy little tech job as an engineer was too insignificant to matter. But there is no hierarchy of suffering. Injustice, no matter big or small, should not be normalized. So while playing in Beast Mode can be gratifying for all of you gamers out there, I’m sure you will agree. It should be a choice, not a default expectation.
Anu Bharadwaj: To win in Beast Mode, we need allies. In the recent hackathon, we rounded up as many allies at Atlassian as we could. We called it our Atlassian allies Trello board. This is a virtual gathering of men and women that are willing to help sponsor, mentor, and champion women. As we power through various levels of career, no matter which function we are, allies also help identify and reinforce sources of resilience while sharing their own sources. Like I spoke before, I will share three of my sources of resilience today and hope that this sparks some inspiration for you to think about how to fortify your own sources of resilience.
Anu Bharadwaj: Starting with lead with your strengths. In 2016, when travel was still a thing…Wow, do you actually remember those times, when we could get on a plane and fly? I took one year off. I took all of 2016 off as a sabbatical to go work on wildlife conservation projects around the world. I’m a bit of an animal nerd. I love working with animals. I worked with penguins in Antarctica, rehabilitated lions in Africa, set up traps to capture cheetahs in Namibia so we could put GPS collars on them and protect them from poaching.
Anu Bharadwaj: And through this time I was introduced to an organization called IAPF, Africa’s first all women, anti-poaching unit. When the founder of IAPF, an army veteran started setting up anti-poaching units, he noticed that the units with women performed way better protecting wildlife than men. Despite the job traditionally being held only by men. He noticed that the women were better at convincing the community to protect wildlife for their own economy. They were more creative in coming up with solutions that didn’t need force and more courageous in ferociously protecting the animals entrusted to their care.
Anu Bharadwaj: He turned around and created an all women anti-poaching unit. They’re called Akashinga, which means Brave Ones. These are women who have had to be deeply resilient in overcoming abuse, poverty, and trauma. When you notice how they build this resilience, the first thing they do is lead with their strengths, courage, creativity, and collaboration. Often on the quest for growth, we focus on our weaknesses and work hard to round them off. While this is important, it is also important to remember that your strengths are your greatest asset.
Anu Bharadwaj: The reason they’re your strengths is because you are happiest, most productive and engaged while using them. Focusing on using your strengths, allows you to operate from a place where you have the resilience to successfully overcome your weaknesses and further build out your skills. Over the past few years, I’ve been leading a big change at Atlassian. We shifted our company from an entirely on-premise product line to cloud native SaaS offerings.
Anu Bharadwaj: This might be not just a technical rewrite of our cloud platform, but a fundamental shift in the DNA of our company. How we build our products, run our products, sell our product, support our products. What we measure in financial and operational metrics. For a company at nearly $2 billion run rate, 7,500 employees, and millions of active users. This meant an all encompassing change. As I pondered the responsibility for leading this technological and business shift, it was scary to think about the enormity of this change.
Anu Bharadwaj: When you think of crucial issues, there is often a range called the Overton window. Typically, the view held by the public tends to be on some range of either left or right of current status score. This is where normalcy is. Take, for example, climate change, racial inequality. Most people acknowledge it’s a problem. Some believe we should take strong measures, some advocate leniency. But overall, there are reasonable policies in a spectrum that most people subscribe to.
Anu Bharadwaj: When you start a movement like civil rights or anti-racism, you have a chance to pull that window in one direction or another. As a leader, you have to shift the frame of reference that the general public starts to realize that the radical option, the unthinkable option is not really as unthinkable as we imagined, shifting the frame of reference of an entire population. That is the stuff that social movements are made of. For a smaller moment like a cloud shift at Atlassian, the same principle applies where you shift thinking from let’s hedge our bets across server on-premise and cloud to let’s go all in on cloud.
Anu Bharadwaj: As a leader, my personal style is to be the activist. The person that shifts the Overton window. Doing that energizes me and drives me to work even harder at making ambitious results possible. A few years ago, it was unthinkable to have majority of customers on cloud.
Anu Bharadwaj: Today over 95% of our customers choose our cloud products. Dozens of our largest enterprise customers start on cloud right away instead of waiting to migrate. Leading the cloud shift at Atlassian has allowed me to exercise my skills. Where I didn’t just lead with courage, but also lead with love as entire teams inside and outside Atlassian had to fundamentally change their business model and way of working. Such change can be scary, but when met with empathy and integrity, people realize that this change is possible.
Anu Bharadwaj: Change can be messy and chaotic, but it can also be real there towards progress. Ultimately, when you start a movement as a leader, people follow you when you deploy your strengths to help others. I have found that choosing work that will challenge you by letting you lead with your strengths is a good way of maintaining energy and growth. It keeps you resilient enough to learn from setbacks and to remain pressing on progress. Even when you find the work to be difficult. If you consistently find yourself spending most of your time doing work that you hate at work, that doesn’t utilize any of your net strengths, that is a red flag for burnout.
Anu Bharadwaj: The second source of resilience I fall back on is self-care. Self-care is never selfish. It is merely good stewardship of the sole resource that you have to serve others and do good in the world. Paying attention to how you feel helps notice sparks of burnout before it turns into a raging fire.
Anu Bharadwaj: Women are typically very good at caring for others, but often ignore themselves. In the name of multitasking, we find it hard to make time for ourselves, but productivity is about managing our energy more than our time. Find the simple acts that restore your energy and replenish you. For me, that is going on a daily run, Telegram chats with my best friend in Sydney, even just my morning coffee and croissant.
Anu Bharadwaj: Making time for yourself among the demands of work and home can especially be hard now in these pandemic-ravaged times, but goes along when building your energy stores, like we talked about at the beginning of a kickoff. The physical isolation of COVID exacerbates feelings of loneliness in all of us. Restoring energy is one thing, but in a world where we cannot be with people we love and feel connected to, paying attention to connectedness is helpful.
Anu Bharadwaj: Personally, I longed for a feeling of connectedness with the universe. For me, it is nature and science that quench the thirst, the mere act of hugging a tree or looking up at the stars, suits me. I marvel at how small we are, yet tightly connected to the fabric of the cosmos. Whether nature, science, religion, or spirituality, find whatever nourishes your inner life and makes you feel connected to a larger whole.
Anu Bharadwaj: My silver lining of working from home, or like Sukrutha said, living at work during the pandemic has been the ability to do silly and fun home projects like this 3D printed picnic bench for squirrels to have a rooftop party. I could literally see them just beyond my monitor, enjoying the sun and seeds outside my window. Made time for your silly source of joy and connectedness.
Anu Bharadwaj: And last but not the least, one big source of resilience for me has been the ability to pay it forward. This is one of my favorite photos with my mother. I lost her to cancer when I was a teenager. When my mother died, she made me promise I wouldn’t quit school, that I would finish my education, get a job and be financially independent. As a teenager, I didn’t understand why she was saying that. I thought, what’s the big deal with education. My dad was the sole breadwinner for a large family, three kids to raise, but thanks to his perseverance I did finish school and landed at a tech job, which ensure and remain financially independent for the rest of my life.
Anu Bharadwaj: What I did not realize as a teenager, I understood fully well as an adult. Education is a slow multi-generational change, but the most sustainable one that we have found yet. Educating girls, in particular, leads to fewer children, healthier families, and overall rising prosperity.
Anu Bharadwaj: The best way we have of making the world a better place is through funding education for girls. Over the past few years, I’ve been doing my small part in that through the Atlassian Foundation. Atlassian Foundation is a nonprofit that funds education projects for underprivileged kids around the world. I started out on the Board of Directors of the foundation five years ago, and now serve as the Chairperson for the board.
Anu Bharadwaj: The work that I do in this role is deeply meaningful to me with the impact on kids’ lives through the grants we fund being immediately obvious. In the past year with COVID, this work has become more important than ever. As girls and women in low income countries have been disproportionately devastated by the pandemic. Giving back and paying it forward helps me retain perspective in distressing times and building resilience to keep going and help others as much as I can.
Anu Bharadwaj: Those were my three sources of resilience: leading with strengths, self-care, and paying it forward. I hope this sparks some inspiration for you to think about your own sources of resilience. I would love to hear what those are. Drop me a line. As we all gather here virtually, here’s an interesting study related to resilience. Typically, we believe that when people experience stress, our instinct is to either stand and fight or flee as fast as possible.
Anu Bharadwaj: Researchers now suspect that women have a larger behavioral repertoire than just fight or flight. It seems that the female stress response has a buffer instead that encourages us to tend and befriend instead. When women become stressed, the response can be to nurture those around them and reach out to others, to build community. How do we go from fight or flight to tend and befriend? That is an interesting question to consider, as we think about how to combat stress and increase resilience.
Anu Bharadwaj: Wrapping up, if there was one thought that I could leave all of you with, here it is. All through the last year we’ve all had difficulties, personal loss and deprivation. When we encounter people day-to-day we have no idea what they have had to deal with. When someone appears distracted, tired, or even angry, respond with love and forgiveness. Remember you got here because someone did this for you and tomorrow someone else will get to where they want to be because of you.
Anu Bharadwaj: With your resilience, help others build resilience around you. I wanted to close this talk with one of my favorite poems that I think about often when I look up at the sky, please pardon my amateur drawing skills. I took out my iPad and pencil and drew this up the woman with a crazy head on the bench is me and the cat beside me is my companion Timtam who’s sleeping there in that little cathouse. We like watching stars with me. The poem goes like this.
Anu Bharadwaj: How should we like it were stars to burn, with a passion for us we could not return? If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me!
Anu Bharadwaj: With that, thank you so much. Love you all. Stay resilient, healthy, and happy, and enjoy the rest of your day at Elevate.
Angie Chang: Thank you so much Anu, that was amazing.
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Angie Chang: Now, it’s time for our next session. Thank you, Ashley. We’re going to have Iliana Montauk join us. She is the CEO of Manara and she will be speaking today in a Fireside Chat. I’ll let her introduce herself.
Iliana Montauk: Hi, everyone. My name is Iliana and I’m the founder of Manara. I’m going to be sharing with you guys what it’s like to be a woman engineer in places like Gaza and how important it is to receive mentorship during that journey from Gaza to Google. I am joined by Dimah. Dimah, would you like to introduce yourself?
Dimah Zaidalkilani: Hi everyone. My name is Dimah Zaidalkilani. I’m a Director of Product Management at GitHub. I’m excited to be joining Iliana to talk about my experience and how we started my career and throughout and how I’ve been a mentor and a mentee and how it’s impacted my career.
Iliana Montauk: Do you want to go first maybe Dimah, by sharing your own personal experience as a mentee?
Dimah Zaidalkilani: Sure. I started as a Product Manager at Microsoft and it was straight out of college or university in my home country, in Palestine. The first stage I got to be a mentee was at the time it was my boyfriend then, my husband now, who helped mentor me through the experience of getting the right resources, to knowing how to navigate, how to train for interviews and what resources I needed. He was studying Computer Science at University of Washington.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: I was studying at a local university in Palestine. So, I did not have as many resources. I did not have access to career fairs that he got access to. So, when I passed the initial interview with Microsoft, he shared all the links with me and guided me through what it’s going to be like for interviewing. Spoiler alert. I got accepted at Microsoft and have been working as a PM at Microsoft and now GitHub. So, that was the first step.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: The second step of being a mentee was when I joined, it was just like a shell shock. Everything was different. It was a new culture, new acronyms and corporate related concepts and all. I was fortunate to have a peer mentor who was on the same team assigned to me. He helped me throughout understanding all of the difficulties. I felt like I always had an ally in the room, talking about what we were going through.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: Of course, the imposter syndrome was kicking in hard in the first few months and it never goes away, but it was really aggressive in the first few months, like what am I doing here? Am I equal to the other people in the room? But, he was always there as an ally, keeping me grounded, rooted, to understand I do belong there. I have a lot to offer.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: It was just the lingo that I needed to get the agile practices that we needed to understand. So, from both those experiences, I felt like… I made a promise to myself. Whatever experience I had six months into the job, doesn’t matter, I’m going to give back to either people around me, newcomers to the company, interns or even cross borders in different parts.
Iliana Montauk: How often did you need mentorship at that beginning stage when Imposter Syndrome was especially strong, when you had just arrived from Palestine to Microsoft?
Dimah Zaidalkilani: Always. Every day. I used to write a list of the questions. My manager at the time was great also at mentoring where between him and my mentor, I would have many, many questions and I would go… It’s only 30 minutes from a mentee’s perspective, from a mentor’s perspective. But, those 30 minutes, be the fact that they were there, they answered my questions, made me excited to bring more. I didn’t take that for granted. I appreciated their time. I wanted to make sure that I’ve used it, but it helped a lot because you feel like once we’re on the same level, we understand the lingo and now your creativity gets to kick in as a mentee. Then you feel like, Oh, I have a lot to offer to the table just like everyone else. It was just great in helping with that.
Iliana Montauk: I know we’re going to talk later. I would like to talk later about your experience now that you’re a leader in the product team, mentoring people. But, just before we go to that, what you were saying resonated with me so much. I went to Harvard and became a PM later and of all people, with that background, I feel like I should have been confident. I grew up in Silicon Valley and still I felt Imposter Syndrome the whole first year or two that I was a PM. I needed someone to almost daily tell me how much they believed in me.
Iliana Montauk: One of the reasons that I started Manara is because Palestine is just full of people like you, who are so, so talented, but there’s that last little gap sometimes of getting that first job or then being confident during your first six months in that job.
Iliana Montauk: Just a little bit of background in Manara and how we engage mentors with Manara. Manara is a program that helps the top engineers in the Arab region, starting with Palestine, get their dream jobs at global tech companies. It came out of an experience where I was running a startup accelerator in Gaza, which was funded by Google.
Iliana Montauk: Google had done a developer outreach event in Tel Aviv and then they got invited to do one in the West Bank and then in Gaza. When they were there, they were just overwhelmed with the amount of talent, how smart people were, how much they were interested in tech, studying technology, spoke fluent English, but just not connected to jobs and unemployment, it’s like 70% for recent college grads in Gaza, right? It’s crazy.
Iliana Montauk: They launched this program in Gaza, which then I started to run and I had that same experience of meeting tons of people like Dimah, people like my co-founder now, Layla, who were super sharp, but didn’t necessarily have jobs locally. So, at Manara, we’ve been helping both women and men, but with a really strong focus on women, first, just even dream of getting a job at a place like Google because that part is a really important step.
Iliana Montauk: People don’t realize that they could get a job at a company like Google. They think that that’s only for people who are brilliant and they don’t realize that they are.
Iliana Montauk: The way that we tackle that imposter syndrome, which at the time, I didn’t even know the term imposter syndrome and I didn’t even realize that’s what we were tackling, is by bringing people like Dimah or like my co-founder Layla who became a senior software engineer at Nvidia, to them just doing even calls like this over Zoom or even better, people who are not even from the Arab world, working at these companies and just meeting with them one-on-one or in groups. They realize coming out of those, whether it’s a training session or a mentorship session or whatever, they go, “Oh, this person is actually not that different from me. I guess I could work here.”
Iliana Montauk: And from there, Manara involves volunteers from tech companies around the world to teach these participants how to interview, because interviewing is a specific skill. Dimah, I don’t know how you did it, but I know that for our participants, they have all the talent and tech background that they need for the job. They’re graduating with computer science degrees. They’re already engaged in competitive programming competitions globally. But, what they don’t have is how to interview and especially at companies like Google, Facebook.
Iliana Montauk: There’s that very specific data structures and algorithms interview, which they’re totally unprepared for and so we teach them how to do that. We engage people from the tech sector globally to do mock interviews with them. It’s by doing these mock interviews that they then are ready and by the time they end up at Google, we recently had actually a 71% referral to hire rate at Google thanks to that.
Iliana Montauk: One of our participants, Dahlia, she’s a 19 year old from Gaza. She now has an internship at Google lined up for the summer. We were just talking to her last week and she was like, “Look, there’s no way I could have done this without these mentors,” because not only were the mentors doing mock interviews with her, I think the women mentors took a special interest in her because she’s a woman and gave her extra consistency of meeting with the same person every week and getting tips. Often, what I’ve noticed is that the women mentors in our network have a different approach than the men. They think more like our women participants. So, they’ll be like, “Oh, this is how I do it.”, “Oh, yes, don’t worry. It’s normal to feel nervous talking out loud in an interview. So, just write on a piece of paper for one minute first and then start talking.”
Iliana Montauk: Those kinds of tips end up really helping our participants be successful. So, that’s what we’re up to and why it’s important for us to have a network of mentors. I’m curious, Dimah, now that you’ve had a chance of being on the other side, what is that experience like?
Dimah Zaidalkilani: Yeah, it’s been great. Thank you so much for sharing such an inspiring story about how you and Layla have been working on Manara and it’s been great watching the journey. For me, I’ve been trying to, as I said, seeing how much it impacted me, starting with mentoring me through the interview, getting the job, to actually being in the company and then seeing how mentorship really impacted me and my confidence in the first six months. I wanted to give back, not just in the company and or locally, but also in different countries. So, I signed up to be a mentor with TechWomen and funny enough, I learned about TechWomen when I was still senior student in the university. I saw how it actually, Oh, let me tell you what TechWomen is. TechWomen is a program that brings women from different countries like in the middle East and Africa, Southeast Asia, sorry, South Asia to go and experience being in tech companies in the Bay area for five to six weeks.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: They get a chance to have an internship in some of the companies in the Silicon Valley. I saw as a participant that went there and came back were creating programs to engage more girls to get into coding and back in Palestine, also other opportunities to give back to local community. So, what TechWomen focuses on is to empower women to be leaders in STEM opportunities in their communities. So, I wanted to be a part of it, but at the time it required industry experience.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: And then fast forward, I was a PM at Microsoft and I really wanted to give back and mentor in TechWomen. I’ve been doing that for three years and it’s been such an amazing experience to learn from these amazing women who are sometimes Product Managers in companies in Palestine, Lebanon or different countries. But, also you learn a lot how common the challenges we’re facing at work. It’s been really great, the opportunity to mentor these women and knowing that they will go back to their home countries and give back to the communities and then they can inspire more women to be in tech and start the cycle all over again. I’ve been mentoring there for three years now and it’s been a great, great opportunity to meet women from different countries I haven’t gotten a chance to learn about.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: But, locally within the industry, I’ve also been trying as much as I can to ensure I’m spending at least an hour or 30 minutes, even, every week to mentor other Product Managers, other interns within the industry and if anybody is on the fence about mentorship, I feel like there are a few things I wanted to mention. I understand that if the experience is different for different folks. Time for maybe women in the industry could be different. Having different… We already know that this is already a challenge, but this is my own experience. I encourage people or the audience to kind of tailor it to how it suits them depending on the time they have and depending on the opportunities they have.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: Ffirst of all, as I’ve been working in tech for a while, I’ve been thinking of what is the sense of purpose there. We get too stuck in the different releases, different sprints, having this to build this feature or this product. Just, at the end of the day, I feel sometimes I did not have the sense of purpose of what am I doing and at some point at the beginning, I actually debated leaving tech into some other industry because I wasn’t feeling that fulfillment, until I started mentoring.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: It just makes me happier that whatever goes wrong, whatever happened that week, I know at least within this 30 minutes, I was able to do something and impact someone’s day, even just that for an hour, feel listened and trying to coach them. So, definitely I feel like mentorship is giving the sense of purpose that a lot of us in tech lack. The other one is, it helped me pave my path to management.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: The more I was mentoring, the more it becomes natural to you to be a leader, to be a coach, rather than an instructor. It comes when you were mentoring, you can not just tell people like, Oh, this is the situation you’re going into. Here’s how I would fix it. It’s more of let’s talk through it. Let’s understand the challenges. Here’s how I would think about it and get to the resolution at the same time. So, it’s helped a lot in growing this muscle of coaching and leadership that helped me get to management, probably sooner than it would have if I were not a mentor.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: Finally, self-confidence. We talked a lot about Imposter Syndrome, but it gives you that sense of validation that when your mentee or the person you’re chatting with, talking about a problem, in that it comes natural to you. Like, “Oh, I know how to fix this.”, “Oh, look. This is how far I’ve become. Two years ago, this was like the dilemma of my week.” So, just chatting with them about it gives you a sense that I’ve come so far and it can ease down the Imposter Syndrome that because it reminds you of the things you’ve accomplished. The fact that maybe in the first six months or one year getting interrupted at a meeting was the worst thing that could have happened, that shook your confidence and now when you hear it, it’s like, “Oh, I understand. I empathize. Here’s how I think about it and here’s what we could do about it.”
Dimah Zaidalkilani: So, all through all this, just have been rewarding and makes you just whatever goes wrong that week or that month you know, at least, you got a chance to impact someone and help them, regardless at what level in the career it is. Whether it’s an intern, whether it’s a new industry hire or a new college, this 30 minutes for you, it could seem like I have to squeeze it in between this executive briefing and this conversation with our CTO or whatever, but it’s really important because it has impact. Like you said, Iliana, it has impact not just for the person it’s like that person will one day want to give back and then could trickle down to a lot of great things that we can have in the community.
Iliana Montauk: Yeah. It’s definitely creating a flywheel effect. We already see that the Manara candidates who have gone to Google are coming back and mentoring the next candidates on how to get in and how to be successful there. I know we only have a few minutes left. I don’t see anything in the Q & A, so I did just want to respond to some comments in the chat. One is, “So glad to hear you guys are helping people around the world,” and I just want to be clear like, yes, this is helping them and that’s so, so important.
Iliana Montauk: And it’s also helping these tech companies, right? When you’re making the case at your company to make time for this, don’t just position it as a social impact initiative. Tell them, we need the best talent at our company and the Manara volunteers who are interviewing or mentoring women from Gaza or other parts of the Middle East are spotting the best talent early and then they’re recruiting them into their companies and companies are more successful when they’re diverse and women have the most powerful soft skills that are going to rule the world and the tech skills, as well, right?
Iliana Montauk: That’s one important thing and then also mentorship doesn’t have to take a long time. So like, yes, if you’re in a company 30 minutes a week, or 30 minutes a day, is really valuable if you can do that. But, you can find other opportunities. In Manara, you can show up and just do one mock interview per month and that already is making a difference and you’ll find out later if that person got into the company or not.
Iliana Montauk: I do see a few quick questions. So, I’ll go ahead and start answering them. Some of the top tech universities in Gaza, there’s Islamic University, there’s UCAS, there’s University of Palestine. There’s at least six universities in Gaza and the West Bank, which is also, Palestinian is two pieces. There’s Birzeit, there’s An-Naja, et cetera.
Iliana Montauk: Then how do you go about mentorship relationships? Is it formal or informal? I’ll let Dimah speak to TechWomen, but I think it’s basically formal in both cases.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: Yeah, I think it’s-
Iliana Montauk: Go ahead.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: It depends definitely on where it is. I would say if it was within the same team, I would try to make it a bit formal, talk to the manager, if you share the same manager, to make sure that whatever guidance you’re giving is aligned with the management. So, it can be informal, of course. It could be over coffee or Zoom or tea every once in a while. It depends how it is. Is it a long-term? You’ve been mentoring someone or you want to mentor someone over two years or short-term over a project.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: Definitely, my advice is if you want it to be formal or you’re closer to them working on the same project, definitely discuss it with the manager, just so that we make sure that it’s kind of like you’re giving the same direction. If it’s informal, there’s no need to discuss it, but making sure that you have conversation about career goals or challenges.
Iliana Montauk: I saw you were responding to the question on the chat about how to get involved as a mentor, if you’re brand new in a company organization. One thing to do is to join external organizations that need your mentorship. Mentor someone from a different country that might really benefit from your perspective of recently getting in. Mentor people who were recently at your college, university, about how to make the leap that you just made. Those are just a few ideas.
Iliana Montauk: I know we’re at time, but maybe Dimah has one more thought to add.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: I just type my answer, so hopefully.
Iliana Montauk: Okay.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: But, definitely interns is the biggest source and it’s reaching out sometimes to HR to know if there’s any internal ERGs that you can join within the company to know what connections you could have. But, it’s amazing that you’re already new at the company and reaching out to nail this, so kudos to you, for sure.
Iliana Montauk: Yeah. How are we on time, Angie? I have to run. Sukrutha, go ahead.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you so much, Iliana and Dimah. This was amazing. We saw some great comments in the chat, appreciating all the information they learned from you.
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Sukrutha Bhadouria: Faylene is Director of digital marketing platform operations at NVIDIA. She provides global leadership on web technology, e-commerce, personalization, and new digital experiences. Faylene worked with the leading corporations, such as AT&T, Digitas, American Express, American Cancer Society, and much, much more.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Welcome, Faylene.
Faylene Bell: I am trying to tee this up, so hopefully you all can hear me okay and see me.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yes.
Faylene Bell: Alrighty. So that was awesome. I enjoyed Anu’s motivational speak. It was about self-care, strengths, paying it forward. I was like, “Yeah! That’s awesome.”
Faylene Bell: I’m going to actually do a little pivot and talk a little bit about marketing and some digital marketing best practices.
Faylene Bell: So a little bit about me and who I am and why I’m here. I’m actually Faylene Bell. And I work for a company called NVIDIA. We are known very much in the PC gaming space. We also do quite a bit when it comes to high powered computers, and I am a director of digital marketing platform operations. And you’re like, “What is that?”
Faylene Bell: So when you think about nvidia.com, our digital marketing footprint from a website perspective, I’m responsible for the operations behind that, keeping our site up and running, efficient, smooth sailing, 24-7. So that’s my role here at NVIDIA.
Faylene Bell: I have many years of experience in marketing, working across many different brands, really working on digital strategies, marketing technology stacks, providing advice, consulting, running campaigns, running results. You name it, I’ve done it.
Faylene Bell: And I have a whole lot of experience to share about lessons learned in the corporate workspace, being an African-American woman in a male-dominated world. But that’s another talk. Today, I’m going to kind of focus on the marketing aspect and some tips and suggestions that I’ve picked up along the way.
Faylene Bell: I got my credentials in marketing way back when, and as I’ve mentioned, I’ve worked at some large brands. I’ve had really the benefit of living in multiple cities across the US. I’ve spent some time in New York. I worked at American Express. I started my career off in Chicago. I was in Atlanta, most recently. Worked at AT&T, American Cancer Society, a digital agency, and now I’m here at NVIDIA, and I’ve been here in the San Francisco Bay Area for two years now. Been married almost 19 years, and I have two teenagers. So that’s a little bit about me and my background.
Faylene Bell: So I’m going to kind of talk about the topics that I’m going to share today. One, I want to just share more about what is the optimal digital journey from a customer perspective and some best practices and tips and suggestions to align your strategies and then also sprinkle in some industry examples.
Faylene Bell: So McKinsey & Company did this study and released this. And this is probably not new news to many of you because we’re still in a pandemic, even though the vaccinations are out there, and I’m ready to raise my hand and get mine. Really, a lot of companies are still trying to accelerate how fast they should go as part of this digital transformation. How can they take their brick and mortar approach and strategy, make sure it’s online and just be there for customers across all different types of platforms and channels.
Faylene Bell: The one thing I can say is some of the companies who haven’t really focused on this as a strategy for the last couple of years, they’re scrambling. And so they’re also having to figure out how to prioritize all of this work and make this shift. So it was really important to have a strategy in place because you are up against time. You probably have limited resources. So if you’re not necessarily in the digital space, you probably are feeling a lot more constraints than other industries that have always been focusing on a digital platform strategy.
Faylene Bell: Fortunately, I’ve always been in the digital marketing space, so I was probably ahead of my time way back when, and I’ve enjoyed the reaped benefits of us being in this virtual environment because I’ve been busy as ever and being able to push a lot more.
Faylene Bell: So what is the optimal digital customer experience? It’s really about five key pillars that I’ll talk about.
Faylene Bell: One, I think you need to make sure you have a scalable and a fluid web platform. You also need to make sure customer navigation is seamless. No friction. Have a very easy purchasing journey, dynamic and digestible content, and top notch customer service.
Faylene Bell: Getting background noise from somebody on the panel. Hopefully, they mute it. It’s hard with digital, and I can’t see you all.
Faylene Bell: So those are five pillars that I feel really encompass the optimal digital customer journey.
Faylene Bell: So first, I want to talk about web development. Prioritizing your website design and development is key, and it’s really the foundation of anything when you think about digital marketing, digital strategies, having a digital presence. Mobile-first design, no brainer, but you’d be surprised how many brands still build templates, websites, experiences with a desktop mentality first.
Faylene Bell: You need to think about how customers are looking at your experiences on their mobile device. And that’s where you start. Then you supplement with desktop, but mobile-first is critical. Responsive web is how many companies are doing that from a web platform perspective.
Faylene Bell: The second thing, chatbots. So you might get these little irritating pop-up chat. You’re like, “What is this?” It’s actually a service. It’s managed by rules behind the scenes, and there’s logic behind that. And companies use strategies to inject the chat at places where it makes the most sense within the customer journey.
Faylene Bell: If you’re on the billing page, that might be a great place to inject a chatbot because customers may have questions about their bills, or they might need help with troubleshooting. Well, it may make more sense to inject that dialogue there to help customers overcome their task, whatever it is they’re trying to achieve versus just having a generic chat on the home page.
Faylene Bell: I’m not really trying to do much on the homepage other than look around and try to figure out the navigation. So there’s strategies behind when the chatbot should appear. All the logic behind the scenes or rules in place, it’s very critical to make sure that’s included in your strategy on both mobile and desktop.
Faylene Bell: The third thing is when you think about the web, your design is really key. Of course, you need to have bold colors. You need to also make sure all of your design elements from a UX perspective are accessibility approved.
Faylene Bell: Think about… there are millions of people that are visually impaired or hearing impaired. They actually use devices such as screen readers to help read out loud all the content on your site. So you actually have to design and develop tools so that accessibility is not an obstacle for customers to engage with you on your site.
Faylene Bell: Push notifications. We get a lot of these sometimes when you’re shopping. It’s a strategy behind that as well just like chatbots. When does it make sense? When is it too much? What kind of material, what kind of information should be pushed to customers? Opting in is absolutely critical and to that entire strategy behind push notifications.
Faylene Bell: And the last thing I’ll just mention, GDPR, and you may be like, “What is that?” So this is really something that was driven out of the European environment. When you think about data protection, making sure me, as a consumer, I can opt in, and I can say, “Hey, I want you to share all my data with me that you have on me. And guess what? I want you to delete that.”
Faylene Bell: That’s, at a high level, what GDPR is all about, and companies have to adhere to that. You’ll see those banners showing up on the sides. Do you want us to track you? Can you accept the cookies? Delete the cookies? All that’s connected. You need to make sure you’ve got the infrastructure in place to support that.
Faylene Bell: In Europe, there’s laws. There’s hefty fines. Here in the States, we are adopting it more and more and eventually, it will be global. Everyone will be doing it.
Faylene Bell: Just some industry examples. I’m not going to go too deep. I do have a limited window here on timing, but Disney really does a great job when you think about responsive web design and their experiences across multiple platforms and what they’ve been able to actually put out there to date.
Faylene Bell: The next thing I’m going to talk about is seamless experiences. Creating a seamless digital experience, again, more so of an emphasis now because it’s less about brick and mortar. It’s more about the online presence and what you’re doing.
Faylene Bell: So companies have to build a cohesive presence and make sure that you’re able to pick up the customer journey regardless of what channel they’re tapping into. Many people… I’ll start off on my mobile device, looking at Neiman Marcus, shopping, which I shouldn’t be doing, but I do a lot of that because it’s COVID. I then log into my laptop, join a bunch of Webex calls for work. During lunch break, I might go to the Neiman Marcus site, get busy, distracted, back to working. In the evening. I’m picking up my iPad, back on Neiman Marcus. I’m one customer, and I’ve just hit up Neiman Marcus on three different platforms.
Faylene Bell: It’s important to understand where I am in my journey and all the different touch points that I might be using on a regular basis. So that’s important when you think about the seamless experience across those.
Faylene Bell: Some players in the market that are killing it when it comes to seamless experience, to me, Apple. Just look at the experience offline, online, integration, definitely things to think about.
Faylene Bell: Purchasing journey. So I’ve had the pleasure of working for many brands that e-commerce was a very big initiative. It was about how we can generate online sales and make conversions from visitors, prospects, and even customers. So there’s four key things, I think, when you’re thinking about the digital experience, the journey, and things that companies need to make sure they’ve incorporated.
Faylene Bell: When you’re shopping online, you want to have trust, reliability, those basic things like assurance that where I’m trying to purchase is legitimately your company. Don’t take me off to some wacky little domain that has nothing with your URL on it. You need to be consistent with those experiences.
Faylene Bell: Clear action items in the checkout cart, adding a cart, simple UI thing that so many brands miss the mark. Make it very, very easy for people to know, “This is what I need to do. This is how many items I have.”
Faylene Bell: And connecting with customers, and I’ll say this over and over again. Do not hide customer contact information. Make it very easy for customers to call you, email you, chat with you, something, but a lot of brands hide it. And there’s cost reasons behind that. It’s expensive to have call centers up and running and providing all the support, even now. So that’s been the strategy behind why you don’t find it as available on a lot of sites.
Faylene Bell: Progress bar. When you’re going through that purchasing journey, it’s helpful to know where you are. It’s also helpful to have a lot of auto-completion logic built in. Why am I having to enter the same information or my shipping when I already told you and clicked the box that said, “It’s the same as my billing.” Auto-populate all that information.
Faylene Bell: And then, offering a guest checkout. Not everyone wants to sign up and register as a customer, so give customers and prospects that opportunity to do that on the end after they’ve made the purchase.
Faylene Bell: Examples of players that are really doing this really well online, Amazon.
Faylene Bell: Let me talk about dynamic content. So it’s important to have content that’s digestible. People do not want to read a bunch of stuff. They want to watch videos. They want to get bite-sized information from brands. Think about even TikTok. 15 seconds is enough. You don’t need necessarily a lot, a lot of content. So this is the trend. It’s going to continue to grow and definitely be more prominent.
Faylene Bell: Metrics from… I’m a marketer, core to my heart, been doing it for many years, and you’ve got to have metrics and marketing logic and numbers behind what it is you’re doing and why and how you’re tracking it, and use that information to help make decisions about content that’s working, content that’s not working, more content that’s needed
Faylene Bell: Examples. Think about Netflix. You have Recommended for You. There’s content, there’s logic behind that. Why is it recommended for you? What did you watch last? What are those bite-sized pieces of information and content that you see, and you are just so accustomed to it, you don’t realize all the logic behind that. That’s great marketing.
Faylene Bell: Customer support. Last but not least, you’ve got to provide top notch customer service. Those that are best in class when it comes to customer service, they respond back to any inquiry within 3 hours or even sooner. Some, 12 hours, 24 hours. But even if you can’t respond back with a yes, no, what the option is, invest in automated, generated types of tools that can automatically send a message to anybody who responds or sends you an inquiry within a minute, “Got your information. We’ll be following up. Something, something, something.” Very simple things. You’d be amazed at how many brands and companies skip right over this.
Faylene Bell: I have been also fortunate to work with a lot of brands that have a lot of metrics behind tracking customer feedback, customer satisfaction scores, net promoter scores. You get those little surveys at the end. It’s like, “Hey, how are we today? Did we accomplish what we said we were going to do?” You scale it from 1 to 10. Half of you might have never realized there’s a lot of logic behind that. And a lot of that is feedback on how we adjust our customer service needs based upon the results from those surveys and the information that’s tracked. That’s important. It aligns to great customer service, based upon what you’re saying is not helpful or is helpful.
Faylene Bell: And the last point, don’t hide information. Make it available to customers. Ritz Carlton does some great customer service efforts online and offline.
Faylene Bell: So in summary, some key takeaway points. I think it’s important that you make sure you are profiling your points of differentiation across digital channels in a way where customers expect things from your brand. Enable customers to self-serve and solve common challenges. It will drive satisfaction and loyalty.
Faylene Bell: And then having a long-term mindset, building a framework for continually improving, adapting, and excelling in a changing world. And this is also a personal career tip I share with people that I mentor.
Faylene Bell: You need a flexible mindset as well when you’re working in these changing times and environments. So don’t start a job having that mental mindset where it has to be 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Two weeks from now, I might need you to do 7, 8, 9, 10, and then I’ll give you a little bit more in another month. So you got to be able to adjust fluidly to change.
Faylene Bell: That’s all I have for you today. Thank you so much for your time and allowing me to come on your platform and share more. And I do have a website, faylenebell.com, if you guys want to reach out to me.
Angie Chang: Thank you, Faylene. I love your podcast as well.
Faylene Bell: Thank you.
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Angie Chang: So we have Suzanna joining us — she is a Senior Manager for the Product Security Foundations team and at Slack. She’s built a brand new team within Product Security that’s focused more on proactive security measures by delivering secure by default libraries and services for Slack. So, welcome Suzanna.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: Thank you, Angie. Thank you for nice intro. Hi everyone. Nice to meet you virtually. I’m so excited to be here. Before I start talking about Proactive Security at Slack, I want to also join all the other ladies who spoke before to congratulate you with International Women’s Day. I’m so happy to see that it’s becoming a bigger and bigger event in United States. When I moved to US 25 years ago from Armenia, it was a big event there and it is still there big event, but now I see it getting more and more recognized internationally in this special United States. It’s really special to me, so, Happy International Women’s day to all of you. So as Angie said, I am the Manager for Product Security Foundations Team at Slack, and here, I’m going to talk the next 20 minutes, what we do at Slack in terms of a proactive security measurements especially around product security.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: Quick introduction and background, just in case, we… By the way, I heard lots of great love and feedback in our chat talking about how much you love using Slack, the tool. That’s great. Thank you so much. So, in case of some of you never heard about Slack, quick intro. Slack is basically a collaboration tool that makes your work life much simple, much pleasant and much productive… And more work life, meaning not just your corporate work, it can be anything to do with nonprofit organization, your fun activities, you are planning to do something with your friends and the use cases go forever. So basically, it’s an amazing collaboration tool to make your work done, right? And what we do here in the Slack security team, we want to make sure that we keep that tool for you to be safe, secure, and make sure that your data is safe with you. So basically, we are providing the collaboration platform to make sure that everything, what you do, it is Slack secure and pleasant.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: And what’s our strategy? We provide lots of best spoken reviews, we do lots of automation, ongoing education and production ready components. Basically, anytime we release something for our engineers to start using it and I have a use cases to go through one by one how we do that. Before that also quick history. Today… This year, we are celebrating Slack’s seventh anniversary and as we celebrate Slack’s seventh anniversary, we also have a great history of the security, right? So first actually security, the way it launched our first security engineer was our CTO, Cal Henderson. In 2014, he basically aligned the Bug Bounty program for Slack via HackerOne and he was the first person who was actually triaging the security issues. And then in 2015, as the Slack was growing, they hired the first Engineering Manager who basically started putting plan together and charter for the product security.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: He started hiring more engineers and doing some basically other automations around security development life cycle. As Slack start growing and team growing, in 2018, the current Director of Product Security, Larkin Ryder, took the ownership of the Product Security pillar and she realized that as we’re exponentially growing, we need to make sure we put more measurements in our proactive security, so it’s important to have our traditional product security components in place, such as reviewing, providing consultations, providing some scanning and automations, but we need to make sure that we also look for classes of vulnerabilities and come up with proactive measurements. With that, they hired me in the late of 2019. They hired me as a founding manager for Product Security Foundations team.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: So, what is Foundations team? Just a quick thing is, as I mentioned, we are basically building secure by default libraries and services. We’re providing future proof for Slack, the product, and how we do it, we basically write the code as any other development organization, and we work with other engineers to make sure the code is utilized and used safely by our engineers.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: And how we decide to what kind of work we want to work, what classes of vulnerabilities we want to address. So that’s pretty straight forward. In the beginning, obviously we wanted to make sure that we look at our code base, we understand our potential big classes of vulnerabilities and figure out the best approach, how to build new libraries and services.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: As the team became bigger, as our services became more mature, we also done lots of data analysis, gathering lots of interesting information so to make better data-driven decisions such as our incidents that our back boundary reports, our data that comes from our tooling automations to better understand the classes of vulnerabilities and come up with ways how to solve it and we also marrying that with OWASP top 10. So OWASP top 10, which is The Open Web Application Security Project, those are the known vulnerabilities and we wanted to make sure that we have the right services and libraries to address those issues. And obviously, sometimes also customer demands come our way too, but we’re not feature-facing team, we are more backend team basically working on a future proof and that’s why we are not doing lots of… We don’t have product management working with us, basically we act as a product manager for our team.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: But with that, we also use Slack’s design principles. The most important things, which is very… To make sure that we align with our organization, same way as other engineering teams do, we want to make sure all the libraries and services we’ve write, they don’t make… They are very simple and engineers don’t have to think how they code the service or the library. It has to have great serviceability components in terms of, for us, making sure that our reliability is always up and we don’t want to boil an ocean, we want to make sure we have small, rapid development, prototype the way, do the experiments, learn from it and then move on.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: And most importantly, especially in the security team, we don’t want to reinvent the wheel. If there are all these tools and services there that we can reuse, we definitely going to do it instead of writing from scratch on our own. And the biggest one I want to highlight is the take bigger and bolder steps and that’s basically figuring out like, what can we do? Maybe something that we can invent, we can put lots of efforts to, but if in return we’ll get lots of great benefits securing our product.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: Okay. So as I mentioned, I’m going to talk about the top OWASP top 10 vulnerabilities that we’re trying to prevent with our new secure by default libraries and services. The first one I want to talk about, Broken Authentication and Broken Access Control. That’s a big one. Authentication is very important. It’s also scary. We need to make sure the right people are authenticated to our platform and we make sure that people don’t automatically get these and get reset their passwords or get their password to get stolen or hacked. So what we do, so, first thing about our Crypto library, that was actually the first library that we released for the foundations team. And the… Basically the purpose of this, we know cryptography is very complex, it’s very challenging and we don’t want our engineers, backend engineers, to think about like what type of hashing algorithm to use or what type of encryption algorithm to use.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: We want to provide a library with the right help or functions to do all the job for them. So they don’t have to think about it. They don’t have to unintentionally introduce some potential problems and bugs, and that’s how we introduced our Crypto Library. This is a also great example as an impact for our Slack’s Better Engineering Initiative. So basically, what is a Slack’s Better Engineering Initiative? Whenever you go, you touch a code, you leave that code much better and you don’t try to fix it like small thing, you want to fix it up a very bigger way so it can be used for other engineers, much better and much safer and secure way. So that’s the great impact of Crypto Library. We also made sure we have linters so all the new engineers who come, who trying to use the old libraries that have a linter in place, or they know they have to use the new one.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: The next one is about Magic Logins. So what is Magic Logins? Magic Logins is a very… It’s a unique thing for Slack, but also for some other web applications. But for Slack, basically, if you don’t want to use your password and you can use this Magic Login to authenticate yourself. Obviously, it’s a powerful tool, but potentially also can have a security problem. So when we were looking at our code base, we realized that it has some [inaudible] and legacy code patterns that we wanted to fix it and make it better. And that’s what team actually done. So basically first step was reviewing the code, understanding what’s happening and then providing better documentation, providing better test case coverage, and also framework, which will be much simpler and easier for our engineers to use. This was also amazing core foundation for other future authentication hardening efforts.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: Let’s talk about Injection and Cross Site Scripting. The first example, which is like basically a very important project that our team worked on is Magical Images. So what this does basically, anytime you go to Slack, you upload a video, you upload any type of image, right? A PDF file, your Excel documents, et cetera. It going, it is going to thumbnail that image or that document and basically it goes through Image Magic Library, which used to be called directly in our webapp. So what our team has done, basically, isolated that call to a separate service. That was the brand new service that the team put together last year, beginning of last year. And that was right before we ended… Like we were entering the COVID era. Basically everyone started using Slack, so the usage of slack was exponentially increasing.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: And that was even more scarier to make sure that our brand new service scales and doesn’t produce any serviceability issues and definitely, we didn’t want to make sure we produce any type of outages. So, amazingly, as we launch this service last February and March, it was already in full protection, especially whenever you are uploading files and thumbnailing and we had zero incidents. And the reason why, because the team really put lots of efforts, making sure we had extra test case coverages, making sure we have feature flags and making sure we are going to the production on gradual steps. So right now the biggest impact is basically, we’re processing approximately 300 requests at the peak and image thumbnailing, or any other forms, and which is equivalent to 15 million requests per day. What it does, it dramatically reduces security risk when you are thumbnailing images.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: So what HTML Sanitizer does, basically, whenever you go and post a link in your Slack channel or somewhere, it unfurls the information. So that unfurling basically it has HTML tag. So our service basically makes sure that all these tags are properly sanitized to prevent any potential Cross Site Scripting or Injection Security vulnerabilities. The good thing about this library was that it actually got open source. So other people can come now to Slack HQ repository and use that library if, especially if they are using Hacklang … And I know it’s not many companies use Hacklang, it’s probably Facebook and Slack, but anyways, so it’s there, you can use it and you can contribute it. And this was our first virtual internship project to basically this done by our interns and if you search, use blog on virtual internship at Slack and security, you’ll find all the details about this project and how this project was impactful and meaningful for our interns who are coming back as full-timers to Slack and work for our team this summer.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: Sensitive Data Exposure, that’s another very important security type of vulnerability that, especially with GDPR that came in two years, couple of years ago, and the California data privacy act, European data privacy acts. We know we need to make sure that our customer data stays with them and secure and logs obviously are very powerful tool for our engineers to understand if something goes wrong, but we want to make sure we don’t unintentionally log something that we didn’t want to log. So sensitive information can be channel names, file names. All these information, we don’t want to make sure they are not in our logs. So basically, we wrote a tool to do that, to detect automatically we unintentionally log this type of data and we make sure that it is out of our serach, we get an alert and we take care of it immediately. And there was an amazing talk about just this project by Ryan Slama, who is the engineer in my team.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: So if you are interested in, he did this talk in the Loco Moco Security Conference, so feel free to go and search and look the details about this project. Security Misconfiguration, that’s another important thing. Like you can unintentionally do lots of mistakes and we want to make sure we detect that. For these type of vulnerabilities, we have tons of tools that we actually purchased, or we use as an open source. So, but I’m using just one example, which is a tool the team wrote. Obviously, Slack is on AWS infrastructure and provisioning process can be very complex. So people can unintentionally, basically, bring their own points without proper authentication.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: Obviously, all our sensitive services are behind authentication services, point authentication, but sometimes for some testing purposes, this and that, developers can make mistakes. So basically a range is built to prevent that kind of mistakes because this type of defects we we’re getting from our bug bounty reports all the time, the reports coming… So the bug bounty researchers, this was the easy way, very easy way to detect and find the open end points without proper authentication and we were giving lots of bounties to the researcher, so this was… We knew if we put the tool together, we can easily fix this problem.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: Okay. So the last one I want to quickly talk about, Using Components with Known Vulnerabilities. Again, this is… I’ll talk a little bit about Twistlock. So Twistlock is a tool we purchase from Palo Alto Networks, which basically scans for vulnerabilities in our Kubernetes infrastructure and we didn’t want to invent, we knew, we actually spent lots of time putting pros and cons of all the existing tools there in the even open source, free tools that we can use and we came out with the Twistlock, which provides amazing infrastructure. It provides good reporting that we could easily integrate to our CI pipeline and make sure that we have our infrastructure, Kubernetes infrastructure, without a third party vulnerability. So as we launched this product, we already found dozens of vulnerabilities that we prevented, right? Which could bring buffer overflows or Denial of Service attacks.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: Ossify is another tool. This is another internship project was done on vulnerabilities, but this was the vulnerabilities in our code libraries, not the infrastructure. So this was internship project done by our interns, two summers ago. Another great conference talk about that, 10,000 Dependencies Under the Sea. So I will highly encourage you to go look at it. This was taught, presented at DevCon last summer and with that, I know I only have one more minute. So I just want to say, okay, what’s next? What we are planning to do. There are still… We’ve, all the tools that I talked about or services libraries. It’s like probably 50%. We’ve done more than that. But I wanted just to highlight a few key of them and the most important thing we want to continue our working on the project that produce big impact.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: So we want to harden our authentication, authorization, code base, or we are working on the 2FA hardening close right now and client hardening. We’ve been… The first few years, we’re focusing on [inaudible] backend. Now, we want to start to put some focus on the client side from the security perspective and also look for more types proactive security, such as Early Cross Site warning systems and do… Continue our education and evangelism both internally to our engineers in the backend, as well as to the external community and put lots of focus on efforts on Better Engineering, because all the projects for Foundations team is all around Better Engineering, making the code much better, safer, and proficient to use.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: With that, I want to thank you all for your great time and I’ll go and look, if you have any questions, I’ll answer them. Thank you so much and we are hiring.
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