Episode 5: Communication

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

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

Gretchen DeKnikker: I’m Gretchen, COO of Girl Geek X.

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

Angie Chang: Today, we’ll be talking about communication.

Angie Chang: I think we have so many episodes and experiences where we miscommunicated where there was a potential bias or a misstep that we made, either as a manager, or by expressing a political idea, that communication is something that we often learn in our 20/20, looking back, than honestly that we kind of plan for.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. It’s also not just what you’re saying, but how the image you’re portraying and the message you’re sending beyond just your words, that’s super important, and how your actions are being perceived.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Nothing gets done without humans, right? No matter what it is that we think the work is, it’s actually the humans that make everything go together. Obviously, communication would be fairly important to that whole thing.

Rachel Jones: Has anyone ever experienced a miscommunication in the workplace?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, I have. I was told that because I wasn’t participating as much in meetings, people assumed that I didn’t have strong opinions. Especially in technical discussions, if you don’t say things or you don’t contribute when people are typically talking over each other, I think it’s just misunderstood to mean that you’re not as competent. That’s happened to me in the past. I’ve learned how to interject myself without speaking over people, but it is definitely something I’ve experienced. What about you, Angie, have you gone through something like this?

Angie Chang: Yeah. I think communication, to me, oftentimes is a point that I struggle with in large meetings, where I’m trying to find my voice. As someone who’s more introverted and soft-spoken, trying to interject and say more robust things in a crowded room of people who are often yelling, they’re much louder than myself, requires some more strategy than I expected, and took a little bit of work to get used to being prepared to interject and raise my voice what feels like 10 times its normal range, so that I am part of that normal conversation flow in the workplace.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I mean, I wouldn’t even know where to start with all of the workplace communication issues. I think, really early in my career, I didn’t really realize the human part enough. I thought the whole point was to get the job done. I didn’t really understand that the relationships were what were going to make me successful, not necessarily any one individual task or project that I needed to get done. I think my communication style was very abrupt and to the point. It still is, on some level, but not as bad as it was. I know that seems impossible to anyone who’s been working with me recently, but it’s definitely, I think about the person first and the project second, now. I mean, I broke a lot of glass, early on in my career. A lot.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I can totally relate. I really, really had a hard time, actually. As a student, you’re doing a project solo. You’re probably paired up with other people, but it’s like a maximum one or two people, and each person has their own role. When you’re working in a corporate job, or even in a startup, you have to know how to convince other people of your points and your perspective. Knowing how to speak to other people while also being able to listen to them, or at least making them feel like you’re at least listening, is something that it took me a while before I learned that. Have you had experiences like this, Angie?

Angie Chang: Yeah. I had experiences, definitely, where I didn’t realize that my face was like resting bitch face. I had to get feedback from people for like, “You should maybe smile at me when we’re having this conversation or you’re asking me things.” Like, “That’s right.” I think there’s always that impact versus intent aspect.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. I was told, “Hey, I think resting bitch face is better than …” What I was told, I was told that I don’t look confident, just the way I stand.

Angie Chang: I wonder how you stand.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I don’t know. I guess I cower? I don’t know. Yeah. I feel like portraying confidence but not coming across like a know-it-all, like just striking all of that balance is so important and so difficult that I wish I had been a little bit more exposed to this, early in my career.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I was thinking, when you first become a manager, you sort of think everyone needs to get used to you. Then, I think, for me, at least, later in my career, and definitely as you become a manager of managers, thinking about, how do I conform myself so that I can get the most out of each one of these individuals? What do each one of these individuals need from me to be more successful? I think that’s another way that you can look at communication and how it changes and evolves.

Rachel Jones: Yeah. I definitely learned a lot about just how effective you can be switching up your communication style when I was working with high schoolers in my previous role at a youth media program, just having a different approach for each student, knowing, like, “This person, I need to be really direct with to get them to do this work. This other person, we need to start and just have a conversation about their day and how they’re doing, and then we can get into the task at hand.” Just knowing, yeah, how different ways of communicating with different people can actually get you better results from them.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah. Also with your managers, right? I had one guy that I worked for, and you could not directly challenge him, even in private. You would just have to work around the issue. If you went for a direct challenge, he was a person who really thrived on conflict, and so he just really enjoyed a good debate, maybe he would think that it was. It was just completely unproductive for me to ever go for a direct challenge, so working around it.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: It’s so interesting. Part of being successful at communicating is understanding the other person’s personality, it feels like.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah. Understanding what buttons to push for positive or negative, right?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah, knowing the language to speak in so that you’re most heard.

Gretchen DeKnikker: And, what buttons you do push, right? Because I have pushed more buttons than I ever intend to with people. I’ve just sort of learned that over time. Usually it’s like, “I put my finger on the hot plate, and now it burned. I’m going to try to remember not to touch the stove again, or use a different finger, whatever.”

Sukrutha Bhadouria: This is great that we’ve been talking about this, because during our dinner with Quantcast, Disha Gosalia shared a story about learning the importance of communication. Disha is a VP at Quantcast, and she talked about her experience with miscommunication in the workplace.

Disha Gosalia: There was an incident, and there was a big learning point for me. I was in a really big meeting with my colleagues, my boss was there. My boss’s boss was there. We were discussing the solution, an implementation solution, a complex solution. The person presenting the solution, you know, kept going on and on. I didn’t necessarily agree with that idea, but being who I was, I decided not to really call her out in front of everybody, and decided to go one-on-one later, and talk to her about why I thought this was not a great idea. When I did that, she actually accused me of being indecisive. She said, “Why did you agree with me in the first place?” I was really taken aback. I’m like, “Really? Did I even agree with you?” It actually gave me a couple of sleepless nights. At that point, what I didn’t realize, which I realized a little later, was that it wasn’t that she was accusing me. It was that my lack of speaking up or lack of objection in that meeting was actually taken as agreement by her. It was only because we had had different ways of processing information. The way she processed was she would talk and think while she’s talking, while how I processed was that I think and then talk. I would have these long, awkward pauses, but she would keep going on and on. What I had realized and actually learned through this process was, you know, I need to just find a pause, and then ask clarifying questions. That’s kind of how to better communicate with her.

Rachel Jones: Can you relate to that story at all? Have you done anything to take stock of your own communication style?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I had to go through this communication training where they give you a topic to talk about, or they make you pick one, and they video record you. Then, they give you feedback. Then, they make you do that again and video record you again. When I did this training, I realized that I sometimes don’t make eye contact with everybody. That makes people feel like they can tune out really quickly. It also makes people feel like you’re not talking to them or you’re not addressing what they just said. Little things like that that I learned made it easier for me to get better at convincing people of my point of view, because that’s where I struggled the most, my communication in meetings and making sure that my point was heard. Did you all go through something like that, too?

Gretchen DeKnikker: For me, a thing I didn’t learn till later, which was kind of a bummer, is that, completely generalizing, but it was my experience the majority of the time, is that I like to talk through a problem, like go through all of the angles, and just work something out. Many of the men that I work with, they think if you’re coming that you’re coming to make a decision. I’m still in information gathering mode. I just want to talk through the thing. They’re like, “Okay, so then, we’ve decided.” It’s like, “No. At the end of this meeting, I’ll have decided nothing. I’ll have more information that I will go back, and I’ll process, and then I’ll decide.” I’m not asking you for a decision. I think understanding and finding the people in the organization that I can talk through a problem with without me feeling this pressure of like, we still don’t have all the information. I’m not going to make a final call on something right now, and leaving a meeting … This is informal. This isn’t like a whole bunch of people, but leaving a meeting without a final decision and output is fine on something that’s a really complex topic.

Angie Chang: I went to this one training, before. Since I’ve never worked at a bigger company, it was this training for people who were in small and growth-stage startups. I realized a commonality between all of us who were in this training was that we were all extremely high achievers in our own domains, but almost to the risk of running over all our reports. Kind of going around in the group therapy, I felt like I was hearing people not understanding why people just weren’t doing what they wanted. Then, we had to kind of have a “come to Jesus” moment, where we’re like, “Okay, let’s take this personality test. Let’s do this videotape exercise where we see ourselves talk to other people, and hear this open quick criticism about what’s wrong with our communication style.” Then, there’s the come to Jesus moment of, “Okay, so in the moving forward, I need to practice my communication style to be X or Y, so I’m much more likely to get the desired result from my reports. That also happened. I highly encourage people to seek out, even if you’re not at a big company with these resources, those types of programs, they do exist.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I’ve never heard of those, and both of you have had them. I didn’t even know such a thing existed before.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I think you will seek it out when you get feedback enough that you appear a certain way, and you’re like, “How do I appear that way?” You know, like, “This is crazy. I need to figure this out. How can I get some sort of training, or class, or something to put a finger on it?” Disha also talks about how she ended up modifying her communication style knowing who she was speaking to, especially because the person she is talking about has a completely different communication style from her. What’s a good way for us or for our listeners to understand the personalities or the styles of the people they are trying to communicate with?

Angie Chang: I think it’s a good exercise to be mindful of everyone being completely different, and taking note of that, and taking the time to prepare before each encounter that you are going to be in this different scenario and perspective for the next hour or half an hour.

Gretchen DeKnikker: We talked about books in an earlier podcast. One that I found super valuable was called The Loudest Duck. It is just sort of communicating with people with different styles, and different heritage, and how that can impact. I think it took me till … I’d probably been a manager for like 10 years before I realized not everyone wants to work the way that I do. It took me a really long time to understand that there are people who really like to be told what to do. They want every step laid out for them. That just felt so ridiculous to me, because I would hate to be managed that way. Getting that awareness that when you get good at being a manager, you can maybe think you’re better than you are, because you think, “I’m being the kind of manager that I would want. I would love to have me as a manager,” rather than, would this particular person, are they a good manager for you? I might ask them to be more like me.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. On that note, understanding somebody else’s personality to better improve one’s communication has really, really been most applicable for me when I’ve been trying to manage up. When you manage up, you really, really want to understand what makes your manager tick, what makes them listen, what makes them perceive the way they do. That adjustment period that I typically have with a manager that I’m reporting to for the first time is when I do that assessment, so that I know best how I can bring out the best in me and ensure that they’re able to bring out the best in me, too.

Rachel Jones: Yeah. I think this can be hard, because sometimes you don’t think about being mindful about someone else’s communication style until you have experienced a miscommunication with them. I think, yeah, just making an effort to pay attention to people and how they approach their own work, so you have an idea of how they communicate before you get into a more sticky situation is definitely valuable.

Rachel Jones: Also, yeah, like Gretchen said, just not assuming that everyone’s approach is the same as yours and leading with that.

Angie Chang: In the past, we heard from Laura Thomson, a director of engineering at Mozilla, talk about her approach to communication during an engineering leadership panel.

Laura Thomson: Try to encourage in my team a force of communication that is kind, direct, and prompt, because I think, particularly in the open source world, you have a place where people can be kind of jerks, right? They’ll say, “Oh my god, this code is terrible.” Sometimes, you need to communicate that, but you don’t need to communicate it in that way. Also, you can go too far, and be nice, and not say anything. That’s not helpful. What you have to do is be kind by telling them, by sharing that with them. Be direct, so say what you mean. Be prompt. Don’t think something and not get around to telling someone until it’s too late for them to do anything about it. That’s my philosophy.

Angie Chang: I liked how Laura talks about how being quiet can be a symptom of what Kim Scott in Radical Candor refers to as ruinous empathy, where you’re so kind and empathetic that you let people fail. I think it’s something that we are always working on, to be more proactive in these crucial conversations and providing very quick feedback, so that you’re not giving someone a surprise at their review, or even just by laying someone off later, by saying they failed, when you never gave them any actionable feedback in the first place.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. When I was a new manager, I remember I wanted to be the opposite of all my bad managers. I want to give everybody feedback right away. While everyone says they want to hear feedback right away, when someone knows that they bombed in a meeting, or in a presentation, they don’t want to be told right away that they bombed. They know it. With everything, I think there’s a time, and a place, and the right phrasing when you give feedback to people. Just like how Laura says, “You can’t say, ‘Your code sucks.'” You have to give appropriate feedback so that it’s actionable, and people can improve, whether you are their manager or not. It’s super important. What do you think, Gretchen?

Gretchen DeKnikker: I think a really important thing in any communication style, even if you’re more of an abrupt person, or whatever it is, that you use a style that’s genuine to yourself, because it can come across really disingenuous if you are a person who’s generally very, I don’t know, straightforward, and then all of a sudden, you’re dancing around something because you’re putting on your ‘I’m going to give feedback hat’ right now. I think the consistency is really important, because you don’t want someone who’s telling you you did a job when you know that they never say anything nice. They’re just completely full of shit at that point. As a manager, making sure, like for me, I’m very, very straightforward about everything. I make sure that that’s also in, when you tell somebody that they did a good job, and you can hear, they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” and stopping and being like, “No, here’s why that was really good. Here’s the things that I liked,” so that I make sure that I’m balancing it, so that, one, they get all of the feedback that they need, but two, when we have to have really hard conversations, that they know that I’m on their side. I’m always on their side. It’s my job to make them successful.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: That’s great. With every feedback that you give, you’re direct, clear, and you give context, so that it’s easy to digest?

Gretchen DeKnikker: That’s the dream, yeah. I feel like it’s also just, I can’t be a beating around the bush kind of person, so if I adopt that style for only certain types of conversations, I don’t think that I’m doing myself or that person any sort of a favor. I just kind of need to be me all the time. Obviously, like, adjusting for how the person needs or when the person needs to hear it, but not trying to be, like, “I’m going to put on my manager hat, now, and I’m going to use my manager voice, and I’m going to give my manager talk.” That, I don’t think, works. It doesn’t for me, anyway.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Right. I think, for me, I try my best to think about it, how would I want to hear this feedback? Because you don’t want to crush someone’s soul. You want to say it in a way that it’s actionable. That’s the part that I had to learn over time. Depending on who the person was, if it was someone who’s a little bit more sensitive, I would ask them, “Are you ready for some feedback?” Then, always, they’re like, “Yes, we want to hear it.” Then, I ask questions. “How do you think this thing went? How do you think you did here? How do you think you could have been more effective?” That sort of thing leads me to then get to the feedback that I want to give without them shutting off right away when I’m being a little … My style typically has been to be very, very to the point, which I found that not everybody was receptive to. I had to modify that a bit. How did you come up with your communication philosophy, Angie?

Angie Chang: I think it’s a combination of what Gretchen said about making sure that your feedback is consistent with your authentic self, and also, to your point, Sukrutha, I do think a little bit about how I would like to take that feedback. I also try to imagine how that person would like to take that feedback, because no one’s the same. Maybe asking them how they prefer to take feedback, in a way that they are more open to it, and they don’t have a knee-jerk reaction and take it badly.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. I know that I’ve always meant to take feedback deliberately but not personally, but there are so many times I take it personally that I have to be very, very mindful of that when I give feedback to other people, too. Whether they’re my peers, or they’re people who report to me, I have to be very careful.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah, because then the feedback becomes about you, and not about the thing, about, like, “She’s picking me apart,” or she’s whatever, and really trying to think about … I think your thing that you said earlier about, with people you know are going to be more sensitive, like basically having them tell you what they think they could have … what went wrong, or what could be changed, but also, making sure that you’re always separating the person from the action. I had a boss really, really early on that was really great at that. I could screw up the worst thing, and I would leave his office feeling bad about the thing about I messed up, but always knowing that he had my best interests at heart. I always try to be him, right? This thing happened. We don’t need to go back through. The only thing we need to understand is how do we not do it again? How can it be more effective? What were the things that were missing? Or, whatever, but not to go back through stuff that can’t be changed, that isn’t forward-looking.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: A long time ago, someone told me, “It’s never people that make mistakes. It’s the process that makes mistakes,” right? When you think about something that goes wrong, and you’re like, “What caused that to happen?” taking the person out of it, it helps me to think that way. Then, when I’m trying to give feedback or help the person get to that conclusion, I’m able to ask the right questions, I think, that would then help them self-assess without taking it too personally or getting defensive. Just keeping that in mind has really been helpful for me, as well.

Angie Chang: I remember, once, I got this feedback. It wasn’t necessarily something that my … Well, it came from my boss, but it was like, at one of our events, a customer or client said that you were not smiling and greeting them with enough warmth that they expected. I was like so shocked. I was like, “Wait, my face isn’t that happy?” Then, I was just angry at the … I didn’t take it that personally, but I was also like, “Is it a gender bias thing? Because as a woman people, expect more warmth from women, so certainly, it’s this expectation on me.” Then, I spent the next hour crying by accident, because I was, I guess, having a hormonal week.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I think I remember that. No, but I got it. I got why you were upset, because when someone is commenting, or giving feedback, or making quick judgments on something that was not intentional, it’s very difficult to rationalize it.

Angie Chang: Right. My boss was having to hand me tissues and be like, “It’s okay. I just want to give you this feedback.” I’m like, “I know, it just sucks,” and then I got over it, but it took like a day. I wasn’t too hurt, but I was like, “Whoa. My face needs to be much more on for something as simple as greeting someone at a registration desk.”

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Sometimes it just feels silly, that you have to do things like this, where you have to smile more, and you have to be more charming, but …

Angie Chang: As women, right, in the world today, it’s still a thing, unfortunately.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I mean, and then I think about, what is it that I want when I walk into a room and I see other people? Do I want them happy and smiling? Do I want them to say, “Hi, how are you doing today?” That sort of thing. Then, I feel like it’s okay for me to do that. If it’s just being asked out of the blue that I’m not smiling enough, or I’m not standing confidently, things like that, I really have a hard time with.

Rachel Jones: Yeah. It’s an interesting discussion, like how much of that you should take on and make your responsibility, if it really is about people’s own biases that they’re bringing. Just thinking about your objectives in communicating, even if someone is wrong for the reasons why they’re expecting a smile, if me not smiling means that they’re not absorbing anything of what I’m trying to say, then is it still my job to try to fix that?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I used to be told that I look really stressed in certain situations. Then, obviously, that upset me, because I was like, “I don’t think I look stressed.” My way of coping with that was like, I’m always looking happy. The few times that I don’t look happy is when everyone notices, and they assume that I’m stressed. It’s really tough to adjust to feedback like that that’s about communication beyond words, I would say.

Gretchen DeKnikker: That’s a good segue, actually, into our next quote. Minji Wong runs an organization called At Her Best that does leadership development and coaching. She spoke at our Elevate 2018 conference about self-awareness and ego. This next section is what she had to say about nonverbal communication.

Minji Wong: When we think about communication, 93% of it is nonverbal. It’s not even the words that I say, because most people think that that’s communication. It’s my body language. 55% of it is, how am I standing? Am I just totally just tired, low-energy? Do I have my arms crossed, looking and appearing to be more closed off? Am I open? Then, 38% is the actual vocal tones. Am I super excited to be here, or am I super excited to be here? Then, the actual 7% is the actual words itself. My question to you is, again, how are you showing up in ways that you may not necessarily intend with impact that you actually have?

Angie Chang: I feel like Minji delivered that talk for me. I was like … Actually, she did use me as one of her examples. She’s like, “You are so articulate and warm in emails and writing, but in person, you’re so quiet, and your voice doesn’t have the same inflection and excitement that I know you have.” I think there is definitely some work to be done in terms of coaching and self-improvement to meet expectations across the board on my part.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I feel like when Minji gave you that feedback, I felt very frustrated and defensive of you, like protective of you, of like, “Angie is Angie, and trying to tell her to be a different person in the world, when Angie’s done pretty fucking well being who Angie is already,” right? I don’t know how I would … I felt that way about her giving you that feedback, that I don’t think you need to be in your head, worried about how you’re coming across, because I think it’s pretty awesome.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I think I can see both sides, because I’ve gotten similar feedback, and I also have sort of unintentionally wished people I have communicated with would deliver their communication in a slightly different way. I only say this because when I was reporting to someone who was a little bit, you know, he would get straight to the point, he wouldn’t sugar coat anything, he wouldn’t prep me before delivering not so great feedback. I kind of wished he would ease into it. It’s not the same as what was told to you, Angie, but I do sometimes understand that this, even though you might naturally be a certain way, people seem to want other people to be warmer or make them feel better, for whatever reason. While I am not necessarily seeking that out from everyone, I need that from some people. I think it’s hard to strike that balance, for me, especially to be me and also be the person that people want me to be, because I’m obviously a different person with different people. I’m totally different with my friends, when I am comfortable. I’m totally different when I’m at work. This is all natural. I’m not trying to put up a front. Again, that video recorded training that I did was really, really helpful for me to see what other people were talking about. Then, I realized that that’s not what I was thinking of myself, inside. In my head, I was smiling more. I was standing confidently. Then, what was coming outwardly was not what I thought I was doing. Just knowing that realization in itself made it easier for me to accept feedback like that.

Rachel Jones: I think what’s helpful for me is framing it around results. It’s not so much I’m communicating because I know that this is how this person is going to feel comfortable, or this is what they’re expecting to hear. It’s more like I’m trying to communicate these things for this reason, and this is the approach that’s going to get me that result. That’s something that I experienced a lot of, working with high schoolers, because there was definitely one approach that felt more natural to me, like, “If I relate to them this way, then we’ll get along, and we’ll have fun, and we’ll be friends.” That wasn’t as effective in terms of I’m coming here to teach them these specific things. I had to do a lot of work around the way that I stood and the way that I used my voice to get them to actually hear what I was saying. Even if it wasn’t the most fun for them all the time or what they were expecting in an after school program, just really thinking about the styles of verbal and nonverbal communication that really got us to what they needed to learn is the way that I thought about that.

Angie Chang: I’m curious, what is the style that you were adopting [crosstalk 00:31:26] …

Rachel Jones: I literally called it my stern voice. Yeah, because when I started that job, I was 22, like only a few years older than a lot of the students that I was teaching. I just had this very sweet, friendly approach. My voice was just nice, and calm, and gentle. I kind of got walked all over in the first couple months of doing that job. Especially when I got promoted to be the person leading that program, I really had to switch up my approach, my voice, to become a lot more direct. I put a lot more bass into it. Those tiny changes definitely saw a lot of results in the way that the students were approaching me and the way that they were approaching their work.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I mean, I think for me the biggest struggle is accepting that I should change, you know?

Rachel Jones: That’s why I focus on results, because it’s like, I’m not changing my personality just because this is what people want me to do. I’m here for a specific reason, and this is what needs to happen for me to get to my goal in this situation. It’s the same if you’re walking into a meeting. You can say, “I’m going to smile when I walk into this meeting so people know that I am warm and approachable,” or you can think about, “This is the information that I’m trying to get across. This is the way that I can say this and present myself so people know that I know what I’m talking about, they’re in a place to receive what I’m saying.” Yeah, I think it’s just a slightly different way to think about it.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: How did you perceive the feedback that was given to you about exhibiting the energy that comes through in your emails more in person?

Angie Chang: I thought it was really curious. I tried to understand why and what, as Rachel said, what is the impact and the results that I wanted? They often came at times when I didn’t see the impact. Sure, some people didn’t feel that I was warm and fuzzy in person, but that didn’t really have too much of an impact on the results. I think where it’s important is, for example, when we are at a Girl Geek dinner, and we are, for example, bringing people together, doing the introduction. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of being authoritative. When Rachel was talking, I kept thinking about how teachers describe classroom management and bringing people together. In those moments, I think we do a good job. I think that’s what matters. In the other moments of managing teams, managing projects, managing impact, all of those things, I’ve been happy with. It’s just the occasional feedback. You’ll always get that. You’ll get the occasional errant tweets or feedback. You’re like, “Okay, that’s interesting. I’m going to just kind of move on, because there’s only so many things I can deal with in a day.”

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, totally. I mean, feedback, I’ve learned, is someone’s wishlist, you know? You’ll decide if you want to make that wishlist or not.

Angie Chang: Yes. Also, since so many of our friends are turning into consultants and coaches, I’m like, “Is this also another bid for having a therapist, having a business coach, having a professional coach?” I think that’s another thing to keep in mind, is are you ready for that experience?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. I think that feedback would be actionable if, A, you were trying to fix something that that would be directly applicable to, which, in my case, it was, right? Are you actually seeking out any feedback?

Rachel Jones: Yeah, if you were hearing, “I feel like the people who run this are not approachable, so I’m going to stop coming,” then that would be one reason to have a conversation about your smile, but not if it’s just someone’s personal, yeah, opinion of how you seem different than the impression they got from an email.

Angie Chang: That’s a good point, yeah. Out of the thousand of encounters we have in a year, I’m like, “Okay, I’ll take the two, or three, or four ones that were curious, and be like, ‘All right, that’s just the numbers.'”

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I don’t think you’ve ever gotten feedback that people don’t want to come to a Girl Geek dinner because you weren’t smiling. I mean …

Gretchen DeKnikker: I feel like, a little bit, too, like Sukrutha, you were talking about a little bit more setup, or ease into something, and I spend a lot of time communicating where I’m forcing myself to go through that part, where people … Like, I hate small talk. I hate it so much. The first five minutes of a conference call, I just want to … Can we just wait for everybody to get here and start talking about the thing? Or, in writing emails, when I write internal business emails, I don’t put anything in them other than exactly what I want to say. When you’re communicating externally, then you have to be like, “What can I say, like, ‘Hope you have a good weekend,’ or whatever?” It’s just like, it’s a waste of words. It’s a waste of space. It drives me crazy. I think my wishlist would be that we could just cut out what feels to me like stupid, pointless small talk, but that other people really need that, so that they feel like you’re a nice person.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I’ve never been big on the small talk, myself, but I had to learn to do that when I was managing people, just so that they felt more comfortable telling me things. Especially because I want them to tell me first if something is not working, and not feel like they have to escalate every little thing. Asking people, like, “Hey, how was your weekend?” That used to like, oh my gosh, I could never do that, before. It’s just, I’ve realized the importance of needing to do that because of what I get out of it.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah. I’m not saying, like, don’t get to know your team. I always really get to know my team, as much as they want to be known, and keep up, and remember things like that, right? Like, “You said you were going to that show. How was it?” or whatever. To me, that’s not small talk. I’m asking a question. I’m genuinely interested in the answer.

Gretchen DeKnikker: The first five minutes of a conference call talking about the weather, like, I don’t care. We’re just filling time, right? Saying, “I hope you have a good weekend,” to someone, you don’t even know them. Who cares what kind of weekend they have? I’m saying, like, they’re not going to have a bad weekend just because you didn’t say, “Have a good weekend,” right? It’s just empty words. Like, “How are you?” “I’m fine,” right? Not a genuine how are you.

Angie Chang: I think asking about weekends as small talk is fine. The weather is perfectly fine, too. I was once at a workplace where people just talked about the Kardashians as their small talk all the time. As someone who’s never watched the Kardashians …

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I’m sorry, Angie.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah, no, Sukrutha and I would love that. You might not like that, but we would love it. That’s way better than the weather.

Angie Chang: Like, who are the Kardashians?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Is she talking about us?

Angie Chang: My entire workplace was bonding around watching the Kardashians and having Kardashian viewing parties. I was like, “What? I’m not meant for this life.”

Rachel Jones: Any last thoughts on communication?

Gretchen DeKnikker: Absorb the feedback. At least listen to it and be open to it, but only internalize the parts that feel genuine. You’re not doing it just because someone said so.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Right. I like the suggestion to focus on the end result, right? If you changed that one thing, what is that going to result thing? Focusing on that.

Angie Chang: Right. I like what Rachel said about impact, like thinking about your impact, at the end of the day, making sure everything goes for that.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah.

Rachel Jones: Know yourself, and don’t wait until there’s a miscommunication to get to know others.

Angie Chang: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Girl Geek X podcast. We’ll be back soon with more advice for women in tech. This podcast was sponsored by Quantcast, a global leader in artificial intelligence technology. Quantcast is using machine learning to drive human learning to help brands grow in the AI era. This podcast was also sponsored by Mozilla, a global community of technologists, thinkers, and builders working together to keep the internet alive and accessible, so people worldwide can be informed contributors and creators of the web.

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

Episode 4: Imposter Syndrome

Angie Chang: Welcome to another episode of the Girl Geek X podcast, connecting you to the best in tech from women in tech. I’m Angie, founder of Girl Geek X. This podcast brings you the best of Girl Geek Dinners where we’ve been elevating women in tech for over 10 years.

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

Gretchen DeKnikker: I’m Gretchen, COO of Girl Geek X.

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

Angie Chang: Today we’ll be discussing impostor syndrome. This is a question that we get a lot of at our Girl Geek dinners and I wanted to get a sense from everyone here. Why do you think this topic gets asked so much at our Girl Geek Dinners?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I remember the first time I heard about it, I felt like they were talking about me and I got super emotional. I’m like ‘This is what I’ve been dealing with all week.’ I wonder if people really, really want to hear more about it because every time they are struggling at work, or they are dealing with a new challenge, they mistake that for failure and so they want to learn how to cope with that and this sort of gives you hope that this is just in your head and you are not actually struggling. What do you think, Gretchen?

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah. I think that’s a big reason why it comes up, is because you are always stopping and questioning yourself. And to know that everyone else is sort of going through something similar I think just makes you feel better because everyone else is sort of like the duck on the water and it looks like they’re moving along so smoothly, but underneath they’re like paddling like crazy.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah.

Gretchen DeKnikker: And then I think it comes up a lot because there’s a name for it now. Like I don’t know how many years ago you heard it. I certainly didn’t hear it for the first several years of my career, when I most struggled with it, nor was I around, I didn’t have a community like Girl Geek X to have other people talk about their experiences, so I thought I was like the idiot in the room all the time. But I don’t know. Angie, what do you think?

Angie Chang: I think I don’t hear about impostor syndrome day to day which is why at Girl Geek Dinners, I feel so safe, where people will be like putting a name to this feeling they have experienced and want to hear more about how to combat it so they can improve and not have those moments of pause when they want to be moving forward in their jobs and their careers.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah or even just like what are the hacks, what are the life skills that you can learn from someone else that they … You know, I hear people say “Well I just rehearse and rehearse and rehearse” or I … You know, like for a presentation or whatever, or I go and research every single possible outcome of this so that I can go in and feel confident about what I’m talking about and speak up. But what are those ways … because we’re all going to do it differently in our way of sort of overcoming it and going in and at least looking like a duck above the water and moving smoothly along even if you are kind of paddling like crazy.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. I remember before meeting someone and I would really, really struggle to like speak up. I’d have so many things to say, but I wouldn’t say anything in meetings. I read about power posing and I started to do that before every meeting. So basically you look in the mirror and you pose fiercely. You feel great.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Another tip that was given to me was to just go into the room before the meeting starts in that room and walk around and that helps. So things like that unless we talk about it, we’re not going to be able to come up with these ideas for what would work for various people because there’s only so much you can do with tips that maybe don’t work for you, right?

Rachel Jones: Yeah. And I think another possible reason for why this comes up at so many dinners is just people wanting to know that they’re not alone in this feeling. They think a lot of what’s behind impostor syndrome as having this idea that everyone else around you is so confident all the time and so capable. So knowing that other people, other women that you admire, even as high as they are in their career still experience this is really comforting to hear.

Rachel Jones: So what is impostor syndrome? Does anyone have like a definition now that we’ve been talking about it?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. For me I guess impostor syndrome has typically been related to my annual performance or like how much of a leader people perceive me to be and I would always find reasons and excuses for other people to not take me seriously and all of that, I would say is what my experience and my perception of how I’ve gone through impostor syndrome and what’s it’s been for me. What about you, Gretchen?

Gretchen DeKnikker: I think I was plagued, and still am to some extent. I grew up really, really poor. I was the first person in my family to go to college. And so I was living in a world that I’ve never experienced before, knowing that I was very different and trying to learn the ways of well-educated people and professional roles and always feeling like everyone could tell that I was just a girl who grew up in a trailer and didn’t belong in the room.

Angie Chang: Having worked at an all women’s coding boot camp, I heard the word impostor syndrome a lot, both from the students and as well as the instructors who are anticipating the questions that would inevitably come about. The feelings of imposter syndrome that were surfacing in women very frequently.

Gretchen DeKnikker: So for a more official overview of what imposter syndrome is, we’ve got a great quote from Aline Lerner who is the CEO and founder of a company called Interviewing.io that helps people prepare for technical interviews. If you haven’t checked it out, you definitely should. Aline is one of my favorite people and she spoke at our Elevate conference in 2018 and here’s what she had to say through all of the data that they’ve collected at Interviewing.io over the years about imposter syndrome.

Aline Lerner: So what is imposter syndrome? It means you think you did poorly when you did well. Now, here is the crazy part. If a candidate did well and they think they did poorly and you don’t give them immediate actionable feedback and let’s say you let them sit on it for days, they’re going to get into this whole self-flagellation gauntlet, so they’re going to leave that interview and they’re going to start thinking one of two things. Either they’re going to think ‘man, that company didn’t interview me well. I’m good at what I do and I don’t think that company knew how to get it out of me, so they suck.’ Even worse, what’s going to happen is you’re going to think ‘oh, I’m a piece of shit. Now they know I’m a piece of shit and I totally didn’t want to work there anyway.’ Right?

Aline Lerner: So, what ends up happening is unless you tell people they did well immediately after they did well, you end up losing a lot of good candidates because by the time you get back to them, they completely talked themselves out of working for you, so don’t let this happen. Don’t let them gaze into the abyss and give people actionable feedback as soon as possible.

Aline Lerner: Actually, I saw one of the comments … I want to leave a few moments for questions, but one of the comments on the side was ‘Imposter syndrome is a women’s curse’. We actually ran some data on our platform to see if imposter syndrome is more prevalent in women or whether it’s distributed across both genders. As it turns out, both men and women are equally plagued by imposter syndrome and the other interesting thing that we learned, and we haven’t written about this yet, but we will, is that the better you are at interviewing, the more prone to imposter syndrome you are and the worse you are–There’s the opposite called the Dunning-Kruger effect where you think you did well when you in fact did poorly.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I think when I originally heard her say that men and women were plagued by imposter syndrome equally, I wanted to just play it back over and over and over and over again, but I’m curious. Why do you think that is? And maybe this is only in an interviewing context, but I think it’s probably right for a more wide application of it, but why do you think women feel like it is over-represented with them?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I feel like it’s not really the fact that only women feel something or perceive something a certain way, it’s how you deal with it. Right? Like how you deal with that feeling and I think that’s where women are probably different where like, you know? Obsessing about how something went. Over-analyzing. Thinking more. Worrying more. Instead of probably moving on and forgetting and I think that’s probably where women are different, just speaking for myself. I know I definitely think about things a lot more than my male co-workers and my male friends and even my husband. They definitely don’t over-analyze the way I do. I think her quote, in general, really, really spoke to me because she spoke about the two sides, right? She spoke about imposter syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger effect. My only thing is I wonder if it is more about when you’re better at interviewing than you are more prone to imposter syndrome or is it that when you’ve worked harder and you’ve really, really put in a ton of effort, then you’re more prone to imposter syndrome. That’s something I was thinking a lot about when I first heard her talk about this.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: What do you think, Angie?

Angie Chang: I’ve seen … Having trained to work with a lot of male and female engineers that the male engineers do also admit when they’re asked and prompted that yes, they also have imposter syndrome here and there and in our training and orientations, we always welcome the men to share those experiences and they’re like ‘oh, you want me to talk about them?’ And we’re like ‘yeah! We want you to talk about that because it’s very human. It’s very encouraging to your young mentee at the coding boot camp who’s starting out in this career to know that you, too, 15 years ago or whatnot also had similar feelings, they’re completely normal, and to be able to recognize that and move on.’

Angie Chang: I think there’s something to acknowledging that equal-ness that everyone feels these feelings of things we call imposter syndrome, anxiety, a lot of stress, doubt, feelings of failing because you’re not sure often times after an interview or anything whether you were right or not, whether you did a good job or not, so I think that Aline did a great job in underlining the importance of us as people in a community and society to confirm or deny whether someone did well or not and that’s just part of being a good mentor or coach or manager.

Gretchen DeKnikker: It is interesting in an interviewing scenario though, like how do you give someone feedback that they did well or not without over-creating anticipation of whether or not they’ll get the role? Right? If someone tells you you did really well, then you think ‘oh, I’m much’ … And you are a bit closer, but I think it can work in the opposite way too possibly where she’s saying if you don’t get the feedback, then you go home and you talk yourself out of the job in whatever way that you do that, but you may go home and talk yourself into the job, so I don’t know.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. I remember I conducted an interview where every time they were trying to solve the problem, I would say ‘this is good, but what if …’ and I felt like that probably sent a more positive vibe because I wasn’t making them feel like what they were suggesting was wrong and it felt like they left positive even though they didn’t really meet the bar, necessarily, based off of their experience level. Their suggestions … I didn’t shoot them down, you know? So, I wonder if things like that, as opposed to just saying ‘Okay, you did great’, but you sort of, in a more positive way, tried to pull out more out of them in the interview, if that would help to … But yeah, it is definitely challenging to be like ‘how do I give positive feedback or actionable feedback in an interview that quickly?’

Gretchen DeKnikker: Right, and also if you’re in a non-technical interview, what are you really giving them feedback on?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Mm-hmm (affirmative)- Yeah, that’s very true, but this perspective is really, really interesting because to me imposter syndrome has been largely outside of the interview cycle, right? Like, for me, it’s always been how I’m doing day-to-day and how I’m contributing, but this specific example, specifically because of what Aline works on, you know? Her whole company is around interviewing. It’s been really, really interesting to think of imposter syndrome very focused on interviews.

Rachel Jones: Are there any examples that you can think of of imposter syndrome that you’ve seen outside of the interviewing context in your work?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. I’ve seen it when people are asking for promotions or asking for raises. Who is the one who asks for it when there are multiple equally competent people or when there’s a job listing and who actually applies for it? So there, I feel like there are instances of imposter syndrome in the people who don’t put their names forward or they don’t put themselves out there.

Rachel Jones: I think it’s kind of the same thing that she was talking about, about going home and talking yourself out of something.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Uh huh.

Rachel Jones: Even if it’s outside of interviewing, you’re thinking about just going for a promotion, before you even try, you’ve had a whole conversation in your head about how you’re not the kind of person who could go for that kind of thing.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah.

Rachel Jones: So I think it’s definitely relevant.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I think I’ve seen it with people on my team who you’re trying to get them to work on a project and they come back and they’re like ‘I can’t do that.’ I’m like ‘You absolutely can. I wouldn’t ask you to do it if I didn’t think you were capable of it.’ And I remember that super, super early in my career. It was my first job. I had no background in anything and they were like ‘go out and find a 401k plan’ and I was like ‘I don’t even know what a 401k is’. We didn’t have retirement plans in my family or anything, so at first I had to find out what 401k plan was and then I had to go find one for the company, but they just were like ‘Of course you can figure that out. Just go figure it out.’ And so, I took that early learning from how I was managed early on and sort of brought that in to ‘I wouldn’t ask you to do it if I didn’t think you could do it. In fact, I think a couple days from now, you can come back and tell me more about than I know about it right now.’

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Don’t you think that sometimes when somebody is suffering from imposter syndrome, that also impacts how they’re doing, like their performance? It’s sort of like this awful cycle and catch-22 situation and then over time, they don’t push themselves as much just because they’re so afraid. And then it becomes hard for even their boss to see in them that they can actually do it.

Angie Chang: There’s a common criticism of the tech industry and I’m sure this is a trait of many industries in many places is that managers are often ‘not good’ because that’s a common criticism that you hear, right? Everyone’s like ‘Oh, managers are terrible. They don’t get enough training.’ Even as a new manager, you have maybe two or four years of being a mediocre manager at best, so if people are not being empowered by ‘good managers.’ thatI means there’s always that amount of people who are left wondering and possibly getting hung up on their imposter syndrome and not being able to accelerate their career as much as they could.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I think that’s a really good point because if I … You’re making me think that just as you were saying early on when I was a manager, I didn’t really think about ‘how do I pull this out of somebody?’ And now it’s all I think about is ‘how do I get in and get to the root of …’ Recently I was managing … He was doing inside sales calls and he really wanted to go do field sales, but he just kept ‘Well, yeah, maybe next week or whatever’ and I could tell he was really frustrated because the field sales person that he was giving the leads to wasn’t following up on his leads. He was like ‘I should just go there.’

Gretchen DeKnikker: And so finally, I just kept digging down, and digging down, and digging down and we had this conversation and what I thought was going on is he thought people wouldn’t take him seriously and eventually I got him to admit without saying what I thought it was that he was … He’s like ‘I’m too young. No one’s going to talk to me’. And I was like ‘Okay, well why don’t you just go do it for a day and see if that’s true because you’ve decided that, but you don’t know if it’s true. I would talk to you. I don’t think you look too young to be taken seriously. You know everything you need to know about this business to do well.’ And then he started doing it and I couldn’t get him in the office anymore which is this amazing success story, but …

Sukrutha Bhadouria: That’s awesome.

Angie Chang: It sounds like people really need a good manager or coach or maybe even someone like a therapist or career coach who could be that person to give them encouragement help, talk them through, and assure them that they can make that next step. So in my line of work, it seems like speaking and engagement seem to be where imposter syndrome can rear its head. I remember I showed up at Harvard Business School for a panel and I was like ‘I’m the only one here, on this panel, who didn’t go to Harvard Business School and then run a giant company.’ And I had feelings of imposter syndrome, but I also … I remember speaking with, at the time, Sheila Lirio Marcelo, the CEO of care.com and she mentioned that she felt imposter syndrome when she was at, I think it was Davos or walking down the forum where she was like I’m at this great, grand, global stage and I also felt a twinge of imposter syndrome, so I felt comforted to know that everyone feels this thing called imposter syndrome and they’re able to accept it and move on.

Angie Chang: I think it’s just a matter of addressing it and moving forward and doing the things that you need to do.

Rachel Jones: I think, for me, imposter syndrome comes up a lot when I’m thinking about what words I use to describe myself and what I do. Even just doing podcasts and having that hesitance to say I am a podcast producer or I am a podcaster, feeling like when I actually claim that for myself, there’s some level in that career that I need to get to before I can honestly think of myself that way even though I’m doing so much work in podcasting. I think there’s a separation between the work that I’m doing and I know I can do versus internalizing that and letting that become a part of my identity.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Wow, I never thought you’d say that! I totally look at you as a podcaster, so …

Rachel Jones: Well, thank you!

Angie Chang: We’re going to give you a business card that says ‘Girl Geek X, Podcaster’.

Rachel Jones: I think having a business card would make it feel a lot more real and tangible. [crosstalk 00:19:06]

Angie Chang: I remember when I was working at the women’s coding school, we would give business cards in the middle of the program to all of our students that said their names and the words ‘software engineer’ on it and that way people felt similar to how scientists feel when they put on a white lab coat, that they are that thing. I think we see that if you’re a student, oftentimes you’re like ‘I am just a student’, but everyone else is like ‘well, you code, so you are a programmer’ or ‘you are a software engineer’ and it’s just kind of helping people really hand out their card and say ‘yes, I am a software engineer’ or ‘yes, I am a podcaster’. ‘Yes, I’m CEO.’ ‘Yes, I am this’.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I think it plagued me at kind of each time I leveled up in my career. So, I talked a little bit about in the beginning, but then I think the next point where I was really overcome was when I founded my own company and going into these rooms and it’s just next level, right? These are top-tier investors and I’m in there supposedly to market myself and my company and just feeling particularly … You know, these are men … wealthy men. They’ve been wealthy their entire lives. I wasn’t expecting, I guess then I was around 39-40 years old, to have all of that feeling of ‘I grew up poor. I don’t belong in this room.’ to all come rushing back. You know? You think at some point you’ve accomplished enough that that doesn’t flood you with fear anymore, but it did.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. That reminds me. My first time, I think was when I moved to management and when people don’t like you as a new manager, they just don’t tell you. They just don’t want to do their work and it’s like ‘why is no one wanting to do it?’ I’ve now been on a team where people didn’t like working with me and I don’t think it was so much they didn’t like working with me when I was a new manager, it was just they were still adjusting to my style and expecting me to be perfect. So, I went in one meeting and I was like ‘Hey, I’m not going to be perfect. I’m learning. Help me!’

Sukrutha Bhadouria: And I think that changed things a little bit, but it still took some time until they got to know me and I got to know them and there was a little bit more trust. The funny thing is that I kept thinking that ‘oh my gosh, I’m failing. I’m awful.’ So, I was talking to a mentor of mine at work and he was like ‘I can’t believe you’re saying this because your boss and I met and he said you’re doing amazing.’ I was like well, I guess I should have heard that more from him or I wasn’t listening when he was telling me I was doing good.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I do know that someone once told me that if you’re doing well, you know? People will tell you. If you’re doing excellent, people will tell other people and just hearing it that my boss had told other people made me feel better and I think that I would have to keep reminding myself of it every time I was worried that I wasn’t doing so great.

Angie Chang: So during our Girl Geek Dinner with SquareTrade, Bonnie Shu shared some of her experiences with imposter syndrome. Bonnie is a product compliance manager at Harbor.

Bonnie Shu: Starting out as a really young female attorney, straight out of law school, of course I felt the imposter syndrome, you know? You have these opposing counsels who are really mean and scary and they’ve been in the business for 40-plus years and all they want to do is bully you around because they think they can and they think that’s going to help them win their case. So, really, for me in those moments, I kind of have this tough love approach with myself where I’m kind of like ‘You know what? You’ve got a job to do. You have a client you have to put your full best effort for and you have to separate out those feelings of insecurity and say ‘look, I gotta get this done and I gotta crush it.’ Taking that to tech, where you’re a first time manager, that’s really scary. All of a sudden, there’s people expecting you to know what you’re doing and you’re like ‘Uh, I don’t know what I’m doing!’ So, you know? You just gotta kinda put those feelings aside a little bit and just look at it from a very objective perspective and say ‘I have a job to do and I’m going to kill it’.

Angie Chang: Bonnie reminds me a little bit about the book I’m reading right now, Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming’ where she was a young female lawyer working in a firm full of aggressive men and I don’t think that Michelle Obama explicitly talks about imposter syndrome all that much, but you can hear it. I think there’s many different words for it, not just imposter syndrome, but the act of becoming all those things that you experience in a lifetime, very well. I actually highly recommend that book.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: It’s funny. When I first found that I was around a lot of aggressive, assertive people I thought I have to be that person too. It’s even more heartbreaking for a new engineer when you see … or a new female engineer and you’re struggling and you see other women also being a little abrasive, right? And not putting out their human side, so what Bonnie was talking about reminded me of my realization that it’s the environment around you that makes you feel insecure and to always be mindful of what environment you’re creating as well. What do you think, Gretchen?

Gretchen DeKnikker: I relate to what Bonnie said. I mean I started in tech, what? Now, 21 years ago? So there was no talk of like ‘we should have more women’, right? It was just assumed that women didn’t want to work in tech and that if you did, that you were going to you know, throw down with the boys and so I think for me it was always like I knew I had to be better and that I knew I had to beat them at their own game. I’ve seen that evolve over the years and it’s definitely great for me because I can chill out, but I can pull out the like ‘Really? Do you want to negotiate this deal like that?’ And I can still pull that out of my back pocket now, but it’s not something I have to lead with anymore to be heard or to move a project forward or anything.

Angie Chang: I think the fake it ’til you make it mentality is also very real in industries today, especially in the Silicon Valley where we’re in this age of hyper-growth and super-big billion dollar companies breaking boundaries that everyone feels like everyone has to act very financey because all the finance bros have come to tech and they are now in our companies doing the sales thing, growing the company by leaps and bounds and also having time to go to the gym adn have these perfect lives afterward and I’ve had several women confide that they can’t keep up with the group yoga afterwards and such, so I think just kind of doing your best and kinda faking it ’til you make it, but also being real and hopefully people can do that and come to Girl Geek Dinners and feel like it’s a safe place for them to say this word ‘imposter syndrome’ and be like ‘Okay, we all kind of feel it’ and we can figure out ways to move on.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I don’t know how to … When I’m going through imposter syndrome and I’m trying to go through that whole fake it ’til you make it, how do I strike that balance and not put myself in danger of falling into the whole Dunning-Kruger effect? Does that happen to you all? That you all are thinking ‘Oh my gosh! I don’t want to be on the other side of the spectrum!’

Gretchen DeKnikker: Like you don’t want to think you did well when you sucked?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah! I want a sense of self and be like ‘You know what? I didn’t do so great. I can do better.’ The reminder than I can do better, not just being like ‘No, no, no! I’m sure I did just fine.’ Even though, like I didn’t do well, being able to correctly assess myself is what I want to be able to do consistently.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I don’t think I’ve gotten good at that, but I have gotten better at ‘Okay, so you did this one thing and you were terrified and it worked out fine and you figured it out. Then you did this next thing and you were terrified and it worked out fine and you figured it out.’ So why is it, if you look at past data that you think the future is not going to replicate that and why are you freaking yourself out right now?

Gretchen DeKnikker: And that’s sort of the … I just sort of go through that cycle and then do a little bit of fake like ‘You got this!’ Like I’m some cheesy coach or something. Then the superhero pose. I’ve never done that, but I’ve seen people do that where you stand and put your hands on the hips. I think it’s awesome and I think it can make you feel powerful, so … I’ve never done it because it didn’t come along until recently that I heard about it and I was like ‘I really need to do that.’

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Totally works for me. It’s a little hard in these shared bathrooms though at work where you’re looking at yourself like that and someone walks in.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I didn’t know to look in the mirror too because I was like ‘Oh, you can just stand in the stall’ awkwardly as a superhero.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Angie, what’s your superhero pose going to be?

Angie Chang: I don’t know if I have a superhero pose. I think it … You can always have like … I’ve seen a show where people are like ‘I have a special tie that’s my lucky tie.’ So, you can have your lucky pin or your lucky shirt that says something witty that you wear under your blazer at work for those important meetings, that little thing that helps you feel like you have an edge on the day. I don’t know if it’s probably power posing. I also have heard of evidence that it doesn’t actually work, recently, unfortunately.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Poo on you! It’s still so fun! [crosstalk 00:28:54] Don’t listen to Angie, anybody! Yeah.

Gretchen DeKnikker: If it works for you, then do what works!

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. I think it’s the act of tricking your brain into thinking things.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Have you even tried to power pose, Angie?

Angie Chang: I have. I also think there’s many things to be said about sitting at the table with your … with some kind of assertive stance, making sure that your body language reflects the power that you feel in your head.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah. I think, for me, when you’re talking about when you have to do a presentation. For me, if I do it to one person, like one of my closest friends or a spouse or whatever, nothing will be harder than doing your presentation for one person who knows you really well. After that, it’s so easy. So if I’m really, really struggling with something … because they can’t help but smile and laugh at you and whatever. That’s far worse than anyone in the room is going to do, so once you get that out of the way, it makes it easier.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I’ve got different advice for how to deal with imposter syndrome. What’s really worked for you? Is it something where you have to try something different every time because it changes based on scenario? I’m curious what your thoughts are. Gretchen?

Gretchen DeKnikker: I think the self-talk, for me. Going into the rooms with the investors that I was talking about, it was just telling myself over and over again ‘You have worked so hard. You belong here. Even if you don’t belong here, this is your dream, so you’re going to go in and you’re going to make it happen.’ And like ‘You are not going to be your own worst enemy right now. You are not going to talk yourself out of this thing that you’ve worked so hard to have the opportunity to go in and make an idiot of yourself’ if that … You know? At least take the opportunity to do that. [crosstalk 00:30:56]

Rachel Jones: For me, it’s really similar to what Bonnie suggests, just coming back to the objective reality of a situation because imposter syndrome really is a thing that lives in your head regardless of whether you actually know how to do the job, which you generally do. I think, for me, when I start to feel it just coming back to ‘No, I actually know how to do this. I have done this. I’ve been doing this well.’ And kind of self-talking my self out of that place and coming back to just what I know to be true is helpful.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: You know what’s really strange that’s helped me is my to-do list. I look back and I’m like ‘Hey, I did this and I did that’ because I sort it by month. Just being able to go back and remind myself of what I was able to do in the last six months helps me feel confident for the future.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: What do you think, Angie? What advice would you give?

Angie Chang: As someone who’s been an entrepreneur many times and done so many different job titles, I feel like I don’t have time for imposter syndrome because I’m always trying something new and I’m always failing in a way. I don’t really have … I guess through time that imposter syndrome has reared its head was after a successful event. Someone’s like ‘That was a really successful event’ and I was like ‘really?’ It happened. And they’re like ‘Yeah.’ I celebrate it for a minute and then like ‘Oh, right. Gotta have our drinks and dinner and celebrate and recognize we did an awesome job.’ I was ready to move on and tackle the next huge problem on my list. So I think it’s good that people around were able to help me recognize like ‘Okay, that was a big thing we did.’ That was probably my imposter syndrome rearing its head, saying ‘that was not a big thing’ when it was a big thing.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. Every time you achieve a goal because you were so close to it, you don’t … By then, it doesn’t feel like as big of a goal anymore, right? As you get closer to it. Maybe noting down every goal that we have and then ticking it off when you’ve achieved it?

Angie Chang: I think the reflection at the end of the year, at the end of 2018, I looked back and all the things I did that year, I was like ‘Oh my God, that’s a lot.’ I would never have planned for that, but looking back ‘oh, okay’. That makes me feel good about next year.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, like a self-evaluation–‘exceeded expectations.’

Angie Chang: It’s because I had no expectations.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I passed my own performance review.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: So when we had the Postmate sponsored Girl Geek Dinner, we had Christine Song who’s a software engineer there who gave her own advice on how to fight imposter syndrome because there was a question asked by a new boot camp grad about it.

Christine Song: I think that imposter syndrome is something that specifically plagues boot camp grads a lot and I think a lot of what it is is knowing what it is that you have to focus on. When you’re at a software engineering company, you’re assigned tickets. Forgetting all of the outside pressure that is applied on you, you just focus on what’s in front of you. Your only focus and your only job is to do the things that you were assigned and to do it to the best of your ability. So when people do ask you questions about your work, you can answer those questions and you research everything so thoroughly that you’re confident in what you’re saying.

Christine Song: I think that when you take a step back and you think of the bigger picture, you’re like ‘Oh, crap. I’m a woman. I’m in the tech company. Oh crap! How did I get here?’ You know? Because my background wasn’t technical in any way whatsoever and the only way I am able to get through that fear of ‘I don’t belong here.’ or ‘I’m not good enough for this’ is just looking at what it is that you’re doing and focus entirely on it. Don’t let the outside influences distract you from what it is that your job is. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can and cannot do. Just focus on what you’re doing and you’ll be fine.

Angie Chang: I think there’s a lot of possible potential in imposter syndrome from boot camp grads, for sure, because that means that you did not study computer science in university and a working in an industry as software engineers. But also, when you look back, a lot of people who are currently working as software engineers, many of them don’t have a computer science degree. Many of them were self-taught, were hobbyists that become professionals. So, I think it’s important for everyone to be transparent and encouraging from wherever they are in saying that it is entirely possible to transition your careers into engineering, into tech, and it’s not so strange. I mean, I myself have a social welfare degree from college and I’ve worked at a handful of companies where I was on the engineering team, so I feel … Maybe I’m biased in that way that I can see the easy translation of humanities majors to technology companies.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I think this sort of comes back to what I was saying earlier about it just affects you differently at different points in your career. So, I think initially, you worry about whether or not you’re good at your job and then you worry about whether or not you’re good as a manager. Then you get decent at being a manager and then you become a manager of managers and that’s a whole new level. So, I think maybe each time you’re feeling it is also like Angie was saying, a time to stop and celebrate, right? Like, ‘Oh! Now I must be doing something that’s harder or new which means I’ve gone to another level. So, maybe while I freak out, I should also be like it’s so awesome! I get to freak out right now!’

Rachel Jones: It’s super exciting!

Angie Chang: It’s very exciting.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Right.

Angie Chang: Instead of thinking ‘I’m so nervous. I’m so scared.’, I think the recommended thing is to think ‘I am so excited. I am so excited.’ And that re-frames that in your mind when you’re nervous and anxious that you are also just really excited at this opportunity, at this challenge.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: It’s so funny. I think when you get into tech, you learn all these life lessons that could apply anywhere. But yeah, I mean, I guess one would think that it’s mostly boot camp grads that would feel this and perhaps they would feel it more strongly, but I didn’t have a computer science degree. I had an electrical engineering degree, but you know, I did more programming for hardware and as that’s what I studied, but then when I wanted to work, I wanted to work in purely software, so just that whole transition. I didn’t do as many Java coding classes as I wish I had done and then you’re like I ramped up in Java and the interview is in C++. You know? You’re always going to feel like you’re not good enough, so when I have mentored boot camp grads before, I have tried to explain my perspective that, you know, you’re always going to feel like you don’t have exactly the right credentials and the right degree and everyone’s like that, so … don’t let that hold you back.

Angie Chang: It’s so interesting to hear because I would never expected an [inaudible 00:37:51] major to say that because to me, I’ve always like [inaudible 00:37:53] was so hard core, that’s computer science for sure. I never thought about the electrical component being the barrier in someone’s mind.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, it’s all perception.

Rachel Jones: Any final thoughts on imposter syndrome?

Gretchen DeKnikker: I’m against it.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: No one likes it. I remember the first time I learned about imposter syndrome and I Googled it. I found out that there’s several quotes from Meryl Streep doubting her ability as an actress and Sheryl Sandberg and other amazing, amazing women and so I printed posters out with quotes from them that I would look at regularly until I actually decided that I wanted to cope with it and figure it out. So, I feel like just find what works best for you to stay positive and stay motivated because the worst thing that you could do to yourself is come in your own way.

Angie Chang: I think the best thing to do is surround yourself by people who are going to be encouraging to you and whether that’s on purpose or by accident, I felt very lucky when I was in college to have people around me who are like ‘You can code and make websites? I will give you … I will point you to paid jobs.’ And I was like ‘I never thought of that’. So, definitely surround yourself with as many encouraging, smart people that can give you the right pieces of advice whether it’s encouraging or not and sometimes they’ll be like ‘You need to do this thing’ and they’ll point you in the right direction because you don’t know what you don’t know and they will help you get to a better place whether you have to learn Java or C++ or just … It doesn’t even matter.

Gretchen DeKnikker: One final way to sort of look at it is … ‘If I look five or 10 or 15 years in the future, will I regret not taking this opportunity?’ And sometimes it’s just framing it that way and putting it into perspective, will keep you from holding yourself back or from self-sabotaging in whatever way because no one ever lays on their death-bed and is like ‘I really wish I’d never gone for that promotion.’, but they definitely will ‘I really regret not taking that opportunity because I was just too afraid.’

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Wise words.

Rachel Jones: I think it’s really important just to know yourself and figure out the kind of things that can help you personally combat imposter syndrome. Some people, having that affirmation from other is helpful. Other people, no matter what anyone tells them, they’re still gonna doubt themselves.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Sukrutha.

Rachel Jones: So knowing just what works for you. Are you the kind of person who needs to just talk yourself down? Do you need to reframe and focus on what you have accomplished? Yeah. Just do some work to think about just how it works for you personally.

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

Angie Chang: This podcast is sponsored by SquareTrade, the top-rated protection plan trusted by millions of happy customers and offered by top retailers. This podcast is also sponsored by Postmates. Postmates helps people unlock the best of their cities and their lives with insanely reliable, on-demand anything network. Launched in 2011, Postmates pioneered the on-demand delivery movement in the US by offering delivery from restaurants and stores previously only available offline.

Rachel Jones: This podcast is produced by me, Rachel Jones. To learn more about Girl Geek X or buy tickets to our next dinner, visit girlgeek.io. You can also find video and full transcripts from the talks we went through today. If you’re interested in hosting a Girl Geek Dinner, contact sponsors@girlgeek.io.


“Designing Products Scaling Human Experiences”: Samihah Azim with Lyft (Video + Transcript)

Samihah Azim / Product Designer / Lyft
Sukrutha Bhadouria / CTO & Co-Founder / Girl Geek X


Sukrutha Bhadouria: [No audio 0:00-0:16] Hi, welcome everyone. I hope you’re having a good time with our conference so far. Welcome to Samihah, who is going to be our next speaker. She’s a Product Designer at Lyft, where she’s also the intersection of business calls and designing experiences impacting local communities. Prior to Lyft, she actually designed for a local commerce at Postmates and crafting high quality patient healthcare experiences at One Medical. Outside of design, she does a lot of cool things. She mentors for the State Department TechWomen program, enjoys power lifting, and also loves to cook. So, without further ado, I do want to say that these talks are going to be recorded and you will have access to the videos later after the conference, so go ahead, Samihah, thank you.

Samihah Azim: Thank you. Hello everyone, my name is Samihah as Sukrutha has said and I’m a product designer at Lyft. Thank you all for being here and Girl Geek X for having me and also, speaking of Lyft, shameless plug, we are hiring across the board. It is my favorite job. Prior to Lyft I was designing at Postmates, prior to that One Medical and today I’m going to talk about design as a powerful tool to scale products that have a core human to human experience. And, it can often be slower to scale these experiences and to get to that North Star vision for the products, but technology can be used to scale strategically and augment the human to human experience that’s happening outside of the software.

Samihah Azim: So, how does design add value when a product is scaling? Well, most products have a longer term North Star vision and if not the product, then certainly nearly every organization has a long-term North Star vision of what they imagine the future to be. But, it’s nearly impossible to get to that future today. You can’t go from zero to 100 unless you’re Drake and you’re on the catch up, but most of us are not Drake.

Samihah Azim: Designers, we’re very good at creating artifacts of what we imagine the future could look like. Where we can add value here is to really bridge that gap between today’s world here and our ideal world tomorrow. We can phase out what we have and what we need today, where we also add a tremendous amount of value is in using qualitative research that helps inform what our users need in each phase in order to come along the journey to our North Star vision. If you imagine that this the world here today and the North Star is up here. What is it that our users need in order to come up to this journey with us?

Samihah Azim: With design thinking, we’re really distilling a problem to understand how to solve it. Data helps to tell us and inform us in a lot of our decision making by telling us what’s happening. It doesn’t necessarily tell us why something is happening and that’s really where design adds a tremendous amount of value. We can help guide what we should test, if what we’re testing is the right thing to test and highlight if there are confounding factors that are potentially affecting the results.

Samihah Azim: When I worked at One Medical, we knew that a longer term goal was to make high quality affordable healthcare accessible to more people, but healthcare is a business, where that human to human or that human interaction component is still very important and technology isn’t something that will likely replace it but rather it would augment the experience. Brick and mortar is core to One Medical and technology augments the healthcare experience, so how do you scale a business where that human to human interaction is so core to everything but it also requires more operational resources that are often harder to scale. In short, it’s not easy.

Samihah Azim: When your product has a service that’s core, where humans are interacting with other humans, these are experiences that are happening outside of software but that will be associated with the product experience. This is where designers, we need to look at everything on a systems level and when I say systems level, I mean on the entire ecosystem and especially the business model and revenue streams. How does a company make money to further scale? I’m going to tell you a story from when I was working at One Medical and how I used design to learn how to scale human experiences.

Samihah Azim: In healthcare, medical practices make money through insurance billing codes and appointments are seen as inventories. Inventory is limited because doctors are limited, so how do you scale? Well, this is also where it’s important to look at what users need. Users that need to see a medical provider are booking appointments but not everyone that’s booking an appointment needs to be seen in person. There are acute issues. Issues such as flu or yeast infection, cough, nausea even getting an STD panel ordered that don’t require a physical visit to the doctor.

Samihah Azim: At One Medical, we knew that we wanted more patients to get the help that they needed by using virtual care products that we had built. I ran a design sprint with cross functional colleagues to understand the problem of why more people weren’t using care channels outside of the office visit. What we found is that people’s mental models today is that virtual care is something that, and specifically video visits, is something that is associated with travel or 2:00 a.m. emergencies. If it’s a 2:00 a.m. emergency, you should probably call 911.

Samihah Azim: One of the three projects that came out of the sprint that I had facilitated is a project that we called Integrated Booking Flow. Essentially, we wanted to test if educating users on virtual care and giving them what they needed today would get healthier patients to use virtual care in order for that to free up inventory for more sick patients that actually need it, and would that be something that the business could then scale and make high quality affordable healthcare accessible tomorrow.

Samihah Azim: The product manager on this project and I, we had really tight feedback loops, where we would meet regularly, multiple times a day and frequently we would also pair on both product management, as well as design. There’s a clinic next to the headquarters, so what we did is we would hop in there multiple times a day over a two-day period and test a bunch of paper prototypes as well as InVision prototypes. And, you can see on my screen, on the slides at the top, are the many prototypes … a sampling of the many sampling of the many prototypes that we had tested, the Guerrilla Usability Testing and what this helped us learn was what would work and what wouldn’t.

Samihah Azim: It was invaluable in not only helping us to learn that but also managing the many opinions of stakeholders and people who weren’t necessarily stakeholders but were involved in the projects. Essentially, this project was a test to see if integrating traditional equipment booking with video visits was further investing in and then, you can see on the screen on the bottom. That’s a sample of all of the feedback that we managed to capture and the action or inaction that we may or may not have taken, and the reasoning to that based on the usability testing that we had done.

Samihah Azim: When we rolled out the test, what ended up happening was that … Well, it was too successful. How often can you say that, right? We ended up having to turn it off because the virtual care providers were getting far too many requests and the SLA that we were communicating ended up being incorrect. We did validate that when mental models were gently guided towards this new shift in thinking, when users learned that video visits were for more than just travel and more than just emergencies, they adopted it for minor issues.

Samihah Azim: We didn’t spend weeks trying to perfect that most perfect V1, we shipped something that was good enough in order to learn and, in fact ,the screen on the slides, you’ll see the flow of integrated booking. Where a user goes to book an appointment and that middle screen was actually something that I had come up with by pairing with the data team to understand. We knew that a lot of the data was unstructured and so with their help, we were able to pull the top seven reasons why users are coming in for an appointment visit, which actually don’t require a physical visit but can be treated virtually.

Samihah Azim: Then, in that second to last screen is the alternate booking screen that users would see, patients would see if they chose one of those reasons, and we were gently guiding them towards and educating them that they could get care virtually for those issues and it would be much faster. If there’s one takeaway from this learning, it’s that it’s okay to move fast and ship an imperfect V1 in order to test and learn, so that you can iterate and ship that perfect V2.

Samihah Azim: This doesn’t mean shipping shoddy visual design. You can absolutely have pixel perfection without the V1 being in that ideal state. On the note of imperfect V1: sometimes when a product is scaling and especially with products that require that human to interact with another human, some team members might get a little too scope happy, scope cutting happy. I am that designer that cares a lot about things like client side load time and I’m also cutting scope or finding another way to solve a problem but there are times where you do have to introduce scope in order to have a viable product to test.

Samihah Azim: There was one company that I worked at, where we were working on an experiment and if successful, we would have further developed it, turned it into a core part of the feature in our products. But the product manager on the project was on this huge scope cutting spree. That by the end of it, it was barely a functioning test that made many of us question why anyone would use our product when competitors had far more basic functionality? And, we likely would have gotten a bad signal had we built it and tested it, where the … It came to a point where the term minimal viable product no longer applied. It was, the viable part got lost.

Samihah Azim: It’s important to ask questions because running experiments requires time and resources depending on your user set or what you’re testing, you have to wait until you get statistical significance, which can take a couple of weeks to a couple of months. You want to make sure you’re testing the right thing because you’re also using up engineering time, as well as design time and often times marketing time as well and you want to get a good signal.

Samihah Azim: That doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be a positive signal or a positive performance rather since you can learn a lot from negative performance but rather, what you want to learn are what is the metrics, what are they telling you? Is it something that you can learn from and does it fit into the overall product on a systems level?

Samihah Azim: If someone wants to test a popup flow at the point of user conversion, maybe there’s a good reason, ask why? But, it could also be that users are tapping on it because it’s a popup and it’s there and not necessarily because they find any value from it, so some questions … On that note, ask some questions. Some questions that I like to keep in my back pocket and ask are, “Why are we testing this, after this experiment what’s next, how do we know that the metric move this way because of this variant or XYZ confounding factor, did we even reach stat-sig, bro?” Well, maybe ask it a little less broy than that.

Samihah Azim: Why, and this is my favorite, why does it look like we’re p-hacking the data? Luckily at Lyft there is no p-hacking of any data. In a lot of organizations moving fast, growing, and scaling has the perception of being incompatible with staying true to your values. Designers, we want to feel like our work has a positive impact on the world. Sometimes when we’re so close to the data, it’s hard to have that perspective that work that grows an organization or a company that aims to do good with good intentions, is having an impact on the world.

Samihah Azim: Two of my favorite Lyft core values are uplift others and make it happen. At Lyft there’s actually an entire team that’s dedicated to growing the business, I am on that team. It is called the Growth Team, some creative naming there, but when we think about growth, we’re really looking to grow with intentionality so that we can continue to make a positive impact on the world. In fact, at the core of Lyft is tipping. It’s been a core part of the business and part of growing the business means initiatives that uplift our drivers.

Samihah Azim: Actually, recently this week, we actually got half a billion dollars in tips. Oops my apologies, I have the wrong data on there, it should be 2018. We actually raised … So, there were 250 million in tips in 2017 and just this week we hit half a billion. It took five years to get to quarter of a billion and then a matter of months to half a billion, and that really goes to show how growing a business can also help do good in the world as well. So, drivers are an important part of Lyft, so designing experiences that make a Lyft driver’s life easier, helps them earn more and that’s a design challenge where we’re doing good by one set of users and by doing good we can further scale, which helps us do even more good.

Samihah Azim: We also think about important causes and when we think about growing the business, it is also in the context of, how can we better benefit the society and without scaling, it’s hard to grow social giving. Last year in 2017, the team introduced a feature called Round Up & Donate, where Lyft passengers could round up their ride to the nearest whole dollar and that change would then go to a cause of their choosing, so 3.7 million dollars were donated to 14 causes. A lot of these causes were standing up for civil liberties, supporting service members, and investing in teaching members from underprivileged communities to code.

Samihah Azim: Now, I want to end on a couple of key points on what can designers do to be the most valuable team member possible? Well one, we can show value. The best way for design to show our value is to really to start caring about business goals and team metrics and then, being comfortable with an imperfect V1, so that we can test and learn to build that perfect V2 and move faster to that ideal North Star. Then also being really cognizant of what’s being tested when designing and what effect it has of other metrics, as well as what effect it has on other users or on users. I am not sure if we have time for Q&A but if you have any question, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, thank you so much, Samihah, this is great. We have time for one question and so, the one that’s gotten the most votes, “Could you share with us about a technical challenge that you are currently working on and what are the technologies, tools, and concepts that you are using?”

Samihah Azim: Unfortunately, I can’t talk about any products that have not been released yet, but I guess I could talk about it on a very high level, so there’s a project that I’m on, where I designed this, what we would consider the ideal V1 and there are some technical limitations on the engineering side, where we could get to that point but it would take about six weeks.

Samihah Azim: When I heard that I was like, “That is a really long time, how do we get there faster?” Because I think it’s also important to learn as quickly as you can. If we spend six weeks building that ideal V1 maybe it doesn’t perform that well, maybe there’s a lot of assumptions that we’ve made. What I then did is paired really closely with engineering, as well as the product manager on the project and we broke the different pieces down, and really understood what the scope of each part would be and how we can get to shipping the test faster.

Samihah Azim: We went from six weeks to three weeks, which is great because that means we can then … Once we ship that we can … once we hit statistical significance, we now have enough data to learn from that to then make adjustments to the idealized version. The benefit of that, the current, what we’re calling V1 now, which would take three weeks as well as having that idealized V1, which would now be V2, is that the backend engineers now understand what direction we want to go in, so that way they’re able to build in a way that’s scalable to the future where the client side engineers they … to them what’s more relevant is the immediate V1 that would take three weeks to build.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you so much, Samihah, we’re actually out of time. Thank you everyone.

Samihah Azim: Thank you and thank you for having me.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you.

“Using Statistics for Security: Threat Detection at Netflix”: Nicole Grinstead with Netflix (Video + Transcript)

Nicole Grinstead / Senior Security Software Engineer / Netflix
Angie Chang / CEO & Founder / Girl Geek X


Angie Chang: Alright, we are live. Welcome. This is our 11:00 AM session. We have Nicole Grinstead, a senior software engineer at Netflix. A few things she’s focused on are things like corporate identity and access, applying user behavior analytics to threat detection, and user focused security. She’ll talk to us today about Netflix anomaly detection project [inaudible 00:00:44] and how it enables Netflix to find and act on high-risk corporate user behavior as threat detection is becoming increasingly valuable in today’s complicated corporate security landscape. Hand it off to you.

Nicole Grinstead: Great. Thank you. Thanks everyone for joining me virtually today, I’m really excited to be here. A huge thanks to the Girl Geek Elevate conference organizers for asking me to speak, and a huge thanks to the sponsors as well. Without further ado, I’m Nicole Grinstead and I work at Netflix as a senior security software engineer on our cloud security team, specifically on information security. Today I’ll be telling you a little bit about what we’re doing for advanced threat detection. Specifically, how we’re using statistical modeling and machine learning to detect malicious behavior.

Nicole Grinstead: Really quick, just to define user behavior analytics for everyone. Basically, what user behavior analytics are, it’s kind of the industry-wide term for what we’re doing here. It’s looking at what are users normally doing on a day-to-day basis, and then finding deviations from that normal behavior. When we see deviations from the normal behavior, they might be doing something a little different out of their ordinary, but it could also be indication that an account has been compromised, and that’s something that we as the security team want to look at. That’s kind of what it is.

Nicole Grinstead: Example, if you think about what a software engineer does, for example, on a day-to-day basis, you might look at your source code repository, you might look at some dashboards to look at your logs, some deployment tools. Then let’s say all of a sudden one day you look at an application that holds your company’s very sensitive financial data. That’s pretty weird and that’s something that we as security team might want to take a look at even though maybe you just were interested, that could also mean that someone has gained access to your credentials and is using them maliciously.

Nicole Grinstead: To give you another quick example, let’s say you’re maybe an HR or a PR employee and you spend most of your day working in documents. Let’s say we have a baseline of your normal amount of documents that you read or that you modify, and say that’s 20 on a normal day-to-day basis. If all of a sudden that shoots up and we see you downloading or touching a thousand documents, that looks pretty weird and it could look like data exfiltration. Again, that’s something that we might want to take a look at.

Nicole Grinstead: To take a quick step back why we think this is worth that kind of big investment. I mentioned at the beginning, we’re using machine learning, statistical modeling, that takes quite a bit of effort on our end. To give you some perspective, a 2017 study done by IBM security estimated that data breaches cost anywhere from around $3.6 million if a breach does not include any sensitive data, all the way to, on average, $141 million if that breach includes sensitive data.

Nicole Grinstead: These are top of mind things, data breaches have been in the news recently and it’s very costly. It can cost a company a lot of brand reputation and other very severe monetary consequences. One way that data breaches can occur are phishing attempts. This is really common. It’s estimated that on average, about one in 130 emails sent is a malicious phishing attempt, so not to say that one out of every 130 emails that makes it all the way to your inbox is a phishing email, but some of these things get pre filtered out.

Nicole Grinstead: They’re super prevalent and they’re very commonly used by organized hacker groups. About 70% of organized groups are using phishing emails as one of their modes for attack, and that’s because they’re very effective and successful. If you think back to some high profile data breaches that occurred recently, the 2016 DNC breach before the election partly was caused by a successful phishing attempt.

Nicole Grinstead: Also, the 2015 Anthem data breach, again, successful phishing attempt. Not to say that there aren’t other ways to mitigate phishing attacks and not to say that that’s the only way that accounts can be compromised or credentials can be compromised, but this is one really prevalent issue and really prevalent attack vector. Just to give you an example and demonstrate the kind of things that we are facing, the threat that we face and what we’re doing about it.

Nicole Grinstead: Basically, this is the fun part of the talk, I think. I’m going to explain at a high level what we’re doing at Netflix to detect that malicious behavior. The data is all there in our raw logs. We have SSL data of what users are logging into what applications, where they’re logging in from. We also have application specific logs, what users are doing within sensitive applications. Also Google drive data, for example, what types of actions people are doing, how many documents you’re accessing, that kind of thing. So we have all of that raw data and that’s really where we’re finding this information of where the deviations occur.

Nicole Grinstead: The first thing we do is clean that data up a bit. As you can imagine, it might not tell the full story, just one raw line and your logs. We make sure that we enhance that data and get kind of the originating IP address if, for instance, a user has come through VPN or something like that. That’s really the first step as we enhance our data, and make sure that we have everything that tells the full story about what action the user has taken.

Nicole Grinstead: Then we start to take those actions and model what their normal behavior is like. Just to give you an example of a few of the things that we think are interesting. If you think about what a user typically does, you know, they’ll come in, they might access the same types of applications, so that’s definitely one thing that we detect on is what type of applications does a user normally do versus what are they doing right now, and is that weird?

Nicole Grinstead: Another aspect is if you can think of a user probably normally logs in from the same device on the same browser. User agent is a really common thing that you can see in a log where we can tell what kind of machine they’re coming in from, and that usually doesn’t differ. Sometimes people get new machines, sometimes they upgrade their browsers, like we have some logic to dampen those upgrades or things like that. But if all of a sudden that changes, it might be a signal or an interesting thing to look at.

Nicole Grinstead: Additionally, location. People do go on vacation, but normally if you think about a user’s behavior, they’re probably either logging in from home or from their desk at work. These are all signals that we can look at and model out a user’s normal behavior and see when there’s deviations, that might be something that’s interesting to us.

Nicole Grinstead: As you can imagine then, just generating anomalies and figuring out where things are different doesn’t necessarily give us a full picture of when something is malicious or if something might be going wrong. That’s where the next step is on top of these raw anomalies that we’re generating. We apply some business logic to be a little bit smarter about what we think is important to investigate, because just seeing raw anomalies, it could be interesting but it also can be a little bit noisy. As you can imagine, people do deviate from their normal behavior sometimes.

Nicole Grinstead: This is then kind of the step where we try to figure out is that actually risky to our business if this action is occurring. As I mentioned in one of my first slides, if you think about accessing really sensitive financial data, that’s something that’s higher risk than maybe accessing our lunch menus. If I never accessed lunch menus for Netflix and then all of a sudden I do, well yes that was anomalous, but does the security team care if somebody is looking at lunch menus? No, we don’t care. There’s no sensitive data to be gleaned there and it’s not something that we want to spend our resources investigating. That’s one aspect.

Nicole Grinstead: Also, I think in all of our organizations, some users have access to more sensitive data than others. Also, if you think about executives, not only do they probably have access to more sensitive data than some other people in the organization might, but they also might be a larger target because they’re high profile and externally visible. We also kind of look at what type of user it is, and if it’s a certain type of user, they might be a little more or less risky. These are the types of things that we apply after the fact to weed out the noise a little bit and see what are the really high risk things that we should be focusing on and looking at.

Nicole Grinstead: The final step is when we’re actually going to display this to our security team of analysts. We are using Facebook’s open source technology graph QL to enhance that anomaly. [Audio drops from 12:05-00:12:44] Hey, hopefully everyone can hear me again. I’m not sure exactly what happened, dropped briefly. Okay, great. Yeah, then, that final step is where we get information from outside of just our anomaly generation and tie that up with other interesting data sources.

Nicole Grinstead: If we are looking at not just that interesting event, but then events around that. What does the user typically do, what kind of applications did they log into right before, what types of applications did they log into right after, that type of thing. Also, what organization they’re in, what type of job they do, so any other extra information, extra data that we can use to kind of enhance that and tell the whole picture of who this user is, what they typically do and why this was a weird behavior and if it’s risky.

Nicole Grinstead: That’s kind of at a high level what we’re doing. I really appreciate everyone joining today again. I think we have some time for questions.

Angie Chang: Thank you, that was excellent. Thank you for hanging on while we had minor technical difficulties. We do have some questions. First question we had from Carla is how do you handle and what steps do you take to keep it protected for a cust … How do you keep customer data protected and maybe used internally to diagnose a problem?

Nicole Grinstead: Actually, thanks a lot for the question, that’s a great question. We on the information security team are more focused on our corporate employee accounts. On the consumer facing side, if a consumer’s account is compromised, you won’t have access to intellectual property or financial data, stuff like that. On my team, that’s more explicitly what we’re focusing on with this particular project. Not to say that that’s also not a problem or an issue that we face or that we work on, but that’s not my area of expertise, I’ll say.

Angie Chang: Thank you. All right. Another question we have here is from Sukrutha, which is, how has your knowledge of security breaches and anomalies impacted your relationship with tech?

Nicole Grinstead: Yes, great question. I would say our relationship with … It definitely makes you think twice when you’re getting like a random email from someone that you’re not expecting or whatever. I’ve had a lot less, I guess base level trust in technology in general, maybe I’ll say. I shouldn’t say base level of trust, but just … I always have that hat on of someone could be doing something malicious here and there are a lot of malicious actors out there. It’s just something to be aware of.

Angie Chang: Okay. Thank you. Another question we have is how did you get into security?

Nicole Grinstead: Yes, that’s a great question. I just kind of fell into it. It was one of those things. I just started working on an identity and access project previous to Netflix when I was at Yahoo, and you just kind of ended up being a gatekeeper for sensitive information, you have to be very security aware. I just kind of found that it was super interesting being on the defending side of trying to keep things safe, so just delved in more from there.

Angie Chang: Cool. Let’s see. A question we had from Andreas is, how do you determine what a normal behavior is?

Nicole Grinstead: That’s a great question. Basically, this is where we’re using statistical modeling to build a baseline of what a user is normally doing. We’re looking at our logs and seeing these are the normal behaviors over time, and then seeing if this current action or if you can think about this current log that we’re looking at, if that deviates significantly from what a user is doing on a day-to-day basis. We’re using that log history over time to figure out what a user’s normally doing.

Angie Chang: We have a question here about, does the assignment of risk level happened manually or is it automated by machine learning system?

Nicole Grinstead: That’s automated, I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily machine learning at that part, we’re using more just business logic to assign risk level. We know where our sensitive data is, we know which systems and which applications hold that data. For instance, one level where we say if this thing that was anomalous is a risky system, that risk level is overall little bit higher.

Angie Chang: Does the system alert you when outlier behaviors happen?

Nicole Grinstead: It does.

Angie Chang: Okay. One last question, quick question, what does working as a security engineer at Netflix like?

Nicole Grinstead: Sorry, could you repeat that? It cut out a little bit for me.

Angie Chang: How is working as a security engineer at Netflix like?

Nicole Grinstead: It’s great, it’s really rewarding. I’ll say that there’s just tons of interesting problems to solve, I think in the security space in general. More specifically at Netflix, one of the great things about the culture here is that there’s a lot of freedom to … Where we see opportunity, anyone at any level is able to call that out and drive that forward. It’s a little different from other organizations I’ve worked in where it might be a little more resource constrained and you’re kind of a little more maybe, you work a little bit more in a specific role. I’ve had the ability here to do a lot of different things that I’ve found interesting. I’d say it’s really exciting and fast-paced, fun place to work.

Angie Chang: Thank you. That’s awesome. Thank you Nicole for joining us and pulling through. We have ran out of time, but thank you so much for joining us from Netflix today and people are tweeting, so feel free to answer the tweets and we will for next week. Thank you.

Nicole Grinstead: Great. Thanks so much everyone.

Angie Chang: Bye.

“Focus On Your Story, Not The Glory”: Leah McGowen-Hare with Salesforce (Video + Transcript)

Leah McGowen-Hare / Senior Director, Developer Evangelism / Salesforce
Sukrutha Bhadouria / CTO & Co-Founder / Girl Geek X


Sukrutha Bhadouria: [inaudible] some people making popcorn and pouring the wine. While we get ready, we had a little bit of a technical difficulty, but we’re all set and ready to get started. So introducing the senior director of developer evangelism at Salesforce. She has over 20 years of experience in technology, mastering a variety of roles including consultant, developer, manager, and technical trainer. I can tell you from my own personal experience, she was the best technical trainer I had. Her career reflects the evolution of computing technology. She uses her knowledge and experience to demystify and make technology more accessible to youth, girls, communities of color, and that’s through organizations such as Black Girls Code, Technovation, Girls who Code, and Vetforce. Thank you so much for making time for us today. I can’t wait to hear what you have to share with us. So go ahead and get started.

Leah McGowen-Hare: Yes. First of all, I’m Leah and I always start with the forward looking statements. Now, I’m not sure that I’m going to be speaking about some products, but if I do, I need to cover my backside. So I want to make sure that any purchasing, implementation decisions are made based on what’s currently available, and not anything that I might speak about that’s in the future, but I really want to start with this. I want to start saying thank you. I want to thank you, Angie, I want to thank you Sukrutha for first of all, having the vision for something like this. This is amazing, and taking that vision and creating it. And I believe you guys started with like the Girl Geek Dinners 10 years ago, and now you’re revamping this. This is amazing. And you two are trailblazers, so I thank you for your vision, your tenacity, and creating this platform and allowing me to be a part of it and share my story. So thank you.

Leah McGowen-Hare: Yes. So as Sukrutha had mentioned, a lot of people know me from different things. They may know me from the classroom. Here, I’m teaching at a hands on training at Dreamforce, probably apex class. I’ve taught Visualforce classes, or you had my week long classes, learning admin tool one, or you may have seen me delivering keynotes for TDX, TrailheaDX, or doing interviews and pre-shows or the Dreamforce keynote. So I often tell people, you see my glory. People who are like, “Oh, you just sashay up there. You just get up there, and you do this,” and I go, “But what you don’t know is my story.” And everybody has a story. And I think while it’s wonderful, and it’s amazing to be on these stages, and sharing and inspiring, really knowing sort of a piece of the story behind the scenes has a lot more power from my perspective.

Leah McGowen-Hare:  I’m going to share with you very little bit about my story, and I share this because people often go, “Leah, I have questions about branding and my branding,” and I’m often like, don’t focus on your branding, focus on the value you add, and everything else will begin to fall in place. And it’s really easy to get caught up in that branding piece, particularly with social media and all of this good stuff. And I’m always like, “Well, let’s take a step back and what is your story? What are you trying to build? What is the story you’re trying to create?”

Leah McGowen-Hare: With my story, I started developing coding when I was really young. You can see my little picture. I was busting the collar up, I was very fashionable, and that’s a Commodore PET, where if you see it, there was no memory stick, there were no CDs. It was a cassette tape that you actually had to push play, and that’s how the computer started turning. That was me back in the day coding, when I was much younger, but I did not have visions of myself working at technology because, for twofold, first of all, nobody was really doing that then. It wasn’t a widely known field.

Leah McGowen-Hare: And two, it definitely was not representative of females or African American females at that matter. I was more inclined to go to, I wanted to be a dancer. I loved Fame. Probably many may not know Fame. Fame, Flashdance, I wanted to be a dancer, and Alvin Ailey, I wanted to dance. So I went off to college at UMass Amherst, and I started my career as a dance major.

Leah McGowen-Hare: And my father, who was a professor, who was just really gracious about it, he said, “Leah, you’re multifaceted, you have many gifts, many talents, and I don’t want you ignoring one completely, such as your ability to really problem solve, coding, math, and science. You have a real innate gift for that.” And I said, “Yeah, whatever, Daddy.” And I twirled away with my leg warmers and headband. But he allowed me to explore that side of me. So every summer, I would go to New York City, and I would do the whole starving artist thing. And one summer, I was there living in New York, I was a waitress, and I was working at a restaurant called Honeysuckle and there was this other waitress there.

Leah McGowen-Hare: And at that time, I’m maybe 19, 20, 21 I should be because they had alcohol, but she was working there, and she too was a starving artist and she was 30, and I thought, “Oh my goodness, this woman is 30.” And that felt ancient to me at the time. Right? And I was like, “And she’s still trying to make it? Oh no.” I went right back to school and I changed my major from dance to computer science, and I was like, “Oh no, I’m not trying to do that.” I went off, and I was grounded in computer science, and let’s see where this is going to take me. Once I graduated, I worked for a company called Andersen Consulting, which is now Accenture, and that was out in New York City, and I worked on a lot of the older systems, mainframe, batch programming. We’ll talk a little bit about that.

Leah McGowen-Hare: Then I moved from Andersen. I moved out from New York office to San Fran, and I started working for a company called Peoplesoft as a developer. And I did a lot of development there. And after doing development for a while I realized, “I’m good at this, I’m okay, I’m good.” But there was a piece missing for me, and that was the interaction with other people. I really liked interacting with people, even talking about technology. My manager, who was really nice, at the time, said, “Leah, when you’re in the office, morale goes up, but productivity goes down,” and I was like, “What?” She goes, “You get this, but I think there’s something more you can do. I think there’s something different, a different path that you should look at.” And while she wasn’t saying I didn’t want you in my group, she was just saying, “I just don’t think this is serving your innate talents well.”

Leah McGowen-Hare: She said, “What about there’s, this position, be a trainer, training developers how to code using the Peoplesoft tools.” And I was like, “Trainer? No way, that’s too close to my parents. My father’s a professor, my mother’s a teacher. I’m not trying to become my parents.” She was like, “Just give it a go and see what it’s like. Just go ahead and try it.” I went in and tried out, tried out because you actually had to do a test teach for this position, a little begrudgingly. And I did it, and I then soon quickly realized I actually loved it. It mixed the two things that I loved, which was technology and talking to people. So I was helping people understand technology, and it was almost like a game to me, like how can I explain these really complex concepts in a way that people can understand it.

Leah McGowen-Hare: From explaining things like polymorphism of objects, or being object oriented languages, how do you break that down in a way that’s consumable by those that may never have heard this before? I had room of Cobol programmers learning how to code in People code, which was object based. It was a challenge, but I was up for the challenge.  I did that. It was amazing, I traveled the world. I really stepped out on faith and was like, “Okay, I’m going to try something that I didn’t think was for me.” And it turned out it was, so much so that I went and got my masters in education and technology because I really wanted to take it a step further, and really see what are the different ways that I can help people learn very complex technological concepts. So I went off and I got my masters in that, and after I got my masters I had my company, this was while I was getting my master’s.

Leah McGowen-Hare: I was working full time in my own company, and I was a grad school student full time, and I was a single parent at the time, just doing it all, making it happen, just grinding it out. And it was an amazing time for me. It was challenging, but I really surprised myself with how I rose to the occasion.

Leah McGowen-Hare: And then I went on and came to Salesforce, and I started, at the time it was called Salesforce University, and I started training here as a developer trainer, training on Apex, Visualforce, the system admin journey helping people get sysadmin certified. It was amazing, and did that for seven years. And then in the last year, it hasn’t even been a year, but I left SFU and came over to TMP, and I was working for a organization called TPL under Lisa Marshall, and then recently, I think it’s as of August, have joined the Trailhead team, which has just been amazing. 

Leah McGowen-Hare: My story has lots of curves and turns and downward turns, upward turns. It’s just been amazing, and it’s been lots of learning that I’ve truly embraced, and I’ve just learned to be open to opportunities that I may not initially see for myself, but allowing myself to at least try and go out and take a risk. So if you notice on the slide, I have the trail still going because who knows what’s going to be next.

Leah McGowen-Hare:  I wanted to kind of hone in a little bit about, talk about my development journey going through this. So in developing, I started off in mainframe. Now I wasn’t coding in the 80s. I mean I wasn’t working full time in the eighties. I’m not that old, but when I did start, it was on mainframe, writing in Cobol, JCL, and that’s a time when customers built everything in house. They would build their own systems. You had a slew of developers, huge organizations, huge server rooms, just everything in house. Everything was custom built, and so you would go there and work on these different clients. I worked on so many different clients, modifying their information, debugging their Cobol batch programs, or if you were one of the cool kids, you got to work on the online portion called CICS, which was just the terminal online intermediate transactional system.

Leah McGowen-Hare:  I did that. And then when I moved on over to Peoplesoft, I went from mainframe technology to client server technology. And that’s when a shift started happening in the marketplace where people were beginning to not buy the software. When they buy the software, it still was on premise, meaning it was in house, all of their servers, everything they maintained from their database servers and app servers or web servers. Everything was in house. The infrastructure wasn’t that much of a shift, you still had in terms of everything was on premise, but now with client server, you have these new pieces, you had your web server, you had your app server, these other pieces that you had to integrate and work with as well. I had to learn that, that was a little bit of a shift. The big jump is when I jumped from client server into cloud computing.

Leah McGowen-Hare: And here, now it’s more subscription based model, and this is where customers are, it’s no longer on premise, it’s in the cloud, and of course, there’s some hybrid ones and things like that. But I’m talking straight cloud technology and subscription based. That was a huge jump for me from a development standpoint, and I was reflecting on that and what that looked like for me. I wanted to share what that transition was for me from moving from an on premise to a cloud based technology, particularly multitenancy, which is very different than a non multitenancy.

Leah McGowen-Hare: From on premise standpoint, when you do that, some of the costs and expenses that occur, not necessarily development, but tying capital expenses, you have a lot of things in pieces that you have to purchase from licensing fees and maintaining, and if you have your app servers, your web servers, new releases that now require new upgrades and slow product releases, things did not happen quickly ’cause, “Okay, now we got to do the product release, we have to upgrade our app server, but that isn’t compatible with this database server that might not be compatible with this web server.” So there was a lot of checks and balances that went in place across that, and it took a little bit of time. So it was also longer to proof of concepts. You couldn’t quickly and easily spin up a proof of concept like, this is what the system would look like, or here’s what the flow would look like. And slower time to market. But that was what I was used to working in.

Leah McGowen-Hare: Then, jump on over into the cloud. Here, if you look at some of the cost things, you have lower total cost of ownership because at this point, it’s subscription based And it’s interesting because I had a conversation with someone who is looking to go over from on premise to cloud, and they go, “I don’t like the fact that,” and this is a while ago. They’re like, “The cloud will have all my data, and what if I don’t like it? I’m stuck because my data stuck in the cloud.” I go, “Let’s look at this picture. What would it look like if you go with this on premise system? You’ve got to purchase all of the different hardware pieces, all of the infrastructure, everything there. Then you install the software and guess what? Now you don’t like it. Well, guess what? You’re stuck with it because you moved it into your home. You’re stuck with it. Whereas if you’re in the cloud, you can extract your data and keep it moving. It’s less baggage.”

Leah McGowen-Hare: They hadn’t thought about that perspective before, and they’re like, “Oh, that’s true.” There’s a lower barrier for entry. You can actually try, and many of you know, for those that back in the day before Trailhead, you could go and create a DE org, and go and play in the DE org, and it did not cost anything. Now with Trailhead, you can definitely get in there and start playing around and be like, “Oh, this is what it looks like. This is how I can customize it. These are the kinds of things that I’d need to know to change the process or make it more conformed to look like my processes, rapid development cycles.” And because there’s a lower barrier for entry, you have more people coming in there playing, and you don’t necessarily have to be with a company that’s using Salesforce.

Leah McGowen-Hare: You can go out there and just start learning it for yourself with Trailhead, and that creates a larger community, a larger developer community, a larger user community, so you have a larger support group. And this is a little bit more detail, but this is more personal for me, was coming from an on premise to cloud development, particularly multitenancy, it made me a better developer. Now what does that mean? So when I, on premise, from my standpoint, I have infinite resources. I can write code the way I want. If I get an infinite loop, I call the DBA and be like, “Oops, did something, can you kill that for me?” And for those out there that know SQL, there’s this thing called SELECT *, where you select every single field that you want.

Leah McGowen-Hare: And then, I admit I’ve done this in the past, long time ago, where I would say SELECT * and it pull in 500 fields into memory, and then I may only end up using five or 10. Now that’s not being very efficient. Well, when I’m developing here on the platform, I have to be very explicit about the fields that I want. There is no SELECT * in your sock or SQL statements. You must select the particular fields that you have to explicitly state the fields that you want, which causes you to be very mindful about how you develop your code. So it makes you think through things in a more efficient way. You use your memory space. You use as much or as little as you need, but you’re a green coder.

Leah McGowen-Hare: You’re not wasteful with that virtual shared memory space because for anybody who knows works in Apex, all of our code runs in the same memory space, hence the reason we place limits so that everybody has equal performance, so I can’t go in there and create an infinite loop because it would impact somebody else’s performance, and those safeguards are to ensure that everybody is getting good performance. So, really changing my mindset when I moved from an on premise to a cloud development really shifted a lot of the different ways that I thought, and that was just one of the examples. But I know we’re short on time, and I just wanted to sort of talk about, you’ve seen some part of my story, and then I wanted to kind of hone in a little bit more detailed, and see what my development story looked like because I know they wanted, Angie requested something a little bit more technical. And at this point I would, Angie and Sukrutha, if you guys are open to question and answers.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. So like you said, we want to be a little bit mindful of the next session that’s going to be happening soon, but we’re sorry for the minor technicality that we had at the start. This was such an informative session, and Leah, you’re such an inspiration. Thank you so much. The questions that we’re getting, we’ll have them answered via Twitter with the Hashtag. So use the hashtag, everyone, GirlGeekXElevate, and we’ll get you all the answers that you need. And seeing so many amazing comments like, “Leah, you’re the real deal! Such an inspiration!” And other amazing comments like, “I remember you in that gown at Dreamforce.”

Leah McGowen-Hare: It was a great time. It was a good time. This is an amazing community. I have never come across anything like what I see with the Salesforce community. It really is a reflection of all that is good and inspirational.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yes. So thank you. With that, thank you so much, Leah.

Leah McGowen-Hare: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you.

Leah McGowen-Hare: Okay.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Bye.

Leah McGowen-Hare: Bye.

“Absorbed into the Borg: What Happens After Your Startup is Acquired” — Girl Geek X Elevate (Video + Transcript)

Shanea King-Roberson / Senior Technical Product Manager / eBay
Claire Vo / VP,  Product / Optimizely
Selina Tobaccowala / CEO & Founder / Gixo/Evite
Sarah Allen / Founder / RailsBridge & Engineering Manager / Google


Shanea King-Roberson: Okay, I think we’re live everyone. So I’ll get started since we’re running a little bit late.

Shanea King-Roberson: Hi. My name is Shanea. I’m going to be the moderator today for, “What Happens After Your Startup Gets Acquired?” And since we’re running a little short on time, I’d love to have each one of our panelists take 30 seconds to introduce themselves, let everybody know what the company they had acquired is, and what they’re doing now.

Claire Vo: I’m Clair Vo. I am currently the VP of Product at Optimizely and I was the CEO and co-founder of a company called Experiment Engine that was acquired a year and one day ago, by Optimizely. We at Experiment Engine built solutions for enterprise customers to scale and manage their experimentation programs and that has been recently, as of January, re-released as part of the Optimizely platform as Optimizely Program Management, which top enterprises use to collaborate, manage, and report on their high velocity experimentation programs.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome. Thanks, Claire. Next.

Selina Tobaccowala: Hi, I’m Selina Tobaccowala. I’m the CEO and Co-founder of Gixo. We do live coach fitness classes right from your phone. In terms of previous startups, I had started Evite, with actually the same co-founder from Gixo, about two decades ago. So, the only reason you don’t see gray hair is ’cause it’s been dyed. But, we got acquired by Interactive Corp.

Selina Tobaccowala: And then on the other side of the table, I was at Ticketmaster and did about ten acquisitions and was the President and CTO at SurveyMonkey and also did a number of acquisitions there. So I have experiences both sides of the table.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome.

Sarah Allen: So my name is Sarah Allen. The first company I co-founded was straight out of school, was The Company of Science and Art, which was acquired … created After Effects was acquired by Aldus in ’93, then subsequently by Adobe in ’94. And then more recently I founded Blazing Cloud, which was a consultancy founded in 2009 and it was acqu-hired by Indiegogo in 2013. So the team joined Indiegogo.

Sarah Allen: I’m now at Google as an engineering manager, leading some teams doing server list events for serverless compute and a security policy.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome. And I guess I should probably go, too.

Shanea King-Roberson: I currently today am a senior technical product manager at Ebay and before that I was a product manager at Google and I started a digital marketing agency doing digital marketing and web development for women entrepreneurs, experts, and authors that I sold my half of the company to a different partner. So, I’m happy to be here. And we can jump right in.

Shanea King-Roberson: So, I’d love to quickly go over the types of acquisitions. So what are kind of the buckets in which an acquisition could fall on, or why you would like to get acquired.

Shanea King-Roberson: Let’s do that.

Selina Tobaccowala: Sure. Did you want one of us to start, or-

Shanea King-Roberson: Yes. Yes.

Selina Tobaccowala: Okay, sure, I can walk through in terms of … So, there’re different reasons, especially as an acquiring company, why you might want to acquire a company. I mean, the first is an acquihire, where you really wanna get the talent and that’s one type of acquisition.

Selina Tobaccowala: The second is when it’s what called accretive, which is where either the revenue is growing faster, the user growth is growing faster, than the core company, and so that’s where you essentially are buying it for the financial or business value.

Selina Tobaccowala: And a third situation is really if it’s like a strategic option for a product area or product advancement that you want to, essentially, go do. Which is, you’re sort of a small business and now you’re bringing somebody in who’s giving you enterprise experience. Or there’s different strategic tie-ins or fit-ins.

Selina Tobaccowala: And those will generally be the main sort of, philosophies around acquisitions.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome. That’s great.

Shanea King-Roberson: So what I’d love to do is if anyone on the line as any questions, feel free to put them in and we can have about ten minutes of Q&A at the end. But, I’m going to ask, starting from pre-acquisition.

Shanea King-Roberson: So there are people on the line that are in different stages of their careers and founding of their companies, so what are some of the ways that you can be prepared to be acquired before you’re ready? What are some of the things that entrepreneurs on the line should be thinking about, before they ever start to get acquired?

Shanea King-Roberson: How about Claire, you take this one.

Claire Vo: Yeah, so I think … Actually, somebody asked me that question a while ago. Like, “What should you do if you want to sell your company?” And I was like, “If you want to sell your company, you’re not in a great place to sell your company.” So, almost, if you are preparing to be acquired before you’re, quote, unquote, “ready,” you’re probably not focused on the right things.

Claire Vo: So what I would say is, the best preparation for an acquisition is a highly functional, value-generating, company. And so, the thing that you should do is try to maximize the value of your business by focusing on customers, growing revenue, reducing friction in whatever marketing or sales funnels you have, and ultimately building a valuable asset that somebody would want to acquire.

Claire Vo: I think the things that lead to a good business are going to lead to healthy acquisitions, and so you actually … I don’t recommend you do anything special, if you’re not intending to be acquired or aren’t ready to be acquired, that you wouldn’t already do to make your business valuable.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome.

Sarah Allen: So yeah, I wanted to-

Selina Tobaccowala: I would absolutely plus one that, with kind of the one exception being, trying to really make sure that way before you get acquired, you have a conversation with your co founder, if you have any, about what is either that number or what is that situation that you want to be acquired? Because it’s very different in the heat of the moment when people are coming to you and really making sure that you have sort of that baseline understanding with your founders of, are we trying to build this into a multi billion dollar company? If we get an offer for … If somebody comes in tomorrow … For a hundred million dollars, would we take it? Or, is it 15 million dollars? And having that conversation upfront, because what you don’t want to do is when something … If somebody approaches you, be on very different pages with your founding team.

Sarah Allen: Yeah, I was gonna chime in. Can you hear me?

Shanea King-Roberson: Mm-hmm (affirmative). We can hear you.

Sarah Allen: I was gonna chime in on that too. I think that people who are founding their company for the first time, don’t necessarily think through all the different things that might happen, and while you might be starting to be an independent company that IPOs, having a frank conversation with your co founders is like, “Well, what if it’s year five, and we expected to have this big outcome in year three, how are we going to feel about it? How are we gonna value what we’re doing? How will we handle that situation together? Because having that pre-conversation, like you mentioned, is where you can have a really healthy discourse around that, rather than waiting until your co founder is burned out, and they’re ready to quit and then you’re stuck with a company that is maybe on the verge of profitability but not doing everything you want. You want to be doing it together.

Sarah Allen: And of course, the best way to get sold is to … Or the best way to go into any of these situations, is to be in a great situation. But sometimes, just to be honest, people sell their companies when things aren’t going so well.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome. Those are really, really, great answers. Thanks.

Shanea King-Roberson: Since we’re kind of in this pre-acquisition conversation, I would love to take the flip side of this. So, what does the acquiring company look for that entrepreneurs today should be aware of?

Shanea King-Roberson: So if I’m a company and I want to acquire another company, what are some of those things? What are they looking for? What are some of the big ticket items that an entrepreneur should be building for?

Claire Vo: I think they’re reflected in the types of acquisitions that were described at the beginning of this session, which is actually like, will acquiring this company net us ROI positive in terms of revenue? Will it add strategic value to my product portfolio or my company portfolio, or does it add talent that’s otherwise difficult or expensive to acquire and retain?

Claire Vo: I think those are pretty simple. They’re looking for money. They’re looking for strategic advantage and they’re looking for talent. I can actually … There’s no like secret sauce [inaudible 00:09:05] a company’s looking for, other than to generate value for shareholders, and so those are the three things that can do that most directly.

Sarah Allen: Well I think to … There is another nuance to it. What you say is absolutely correct. The other thing is, they want to have … They’re looking for a company that’s gonna be successful in bringing that value to the new entity. And so, one of the things that both sides need to know is what’s the culture of the company that’s being acquired? Is it where the bigger company wants to go, or is it substantially different in a way that the acquired team is gonna have to adapt?

Sarah Allen: And that’s something where … Nobody acquires a company because they think it’s going to not go well, yet, a lot of times, the goals of the acquisition aren’t met, right? Or it doesn’t quite live up to its hopes, and I’ve sort of been in bigger companies where teams have been acquired and then their product gets canceled when that wasn’t really the goal.

Sarah Allen: Sometimes that it expected and just matching expectations upfront and if you are bringing your culture to the company and they’re really excited about that, how are you going to infuse the company in that culture, with that culture. Or, if your culture is very like, “We’re a little, tiny startup and we’re excited about that,” how are you gonna survive in this giant company? How are you gonna make that a positive experience for the company and for your team?

Sarah Allen: And so, I think that they’re looking for, how is this going to transition into a success?

Shanea King-Roberson: Yeah, that’s a really great point. So I think it’s actually a segue into kind of, conflicts of acquisitions and some of the challenges that can come with after you’ve been acquired and the actual negotiation process. So, I’d like to dig a little bit more into that.

Shanea King-Roberson: So, let’s say that I receive an offer for an acquisition. What are some of the basic negotiation tactics when you’re negotiating an acquisition if you are the starting founder?

Sarah Allen: I can chime in there.

Sarah Allen: By the time you receive … I haven’t had ton … I mean, I don’t know. Some people have had like eight companies acquired. From my data points and from the people that I know, by the time you receive an offer, you’ve pretty much already negotiated everything. That’s not where you start negotiating. On your first meeting with the acquiring company, is the beginning of the negotiation, and so what I found that was really a discovery process in … When I was looking at having Blazing Cloud acquired, that was … There were way more things that were negotiable than I ever thought to negotiate. And I really learned that because we were approached by a company which then sort of triggered me to sort of think about, “Is this the company we want to be acquired by?”

Sarah Allen: And then, by talking to a number of different companies, I realized how different the situations were for my team, and then I was like, “Oh, well maybe this other company would offer this thing,” and I had to really think about, “Does the team want to stay together or are they super happy just joining the new company as like individuals?” … So this is what they call an acquihire, so it was really just the team transitioning into a bigger company.

Sarah Allen: And so I think that there’re all sorts of value that the company can give to you and that your team can bring to the company, that aren’t dollars and shares.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome. Did anybody else have any tips on negotiation?

Claire Vo: Yeah, I think this was said a little bit before, on you need to get in alignment with your co founder on what would be the outcomes or the situations on which you consider an acquisition. I think you also need to have, as a leadership team, whether your co founder or part of your board or whatever that is, your priorities in terms of the things you negotiate.

Claire Vo: You can’t negotiate to every end on every thing and get like the perfect deal done, so you really have to stack order what’s important to you. Is it the financial outcomes? Is it the outcomes for the team? Is it the structure of the deal? Is it the title that you’re coming in on? Is it what happens to your product? There’s a whole bunch of things that aren’t just dollars, and you really need to prioritize kind of, your give-to-gets. If I can get the financial thing, I’m okay taking a lower title or my team being broken up, or whatever those things are. And if you have clarity on it, it makes the negotiation a lot easier.

Selina Tobaccowala: I think there’s also, similarly, aligning those things in terms of, why you’re being acquired and what the company’s actually looking for. So, if your negotiating on financials, as an example, there’s a question of how much of your financial equity will you take now, and how much are you willing to take depending upon certain or specifics targets. And then it’s an interesting way to sometimes look at structure.

Shanea King-Roberson: Is Selina frozen?

Sarah Allen: She looks good to me.

Claire Vo: Nope. I can hear her.

Shanea King-Roberson: Oh, there you are. Hi.

Selina Tobaccowala: Hi.

Shanea King-Roberson: Sorry, you froze for me. But everyone heard her, right? Yes? Okay, good.

Selina Tobaccowala: Sorry about that.

Shanea King-Roberson: So, one of the things a few of you have mentioned is managing employee expectations. You’ve mentioned your teams, you mentioned the other people involved in the company. Does anyone want to talk about managing the expectations of your team and your employees through an acquisition, if some people are excited about the acquisition and some people are not?

Sarah Allen: I’ll speak to that first. I think that it’s … Particularly in my most recent situation in acquihire, the team’s the whole thing and so if knowing going into it, that these two people out of these 12 are just not into it, then … In our case, we were just super open about it. Okay, they’re not going.

Sarah Allen: And then in one case, I had somebody who was on my leadership team who was very skeptical about the acquisition. Just in general. She was like, “I don’t know if I want to do this thing.” And so then I was just upfront with the people we were talking to. I was like, “Well, depending on what type of a situation you provide, you may or may not get my whole leadership team.”

Sarah Allen: And I think with a small team … I’d be interested in the people who might have had bigger teams … Being open about it was really good. The other thing is, often with an acquisition these days … This didn’t use to be true in the early 90’s … But, now they want to interview all the engineers and that’s kind of a weird thing, interviewing for your own job. But, we ended up doing that together. We did practice interviews together, then we went and interviewed at a bunch of different companies together, and it was this real bonding thing, which was kind of fun and unexpected.

Sarah Allen: So, whenever you can, have fun with it, because it’s … The uncertainty of an acquisition is incredibly stressful to your folks, because they’re not in a decision-making position. And it’s incredibly stressful for you, but if you’re negotiating and you have the power and you’re the final decision-maker, or at least on the decision-making team, it’s a whole different situation. So, think about ways that you can make it good for them, and fun for them, and make it clear, if it’s true, that they’re … That you’re taking their situation into account.

Claire Vo: I’ll add an alternate point of view, which is, I took full-on, mama bear, protectionist mode when we did our acquisition, and essentially shielded the entire team from the acquisition process, because ultimately we needed to build a valuable business either way, and I saw the potential for the acquisition to be just kind of like, a point one percent thing that was gonna like … We’re gonna negotiate to something that we liked and even if we did, were we gonna get through all the legal stuff. And then we get through the legal stuff, we get to the appointment stuff and then we sign a deal and it all happens and it’s happy, I just … You can ask my team … Up until the point the acquisition happened, I was like, there’s a point five percent chance this is gonna happen, so let’s act as business as normal.

Claire Vo: And part of that was exactly what you said. I didn’t want my team interviewed for jobs that they already had. I went to the leadership team of the company that acquired my team and I said, “I have credibility. You can interview me all day and night, but I hired a great team that built a great product and if you don’t trust me, that they can add value to our team, that’s a big problem for me.”

Claire Vo: So, I actually took a more proactive stance, in term of isolating the team from the acquisition, because it was so distracting at the scale we were at, that I didn’t see necessarily the up side. And I think you would talk to my team and they would say that I very much protected their personal and employment interests in that thing, so I didn’t put them in situations that were bad, but I also didn’t bring that stress and uncertainty into our business that we were still running day to day.

Selina Tobaccowala: And I think there’re various scenarios. There’s one scenario, which is the acquihire scenario, where as an acquiring company, if you’re acquiring the talent, that’s what you’re buying and you want to actually interview the talent and so, you have to bring your employees along, but at that point, presumably, you’ve been transparent with the team with why you’re in an acquihire situation.

Selina Tobaccowala: And then there’s the strategic, sort of product … Where you’re helping us enter a new space, and in those acquisition scenarios, normally you can keep the team fairly intact, but the difficult part in those scenarios is you have to figure out if your culture that you’ve been building as a company, is aligned with this culture of the acquiring company. Because you have to expect there’s gonna be a certain amount of turnover in your own employee base after you get acquired, if there’s a culture mismatch with the parent company essentially.

Selina Tobaccowala: And then there’s a third scenario, where it’s like they’re buying your revenue and potentially your customer base and often in those scenarios, there is a document which shows synergies between the two companies, which essentially means, cutting of staff. And so, you have to understand, when you’re the CEO and the founder of the company, what is that sort of intention of the company you’re acquiring and in the third scenario, how are you protecting the downside of people that are gonna get made redundant or let go or whatever, because there is that scenario.

Selina Tobaccowala: And as Claire said, how can you elevate that in a negotiation conversation at the beginning, if that’s important to you, in terms of your gives and your gets.

Selina Tobaccowala: And so it really depends on the type of acquisition, in terms of what the team is gonna … Is gonna happen, but I don’t think that … I’ve seen very few acquisitions where 12, 24 months on … Especially off the retention packages are 12 to 24 months on … You don’t see a certain amount of turnover from the team that has been acquired, and so … I mean, ’cause there will be change, and I think being able to be honest with your team saying, “There is going to be change after an acquisition. There’s no way it can stay exactly the same.” You can do your best to keep a lot the same, but it is impossible to keep everything the same.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome.

Shanea King-Roberson: So I think we talked a lot about post-acquisition, so I’d like to get to that in a minute. But how do you juggle multiple opportunities and when do you know to turn down an acquisition? What are some of those red flags?

Selina Tobaccowala: I mean, I think one of the biggest red flags is if you don’t … Again, it’s a little bit of that culture, which is, if you want to … You know, there’s always the pure financial outcome, where it’s like … Where people are gonna get their financials, and maybe that’s all that matters in the scenario, but if you’re trying to have your product live on and, or you’re trying to have your … Essentially, the employee side, I think it is important to understand what is the incentive of the acquiring company, and are we aligned to that strategy. Is that strategy something that we actually want to do?

Selina Tobaccowala: And so I do think that a red flag from your perspective is if you don’t feel like you’re able to get that openness with the acquiring company. And that’s true … If you think of it as a new job, as if you’re interviewing for a new manager … ‘Cause that’s essentially what you’re doing … You need to make sure there’s mission alignment, culture alignment, and transparency. And it’s your doing backdoor references on that acquiring company, is your responsibility as the CEO.

Sarah Allen: Yeah, I think that value and goal alignment is really important and I’m glad you mentioned the sort of backdoor references, because you want to know … You want to get a sense of, “Am I going to … Is this going to be successful?” And if you get indicators that they’re not being genuine with you, that they’re not being upfront … Which could be unintentional. It could be a mismatch of how you communicate, or any number of things … Then, especially if you’re anticipating that there’s a payout … Usually there’s like, “Okay, after a year you get this. And two years, and three years,” … If you’re not gonna be able to hit those milestones, then just walk, because then it’s just not worth it.

Selina Tobaccowala: And some people who are good to talk to are previous founders who have been acquired by that organization.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome. Claire, did you anything to add?

Sarah Allen: And the investors of previous founders who have been acquired.

Claire Vo: We were lucky. We shared investors with our acquiring companies. We’ve had a good inside tract.

Sarah Allen: Yeah, that helps.

Sarah Allen: Yeah, and I think that’s worth mentioning. So with Blazing Cloud I never took any money, because I didn’t want to be beholden to investors, and then I realized when we were … Because I never anticipated … I didn’t know that you could actually get acquired as a consulting company. It never even crossed my mind that that was an option, and then all of the sudden I was like, “Oh, it’s a thing,” and so I talked to a lot of other people who’d been acquired and gone through these acquihire things, and then I discovered that for many of them, their investors did the negotiation and knew the people on the other side of the table and then it … I was like, “Wow, I’d love for somebody to do this for me.”

Sarah Allen: So I mean, there’s two sides to that, because sometimes the investors have things that are goals that are different than yours, but it’s just I hadn’t really thought through how positive it can be to have an investor in going through changes in your company.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome.

Shanea King-Roberson: So, we’re starting to get some questions in and we will take those in a few more minutes, so if you have any more questions, please put them in to ask the question.

Shanea King-Roberson: I’d like to get into the post-acquisition. One thing that we really want to think about is, what was that transition like for each of you, from CEO to now, employee of a large corporation or midsize corporation? What was the best thing about that and then, the worst thing about that?

Claire Vo: So I can start. The transition was super easy. I’ve worked at companies of all size and I was never a CEO that started a company because I didn’t want a boss. That wasn’t my motivation and I used to joke I took venture capital so, I had bosses and they were a little bit more intense than the ones I had at a corporate job. So, the actual transition back to the quote, unquote “corporate world” was very easy for me; very comfortable in at-scale companies and I think my background added a lot of value immediately to the company in terms of management strategy and operations and things that we needed at the size of the company that we’re at now. So, my personal transition was easy.

Claire Vo: I think the hardest part has been emotionally letting go of my product. I mean, my product is integrated into our ecosystem. It’s part of the platform. I have a product manager that works on my team that runs my product, and I still have that CEO … Like, “Oh, we should and how do you …,” and I actually had to pull him aside in a meeting the other day and be like, “Look, I just love this thing, but this is your baby now and you do what’s right with from a product perspective and I’ll be super excited about it, but ultimately it’s yours to own.” And so, you really do have to let go, especially if you were brought in to take on a much broader role across the organization and not just baby your product for years and years on end at the expense of the overall success of the company.

Selina Tobaccowala: I’d say for me, it was such a long time ago that I was first acquired as [inaudible 00:26:20], but I was kind of in the opposite situation where I had never seen a company at scale. I was a first-time founder and that was my first job right out of college, was doing Evite, and so it was a big transition for me, to suddenly like be in a company and even things like … You know, little things, but it was like expense reports or doing big Power Point decks and stuff like that, that I had never really had experience in.

Selina Tobaccowala: And so it was a pretty big transition, and the biggest thing that was supportive to me, was I was … In the acquiring company, that’s what I was saying, is the person who became my boss was an amazing mentor to me. His name’s Sean Moriarty and he’s now the CEO of Leaf Group, but that was a really important thing for me because I didn’t, unlike Claire, I wasn’t walking in with experience, and so I do think if you’re a founder and it’s your first startup and you really haven’t kind of … I was 24 years old, I think when we got acquired, and so I think who is gonna be that manager and how are they gonna be able to help guide you through, is pretty important, depending upon where you are in your career cycle.

Sarah Allen: Yeah, when my first startup was acquired … CoSA was acquired by Aldus … We were all like in our early 20s and we were … And I think building those alliances, like Enrique Goodrow managed the acquisition from the Aldus side, and he remains a friend to this day and he just helped us navigate this corporate world.

Sarah Allen: And I think the one thing that is kind of a counterpoint to what Claire was saying, is that sometimes you know your domain better than the acquiring company. In that case, they really acquired After Effects so that they … That was gonna be the cornerstone of their digital media group, and then less than a year later, all of this was acquired by Adobe, which had Premier. And so, they stacked up the products that had some redundancy between Adobe and Aldus, because there was like Freehand and Illustrator and these different … But mostly it was complimentary and they looked at After Effects and Premier and they said, “Okay, we’re gonna have to cancel After Effects,” and so the team did … So our product managers, but we all participated in really sketching out that the video space was broader and educating them that there’s post production and special effects and there are these different parts of the market and then there were some other products that we put into this two by two matrix.

Sarah Allen: So to really focus on what is … Your little company is no longer a thing. You are doing what’s best for this big entity. And sometimes, you have to let go and sometimes you have to hold on to what’s right because you understand this … You were acquired because you understand some part of the world better than the acquiring company and you have to explain that.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome. That’s a really great segue into like … Getting into post-acquisition. So after you’ve been acquired, how do you foster inclusion and retain your culture of being a smaller startup inside this larger company, and, or what are some of the things you’re thinking about when you’re trying to merge with a new culture?

Claire Vo: So this is a really tacticall thing, just make sure that you have culture specific emojis set up in Slack, so … We’re from Texas, so the first things that got set up were like our old logo, the Texas flag, the hook ’em horns, because I’m a Longhorn, and a taco emoji. So immediately we infused the communications culture at Optimizely with very important cultural touchstones.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome.

Claire Vo: But I think part of that is like, what can … You know, you don’t have to drink the Kool-Aid. You don’t have to come in and say, “You have to do everything the way you’ve always done.” You’re bringing something, you’re bringing a really special team into a company and in that first year in particular, you’re at a point where people celebrate that and they want to be excited about it and they want to know what your team brings to the office. And so, just kind of introducing the personality of your team, introducing the personalities of the people on your team, and really giving company-wide platforms for displaying that so it can be infused across the entire organization.

Claire Vo: I found it has just fostered a lot of friendships, fostered a lot of excitement around the acquisition, that has made the product and team much more successful. So, it sounds really simple, but I do think … You know, what are those list of like, inside jokes and priorities that you had at your old startup? Bring those in and show them to people, ’cause that’s a fun part of your team, too.

Sarah Allen: Yeah, I think having rituals. My startups were acquired before Slack was a thing … Like, with After Effects, I think because we were just … Maybe we were a little naïve, maybe we were insulated, I don’t remember there being a lot of challenges to how we did things. And we just kept doing the things that we were doing. And we had a very strong beta group, where had very good relationships with the post houses that used our software, and we continued to have that community that spanned our customers and our team throughout basically two big mergers.

Sarah Allen: And I’ve seen that with … I now work at Google and work with a team that was Firebase, and they were acquired and they have like team lunches every Wednesday and Friday, that they had before Google and they have after Google and they have certain things that they do, that they’ve always done, and they adjusted things a little bit, but then they just kept doing the things that make them who they are, that aren’t like … None of these kinds of things are like, “Oh, yeah, my company doesn’t do that.” But, you’ll hear that.

Sarah Allen: Sometimes you’ll be in a big company and they’ll be like, “Oh yeah, but we don’t do that here.” And I think that you want to, in a nice way … Like, not say, “No, we’re going to do something completely different from what you’re asking me to do,” but practice the, “Yes, and,”. “Great idea, I’m going to interpret it this way.”

Sarah Allen: And then I also wanted to acknowledge with Blazing Cloud, I didn’t go with the acquisition. I didn’t even realize that one could do that, but it turned out, one can. And so, that’s just … All the things don’t have to be the way that you might hear about them being done.

Claire Vo: Yeah, and I wanna kind of just rip off one thing that you said, which is, also, as the leader and the founder or the CEO coming in, you have to be a leader for things that are gonna change. Like, you have to be the person that says, “Yeah, I know. We used to do things that way and it was super easy and fast and chill, and now there’s a four-step process and that’s life.” And you know, you have to know your movable objects and I think as kind of the leader, the team, whether they get dispersed to different departments or report to you or not, are gonna look to you to set the tone. And so, you have to be clear about the things that are gonna change and the things that aren’t gonna change. Keep your rituals that are really powerful and important, but also, say when something’s not serving us anymore in this new context, you need to let it go and move on to bigger and better things.

Shanea King-Roberson: Absolutely. Awesome.

Shanea King-Roberson: So we have about 13 minutes left and there’s about four questions, so for managers at acquiring companies, how can they support the [inaudible 00:34:10]

Shanea King-Roberson: Can you hear me?

Selina Tobaccowala: No, you-

Sarah Allen: [crosstalk 00:34:18].

Selina Tobaccowala: I think you were asking a manager how you can support the acquisition?

Shanea King-Roberson: Yeah, for managers at acquiring companies, how can they support the transition or what should they not do?

Selina Tobaccowala: So I think that exactly what Claire was saying, which was making sure that you have that open communication with the leader of the team … Of the person who you’ve acquired and making sure you’re collecting feedback from them often, so that if there are things that are minor that are important to people, you can help make those changes. So, whether that’s the … You know, you hear that story of Jet and Walmart, where Jet had happy hours and Walmart said, “We don’t do alcohol.” And the Jet leader said, “Well, we’re gonna keep doing happy hours and it’s an important part of our culture.”

Selina Tobaccowala: And so it’s like, which of those things that are important enough to the leader that on the organization that when they’re pushing back on you, you can really take that try to make the change, and which of the things you have to say is, “Hey look, we’re not gonna be able to change on this issue and here’s why.” Like, here’s the thing that is important.

Selina Tobaccowala: And the other thing is, is people during an acquisition, it is a big change for them, and so the more you can communicate about, here’s our company, here’s our culture, here’s how we plan to operate things, but we’re open to feedback; we’re open to change.

Selina Tobaccowala: Obviously, I’m a little biased, having spent so many years at SurveyMonkey, but it’s collecting that feedback, whether through surveys or through talking to people, but making sure that you’re keeping that sort of employee engagement understanding of the company that you’ve acquired, I think is extremely important. Because if you don’t get those employees engaged and at least for 12 to 24 months, the integration into your platform’s nearly impossible.

Claire Vo: Yeah. I would say continually evaluate the talent that you’ve brought in from an acquisition on a regular and frequent basis, because even if you go through, let’s say, a formal interview process, you just never … You just don’t know until people land into the acquisition and start performing how they’re gonna do.

Claire Vo: I’ve been really proud that every team member that we brought into the acquisition has been … Done really, really well and has been super successful. No one’s quit. Some people have been promoted. But the acquiring company took the time and effort to continually evaluate performance and say, “Wow, we really underestimated you because we didn’t have tons of visibility into what you were doing, but now that you’re here, you’re a total rockstar,” really helped keep employees engaged, which meant that we go the product integrated very quickly, which means that we got it in the hands of customers and started driving value.

Claire Vo: So, I don’t think there’s … There are very few things that are as expensive from a time and money perspective, as a failed acquisition, so it’s worth the investment to continue to make sure that that’s successful.

Selina Tobaccowala: And I think added to that is that making sure that what the integration plan and strategy is very clear and laid out very quickly. So, you’ve had a lot of time with the company to start having the conversation. In most cases, the team is unaware of the acquisition until it happens, and so … But making sure that you’re not just talking about the deal, but that you’re strategically aligned with, what are you gonna do with that product after, so that within a 60 or 90 day window, you can very quickly come out with, what is the integration plan from a product and technology and sales team perspective. The quicker you can show people what your integration plan and strategy is, the better off it’s gonna be. And that plan could say, “For 12 months, we’re gonna do nothing.” But at least, coming up with a clear communication plan.

Sarah Allen: Yeah, I think … Well at this point, all those points are really great. I think also, from the technical side, especially these days, it’s really important … The techs [inaudible 00:38:05] are never the same and usually the big Co has something that’s like horrible from a startup-founder perspective, and sometimes they love it over there … Or sometimes they acknowledge that it’s horrible and that’s just how … We don’t have time to fix it. We need to integrate your stuff. And sometimes they have some super awesome thing that you would never find if you’re not in “the know.” So I think it’s really important for acquisitions that involve engineers, to find key senior engineers and make … In the acquiring company … And make them responsible for the success of the acquisition and partner them with individual senior talent who is … So they can learn from each other and really position it, if I you can, in a collaborative way.

Sarah Allen: Because that knowledge transfer is so important and these days it is … Just I’ve seen a lot of friends go through this, and companies goes through this, and in all different big corps, and it’s just a little culture shock. “Oh, I used to just deploy five times a day from my machine and now there’s like this process and I have to … Maybe I have to use a different language.” Maybe, they’re using three versions ago thing that they can’t upgrade until 2020 and you’re like, “What?” And that’s very hard on engineers, and so there has to be this social … Like the professional social connections where they can kind of hack the system together.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome.

Shanea King-Roberson: So, do any one of you have any regrets or things you would do differently if you could do you acquisition over again?

Claire Vo: I would have mama-beared slightly less and let my team be interviewed, because some of them were I think undervalued at the point of acquisition, and they were very quickly corrected and we could have skipped that whole cycle if I had just not been like, “My team. Back off.” And so I think that’s one thing I would have managed slightly differently. I still like insulating the team, but I think I could have done it in a more effective way.

Sarah Allen: I think I would have more proactively assessed … Like, had more confidence myself in my understanding of what the other company needed. In some cases I just … Like, I deferred to them. Like, “Oh, you want x, y, z, and don’t want a, b, c. Okay. Let’s work with that.” And took that as a fact, instead of realizing that I actually really understood their business and there were things that happened after the fact that I was like, “Oh, I was right and I should have taken the time to really talk through that with them and present more of my ideas of how this could play out.” I mean it was a good outcome from my perspective, but there was details where I was like, kind of a missed opportunity there.

Selina Tobaccowala: I would say, from my perspective, it wasn’t necessarily the regret of the acquisition, but is what led you to get acquired. So in the sense of, we took for Evite, far too much capital, and so it put us in a position where to get the investor return, meant we had to essentially make a revenue base that was so high that the better path for us was acquisition.

Selina Tobaccowala: So I think there’s this question of like, “Why would you ever get acquired. Why wouldn’t you just build your business to be great?” And those are various different instances. One is because it’s actually the best financial outcome for your investors and yourselves. Another is because you see that when you look at the strategic window, you actually see that this may be a better home, to be part of that larger organization or larger strategic approach, versus just trying to go at it on your own.

Selina Tobaccowala: So I don’t think we have regrets around the acquisition. I think when you looked at, especially for us, Evite is one of the few platforms that’s still around from that era of the dot com bust.

Shanea King-Roberson: You actually answered one of the questions that was already in our queue, which was, why would a startup want to acquired as opposed to [inaudible 00:42:24], so thanks for that. And I think we have time for one more question, so from the employee perspective, if they don’t want to be a part of an acquisition or an acquihire, at what stage would be the founder or CEO would like them to voice their opinion? Would it be better for them to just leave as soon as they realize you’re heading in a direction they don’t want to go? Would you rather they wait until they see a little bit? What’s your perspective on that?

Claire Vo: Well, no one’s ever gonna force you to take a job. No one can put a gun to your head and force you to take a job, so you’re never stuck. So I think my advice is know your priority. I mean, we’ve said this multiple times. Know your priorities as a CEO, know your priorities as a company, know your priorities as an employee. And if you’re going into an early stage startup that has … Particularly one that may have taken capital, being acqui-hired is an option and you need to be straight with your leadership team. “Hey I’m in it. I love early stage, but if we get on the path of an acquihire, I just might not be part of it.”

Claire Vo: I think that’s really fair. I don’t think you’re ever going to be contractually stuck in an employment situation you don’t want to be in. So, I think the risk there is fairly low, to just kind of see what your options are and play it out as you want.

Selina Tobaccowala: And I think there’s also … There’s not much risk either to … Especially if you’re never been in a situation that is scaled, is to see if you like it. There’s often times you go into that situation and you know, when I got acquired, my father said, “Do it for a year and then make a decision if you like being at a scaled company or a startup company. You’ve never seen the other side.” And in the end, I learned a ton from being in that type of environment.

Selina Tobaccowala: Eventually, obviously, I’ve gotten to start something from scratch again and love that more, but I think you don’t know what you’re gonna learn, so it’s hard to take that position really strong upfront. I would just say, try to think about the flexibility around it.

Sarah Allen: I think that’s a really good point. I think as a manager and a CEO, I always appreciated it when my employees were upfront. But I love this perspective of like, go for the ride. I feel like, in my career I’ve had the opportunity to like … Silicon Valley tech tourism. If you haven’t been through an acquisition, you’ve missed out on something really kind of interesting, even if it’s horrible, the stories are incredible that you can’t tell publicly, but like over drinks.

Sarah Allen: It makes you stronger person to understand both sides and to understand how the industry works. And you’re always, even as an individual contributor, you’re exposed to this business side, that normally you don’t get to see as an individual contributor. So yeah, I think that … I would encourage everybody to go along for the ride, and to just take a deep breath and experience it. Give it time. Not infinite time. Like, don’t check out and say this is sucky, but just be in it, but don’t get caught up in it, because it’ll change every three months and you know, I like the idea of riding it out for a year and see what happens. You can always quit.

Claire Vo: And rarely do people get paid less. We’ve never really seen that happen, where people are like, “Oh man, we did this acquihire and I’m making way less.” That’s not usually what happens.

Sarah Allen: Yeah, I’ve never seen that happen, either, so there’s an up side no matter what.

Claire Vo: Yeah.

Shanea King-Roberson: So, in our final minute, what is the one last piece of advice you’d like to give all of your entrepreneurs on the line?

Claire Vo: Think that [crosstalk 00:46:23].

Selina Tobaccowala: Oh, sorry, I was just gonna say-

Claire Vo: No, you go first.

Selina Tobaccowala: Don’t build your business ever for acquisition. Just build a … Try to focus on building a big business that has good financial structure and pillars and then acquisition may be a possibility in front of you, but don’t walk in thinking about that as kind of the goal.

Claire Vo: Okay, I regret letting you go first because you stole mine, which is don’t build your company, looking to be acquired. Don’t go seeking an acquisition. Build something awesome and an exit will come, but that’s not really [inaudible 00:47:02] engineer, you can only engineer a great company, so that’s what I would focus on.

Sarah Allen: Yeah, I think I agree with those things. I ran a consulting company knowing that I wouldn’t do it forever and it was sort of a happy exit of like, “Oh, wow, I can get acquired. Great.” But I think build relationships with people at other companies, so your partners, the people who buy your software … Knowing other CEOs, whether they’re a company you’re doing business with or just a peer company, will teach you so many things you didn’t even need to know; you didn’t know you needed to know. And then having those relationships, if suddenly you’re put in a situation where somebody makes you an offer and you didn’t expect it and you didn’t plan for it, having those relationships built already so you can talk to friends who’ve been in the situation before, is invaluable.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome. Well, I think we’re all done.

Selina Tobaccowala: Thank you so much.

Shanea King-Roberson: Thank you so much. It’s such a pleasure. I’m sure we’ve all learned so much from all of you ladies and invaluable experiences.

Claire Vo: Thanks ladies. Bye.

Sarah Allen: Bye. Thank you.

Shanea King-Roberson: Bye.

“It’s Not Them, It’s You: Self-Awareness & Ego”: Minji Wong with At Her Best (Video + Transcript)

Minji Wong / Founder / At Her Best
Angie Chang / CEO & Founder / Girl Geek X

[Transcript of “It’s Not Them, It’s You: Self-Awareness & Ego”: Minji Wong on Unleashing Your Power to Lead]

Angie Chang: Hi. Welcome back to Girl Geek X Elevate. I have with us Minji Wong. She is the founder of At Her Best, a workplace movement to empower high-performing employees to transition into parenthood and return, thriving, to the workplace. She has 13 years of Fortune 500 experience, including a Fortune #1, among the leading tech companies like Facebook and Ebay, empowering leaders to realize their potential.

She’s worked with people at different pivot points in life, ranging from senior executives to stay at home parents and specializes in millennial leaders and working parents. She’s a board member at Girls On The Run, a national nonprofit organization committed to empowering girls to develop leadership skills through running their first 5K. Today, we’re really privileged and happy to have her join us. Minji?

Minji Wong: Thank you so much for the introduction, Angie, and hello everyone from across the world and here in the States. My name is Minji Wong, and I’m the founder of At Her Best. I’m super excited to be here and develop community and connection with you over the next few moments. But more importantly, what I’d like to focus on are the crucial transitions and pivot points that we all experience in our careers.

And so those transitions could include an increase in roles and responsibilities as our scopes. It could be the transition from an individual contributor to a people manager or even a people manager to an executive. There are those pivots, too. It could be that career change, it could be a re-org, it could be a layoff, it could also include a life change, becoming a mother. So there’s a lot of different things that happen in our entire careers and it’s what we do in these small spaces that make the biggest impact.

So where I’m going to focus today is around drawing self-awareness and reflection into being and becoming your best self One thing that I really wanted to share and just really hit home is when we think about our career path and our career direction, it is never something that’s just super straightforward and super easy. In fact, the reality is we have those transitions and pivots. We have those setbacks. We have the two steps forward, one step back. We might even have obstacles along the way, and it’s important to be equipped with the specific skills and competencies to be able to get through those and drive through those.

What I wanted to do today was introduce a very, very simple and pretty straightforward framework in order for you to achieve and encounter any obstacle in your way with a strategic mindset. So it starts with the importance of thinking about more, better, and different, but most importantly, the core of all of that is having a growth mindset. Many of you might be familiar with Carol Dweck’s work. She’s a researcher at Stanford and she focuses on the importance of growth mindset, which is really continuous learning.

It’s the ability to overcome setbacks. It’s for you to learn from your mistakes, build resilience and grit, versus the other side, which is a fixed mindset which is more of the victim approach in terms of, ah this happened to me. This is just where I am. This is who I am. I can’t change and I won’t change. And I underscore this importance because in order for you to drive and be able to move forward, you have to change your attitude. Your attitudes and beliefs change your behaviors, which changes your actions, and eventually the outcomes in your entire career.

The first area that I wanted to focus on was around thinking about more. So ask yourself right now, what are your specific values in life and, specifically, in your career, and are you living those values as we speak? Don’t worry. Many people don’t necessarily know or have those top five values in mind, but it’s super important for you to really, really be true to yourself and understand what those priorities might be right now.

The second area to focus on is around your strengths, and you might be familiar with Marcus Buckingham’s work around StrengthsFinder and several of the books that he’s published, but the importance of strengths is what helps us excel in our careers. You know, one of his quotes was that focusing on strengths is the surest way for job satisfaction, team performance, and org excellence. What are you doing right now in your day job and in your life to actually focus on those strengths?

Bringing everything together is the importance of having a vision statement. I know initially when I heard a vision statement, I thought okay, it’s something about work, right? But it’s also about us, and it’s being able to collect not only our priorities through our values and our strengths, but being able to have an end goal in mind for us to be able to achieve because we can’t start and commence any journey without really knowing where we want to go.

The second area that I wanted to focus on was around thinking better. I’d like to introduce a very simple framework in terms of thinking about goals and thinking about where you want to be in terms of beginning with the end in mind. And it’s the GROW Model.

In my 13 plus years of experience, having worked at various tech companies, e-commerce companies, retail, and various industries and sectors, I’ve managed several leadership programs and experiences with high performing individuals. And in my conversations with them…now, what do you want to do? What do you want to be? Oftentimes the response I’d get is, “I just want to develop these specific skills” or “I want to be able to explore, kind of learn and develop myself in my career”. I never, not never, but I rarely actually had a response that that would let me know, hey, this is who I want to be and this is where I want to go.

It’s super important to realize that and recognize that because if you don’t have that end goal or that end destination, anything and everything you do may not necessarily contribute to that end goal. Now I realize nothing is ever static. In fact, things are dynamic. Things can change tomorrow or even yesterday. But again, highlighting the importance of having an end in mind, knowing that that can change is very important. That’s the goal.

The second piece of the GROW Model is, what’s your reality? What are your current circumstances right now? Where are you? I think a big piece of knowing where really you may be is around getting feedback from your peers and colleagues. We’re going to dive deeper into the feedback piece, but really asking people whom you trust, not necessarily your friends, to really give you a real assessment around where you might be in terms of your skills and in terms of your capabilities to get you to where you need to go.

The third piece is around options. So it’s super important to be able to throw as many options as blue sky, as out of this world, as realistic, but also as dreamy as possible in terms of really thinking and having as many to be able to choose from. The fourth piece is your way forward. So it’s really putting it all together. It’s that action plan.

It’s okay, now that I know where I am, where I want to go, and my reality, what are the things I have to do and put in place as I experience those obstacles and resilience and as I apply that growth mindset to where I need to be? So for example, if I’m a domain expert and I have incredible technical expertise and knowledge, and I’ve shared an interest into becoming a people manager, what can I do now and what are the specific skills that I need to learn and know that go beyond domain expertise that focus around people and leadership, and how can I discover and explore the specific skills to be able to reach those specific goals?

Another thing that I wanted to mention around that is for you to think about a very simple, SMART acronym, which many of you are familiar with. When you think about those goals, how specific is it? How can I measureit? How can I really attain it within this specific amount of time? Is this even relevant to where I want to go? And for many of you who work at companies that have performance management cycles, they can either occur on one year, six month, or even quarterly, OKRs. So when you think about that, those cycles, keep that in mind in terms of what goals you can actually set and what you can actually attain within these specific cycles.

When we think about this learning journey oftentimes, and in my background, having spent 13 plus years in leadership development and learning and organizational development, I oftentimes hear people say, “Oh, I need to develop the skill. Let me go to this training and then I’ll be cured and I’ll be healed.”

The reality is a lot of our learning, 70 percent of our learning occurs on the job and that’s through those stretch assignments, that’s through the cross functional work, that’s through being thrown a new project that you have very little experience having really managed through and learning literally in the trenches.

Twenty percent of learning actually occurs through conferences like this where we can hear from amazing and incredible women in the field and where we can learn and develop community and connection from each other. It’s also through coaching and mentoring. So my question to you is, do you have a coach and do you have a mentor? And if you don’t, what are you doing to get to where you need to be. Even if there is no mentoring initiative in place or if there isn’t any formalized coaching program at your company, what can you do to get …

There is this incredible poem — specifically a quote that I love from Maya Angelou who talks about, basically you can say you anything, you can do anything, but what people remember is how you make them feel.

How do you make other people feel, and what experience do you leave them with? Some of those behaviors include your energy levels, your interests, your emotional intelligence, the ability to become reflective and self-aware of your own behaviors and how you show up.

I was working with a leader who has an incredible brand presence via social media. She’s strong, she’s to the point, she’s powerful, and she’s just on top of it. And when I actually met her in person, my initial experience of her was very different. She appeared to be more shy, a little more meager, didn’t necessarily focus on eye contact. When I gave her a handshake, it was more of a limp handshake. These signals and these behaviors weren’t consistent to the persona that I had seen behind the screen in terms of social media.

So my question to you is, while we have the intent to be a certain way,what kind of impact do we actually leave with other people?

The second P is actually a product — so it’s what brought you here. It’s your technical expertise, it’s your acumen, it’s what makes you awesome and badass. And at the same time, those behaviors include those leadership skills and innovative thinking.

For those of you who are people managers or who are interested in becoming people managers, typically early in your career, the focus and the emphasis is around your expertise, your ability to execute and focus on the product itself.

As you become a people manager, and a manager of managers, and eventually leading the organization, there is a seismic shift in how you see yourself, not just from your product knowledge but to the persona, specifically the experience you create for other people and how you make other people feel in terms of wanting to work for you and wanting to work and really believe in this vision statement.

New managers who have recently been promoted from an individual contributor can still fall into that specific trap of having that domain expertise, and wanting to do it all, and wanting to help their team, and focus so much on the work, and we all know that sometimes those are micromanaging behaviors that may not necessarily give the specific coaching and support that a team member might need.

The third P is around permission, and it’s really owning your seat. It’s not just bringing your seat to the table but having a point of view. So it’s really taking action and not necessarily asking for permission. It also involves specific risk taking as well. So I love Yoda’s quote, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

The fourth is around packaging, so it’s your visual manifestation or it’s just literally what someone who is sitting here could actually watch and see of you. So it’s not just your physical appearance, it’s your behavior, it’s your environment. So how does your desk area look like? Is it completely messy? And if so, that’s fine because Albert Einstein wrote, “A messy desk is a sign of genius,” and at the same time it could also show you might not necessarily be on top of things.

Are you always late to meetings? Are you always five, 10 minutes late to meetings? What kind of impression do you necessarily share and show to other people? Especially for those of you who are interested in becoming a senior leader, it’s super important to dress the part as well. So again, each company and each environment has their own norms. Look at what other people are doing, especially people whom you admire and people whom you want to become.

When we think about communication, 93 percent of it is nonverbal. So it’s not even the words that I say because most people think that that’s communication. It’s my body language. So 55 percent of it is, how am I standing? Am I just totally just tired, low energy? Do I have my arms crossed, looking and appearing to be more closed off? Or am I open? Then 38 percent is the actual vocal tones. Am I super excited to be here or am I super excited to be here? And then the actual seven percent is the actual words itself. So my question to you is, again, how are you showing up in ways that you may not necessarily intend with impact that you actually have?

The fifth P is around promotion and so the promotion is really being able to seek out specific people and really share what you’re doing and highlight what you’re doing. It’s becoming strategic about what you’re doing and your specific message.

I know that these five P’s are things that we have various muscles in. So my call to action for you is to… [no audio 16:21–16:42] Who you are, what are the consequences of people not necessarily knowing and being able to see or hear if you’re intense? If people can’t see it or hear it, it may not… or to the consequences that you are actually not looking forward to.

In summary, everything begins with a growth mindset. Really learning from those mistakes, learning from and becoming more resilient, always finding new ways and new approaches to learn.

Being open is the groundwork and the foundation for you to become a strategic person in terms of learning. What can you do more of? So again, focus on those values. If you already are halfway there, of five values, think about those five values that matter to you right now. Again, they’re dynamic. They can change, but it’s important for you to have that North Star.

And again, what is your strength? What are the things that you do in your day-to-day job that brings you joy and brings you flow? It might appear to be like the hardest thing ever, but for you, you just nail it. Again, we want you to focus more on your values and strengths. Create a vision statement out of it so that you have that end goal on where you want to be.

The second area is to think better. So again, through very simple goal setting, I introduced the GROW Model. There’s other goal setting models out there in terms of having a strategic mindset be able to think differently using those tools.

Angie Chang: Thank you, Minji. We have a lot of questions for you, actually.

Minji Wong: Okay. I’ll try my best.

Angie Chang: So we have a question here. What we’d love to hear more and learn about the StrengthsFinder, and is it free to test out for individuals?

Minji Wong: Yeah, there’s actually a lot out there in terms of for StrengthsFinders. There’s actually, if you buy the book, you can actually get the assessment from the book, but even if you do a quick Google search to even just type in “strengthsfinder assessment,” you can actually find something that’s pretty straightforward and helps you focus on strengths.

During my time at Facebook, there was an initial emphasis around StrengthsFinder and I think it moved out or moved forward towards standout. So that could be another area and aspect that we focus on as well. And I think even if it’s just having a simple conversation with yourself, with your peers, colleagues, or even with your team, it could be a really great opportunity for you to just target, you know, in my day-to-day, what brings me flow? What do I find joy in?

Strength is what you do well in. There’s an activity, again, it’s pretty simple and it’s something that you might be able to deploy right now, actually. It’s called love it, loathe it. And what I’ve done over one week is you keep this either at your bedside table, which is what I’ve done, or even at your desk, or if you have some collaboration doc, just add it, kind of break it down to a T chart. So you focus on the activities and things that you really enjoyed and loved and actually found flow in, and things that just like you really detested and just things that you’d rather not do. Write those behaviors down. You’d be surprised at how many behaviors probably fall in the loathe and how there are certain things that might become reoccurring themes and they loved it.

So if you’re an extrovert and you love being in front of people, and you love and find so much energy just around being able to influence other people, standing up in front of other people and just really being with people, well that might show a lot about you in terms of perhaps the field or a specific area of work that you do. On the other hand, if you don’t necessarily like being that analytical or that technical, or if you don’t like details, again, there are certain parts of your day that you might be able to hack in ways that that might benefit you.

Angie Chang: We have another question that asks for you to talk a little bit more about the strategies on how to take maternity leave and still advocate for a promotion.

Minji Wong: Wow. Where do we begin? I think this will take another half day. Well, do you have another half day? Do you have like another half year?

Angie Chang: Elisa is coming back from leave, right? As a promotion cycle, discussions are starting, so she wants to make sure she’s included.

Minji Wong: Yeah, so thank you for addressing that question and this is a big emphasis on what I’m doing in my current role with At Her Best. I think it actually starts with phase zero, so taking a step back. Phase zero is before you leave. Once you become pregnant, before you even announce things, what is your game plan? What can you do to set yourself up such that when you have that conversation with your manager and your team, it’s not going to be end all be all.

Specifically, when thinking about the work that you’re doing during phase zero, before you even have any conversation with people, what can you do? Take an overall inventory of the stuff that you’re doing. What can you do that you can probably wrap up over the course of the next few months? If this is something that is ongoing, which oftentimes is the case for many projects, who are the people that you work with right now that might be able to take on more responsibility or be able to help you during that time and during that leave?

It’s also inquiry in terms of, what is the culture and what are the current HR policies around maternity leave? There are big companies, so my husband works or he recently left Google, and he actually … At Google and that many big companies, there’s generous maternity and paternity leaves, but the reality is that may not necessarily be the case for smaller companies or even startups as well.

So the point that I’m trying to make is get a good idea of what the actual leave of absence might look like. What are the benefits and policies that are there? There are some companies that are really starting to listen to the importance of advocacy and the importance of returning back so that you can hit the ground running. They might actually offer you some transitional forms of working part time, or even being able to be paired with a coach, or being able to get additional supports and resources.

So that said, do all the housework phase zero. I think phase one is then when you do share the news, the exciting news, with your team, really expressing your commitment on what you’re doing and how that isn’t going to change in terms of how you actually get work done. I think the reality is when you do return, it’s super important for you to line up and think about all the important things that come with having, now, a party of three.

Before, it used to be you and your partner or even just as a single parent, you, but now there is another person. There’s the plus one. And the reality is that person’s going to need childcare. So unless you have a full time nanny or daycare or preschool, there’s going to be some implications around pickup and drop off.

Going back to the five P’s, it’s important for you to actually share your intent with other people because it’s a change curve and it takes time. So when you have a conversation with someone, it’s not going to happen overnight, which takes months, maybe even years, hopefully not. So knowing that, what can you do to get ahead of it?

Angie Chang: Great. I think we have time for maybe one more question.

Minji Wong: Okay.

Angie Chang: Can you offer some strategies for setting meaningful stretch goals? From Sarah Sherman. Sorry about that, folks. Technical difficulties. We have one more minute until the next speaker is due. So I will just … Yes, we have the recordings. We will have them for you after this day. They’ll be available at elevate.girlgeek.io, so you can go check them out. We will ask Minji these questions in a blog post and make sure they’re answered for you. Feel free to tweet questions to #ggxelevate and we will have Minji answer them as well. Thank you.

“3 Key Skills for Staying Relevant in the Tech Economy”: Sophia Perl with Oath (Video + Transcript)


Angie Chang: Hi everyone, welcome back. It’s Angie Chang here. We have, today, Sophia Perl, Director of Product Management at Oath. She will be talking to us about how to stay relevant in the tech economy.

Sophia Perl: Ah, thank you Angie. Hi everyone. I’m Sophia. I’m here to share with you top tips for staying relevant in the tech economy. Some of the topics that I’m going to cover are, the first one is where can you find inspiration for figuring out what you should learn more about? The next, I’ll share with you some of my tips of how I set up my home environment to really encourage, and commit myself to learning. Then lastly, I’ll share with you some stories where I’ve applied newly skilled, newly learned skills to side projects, and even at work. I just want to warn everyone too, my slides are full screen so I can’t see all the comments that are happening. But, Angie is here to help me, so she’ll let me know if there’s anything that you guys are talking about that I should know about.

All right, so a little bit about myself. I work at Oath. I previously have worked at Ebay and IBM, in a variety of engineering and product positions. I’ve worked in ads, marketplaces, identity, and databases. On my personal side of life, I am one half of a full-time working couple. I do have kids, and I am known for breaking or bruising parts of my body from snowboarding. No, they’re not from doing the half pipe. It’s really just trying to get to the bottom of the hill. All right, let’s get started.

How many of you have seen this Atari Breakout game? One of the things that I love about this game, is how similar it is to our industry, and to our roles and responsibilities. Imagine that you’re this paddle at the bottom of the screen going back and forth. The ball is a skillset, and the blocks are tests that you have at work. As you’re going about in your day, you’re knocking out these tasks with all these skillsets that you have in your toolbox.

Every once in a while, your skillset, you don’t have that skillset. And so, you find it more challenging to tackle these tasks. This is how I think about the tech industry especially. There’s so many things that are changing, and it’s hard for us to keep up. I know for me personally, I’m always trying to learn things. And, always not having the time to do and learn everything, it’s been quite a challenge.

That brings us to, we’re super busy people. This is pretty obvious. There was actually a study done by the US Bureau of Labor, who looked at how much time does a working professional spend on any given day? What you’ll see here is, for educational activities, we spend less than seven minutes a day. Then, if you take a look at leisure and sports which is just a couple rows down, we’re spending up to four hours on leisure and activities. I mean, I get it. We all need to relax, and work out. But, I think there is some focus that maybe we need to shift some of our time for educational activities.

Another related study, this is by the Pew Research Center: 63% of us consider ourselves life learners. I would like everyone, just mentally ask yourself, “What bucket of learners are you? Are you a life learner, or are you a non life learner?” As we look at articles, and additional studies, we know that we need skills for the future. One of those skills is life learning — being able to consume information continually, and sort of adapt with our changing environment. We also know that people who are life learners, do benefit in the workplace. They’re able to expand their professional network, advance within their current, in their organization.

Up until this point, we’ve established that our industry is continually changing, our roles and responsibilities are continually changing. We don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to learning, but we know that for the future, we need to be a life learner, and we know that life learners do benefit in the workplace. So now, what I want to do is share with you some of my tips on how to get us into life learning mode.

The first topic is, where do you look for to pick a focus for what you want to learn more about?

Now, this slide I would say is more of a baseline. I hope it’s nothing new for many of you, but it’s really understanding what’s going on in your industry, your company, the competitors, and even your role and responsibilities yourself. You could get a lot of this information from news blogs, and newsletters. But, most importantly, if you’re thinking about perfecting your craft, someone actually gave me this idea where they said, “Hey Sophia, if you really want to understand what it takes to be a great PM at different companies, or even at your own company. Start being an interviewer.” So, start thinking about sort of a forcing function. Think about what I would look for in a person in terms of their skillset, and how would I assess that this person possesses these skills? And, is it a good fit for the team that we’re hiring for, for Oath? Also, is it a good fit for the company?

If some of you are not doing interviews on behalf of your company, I highly recommend that you do that. Because, it does sort of forces you to think more about assessing yourself, and also assessing what is a great fit for the team, and the company that’s hiring. My personal favorite on where I could find inspiration on what I should be learning about, is really tapping into my professional, and my friends network. What I mean by this is, earlier we established that everyone is super busy. Why not have people do the heavy lifting for you?

Every once in a while I’ll reach out to my friends, or my professional network and I’ll ask them, “Hey, what are you currently learning? What do you think I should be learning?” It’s super relevant when you are reaching out to folks who work in the same industry that you’re in, or even the vertical. And, who are doing similar roles and responsibilities as you. I highly recommend reach out to your personal network, have them do the heavy lifting, and see what curated lists they already have. And, use that as another set of ideas.

Lastly, as all of us, I’m assuming all of us here are leaders, are really aspiring to be leaders. One of the things that I highly recommend, and has worked very well for me, is consider taking a self-assessment. What this helps you do is really understand that under the hood, why do you operate the way you do at work? Understanding your communication style, how you collaborate with others. About, I would say two, three weeks ago. I actually took the Insights Discovery Test. The way this test works is, it sort of identifies which colors you’re most comfortable operating in. You have cool, blue, red, yellow, and green. Usually people fall into two to three colors in terms of your colors that you’re most familiar with, the ones that you sort of leverage naturally.

What I liked about this is, it sort of informed me what colors that I fall into. But, it also talked about how I should be perceiving others, and what colors they may be, and how I would interact with them coming from a different color perspective. Again, we sort of went through looking at your industry and company, we looked at maybe even perfecting your craft specifically for your role and responsibilities. Then lastly, looking at so sort of soft skills. How do you like to operate? This is really relevant for people who want to move up in the leadership track.

All right, so the next set of tips that I have, is how do you set up your day to day life to help you commit to learn? Once you figure out what you want to learn about. Again, that’s a very personal choice, depends on what skillsets you have. When you figure that out, then it’s looking at, “Okay, how do I make the time in my day so that I’m continually learning?”

This diagram I ran into recently and I really like it — by the author Edgar Dale. What it talks about is, that there’s many different methods for learning. What he advocated is that, you want to leverage multiple methods so that you can show, learn the breadth and the depth of a particular topic.

If there’s one thing that you take away from my talk, this is the one thing I would want you to take away. I think we all have learning methods that really resonates well with us. Meaning, when we learn through a certain method, the content sticks a lot. If it’s something similar to what I go through, that’s usually reading a book, or taking a class. But, I would love everyone to open up your minds, and think about, look.

You could either wait for that perfect moment where you dedicate a lot of time, and maybe energy to do your preferred learning method. Or, you could actually maybe … I would say get your second or third best learning method.

I’ll show you that in the next slide. But, think about finding opportunities where the learning method meshes more well with your day to day life, instead of finding that perfect moment where you have to dedicate a lot of time to learn about something. That’s just something to keep in mind.

I’ll give you an example in the next slide. All of these apps I’ve used one point in my life. The one that actually sticks out the most is OverDrive, which is a free version of Audible. Audible is the monthly subscription that you get on Amazon. You pay $15 a month for access to a bunch of audio books. OverDrive is actually connected to your local library. If you don’t have a library card already, I encourage all of you to go get a local library card. Then, hook it up to OverDrive. What OverDrive allows you to do, is to download eBooks, or download audio books for free.

I did a side-by-side comparison between what I could find in my library, and what I could find at Audible. I found about 70% to 80% of the books that I was personally interested in, I could find for free on OverDrive.

Consider leveraging apps to help make it easier to consume information.

All right, so on this slide, in conjunction with leveraging apps you want to think about what devices you want to be using, and for when you would use those devices. This is a … Angie, this is one of the times I’m going to ask people questions here. She’ll sort of summarize.

For me, on the left hand side, this is my setup. In the morning, I would love people to guess, where do you think this is, like what room in my house? Bonus points if you could tell me specifically in what area in the room do you think this setup is? In the morning, I have an Echo Dot, I have two waterproof speakers, and I have an iPhone holder.

Angie Chang: In the shower? Someone said the kitchen.

Sophia Perl: Yes. Kitchen is actually a good one. I do have an Echo in the kitchen, but yes. This is in the shower. I don’t do this all the time, but I have been known to watch YouTube videos of people lecturing, or different workshops. I have it pressed up to my screen, or to the glass of my shower door. Then, I listen to the talks while I’m in the shower.

If you think about it, what times do you have where you could actually listen to content? For me in the shower, I’m spending 15, 20 minutes in the shower. Then, you could read the rest driving, and in the evenings.

In the evenings, it’s great for me because I’m actually not multitasking as much. But, after I’ve put my kids to bed, and later in the evenings, that’s when I find time to meet with people who are more flexible in terms of meeting late evenings. I have my laptop and phone so I usually do Hangouts, and so forth.

If you are considering leveraging devices, which I highly encourage, think about leveraging IOT devices, because you’re sort of killing two birds with one stone. You’re using it to consume information, but then you’re also leveraging it to be an early adopter of an IOT technology, like tech gadgets.

All right, so the last section is, just do it. I want to give you some examples of how I’ve taken what I’ve learned recently, and apply it to side projects, and at work. Here is my first example. When I first coded my first IOS app, I was PM at the time. I had attended two Hackathons. Made some friends along the way who ended up being my mentors , and I also got a bunch of books, and a Macbook to code apps.

My first app that I coded is, I called it, “Eventabulous.” I still have the domain name, so that’s super. Eventabulous.com. It doesn’t do anything but show this app. What it does is, I was really into events, and I loved networking. I thought, “Why not put that passion and apply it to something that I’m also trying to learn about?” — which is developing apps. What it does is, based on your current location it will tell you events that are located near you, within 20 to 30 miles. It will show you nearby Tweets. I was thinking, “Hey look, if I can monitor the tweets near the location, maybe it tells me if it’s a good or bad event.” Then lastly, you get directions to event. I was leveraging, at the time it was Yahoo Upcoming Events API. I was leveraging the Twitter API, and I was leveraging the Google Maps API.

The second app that I ended up coding, was actually had got better adoption. It was surprisingly, it’s called Pic Predict. It was a picture fortune telling app. Every week I actually consistently got 20 to 40 downloads. I completed the app during my maternity leave, so I was towards the end, when I was getting a little bit more sleep. Fun fact, this app used to be called, “Magic Create Ball.” I was trying to spin on sort of a flexible Magic 8 Ball. If any of you know the Mattel Magic 8 Ball where you shake, and it sort of says your fortune. I did have that name, and then iTunes rejected it because of trademark, so I had to change it to Pic Predict.

Yeah, I made two apps. Really it was for fun, but I really, I would say the lessons learned from going through this process is, I wanted to build something from idea, to market. I did everything on my own. I came up with the graphics, and I coded everything. It was a great experience. I would say it was my first foray in mobile apps in general.

I want to share another example, and this one is more relevant to work. It’s a small example, and it’s more just to show you that it doesn’t have to be a big project, or big thing that you have to apply this new skill too. You just need to find small ways where you’re incorporating things that you’re learning outside of work. This one in particular, I really wanted to hone in on my brainstorming skills. I was asking around on a Women In Product Slack group like, “What are some of the ideas, or what should I be referencing?”

Someone recommended this Sprint Book, which is the Google Design Sprint. Basically, it talks about a five day process where you go from idea to proto-test, and prototype, and putting it in front of a customer at the end of the week. I read more about it, and I actually had friends who had taught workshops on this. It was great that I had friends that were teaching people, and had also applied it at work. I ended up using it to generate ideas for a product roadmap. The results of that, I actually, a lot of the ideas that came out of it, ended up on my roadmap. I also had people who had never done it before, who told me they really enjoyed the process. I ended up being a doer and a teacher for this project, so that was pretty cool.

All right, so before … Actually, one more thing I want to put before I go to this slide is, as you think about the trends, and the technologies that you’re learning outside of work.

One of the things that I also try to do, is think about how does that technology apply to work? And, maybe it doesn’t apply initially to work, maybe it’s more thinking big box, unlike how would you use the technology?

To give you an example, I work in ads. How would self-driving cars be applied to ads? Is it ads showing up on the speaker, ads on the outside of the car? I mean, it really gets your juices going, and it gives you really a broader perspective on what you could bring to the table when you’re talking with your colleagues, when you’re brainstorming ideas.

I would also recommend thinking about pulling apart the technology. I’ll just stick with self-driving cars. It has sensors, different cameras. How can the image recognition be applied to something that you’re doing at work? It may not necessarily be self-driving cars in its entirety, but maybe it’s parts of it that could be applied. That’s another tip to keep in mind.

All right, so let’s go to this slide. You could benefit from showing off your newly learned skills. As I sort of explained a little bit earlier, you solidify your learning by doing, and also by teaching. Eventually, that makes you a subject matter expert in the area. Think about that, about how you could bring your outside skills, and use that at work. Then, become more relevant as your team is looking to build skills in certain areas. Maybe you actually lead that initiative at work.

Then lastly, I know from personal experience that I have gotten notice by hiring managers. As I talked about those two apps that I had worked on, that was during the time that I was at IBM working on very large scale enterprise software. The apps showed another side of me that other companies weren’t considering. Which is, “Hey look, she could build consumer apps, she understands the consumer side of the house.” That’s something to keep in mind as well.

All right, wrap up. We went over how to pick a focus, how you could commit to learn, and how you could just do it. Applying what you just learned to the workplace, and maybe even side projects. That’s it.

Angie Chang: Okay Sophia, I think we are out of time. That was a fantastic presentation, got a lot of great feedback in the chat here. If you would like to answer questions you can answer them on Twitter, and hashtag them GGXElevate, and people will retweet them, and people can get your answers. We have to move on now to our next speaker, so thank you so much for coming and joining us for this fantastic presentation.

Sophia Perl: Yeah, thank you. Thank you for having me.

Angie Chang: All right.

Sophia Perl: Super.

You can find Sophia Perl’s Girl Geek X Elevate presentation slides here

Engineering Leadership Perspectives: Kimber Lockhart-One Medical CTO, Jen-Mei Wu-Architect, Arquay Harris-Slack Director of Engineering, Rachael Stedman-Engineering Manager (Video + Transcript)

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

Angie Chang, Sukrutha Bhaduoria, Arquay Harris, Jen-Mei Wu, Kimber Lockhart, Rachael Stedman

Girl Geek X founders Angie Chang and Sukrutha Bhadouria with the engineering leadership panel – featuring Slack Director of Engineering Arquay Harris, Indiegogo Software Architect Jen-Mei Wu, One Medical Kimber Lockhart Kimber Lockhart and Lever Engineering Manager Rachael Stedman at a Girl Geek Dinner!

Arquay Harris / Director of Engineering / Slack
Jen-Mei Wu / Software Architect / Indiegogo
Kimber Lockhart / CTO / One Medical
Rachael Stedman / Engineering Manager / Lever
Angie Chang / CEO & Co-founder / Girl Geek X
Sukrutha Bhadouria / CTO & Co-founder / Girl Geek X

Transcript of Engineering Leadership Girl Geek Dinner – Panel:

Angie Chang (Girl Geek X): Hi! My name is Angie Chang, and I am the founder of Bay Area Girl Geek Dinners. Thank you for coming out! It’s our 147th Girl Geek Dinner tonight. I wanted to bring together strong engineering leaders to talk about their careers and journeys.

Sukrutha Bhadouria (Girl Geek X): Hi! I’m Sukrutha. By day I work at Salesforce as an engineering manager, and by night I show up with Angie at Bay Area Girl Geek Dinners. We get a lot of requests when people are on the wait list to see tweets so they can follow the conversation.

Angie Chang (Girl Geek X): I brought this panel together because we see [job] titles all the time like architect, and CTO, and director of engineering, and we don’t know what they mean from company to company, so I wanted to ask Jen-Mei about what an architect at Indiegogo does day-to-day, and broadly, how you got there…

Software Architect Jen-Mei Wu speaking at a Girl Geek Dinner.

Jen-Mei Wu (Indiegogo): My name is Jen-Mei. I’m an architect at Indiegogo. What I do… I’m on the engineering leadership team along with the directors of engineering, and the vice president of engineering, and I don’t manage people but I manage technical direction and technologies that we use.

Jen-Mei Wu (Indiegogo): We have two architects at Indiegogo and I focus both on fronted architect and platform based things like CDMs and the cloud. I’m kind of like a sandwich, and I’m the bread, and the other architect is the filling (he does the backend, which is in Ruby). In the past, I have spent most of my career in management. I was the director of IT and director of engineering for many years, and I started a consulting company which I ran for many years. When I shut down my company and wanted to be a regular worker bee (and not worry about making sales and making sure people get paid), I ended up joining another consultancy that a friend of mine (Sarah Allen) started, and I was director of engineering… and we were acqui-hired by Indiegogo, where I was an engineer, and became a product manager, and now architect. I got here in a non-traditional path.. my major was english and history in college.

Sukrutha Bhadouria (Girl Geek X): We were catching up with each of the panelists backstage. The first time I met Kimber, she was the VP of Engineering, and now she is the CTO [at One Medical]. I’m curious — what is your day like as CTO, and what skill set you acquired along the way that you put to good use now as the CTO?

Kimber Lockhart speaking

CTO Kimber Lockhart talks about her role at One Medical at a Girl Geek Dinner.

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): CTO is probably the most varied title in all technical roles, and the reason for that is that it can mean different things. At a startup, the CTO can be the first technical person on board, or it can be the technical founder. The CTO can be the most senior person on the engineering team that manages people. Sometimes the CTO doesn’t manage anyone and is the chief technical architect and decision-maker.

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): I am none of those kinds of CTOs. In the healthcare space especially, often the CTO is the person in charge of technology — which I guess kind of makes sense? So I am in charge of our product management, design, and engineering teams — as well as some of our technical support, IT and security. And before that, I was actually VP of Engineering at One Medical and had the experience of stepping into the CTO role and taking on a bunch of functions that I had never managed before, figuring out how to do that, and then bringing on a very good VP of Engineering to fill the role that I formerly had.

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): What skills did I develop along the way… I started my career as an entrepreneur, which was an amazing way to learn leadership the hard way, went thru all of the ups-and-downs of running a small company and ultimately ended up selling that company to Box. I joined Box as the 43rd person (12th engineer) and that company I think was about fifteen-hundred or so by the time I left… absolutely explosive growth, and with that growth came the growth of my management career. I had the opportunity to learn to be a manager, with some really great guidance, and ended my career there as a director before I went to One Medical.

Angie Chang (Girl Geek X): Arquay, can you tell us about what it’s like to be a director of engineering at Slack and how you got to that role?

Arquay Harris speaking

Director of Engineering Arquay Harris speaking at a Girl Geek Dinner.

Arquay Harris (Slack): I am a director of engineering at Slack, I’ve been there about a year and a half. What do we do… Slack is a very early stage startup but we’ve had a lot of hyper growth. When I joined the company, I was a senior engineering manager and I had two reports. I had a very small team, and that was totally fine with me — I wanted to work at the company and believed in what they were doing — and very quickly, I got more and more responsibility and after six or eight months, I got promoted to director of engineering.

Arquay Harris (Slack): A lot of what I do day-to-day is essentially building engineering processes, because I come from a much larger company before Slack (about sixty thousand people who worked there, and so there’s a process for everything) and coming into a new engineering organization, a lot of what you do is paving the roads, making it so that you can make and build teams to be efficient and do their best work possible.

Arquay Harris (Slack): How I came to Slack… I also have a pretty non-traditional background, I actually started college as a mathematics major, I was going to be a math teacher, yay math, but I was introduced to visual arts by an after school job and so I learned to do Photoshop and Illustrator and liked that work, so I ended up transferring schools and changing majors to do media arts and design — that’s everything from making movies and doing sound and my concentration which is digital illustration.

Arquay Harris (Slack): So I got into coding because I didn’t like the process of designing something and handing it off to someone else to code, and I had this very analytical math background, so I just taught myself. And then I ended up continuing that learning when I went to grad school, and there, I did even more coding, fine art painting, 3D.

Arquay Harris (Slack): I am a developer and I also have an MFA. And I think I have to continually have that conversation about “I have an MFA but I also code!” I like this idea of form following function, and I think that’s kind of how I came into tech. After grad school, I worked at CNET, a very old media company, and a company called Google, and then Slack.

Sukrutha Bhadouria (Girl Geek X): Rachael, you are next. We definitely want to hear about your journey. You are now an engineering manager, how did you get to this point, and what your day is like.

Rachel Staedman speaking

Engineering Manager Rachael Stedman speaking at a Girl Geek Dinner.

Rachael Stedman (Lever): I’ve been at Lever for almost three and a half years now. I actually joined as an engineer. About two years in is when Nate asked me for the first time whether I wanted to be an engineering manager, and my first response was, ‘nope’! Basically what had happened is, being an early engineer at an early-stage startup (I joined when it was about ten people), you start taking on more and more responsibility as the company was growing. I moved from building features to building features that involved refactoring the entire data schema and running migrations and doing it all without the users noticing — so kind of moving down the stack… and so I was working very closely with the infrastructure team and we were looking to hire an infrastructure manager.

Rachael Stedman (Lever): Hiring managers is a difficult thing to do well, especially at a startup because they have a huge influence on the culture, so you need someone who is very aligned with the companies values and who is also interested in doing the engineering management, and we had been searching for a very long time. In the absence of having a manager, I started taking on those responsibilities — so they asked me if I wanted to do it full-time, for real.

Rachael Stedman (Lever): The first time I said no because I was afraid of missing programming — I enjoyed being an engineering — and I enjoyed the management (that’s why I started doing those related responsibilities) and I was really afraid to let go [of programming]. So I went back to being an individual contributor for a while and then he asked me again three months later and e’d came up with two different paths — he said here, if you want to focus on the technical stuff, here is a really cool technical project that you can focus on but you would have to let go of these things that you have taken on, or you can go down the manager path which I really want you to do.

Rachael Stedman (Lever): I really appreciated him laying out those two options for me, because that made it seem like I was choosing, and not pushed, into management. I considered and asked, ‘if I don’t like management, can I go back?’ He said ‘of course’, so I ended up choosing that, and I’ve been a manager now for over a year. I manage our backend and infrastructure teams.

Rachael Stedman (Lever): What that looks like day-to-day… I’m currently reading Radical Candor, and the way Kim Scott defines what a manager is supposed to do is guide teams to achieve results. So the guidance part is a lot of listening and having conversations with people, and listening to what is being said and not being said, and providing input and asking questions to get people to arrive at their own conclusions. The ‘achieve results’ part relies a lot on communication and finding alignment between company goals and how your team contributes and making sure everyone on your team understands how they contribute, and how their personal goals also align with how they are contributing to the company.

Angie Chang (Girl Geek X): That’s a great segue into our next question… What are some books, resources, or thought leaders, or people to follow on Twitter, that have helped you in your career?

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): If you get me started on leadership books, we’re going to be going all night. My favorite pick is the book Multipliers — it’s about how do you as a leader make your team better than the sum of its parts, and bigger than the sum of its parts, and more effective, a place that people want to be and achieving their goals. For me, I read it early in my management career and I read it again a few months ago, and I learn something new from it every time. Multipliers.

Sukrutha Bhadouria (Girl Geek X): I heard all of you talk about your path and with that I assume that your goals kept changing every time you got to the next step. How do you continually keep a watch out for the gaps that you have to get to that next new goal, and once you get there, whether it changed or stayed constant, how do you keep an eye out for the next gap? And how do you do this? How have you been doing this, and recommend others to do this?

Arquay Harris (Slack): I try to think about it in terms of, what is the highest aspiration I have for myself? A lot of people think about five year plans, and if I look back at my life five years ago, I probably would not think that I would be in the position that I am in — but what I mean by highest aspiration is — is it to be CEO of a company? Is it to be CTO of a company? Is it to just continue to be Director of Engineering? Knowing that helps me figure out how to chart my career — it’s like the north star.

Arquay Harris (Slack): So for example, if I said ‘I want to one day be CEO of a Fortune 500 company’, I would probably make different career decisions. I might try to get bigger and bigger teams, I might move jobs more often, I might have different goals. Up until very recently, my aspiration for myself, I like Director of Engineering. I like the ability to mentor people on a one-to-one kind of level; I like the human interaction. If I am CTO of a company that has ten thousand engineers, it’s probably difficult to do that in the way that I want to do that. I think if you had asked me that today, maybe that answer is different.

Arquay Harris (Slack): Understanding that as my experiences change, that that aspiration maybe changes, and maybe I should think differently, maybe I should network, maybe I should do Girl Geek Dinners to get more exposure, and understanding that north star is pretty important.

Rachael Stedman (Lever): So there are a lot of times where I realize later I had no idea what I was looking for, or what my goals should be.

Rachael Stedman (Lever): Before I joined Lever, I spent four months job-searching, and that’s a long time to think about what you want in your next job, and I put together this huge packet and I was reading a lot of books and I was thinking about what I wanted in my next company. I had come up with this check-list of all these things that I was looking for, so I was really interested in learning and growing — and I assumed that meant I needed to join a team with all these senior engineers with ten years of experience on me, and that’s the way that I am going to learn.

Rachael Stedman (Lever): At the time I was really into data visualization, and wanted to do something in the personal fitness or personal health space, and all these things were — these were my goals and what I was looking for — and when Nate contacted me about Lever, and I was in Boston looking for a job, and he said they were in San Francisco and hiring in software — it did not remotely sound like what I was looking for. But he convinced me to talk to Sarah, and Sarah convinced me to come out to San Francisco to visit Lever for a week, to spend in the office getting to know the company and what they were working on and meeting the people on the team, and I did, and I’m really glad I did.

Rachael Stedman (Lever): Even though Lever checked none of the boxes of my four month huge, documented check-list, I really came away from that experience feeling like it was a company with a product and a team I could really get behind, and I joined and have been there ever since. But I don’t think the exercise of thinking thru what I wanted was invaluable — there was a lot I learned about myself in the process.

Rachael Stedman (Lever): What I took away from the process is, you often don’t know what all the opportunities and options are going to be, so you can think about what you are looking for, and go thru that exercise — but also don’t limit yourself when you find something that maybe doesn’t match what you expected.

Jen-Mei Wu (Indiegogo): That’s a really good point. Sometimes you don’t know what all the options are. One of the things that really helped me in my career. It was kind of a different time — I knew more women engineers leaving the industry than coming in so it was really hard to find other people, so support groups and Systers and other organizations were really helpful.

Jen-Mei Wu (Indiegogo): Talking to people is a good idea for support — I think it’s a little better now to be a woman in engineering — talking to your peers, and also, if there is someone who you admire, someone whose job you think you might want, people are often very willing to have an informal interview with you. If you reach out and you say, hey I really want to find out more about being an architect, or a product manager, or a director of engineering — can I just buy you lunch, or can we get coffee or just chat after work — a lot of people are really open to that, and I think that would be really great for people to take advance of that. I think at an event like this, you are going to see all kinds of people, you can see us, and say hey — can we connect on LinkedIn and maybe have a follow up meeting, these are totally things that are open to you at events like this — it is so very helpful.

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): I occasionally give a workshop on career paths, and thinking about career paths, and one of my very favorite exercises from the workshop is that we draw three very different pictures of things that could happen — it might be like, dream career moments.

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): So I draw for example, well maybe I’ll quit my job and join a venture capital firm and go interview a bunch of heads of engineering and write a book, wouldn’t that be fun.

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): My other one is, I’m going to be the CTO of the US and wouldn’t that be very exciting except maybe not right now… The point of the exercise isn’t so much the crazy visions but the part where you look at each of those visions, and say what you can do about this can enhance my career right now.

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): About writing that book — I thought I wanted to get my ideas out there, and so about a year ago, I decided to make time to start writing essays and start posting on Medium (something anyone can do) and found that it was a wonderful way to grow my career that I haven’t been before. It wasn’t about aiming for what is next level up in the management chain, but what is another dimension that I can add to my career today.

Angie Chang (Girl Geek X): Thank you for all those thoughts. One thing I hear a lot about in the Silicon Valley and in women’s events is the topic of mentorship and sponsorship. What are your thoughts about getting mentored or finding a mentor, and how you approached that?

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): When I became a director, it was the first time in my career that were some things that just didn’t quite make sense.  So I got some feedback that said I needed to be ‘more strategic’ — has anyone gotten that feedback before? I was like, ‘what does that even mean? Where do I start being ‘more strategic’? So I thought the only way I am going to really find out, was to talk to people who were supposedly strategic, and ask what they are doing to be strategic, and then I can do those things, and I can also be strategic.

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): This is one of the wonderful parts of being part of the sisterhood of women in technology, is that when I went out to ask people to be introduced to, I got to meet all these badass female, largely, also men, heads of engineering who were ahead of me in their career and could help me figure out that gap to figure out what that ‘strategy’ actually meant.

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): I’m still in touch with some of them. I’m pretty sure that if I told them that they were my mentor I’m sure they would look at me and say ‘that makes me feel old!’ but we are friends and do meet up and compare challenges. There is nothing like someone who has done it before a couple of times to help you cut thru your thought process and figure out the right next step.

Arquay Harris (Slack): I think that in recent years, I have been able to find mentorship via peers, and there are so many amazing groups like this, and meet ups and that kind of thing, and there are a lot more opportunities for women in tech these days… but to be honest, when I was coming up in my career, I first became a director of engineering at the first tech company I worked at, and there is to be honest a certain amount of privilege to having a mentor because people who are CTOs of VPs of Engineering, and they maybe have two spare hours a week to spend on something that is not work or family and unless you have a connection, they are much more likely to spend time with someone who looks like them, or is the brother of someone they went to Ivy with, and so, quite honestly, those doors were not always open to me.

Arquay Harris (Slack): Now that’s why I try to make that time… There are some people here who work with me at Slack, and I try to always make time for one-on-ones. I go to events. I mentor. I just came back from a big recruiting trip at HBCUs in Atlanta, and I try to make it so that road is a little bit easier for those behind me, but it wasn’t easy, to be honest.

Rachael Stedman (Lever): When people talk about mentorship, the vision that comes to mind is you find a mentor, and you meet with them, and they mentor you over the course of many years. And that sometimes happens, but for me — it has taken many different forms. It may be a one-on-one conversation with a manager who is on a different team cross-functionally and I learn something from that conversation and I take it away. It may be a coffee meeting with an eng manager at another company, and we have one conversation that I really enjoy and take something away from and it’s not necessarily an ongoing thing.

Rachael Stedman (Lever): There are a lot of different shapes and forms of conversations and connections with people that you can learn from and take insights away, and it doesn’t have to be a really long on-going formal relationship.

Jen-Mei Wu (Indiegogo): I’ll echo what everyone said, especially in my own case, it’s much more peers that are helpful than looking up. The other part of that — the question — was about sponsorship. I am not exactly what you mean but I think what you mean is that someone is going to advocate for you and find opportunities for you. A lot of it is expanding your network.

Jen-Mei Wu (Indiegogo): The things they say about getting informational interviews or just going to events like this is really helpful because who you know is really going to help you out — and you don’t know if that person you went out to coffee with is going to help you get that job. I have a friend who did an informational interview at a place, and eventually she ended up becoming the VP of Product there.

Jen-Mei Wu (Indiegogo): A lot of these things lead to other things, but you don’t know. But you can make more opportunities for yourself by meeting more people and taking advantage of networking. And on the other side of that, I feel really fortunate to have the positions that I have had. I feel it’s really important to give back, so I try to think about the things that would have helped me.

Jen-Mei Wu (Indiegogo): Sometimes people are afraid to ask and they are afraid to approach you, so if there are other people at events like this, or at work, and I may offer suggestions in terms of career advice, like for example, the best time to plan for a negotiation is a year before the negotiation — you want to plan ahead and set things up for your negotiation — that’s something we talked about at the women in tech group at Indiegogo recently. Also, I try to look for opportunities — not just the jobs I’m directly involved in hiring for, but also opportunities all around. I may mention to someone who is looking to hire someone, or someone who is thinking about creating a position, that somebody might be really good for that.

Jen-Mei Wu (Indiegogo): Sometimes it’s not about positions but it’s about projects — some projects have a higher profile than other projects do, so it’s good to think about that. Occasionally, I run into a situation where somebody who has very little experience has a job with a lot of responsibilities like a VP position or something like that — and I wonder how did that happen, and it almost always turned out to be they had a connection — that they had a mentor at the company who helped them go to manager, then director and then maybe VP as well. So it’s really important to both help other people out and well as it is to look for those opportunities.

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): Can I take one more stab at this? I just want to share — there are three things to be an awesome mentee. So if you are out looking for a mentor, there are three things that I highly recommend.

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): One is — don’t be afraid to reach out, but take on the logistics yourself — do the hard parts (send the available times, and really be on top of setting up the meeting schedules).

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): The second thing is to listen really closely, and come back with reports of what you tried and how it worked. As a mentor, you would not believe the number of times I’ve had these great conversations with people and I’m so excited to hear about how it goes and nobody ever gets back to me, and I really wonder whether our plan was a good one! I learn a lot too about from the process of people trying things out at their own companies.

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): The third part, is there are more ways to give back to a mentor than you may immediately think of. I’ve had a mentee offer to feature me in an article she was writing, and she actually got quite a bit of traction on it and it was really cool for me. I’ve had people send people send me leads for good candidates — if you want lots of mentoring, send great candidate leads, this is great (sarcasm)! It’s not a bidirectional exchange — it’s not like I mentor and I expect to get paid in some fashion for that work. I like to help people in their career because it’s the right thing to do and I was there once too, but at the same time — if folks are willing to put in the effort and time to be a great mentee, then it really makes the relationship worth it.

Sukrutha Bhadouria (Girl Geek X): This is all amazing advice. I wanted to say, every Girl Geek Dinner we attend, we are fortunate because our list of role models grows with that. While you talk about mentorship and sponsorship, I am curious, even a peer can be a role model. Are there many or any that have really impacted you?

Arquay Harris (Slack): A specific name of a person?

Rachael Stedman (Lever): I think the benefit of having a peer, or someone who is likely going thru the same type of growth as you, so they are really close to it and you can really help each other. Sometimes it’s just helpful to have someone who is willing to listen and help you talk things out and come to realizations yourself. Early Lever, when we were growing as a company, there were a lot of challenges and ups-and-downs when you are growing a startup, and being able to rely on the people around you to learn and grow from them, there’s a lot you can get out of it — and give, too.

Arquay Harris (Slack): When I was starting up, when I was an IC (individual contributor), there were a lot of technical people who really taught me to do higher-level problem-solving and whom I really wanted to learn from. And as I moved into management, the people who were really influential to me were people who I felt like I basically wanted to emulate. If I went into a meeting with these people, and I felt like wow that was really an important meeting, I really got a lot out of that — how did they do that — how did they structure it and not waste people’s time.

Arquay Harris (Slack): It also helped me because, sometimes in our careers, and I am certainly guilty of this too, you have skill inflation — you think ‘I am the most amazing engineer there ever was’ and you are not — this is just the reality of the situation — I try to look at, if there is someone who is really successful, I try to think am I really as successful at that person, is there something that they are doing that I am not doing. It comes from different directions, and I think for me it really comes down to.. what I try not to do though is to be like…

Arquay Harris (Slack): Do you ever see someone who is in a really amazing dress, and you think ‘that would not look good on me’. You have to also know when to emulate the things that work for you, and to not completely lose sense of yourself because that makes you doubt your own instincts and your own ability to grow. It’s been a hard path but I think now I’m at a pretty solid point where I know who to associate myself with and who to learn from.

Angie Chang (Girl Geek X): There was a mention of ‘hard things’ in the Silicon Valley. Is there a time that you felt that you felt that you might learn tech and the workplace, and what did you do about that?

Arquay Harris (Slack): Oh yeah, I totally left tech. That’s why I had a big-eye reaction. In between my last company and current company, I was semi-retired for three years. I just traveled… I went to Thailand, Portugal, Spain, India. Also, as a tech person, when you get into management, one of the things that is sad about being a manager, you pretty much never code again — I mean there are exceptions, but for the most part, it’s very difficult.

Arquay Harris (Slack): So I just did all the projects! I built a CRUD app in every single technology ever. I took an MIT course on algorithms, Harvard CS 50 course, all the things! And I did that because, yeah you get to point where you are working working and working, you are working so much, you are achieving, and you start to lose sight of the thing that you really love to begin with, and I really wanted to reconnect with that thing. But I also feel that as much as I love Slack, it’s a great company, I sometimes have thoughts like — is this my last tech company? Should I just retire and teach math to seventh graders? These are thought that I have had… It is a thought that I have had.

Jen-Mei Wu (Indiegoogo): Yeah, I’ve had this thought over and over again. As I mentioned, I majored in english and history and I always thought I’d go to grad school in literature or history or something. When I first started in tech, I started in testing — I was a QA (quality assurance) person doing black box testing. I thought I’d pay off some of my debts and then the debts didn’t really decrease as quickly as I was thinking that they would, and other opportunities came up, and I started getting more interesting jobs, and I kinda got sucked back in… and then I ended up working for a company where I started as the manager of IT, and quickly became the director of IT, and then became director of engineering, and during that director of IT time, that’s where most of my PTSD of management came from. We grew the company from about 30 people to more than 300 in less than two years, and while that’s very small compared to what Slack had gone thru, it was really harrowing because to hire 300 people, you hired maybe 600 people because a lot of people didn’t really stick around.

Jen-Mei Wu (Indiegoogo): After that, I was questioning my life choices — ‘do I want to work in tech?’ A lot of my friends were working for non-profits and doing social justice work, and I was noticing that my income is getting higher and it was starting to feel really weird, and so I thought: ‘do I identify more with people that I work with, or people in my community?’ and then I was falling on the side of the community, and then I did actually quit — and I thought I was going to take a little bit of time off and write a novel and completely change stuff up. And then, I’m so bad at coming up with directions for my career, and I realized that there are all these non-profits that needed help, and they kept asking for help, and I kept volunteering, until one of them really really really wanted to pay me — which is how my consulting company got started, and then they had offices all over California… and so I did that for a while, then I started to burn out of that… these are about a lot of times about leaving tech for various reasons.

Jen-Mei Wu (Indiegoogo): I got really sad because I discovered that in the non-profit world there are a lot of people who are really passionate, and I really love that, and there are a lot of non-profits that work their people in really unsustainable ways, and that made me really sad. What brought me back… then I shut down my consulting company. In fact I could have sold it, someone offered to buy it and I refused because they would not guarantee that everyone would keep their jobs. So I found jobs for all my people and shut down my consulting company, and I thought that now I’m really done. Suddenly, there were all these small shops where able to do apps, the things in mobile were really interesting.. I found that even among my social justice friends, people were like ‘wow development is really cool again because you can make APPS!’ Not that you couldn’t make apps before, but now they are apps!

Jen-Mei Wu (Indiegoogo): [Working in tech] became really interesting again too because I started talking to people and started thinking, it isn’t just about what the goal of the company is (the mission) but how you do business. And so I started getting more involved with businesses that were trying to be sustainable, trying to keep people working under 40 hours a week, having a good work/life balance — and Indiegogo is absolutely like that — and really valuing people. That kind of helped rejuvenate me. That’s a long-winded answer. There you go.

Rachael Stedman (Lever): I haven’t considered leaving, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think are things that could be better about tech. The reason why I am very happy staying in tech and envisioning myself here, is because I have chosen to take this view of, I can learn to help create an environment that I can enjoy working in. When I joined Lever early on, one of the things that I really cared about is being on an engineering team with engineers that very much valued non-technical skills / soft skills / whatever you call those things that you contribute to a team beyond just coding.

Rachael Stedman (Lever): I had seen engineering teams where there were engineers only valued what they could contribute technically, and built an identity around it and didn’t see themselves as social, or wouldn’t invest or value those skills, and you ended up with people on those teams where those skills are really important and they would disproportionately be burdened with the emotional labor, and I didn’t want to work on a team where that was the case.

Rachael Stedman (Lever): Early on [at Lever], I started these conversations that evaluating for these [soft] skills in interviews is really important in addition to technical skills. I want us to recognize and reward people on these teams for contributing in these ways, and I love the team at Lever because the engineers — each of them values what they bring to the team in beyond their technical skills and value and invest in making improvements in their areas. It’s not the kind of engineering team everyone will want to work on, and I don’t have any proof of this, and I believe that it’s why Lever’s engineering team is over 40% women today. We work on hiring software, and hiring is really difficult to do well, but if you can help build a team that you really enjoy working with, you can go and work on any problem that you find important and impactful, and build a team around you that you really enjoy working with — in tech. So that’s what keeps me going and why I don’t consider leaving tech.

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): I think I could have pretty much — and not nearly as eloquently — said what I just heard. For me, solving hard problems is really, really fun. And I think that’s a lot of what brings people to technology. But turns out, there are a lot of hard problems in the world.

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): Healthcare! The healthcare system, and how to make that work! How to build great teams! That has some parallels to building software. I find that, especially where I sit in tech — being able to build teams and thinking about really hard problems that are affecting society today — and to also have that grounding in technical problems is such an exciting place to be.

Angie Chang (Girl Geek X): Our final question tonight is, what would you tell your younger self?

Arquay Harris (Slack): I love this question. For me, one of the harder things about being in tech when I was coming up was, I faced a lot of the bigotry of low expectations. People often ask me do face discrimination being a black person and my answer is almost always no, but being a woman — absolutely. People always assuming that I’m not technical, that I don’t know how to code.

Arquay Harris (Slack): So the advice that I would give to my younger self is.. I feel like instead of asking questions or finding a mentor or finding someone who could kind of help me, I would really invest a lot of time in learning things on my own. If I didn’t know how to do a thing, I would buy a book, cram, learn the thing. And if I had just asked for help, I could have gotten a lot further, faster, right? I think I would just give myself a break and say it’s OK — you don’t have to care so much about what people think — find other people who don’t know something and learn together. That’s basically what I would say [to my younger self].

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): So in my spare time, I train at the circus center. I don’t have a lot of spare time, so not lots of training, but I tried out the flying trapeze probably six years ago, and fell in love. Now I’m afraid of heights! This is one of those terrifying fall in love moments. But what’s cool about the flying trapeze is that when you learn, you’re in safety lines — you are being held by the instructor in safety lines, and you are over a net, like this is not a particularly risky proposition in any way. But the feeling of fear is still there — and it’s still very real!

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): It’s a really good metaphor of, in general, the feeling of fear is different from an accurate perception of risk in a scenario, I would just have my younger self get a lot better at identifying whether the fear I feel was a feeling, or whether it actually indicated that the thing that I was about to do was risky.

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): Because ultimately there are a lot of things that are scary but not all that risky, that help land us in really wonderful places in our careers, our personal lives, and I think — I just wish I had known that sooner.

Rachael Stedman (Lever): I think for me, earlier in my career, I felt like I had to do everything — all at once. I wanted to learn all the things about being a great engineer, and I wanted to learn project management, and I just got very… like you try to learn all these things but you can’t actually learn any of them well, it’s too many things, and you’re not spending enough time with any one of them to have it engrained and learn it well enough.

Rachael Stedman (Lever): Some advice that I got at that point in time was to just slow down, you can do everything, just not all at once. Focus on one thing, and learn selective neglect. I think it’s sometimes hard to know what not to do, what not to spend your time on, to say no to things, to stop doing things, and it’s OK to do that. Actually, selectively neglecting things to do creates space to do those things that you do choose to do well — and learn from them. Selective neglect!

Jen-Mei Wu (Indiegogo): I’ve learned a lot from my mistakes in my career, so I think one of the things I’d tell myself is, you can learn a lot from mistakes, but they don’t have to be your mistakes, because it would have been better if I learned from other people’s mistakes. I think it would have been great if earlier in my career I had talked to people — I actually didn’t intend to be an engineer, it weirdly happened — think ahead and talk to people doing jobs that you might want to do, talk to peers, have work / life balance — which is really important.. it may have been a cultural thing that the companies that I worked with expected 60 hours a week which is really unsustainable — and to really think about strategic things. Think about what you want to do, and how each step is going to take you there.

Jen-Mei Wu (Indiegogo): And also, think about the impact beyond yourself. Who would have thought that trying to solve the problem of ride-sharing… could end up creating one of the most evil companies in existence? I mean it’s completely counter-intuitive, and that’s because they didn’t think ahead and think about the ramifications of what they were doing. And also, who thought that the tech industry for all the great things that we’ve done, would have such a dramatic effect on displacement of people, and that’s like one of my really sad things is like how this industry that I’m a part of is creating all these problems and as an industry we are not doing an awesome job of solving some of these problems. I kinda woulda said some of these things to myself, maybe think ahead, think about the things you can have an impact in, and be happy with.

Sukrutha Bhadouria (Girl Geek X): Oh my gosh, awesome. Thank you all! Let’s give them a round of applause, please. I feel like Angie and I have definitely asked everything we wanted to ask. Does anyone in the audience have any questions?

Audience Member: What was the advice that people gave you to be more strategic?

Kimber Lockart (One Medical): Specifically, we were in a hyper growth phase, and I was chartered with more stuff than my team of that size could possibly take on. And so specifically, there were two things — one was to draw out what my organization was going to look like in three months, six months, and a year.

Kimber Lockart (One Medical): So, write out the org charts, show how the teams are going to be structured, what are the parameters of each teams would take on, you know, basic stuff, and things I already had in my head, but things that I wrote down, drew out, and took in front of our VP of Engineering and said ‘this is the plan for my area of the product for the next year’.

Kimber Lockart (One Medical): The other thing about planning in general was to, not allow the PM team (the product managers) drive all of the prioritization, and to come with a clear point of view, so I was that solid, second part of the planning — because really, the further you go up in the engineering leadership, the closer product management and engineering frankly get, and to show that I really had the skill set, I just wasn’t showing it or articulating it that was particularly useful.

Audience Member: What was the best advice that really helped you in your career did you receive, and what actionable steps did you take to implement that advice?

Rachael Stedman (Lever): Early in my career, I read a lot of articles so I didn’t really read a lot of books. My manager said ‘you need to read full books’. I did take the advice to heart and it was the only New Year’s resolution that I really followed thru on, and resolved to read a book every week of the year. I did it, and I now love reading books, and read thirty to fifty books in a year, and I learn a lot.

Rachael Stedman (Lever): The thing about reading full books is that you get a lot more in depth on topics instead of just skimming articles on the internet (which I still do a lot of). You can read books for fun, but a lot of books that I read I’m hoping to get actionable insights on. So I use Evernote and I have a Notebook called “Content Consumption” and everything I read — whether it’s watching a video or listening to a podcast, reading an article or a book — I take notes on it, and it forces me to actually think about what I’m reading.

Rachael Stedman (Lever): A lot of times, you read for confirmation — you’re reading an article for the joy of confirmation. And sometimes reading things that are actually changing your mind, or introducing new topics, is like another approach.. When articles or books introduce new complex topics that take a long time to sit, it’s like a new paradigm or fundamentally changes your perspective or worldview, those can take a longer time to process and actually requires sitting and thinking.

Rachael Stedman (Lever): Another thing that I’ve started to do that I’ve considered ‘advanced reading’ is reading three or four books on the same topic, all at once. If you read different books on the same topic, you can start making your own connections between the books, and you can make up your own connections between books.

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): I’m totally joining your book club, that sounds awesome. My best advice was that you need to learn to lead as you. So there is a bunch of different styles of leadership out there. There is advice in these books that conflict with each other. There are mentors and even great leaders who lead in wildly different ways, and what is the best for you?

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): Turns out you get to pick, but I got the advice that I should pick in a rather informed way, and to experiment! So every time I read something in one of these books that I thought might be a good idea, to take it out, try it out, and write down what happened.

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): You are almost launching this set of experiments on yourself and your team, based on the input that you’re getting from these sources. The big thing is to break down what you tried and how it turned out. And I go back to some of these early in my career, and it was really foundational in figuring out how I was going to be as a leader.

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): I think if I tried to lead like the VP of Engineering at my company at the time, or like one of the CEOs that I saw in the media, I wouldn’t still be in technology leadership. It was really important for to lead in a way that felt authentic to me.

Audience Member: Have you had experience with building a family, and assuming our biological role as being mothers while holding a full-time career in tech, and actually doing technical engineering work or management work, if you had such experiences, what is the pushback that you felt or acceptance at the company or team that you are working with — and what’s your experience dealing with this?

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): I don’t yet have kids but this is something that definitely comes up in the dialogue frequently in my family. My husband is also a CTO at a small startup.

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): One of the neatest things about being in the role that I have today is the opportunity to help people figure out what works for them. So earlier in my career, someone showed up and was pregnant one day. It was really good to work with her to understand what was going to make the most sense for her life and in our organization, and it really helped form my early impressions around ‘what really should be flexible with work, and what can we do to make it work with people who are really good,” and in leadership roles you have to make decisions about what makes the most sense for your company.

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): I was so lucky to have mentorship from someone who reported to me in figuring out how I wanted to think about supporting my team members who were in the toughest years of starting families — it was really impactful.

Audience Member: Hi, my name is Heather. I have some questions about politics in the workplace, and if you have any advice on how to navigate that? I know that starting my career when I was twenty something, that was definitely a challenge.

Jen-Mei Wu (Indiegogo): What kind of politics are you talking about?

Audience Member: Like office politics… Sometimes change can be hard, so you have to navigate who to go to to get decisions made, things like that.

Jen-Mei Wu (Indiegogo): It’s different at different companies. Sometimes it’s easier to make change when you have other people who want to make change with you.

Jen-Mei Wu (Indiegogo): A lot of companies create employee groups and like at Indiegogo (a lot of initiatives come out of engineering for some reason), but we started a diversity and inclusion group, that has started to influence some policies at the company. It’s a group that some engineers started, and then other people joined from other groups, and then we had executives and founders join as well. It became a place where everyone could talk and get things out, and turns out there is a lot of commonality and things that everyone could agree on and move forward.

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): Navigating a company can be pretty difficult, whether it’s because of the chaos that happens with hyper growth, or whether it’s because of particularly political situations.

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): I find that I do best when I can play the newbie card. Or the ‘oh, I didn’t know things worked like that, thanks for letting me know!’ and being the person that’s always positive and solutions oriented and always willing to pair with people to make good action has been the best strategy I’ve had to get thru both the chaos moments and the politics moments.

Kimber Lockhart (One Medical): That being said, I think politics can be really, really destructive in an organization, and if this is something that is shaping where you are now, there are companies with varying levels of politics and varying kinds of politics, and I encourage you to take a look at what’s out there — maybe there is someplace that is a less political situation that may be a better fit for you.

Arquay Harris (Slack): Every / most companies have varying degrees of politics. Sometimes politics aren’t even a negative thing — you have some situations where you have an inner circle because you have a group of founders who are invariably tight-knit. A couple of things I use to navigate this…

Arquay Harris (Slack): One is, be pretty intentional with who you align yourself. The same way that negativity is contagious, so is positivity. If there is someone who just inherently hates everything and everyone, maybe it’s them! And they’ve alienated everyone else, and they made a beeline for you because you just joined the company and you’re instantly their best friend because you just joined the company. The other thing is surrounding yourself with people you respect and get things done.

Arquay Harris (Slack): I try very hard to do is: being very intentional about the things I do and the battles that I fight… I’m not going to ‘die on every hill’ is how I think the expression goes… You have to think: I have this goal in mind, I want my company to be successful, I want my team to be successful, whatever that is, and focusing on that goal. How can I have the highest impact with the decisions that I make? And part of that is strategizing, because if you are that person who gets things done..

Arquay Harris (Slack):I have this thing that I always say — “no beefs” — I don’t beef with people. Meaning: people don’t come to work wondering ‘how do I really ruin Arquay’s day?’ Nobody does that! Give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Assume good intent. And if there are conflicts, really try to focus on the goal — we’re all a team, how can we work together? And absent of that, if you have people who are really unreasonable, maybe it’s not the company for you. But if you are going into a situation with those things in mind, I think it generally goes works out a little bit better.

Arquay Harris (Slack):I don’t like people pulling me into the fray — particularly as a woman, and a woman of color, I don’t have the opportunity to get really… I could talk a lot about ABWs — does anyone know about this? No? What, no one’s heard that expression? Someone raised their hand in the back — thank you! When people come at me with this really negative, hot, intense, angry politicky thing — I don’t engage in that, intentionally, and I try to stay really focused in what I am trying to do, and that generally works out a little bit better for me.

Sukrutha Bhadouria (Girl Geek X): I want to hear more about ABWs for sure… but I think we are going to wrap up tonight. And for the lady who asked about navigating about thru having a family, reach out to Angie and I. We have met so many women thru all the girl geek dinners. And we know people who have been really successful.

Sukrutha Bhadouria (Girl Geek X): There’s one person who Angie introduced me to who is a dear friend of hers, and is now a good friend of mine as well. The first time I met her, she was pregnant and she was showing the app that she had built during her maternity leave. It was amazing to stay in touch with her while her career progress while she raised her two children. Thank you to everyone for coming — and to the panelists! Thank you!

Angie Chang (Girl Geek X): Thank you! Please stay and hang out with us, chat, grab some beverages, grab some food, meet each other. I always like to encourage you to not leave until you’ve met at least one to three new friends. Hope you get to stay and meet the panelists and each other, and hope to see you at another Girl Geek Dinner!

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“The Customer Is Not Always Right”: Cindy Alvarez with Lean Customer Development (Video + Transcript)

Cindy Alvarez / Director, UX / Microsoft


Cindy Alvarez: I’m Cindy Alvarez, and right now I’m on a flight heading back from Johannesburg, so you get a pre-recorded talk from me. I’m going to talk today about why the customer is not always right. First of all, I want to start off by saying where did this thing even come from? Where did we start with the phrase, “The customer’s always right?” What does that mean? Why is that important to us?

It primarily comes down to the fact that we want our customers to come back and buy more things from us. We want them to like us, and that makes me realize that customers are not just external people who buy our products, they’re also people that we work with every day. There’s a lot of things you can do to make those relationships better, whether they’re talking to customers who are external to you, or the people who are next to you every day. Let’s dive right in.

First of all, let’s think about what’s our desired outcome. I think when we say things like this, we tend to think of things like units sold, or increasing usage, but fundamentally, we want to understand the underlying problems that customers have — whether that’s the one buying our product, or our coworkers because understanding is the only way we can hope to solve their problems.

We really, let’s be honest, want our customers to like us, we want our coworkers to like us, and we want to find the best possible solution for the problems that we’re facing.

That best possible solution isn’t always obvious. What do we do with that?

Most of us have been through the scenario where a customer came to us, they asked for something, we built it, we delivered it, and then it didn’t actually solve their problem. We’ve wasted time on something, and we have to support something that didn’t really meet their needs.

When people ask for solutions, they’re asking for their assumption of what the solution to their problem is. A lot of times, they haven’t really thought about the problem they’re really trying to solve, and honestly that’s not their job.

It’s our job as product people to think about how we’re going to come up with solutions.

For example, let’s say we had a customer who came to us and said, “I need to rent a car.” Now, on the face of it the best possible customer service would be to rush right out, and get that person into a car rental agency, and put them in a car as quickly as possible.

If we’re bound by things like SLA metrics and we have to respond to customers within a certain number of hours, or we have to respond to every single user voice, or every single email query, then we tend to game-ify ourselves into these non-optimal solutions.

Let’s think about why that person asked for a car. It could be that they’re about to go shopping, they don’t own a car, they’re going to buy a lot of groceries, and they don’t want to take them home on the bus. It could be that they’re having a vacation, and they want to drive along PCH and take in the scenery. It could be that they have a lot of relatives in town, and they won’t all fit into their tiny Prius.

For each of those scenarios, there are different solutions that may make more sense.

In one case, it may make more sense for someone to grab a Lyft, in some cases maybe you need to actually rent a van, and in some cases maybe you can borrow a car from a friend. If you’re actually out on a vacation and you want to take that drive along the coast, then sure, you do need to rent a car… but in that situation, you probably want to rent a fun to drive car. You don’t want to rent a beater or an SUV.

If we just rush someone straight to the car rental agency, we’d end up with that subpar solution.

As customer-oriented product people, we have to take a step back and ask “why?”

This is something that we also need to do internally, and I find this happens even less often internally because we assume that we understand the why’s.

As soon as we’re working in an office with someone, in a team with someone, we assume a shared context that doesn’t usually exist. There are people that I have literally sat across from for weeks on end, and yet we’ll still have underlying assumptions that are different from each other.

The “why” is always more interesting, it’s more useful, it’s more actionable, and it’s more trust building than the “what.”

That last one’s a little bit interesting because people think that asking “why?” sounds almost a little accusatory. If you have a small child, you know it can actually get pretty annoying when people keep asking why.

We need to add a little padding around it, but fundamentally when people ask why, what they’re actually saying is, “I want to know more about this. I am interested in you, I care about what you have to say.” As opposed to what, which has this whiff of, “how quickly can I get you out of my hair?” That’s not how we want to build these relationships.

Let’s think about it: someone comes to you, they have a request. It could be the customer who says, “I need to rent a car,” or, “You need to build this feature,” “You need to support this use case.” It could be your boss who has given you a task, “You need to do this thing. You need to manually sort through this data. You need to write this spec.”

The first question we really have is: “What’s the problem you’re trying to solve?” That can be pretty tricky to ask because if your boss says, “Do this,” and you ask, “Well, what’s the problem you’re trying to solve?” your boss might just say, you know, “Get on it. Let’s do it.”

Again, we need some padding, and so we want to say, “Okay, just to make sure I understand it seems like the outcome you’re looking for is X, is that correct?”

If your boss says, “Manually sort this data,” what they probably want is clean data. If someone says, “Get me a drill, “ they probably want quarter inch holes, but you need to validate that.

The best way to do it is give that, “Just to be sure I’m clear, this is the outcome you’re looking for, is that correct? Am I missing anything?”

This gives people the opportunity to step in and say, “Actually, this is the thing I needed,” or, “Actually, here’s some more information that I assumed that you knew, but you probably didn’t.” Or, “I’m sure I’ve told you this a billion times.”

Having been someone who’s managed teams, I have always had things that I’m pretty sure I said a billion times, and yet either I didn’t, or people didn’t hear me. It doesn’t really matter because the outcome was the same, and they weren’t privy to that information, and that meant they weren’t going to do as good a job as if they had the information they needed.

We want to ask why. Why do you need that done? What’s the outcome you’re hoping for?

A lot of us, when we’re interacting with customers, what we hear is basically a demand for features, and it’s hard to ask why because what they really want to get to is when. When are you going to build this thing?

It’s useful to take that step back. I like to announce it as such, and say, “You know what? Let’s talk about delivery deadlines sometime in the future, in a few minutes, right? But just a second. I want to be sure I understand something. It sounds like you’re asking for this feature. Just to be sure I understand, if we had already built it, what would it allow you to do? Essentially, how would it make your life better if you had this thing?”

The thing that I found surprising is that when you ask people some polite version of “how would it make your life better?” a lot of times you get a non-answer.

You’ll get an answer like, “Well, it would just be nice to have.”

We don’t have time for building things that are nice to have.

How would it make your life better? What would it allow you to do? When someone really needs something, they’ll have a story for you.

“Uh, you know, it would take me half the time to sort my data. Oh, I wouldn’t have to waste head count on this position. We could start coding tomorrow.” When people have a story, that’s something worth doing.

When a customer comes to you and you say, “What would it allow you to,” sometimes you get the non-answer of, “But your competitor has it.” That’s actually just pushing the can down the road a bit, and what you say to that is to say, “Okay, I understand. You’re right, our competitor does have that feature. I’m curious if you were using that feature with Google, Facebook, et cetera, what would it allow you to do?”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve had customers who say, “Well, it would just be nice to have.”

If the reason that you’re going to lose a feature sale is because of a checkbox feature that someone’s not even going to use if they go to your competitor, that’s not something we should be trying to win on.

You may lose a sale in the short-term, but you’re going to have someone who isn’t really having their needs met, and they’re ripe to be plucked back in a year or two.

We ask, “How would it make your life better?” Maybe we hear that it really wouldn’t, and then we proceed.

Sometimes you’ll hear a variation like, “It might be useful in the future,” and, again, kicking the can down the road a little bit, and you got to ask one more question which is, “Okay, I’m curious how do you see your organization changing in the future?”


“Well, you said it might be useful in the future. I’m curious how are things going to change such that this might be useful in the future?”

You want to be very polite and smiley, you’re very nice about this, but the point is if you don’t know how the future’s going to change, and I don’t mean the next five years because no one knows that. I mean the next six months.

If someone can’t give you an answer, then it’s not a real need.

It’s a wish, or maybe it’s leverage to try and get a deal. Or maybe it’s just someone who’s trying to look smart in a meeting, and I think we all know the people who are in meetings trying to look smart, being loud, man-splaining you, et cetera. “How will it make your life better? What do you anticipate changing in the future?”

The other thing is that when we jump in trying to understand problems, or provide solutions, a lot of times it’s useful to know what people are already doing, and how they feel about it. That sounds so incredibly simple as to be obvious and dumb, and yet I have been surprised by the number of times I’m in meetings where we really don’t know. Sometimes it’s, “Hey, could you take a step back? I’m just curious, could you walk me through what you’re doing today? I mean, I know high level, but I’d love to see the details.”

When someone walks through a process for something, you might see exactly where their pain point is. Maybe they asked for this feature that’s a widget, but you can see that actually they’re having a hard time with this other area, and the widget might be one solution, but as a product person you can see it’s actually a poor solution. Or it’s something that will be applicable to this customer and no others.

In a meeting, a lot of times, where there’s a debate between people who think that one side’s doing it right, and the other side’s doing it wrong, a lot of times that comes down to an assumption about what each side is actually trying to do.

“Could you walk me through what you’re trying to do,” is a good way to defuse that, and let people say, “Look, this is just what I want,” because that’s, at the end of the day, what we’re trying to do.

We’re trying to help people get what they want done.

If we do that, we will seem amazingly smart, and helpful, and kind, and everything else. It’s a really good hack.

“Could you walk me through what we’re doing today?”

This is also really great advice when you get put into a new role. Let’s say you got promoted to manager. Congratulations! You can’t just step in, of course, and say, “This is how we do things now.” You can try, but you’re going to get a mutiny.

If you join a new company, a new role, people have established practices. Some of them are good, some of them are bad, and if you don’t know the history of why people are doing one of them, you don’t have a lot of position to say, “Let’s do things differently.”

If you can go into a new organization, or a new customer, and say, “You know, walk me through what you’re doing today. Okay, that’s interesting. Okay, you know, how did that happen in the past? Do you have a sense for how that decision was made ? How’s that going? You know, if you could change anything about it what would it be?” This kind of conversational approach gets people to trust you, and it gets you a lot more insights than you would ordinarily have.

Now, I’ll note one thing here, is that taking that step back and asking supposedly “dumb” questions can be particularly tough if you’re a woman, and if you’re in a meeting where you think people are just a little too quick to think that you are asking dumb questions. This is where it’s useful to borrow a new person. This might genuinely be someone who’s new on your team, or you could literally just grab one of your coworkers and ask them to come into a meeting, this doesn’t work internally but it works well with customers, “Come into this meeting pretend to be the new guy, new gal.”

The new person has a lot more freedom to say, “Hey, I bet everyone in the room already knows this,” — hint: they don’t — “But could you walk me through what you’re doing today?”

You will get a ton of insight out of that, and the customer won’t actually mind getting to repeat history, and probably halfway through their diatribe they’ll be like, “You know what? We didn’t even tell you that our entire back end system changed in the last year, did we? (haha).” Yeah, that’s probably something that you should’ve known.

“What are you doing today? How is that going?”

Once they’ve finished talking about that, then you’re going to reiterate. This is active listening. This is the thing that makes you feel a little bit like a kindergarten teacher, but trust me, it works. I wouldn’t tell you this if it didn’t.

“It sounds like you need to do X, and Y, and Z. It sounds to me, like you’d be happier if magically these things were fixed. Is that accurate? Am I missing something?”

Give them that option to correct you, or to add things.

Now, there’s a magic thing that happens once you’ve reiterated back, which is that you have absorbed like 80% to 90% of people’s anger at this point, even if you don’t actually solve their problem. They’re amazingly happier that you took the time to understand it in the first place. There are studies to back this up. Stanford has been doing some research with doctors and malpractice, and they found with a control and experiment group, that surgeons who made a mistake, and apologized were much more likely to not have suits brought against them, or if there were, they settled for much less money. Essentially, if someone sewed a sponge in you by mistake… you really want to hear that person say sorry. If they don’t, you’re going to take them to court for all they’re worth, so we can do that.

That leads to my next point, which is — apologies are free.

Any woman who’s ever worked for me knows that I always tell them, don’t apologize. For your ideas, don’t apologize. Don’t say I’m sorry about this idea, or I’m sorry that I want to do something a new way.

But when it comes to a customer who is feeling wronged, who is feeling like, I’m already upset, go ahead and apologize because that de-fangs even the angriest customer.

If someone comes in and they’re furious, “I can’t believe that you’ve lost my data. I’m going to quit your account right now, this is ridiculous,” and you say, “I’m really sorry. We did that, we lost your data. That’s really awful, and I don’t want that to ever happen again. Let’s see what we can do about it.” Those are magic words.

It’s very hard for someone to hear something that is humble and accepting of responsibility, and keep yelling at you. They trail off, “Well, you better see what you can do.”

Give them out, apologies are free.

It doesn’t matter if it’s not your fault, if someone lost their data through something that was user error, it doesn’t matter. You’re not going to talk them into that. Telling people that’s the way the feature was designed has never made anyone happy ever, so apologize. You can do that.

Apologies are free. They’re also rare, especially good ones.

Follow-ups are also rare.

Even if you didn’t provide the answer someone wants, just the fact that you reach back out to a customer, or a coworker a couple weeks later to give them an update, “Hey, I looked into that solution. It turns out we’re not going to be able to address it. I’m really sorry, I just wanted to let you know,” people are amazingly happy about that because they never hear it.

The traditional vendor/buyer relationship is, “We’ll put it on the roadmap,” and then it’s on the roadmap, and it’s on the roadmap, and they never actually get the feature.

Internally, when people have suggestions, “Oh, we’ll consider it. Oh, put it in the suggestion box,” and there’s never any closure.

That’s the final thing I have to talk about: people like closure.

As humans, closure makes us feel satisfied. We like to know that something is going to happen even if it’s not the thing that we expect.

Customers and teammates don’t have to agree with your decisions, but they need to know why you made them. They don’t even need to understand why. It’s just that they need to know that you didn’t have malicious, or stupid reasons for making your choice.

“Based on these reasons, I am making the decision to do X.”

Someone may disagree, but they’ll grumble, “Well, I guess I understand why you’re doing it. I still don’t agree with you, though.”

That’s okay, customers in that scenario are going to be a lot happier.

In this case, someone’s come to us, they’ve demanded a feature, we basically talked them out of it, we’ve explained why, and yet they’re still not furious at the end. In fact, a lot of these customers end up being incredibly loyal because even though they’re not getting what they want, they know that you understand what they need. This works both internally and externally, and it’s been tremendously useful in my career.

The bar is really low for honest communication, and for digging in to find out what the underlying problem is.

We can do better, and it’s an amazing hack that most of the people around us don’t know about, so we should take advantage.

The customer is not always right, to be honest, no one is always right, but you can, and should control your own narrative. That means taking in what you’re hearing, and reflecting on it, and asking questions, and redirecting it to something that is more positive, and something that you can control.

I’m sorry am not able to take questions live, but I really do answer them.

I’m @cindyalvarez on Twitter or cindy@cindyalvarez.com. If you have questions, feel free to shoot them over to me. And that’s my last piece of advice: when people say it’s okay to ask questions, they mean it — take advantage. Enjoy the rest of your conference everyone!