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

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Quantcast girl geeks: Esther Hsu (Staff Software Engineer) on machine learning in real-time bidding; and Malvika Mathur (Senior Software Engineer) on transitioning from Microsoft corporation to a 700-person startup like Quantcast; and Brittni Gustaf (Senior Software Engineer) on prototyping customer solutions at an internal Quantcast hackathon at Quantcast Girl Geek Dinner in San Francisco, California.

Dorothy Tse / VP, Product / Quantcast
Esther Hsu / Staff Software Engineer / Quantcast
Malvika Mathur / Senior Software Engineer / Quantcast
Brittni Gustaf / Senior Software Engineer / Quantcast
Somer Simpson / Head of Product Management – Measure / Quantcast
Disha Gosalia / VP, Service Operations & Support / Quantcast

Transcript of Girl Geek X Quantcast Dinner – Lightning Talks:

Dorothy Tse: We are so thrilled to have, hosting all of you tonight for Quantcast’s first Girl Geek Dinner. My name is Dorothy Tse and I lead product management for our Advertising Solutions here. Hopefully, you had a chance to mingle a little bit and do a little bit more networking. I certainly did. It’s just so fantastic to get to know some of you here and your like-minded interest as women all together in a single room. So it’s really fantastic.

Dorothy Tse: We have a number of exciting talks to share with you today. And up first is Esther Hsu, talking about delivering ads with machine learning. And then we’ll have Malvika Mathur, speaking about what her experience has been like transitioning from a corporation to a startup. And then we’ll have Brittni Gustaf, talking about what it’s like to hack into the customer experience, and then followed by Somer Simpson to talk about how a small team can impact an entire industry. And this is the GDPR piece. And then we have last but not least, Disha Gosalia, speaking about her experiences of how she navigated her career as a shy engineer.We’ll close with some Q&A for all of the speakers and continue with more networking and drinks, if you’re still up for it. All right.

Dorothy Tse: One of the things I’d like to do first is to give you a quick intro on Quantcast. Here at Quantcast we believe that AI will fundamentally change every company, industry, and customer experience. Well, that’s not something to fear because in the 21st century AI is more designed around how to compliment and boost human learning rather than replace it. We’re on a mission, as a company to help brands grow in this AI era. The way that we do this is we help brands and marketers make sense of all the data that’s out there, to understand and make smarter decisions faster. We started in 2006 as a company, as an audience measurement platform, helping online publishers understand their audiences as well as their web traffic — this is called our Quantcast Measure product.

Dorothy Tse: And over the years, our technology and our business has grown and we now measure over a 100 million web destinations across the globe and some of those web destinations include what you see here on the screen. Our technology track things such as site visits, keyword searches, content categories, just to name a few. We process over 30 petabytes of data in a single day. That’s kind of hard to quantify so it’s trying figure out what is a good way to give a visualization of that — that’s essentially, think of 600 million four-drawer file cabinets filled with content. It’s a lot of data, but many people say they have a lot of data as well.

Dorothy Tse speaking at Quantcast Girl Geek Dinner.

Dorothy Tse: What we’re particularly good at is our ability to make sense of this data. We’ve been working on Q. It is the world’s largest AI audience behavior platform for the open internet. We utilize the measure platform data to help us drive up predictive models as well as AI optimization to score audiences in real time. As a result of that, there are several capabilities that we provide as a suite of solutions for brands and marketers to help them with growing their business.

Dorothy Tse: First, we offer real-time audience insights. And these help to uncover who our marketers’ target customers are as well as what motivates them and how to influence them. We also provide predictive targeting and our predictive targeting allows us to target the right audiences at any point in their user journey, even before they’re in market. And then we also have comprehensive measurement. This is our ability to, in real-time, share audience level and campaign level insights that inform optimization decisions and decisions about how they want to better market to their target customers.

Dorothy Tse: This is really exciting stuff for our 700-plus employee base here. We’re a global company. We span over 10 different countries and have 20-plus offices across the globe. We are hiring, so definitely talk to us at any point. First up is to thank you so much for listening and again thank you all for attending today’s Girl Geek Dinner. First up is Esther Hsu. Thank you.

Esther Hsu speaking at Quantcast Girl Geek Dinner.

Esther Hsu: Hi, everybody. My name is Esther and I am a staff software engineer on the targeting team here Quantcast. Today, I’m going to talk to you about how we how we use machine learning here at Quantcast specifically in the context of our ad targeting product. This will not be a lesson in machine learning and I’m sorry if you were expecting that.

Esther Hsu: What do we use machine learning for? We use to reach a specific audience. Each of our clients is running a display advertising campaign and they all have a specific goal in mind. That goal can be anything from raising brand awareness or driving certain actions. Like clicks or purchasing products or anything like that. We use machine learning to help our clients target the right people at the right time in order to accomplish that goal.

Esther Hsu: For you to understand what it actually means for us to target people, you need to understand what real-time bidding is. Real-time bidding or RTB is a mechanism to deliver ads by auction on an impression by impression basis — impression meaning, like, ad view. With real-time bidding, we can target people at an individual level and we can also buy impressions at individual level. Hopefully this illustration I’m going to go through is going to clarify what that actually means.

Esther Hsu: Let’s say you’re this little gray stick figure and you go to a website. A lot of things actually happen before you see an ad on website. And the first thing that happens is that a request is fired to an inventory supplier. And what this inventory supplier is is, there are several inventory suppliers out there, some examples are Google, AppNexus, PubMatic, but what happens there is basically a milliseconds-long auction, where the inventory supplier asks all of their bidding partners, how much are you willing to pay to show this person an ad? So what happens is they would send out bid requests to all their bidding partners, requesting a bid. And Quantcast is one of those people doing the bidding.

Esther Hsu: This a blind auction. Meaning that none of the participants know what the other people are bidding, but everybody sends back their bids and just like any other auction, the highest bid wins. Then the inventory supplier will then choose that ad and that’s the ad that you end up seeing. I know all of you were surprised that this happens because it happens in literally 10 milliseconds so you probably have no idea.

Esther Hsu: How do we actually use machine learning to do this well? The part that machine learning has in this is that we need machine learning to understand how valuable each one of these bid opportunities are. We use machine learning to basically come up with an optimal price. What this means is that we train machine learning models and we use them in real time to understand how we should price each bid.

Esther Hsu: What does this model training actually look like and what are these models trained off of? Like I said before, all of our clients have a specific goal in mind with their advertising campaigns. And usually in the most common case, they are trying to drive a certain action, which, a lot of times, was represented by site visit or a certain page. For example, a shoe supplier or shoe company might want to drive shoe purchases, in which case they would choose the thank you page or the shopping carts, which indicates that someone actually bought the shoe or expressed interest in the shoe. Where an insurance company might choose the request a quote page and in any case the client will tag the page and in that way we can then label our data.

Esther Hsu: Our data, like Dorothy was saying, is coming from our Measure network, which is made up of more than a 100 million sites, and from that, we have this really rich data set of user behavior and really interesting things, that we can actually then label as converters and non-converters or the baseline. And then this is very simplified, but then we run a supervised learning algorithm and we produce a model. And that model will then tell us what does someone who converts actually look like.

Esther Hsu: We process about 30 petabytes of data a day. A lot of that is because of model training. We built infrastructure to train thousands of models a day, process again lots of petabytes of data. And that way we have up to date models for all of our clients at all times.

Esther Hsu: Now I’m going to go over an example what a model actually looks like. We train a lot of different models, but this is just like a very old example with a curated set of features. But basically this is an old model that we trained for an online dating service, who was a client of ours. You can see that the green coefficients correspond to features that mean that you’re more likely to be interested in an online dating service and red ones mean you’re less likely to.

Esther Hsu: You can see that a lot of these are actually very intuitive and make a lot of sense. For example, you’re looking for online dating, you’re probably going to register for online dating. And if you’re looking for baby care, you’re probably too sleep deprived or too busy to care about dating. But something more a little less intuitive like, fantasy sports, does that mean you’re single? I don’t know. And if you like books, maybe you would rather meet people in different ways. I don’t know. But The point is … Thank you.

Esther Hsu: The point is that even if you’re an expert in your product or your market, machine learning is going to pick up on all these signals, event that no one would normally be able to find. And normally, models have millions of features. This is just like a very curated set.

Esther Hsu: How do we use this model in real-time bidding? When we get this bid request from the inventory supplier, we have to retrieve the user data that we have for this particular bid request, futurize it, and then basically score it against the model. And from that, we can calculate a basically a number that tells us how likely is it that this person is going to be a converter or someone who’s of interest to our client. And then based on that, we can calculate a bid. And I realize that’s very simplified, but on very, very simplified terms, the bid is calculated from both the score and also several different control signals that we have, which indicate how much budget the client needs to spend and things like that. But very simply, if you’re more valuable, they’ll bid higher. And also this entire process again, happens in less that 10 milliseconds. And we do this for about a million bid requests per second. That’s kind of like an overview of what happens right now.

Esther Hsu: What are we working on in general or what are we continuing to work on? Scalability, obviously, always an issue for any engineer. How do we make sure that we can do this for more clients, more data, more complex models or just more bids? And then also ad tech is a very dynamic industry. It’s relatively young. Things that our clients care about from one year might be different the next and because of that we have to adapt quickly. We have to always be updating our models to be optimizing for the things that our clients care about. And even besides that, if our clients care about multiple things, how do we make it so that we can optimize for different goals, balance those against all the constraints that we have as well. And that’s it.

Dorothy Tse: Thank you Esther. That was a great primer on machine learning at Quantcast. So next up we have Malvika Mathur, who’s going to talk to us about her experiences moving from a large company to a smaller one.

Malvika Mathur speaking at Quantcast Girl Geek Dinner.

Malvika Mathur: Hi guys. Before I start off, I just want to say I’m really nervous so if you don’t get me, that’s not my fault. All right. So I mean working in the tech industry is hard. Like long working hours, keeping up with the latest technology, all that weight that you gain from eating the free food. I mean I did.

Malvika Mathur: Hi, I’m Malvika Mathur, and I’m a senior software engineer here in the Data Platform team at Quantcast. And today, I’m sort of going to talk to you about my journey of transitioning from a big company corporation to a start up. And I’m hoping by the end of this talk, you guys can take away some pointers on what you can do to evaluate the right work environment for you and that can be even within the same company that you’re at right now or somewhere else.

Malvika Mathur: Where was I before this? I joined Quantcast January of 2017, but before that I was working in Microsoft for five years in the India headquarters at Hyderabad. And I joined as a 21-year old, right out of college. And I was like, “Damn it! That’s it. I’m done. I’ve accomplished everything that I need to.” So happy with myself, but the 21-year old in me was really naïve as well. So the first years with Microsoft were really great. They had this program where they give you the opportunity to go between … to go in different teams and different business units and sort of get a feel of what it is to work in these different roles. I got the opportunity to work as a developer. I got the opportunity to work as a tester. I got the opportunity to work as a program manager. But then I decided to work as a developer, continuing that because I really like problem solving.

Malvika Mathur: I joined my new team and I’m there a few months and then my then-manager comes by he was like, “Hey, we have this project. Would you like to join?” I’m like, “Yeah. Sure. Secret project. Why not?” So the task for us was sort of like reinvent the entire calibration process for the entire company. Like, “Okay. How do we do that?” And the other thing that we had to do was we had to deliver this in a really, really short time. That meant for the next three months, we were working nights and weekends and everything. It was super exhausting. But the good thing about that was that is forced me to have like a really steep learning curve.

Malvika Mathur: For the next three months, I was working with great engineers. I was working on the latest cloud technology that Microsoft had to offer. It’s like, “Awesome. This is great.” But then, early 2016, my husband and I decided to relocate to San Francisco. I was like, “Well, okay. Microsoft has offices here. There are teams here. I’m just going to stick and go to one of those teams.” I was in talks with recruiters and figuring what I need to do next and then I decided to talk to one of my mentors and he asked me something really important. Something I never thought I’d ask myself.

Malvika Mathur: He asked me, “Why do you want to stay?” I was like, “Why is that even a question? I mean like it’s my dream company. The pay is great. All my friends are here. I like the work. Why would I want to move?” But then he asked me again, “Why do you want to stay?” And I thought about it. It turns out the answers for both these questions are not the same. I thought about what I’ve done so far in Microsoft. I thought about if I move to a team here, what would it mean for me?

Malvika Mathur: And I realize that it’s going to sort of slow down my growth trajectory, and it’s something that’s really important to me. I mean it’s great to be learning new technologies, but I realize that as a developer, that’s not all I wanted to do. I don’t want to just go in and write code. I want to do something more. Contribute more in the work that I do. Suddenly, life out of Microsoft sort of became an option. Since I was moving to the Bay Area, working at a start up was suddenly on my shortlist.

Malvika Mathur: I started looking for jobs. And looking for jobs is hard — it is exhausting. And I realize that subconsciously that was one of the reasons I didn’t want to move out — I was in a stable job, I was comfortable, I have my friends around. I don’t want to move because of that. But in the whole process of not looking for a new job, I ended up ignoring the whole process of what’s right for me and my career at that point. So I started to evaluate that and I started to sort of like give that a lot of focus when I was interviewing in all these companies.

Malvika Mathur: They’re asking me questions, but I also made sure that I was asking these guys the right questions as well. Because I wasn’t that girl anymore who joined a big company, who was excited with any project. I wanted to sort of do more things. And I wanted to make sure that wherever I went I got those things. Whenever I go and talk to these people, I started checking on like, “Hey, what’s your technology stack, am I going to learn something out of that?” Right?

Malvika Mathur: What are the sort of projects the team is working on right now? What are the projects they’re going to work on later? What’s a big problem that the team is trying to solve for the company or the industry that they work in? And as I started asking these questions, I realized that I am sort of leaning towards working in a start up environment. I think that’s something that’s really important. Whenever you’re trying to find a place that you want to work at, it’s really important to sort of know what challenges you and what excites you to work there. And that’s how I ended up at Quantcast.

Malvika Mathur: I joined Quantcast January of 2017. The last year and a half has been a rollercoaster. I like roller coasters, but it’s one of those Six Flags Magic Mountain types. Well, initially when I joined, I had this really bad habit of just comparing everything that’s done here with how I used to do it in Microsoft. I do that sometimes still, but I try not to as much. And the more I compare, I realize that there’s a pattern. And the pattern is that in these big companies, particularly like what I was doing in Microsoft, work is more divided. Responsibilities are divided. Teams are more siloed. You know exactly what you’re supposed to do. When I go in as a developer, it would be like, “Hey, these are your things to do today.” And you just do that and walk out and that’s it. But here, I was involved in stuff from ground zero. Like I was there at the conceptualization of ideas and while we’re building the feature or while we’re doing the system. And I’ll see it through. And then in the end, I’ll be responsible for taking care of it when it’s in our production.

Malvika Mathur: Another thing was the technology stack. Microsoft was all .NET, here it’s all open source. I mean the first day I walked in, these guys gave me a MacBook. I had never worked on a MacBook before. My first few weeks here were so frustrating. And then after that, they’re just like, “Hey, we have some systems here that are written in Ruby, Java, Python. You own them now.” Right. It was challenging, scary, challenging, but in a good way. So while I was ramping up and figuring out all these differences, I realize that the biggest takeaway is that it doesn’t matter how a company operates or what technology stack they have. The biggest thing that matters is your appetite for learning and where you can get that in a work environment.

Malvika Mathur: In different stages of our career, we have different needs. And it’s really important to cater to those needs. When I started off, everything inside in me, I didn’t care, it’s big company, awesome. But then as I grew up, I realize that I wanted something more specific. I want to do certain things and I tried to find the right fit for me.

Malvika Mathur: I think one thing all of us should do when you go back today is try to figure out why you are where you are and what would help you make the right career move in the way that you want to go to. And that’s something that could be within the company that you’re at right now or outside. Thank you.

Dorothy Tse: Thank you Malvika. That’s fantastic. I’m sure there’s a few of us in the room who can resonate with a story like that, going from a large company, a small one, doing all the comparisons. Pros and cons. So thank you for that. So next up, we have we have Brittni Gustaf. She’s going to speak to us about hacking the customer experience.

Brittni Gustaf speaking at Quantcast Girl Geek Dinner.

Brittni Gustaf: All right. Hello. So I’m Brittni Gustaf and I’m a senior software engineer here at Quantcast. And I’m on the Measure team. So you guys have been hearing a lot about advertising, but I’m in the other side of the company. So I’ve been here for just over four years now and since I’ve started, we have lot of changes on the Measure team, especially on how we go about creating products and features, how we design them and then how we actually implement them. And it’s improved for a lot since that time. So I’m going to kind of get in to why, like how we’ve made those improvements and, yeah, bring my leader’s knowledge to you guys, I guess.

Brittni Gustaf: Okay. Measure has kind of been neglected since I started. We’re not the side of the company that brings in the money. We provide the data that provides … the side that brings them the money, but it’s really hard to quantify features that we’re doing it and for it to actually having an impact on your company or not. Because we are focusing so much on what will make the company grow, Measure kind of got passed to the side. We didn’t have a lot of people looking into what features we should have to continue to improve Measure. What we did instead is we kind of came up with what we thought people would want. We didn’t really ask them very much what they wanted, we just kind of, we’re like, “This would be cool and probably would help. Let’s create it.” As you can probably guess, that didn’t work super well.

Brittni Gustaf: We spent a lot of engineering time creating products that no one actually really wanted. And that was pretty disappointing when you spend all this time as an engineer and you’re like, “Wow, I made this.” And it was like, “Wow, no one wants that.” You’re like, “Okay.” The company, soon after I started was like, “All right. We’re doing this wrong. We need to change something up.” We did a reorg. And I remember the day after we announced that we had to reorg really well, we had our full day meeting with our new leader of Measure. His name is Sam. And one of the things that stuck out most to me during that meeting was he started telling a story about his acquaintance that he had previously. Don’t quote this to him by the way, I am doing this from my memory, from a long time ago, but I think I have it pretty well because it was so kind of terrifying to me.

Brittni Gustaf: What he told us was like, he had an acquaintance and what this acquaintance did was he went and created, spent the least amount of effort he could to create a prototype and then went out to find customers for his prototype, selling it as a product. And he would be like, “Here. Look at this awesome product we have.” And the customer will be like, “Wow. That’s really cool. It would be really awesome if it had this feature.” And he’d be like, “Okay.” He would spend the bare minimum amount of time implementing that feature into his prototype and then he’d keep going back to clients and being like, “Look at this awesome product we have.” Until he got enough investment into his product to then actually create the product. And I was like … While he’s telling me the story, I’m just like, “What is happening? Like this is super sketchy, are we going to be lying to our clients here and telling them we have products we don’t actually have?” Well, he quickly assured me that that was not what our goal was, but that we should have a client-first sort of approach to things, where we create, we spend minimal effort, create a prototype, show it to the client and get feedback before we waste all of this time on it. And that was this mindset that led us to the Measure Hackathon.

Brittni Gustaf: How the Measure Hackathon works and how it’s totally different from other hackathons is that we would actually get all of our … Well, we try to get a diverse and key clients into the actual office and we just brought them in and in the morning, we spend three hours with them, just asking them questions about what they do in their job and how could it be improved. And then trying to come up with ideas for how our software could improve it. So after these three hours working with them, you’ll probably recognize a lot of these from one of our earlier slides because they’re the big ones, right? After this three hours, we actually … they went and got on a bus and went to go do fun clienty stuff and the engineers got stuck in the office for 24 hours to try and put this idea into an actual functioning-ish prototype. That is at least demo-able.

Brittni Gustaf: This creates two different experiences. So yeah, the clients come here. They’re like, “Oh, here are my problems. All right. Cool. You guys work on that and we’re going to go up and get literally, wined and dined and party it up until 24 hours later.” Which they’ll come back and then hopefully we have solved all of their problems. On the other hand, you have the engineering experience. Not quite as glamorous, as you can see. You get a really creative with what kind of seating you’re going to sit in. I love this because it’s like, how many different seats can you try, but you need to be comfortable for 24 hours and it takes a lot of work to be comfortable for 24 hours programming. And then you also gain a very unhealthy dependency on caffeine so that you can function throughout the entire time.

Brittni Gustaf: All right. I don’t know who I’m kidding. We all love hackathons and we all know it. Luckily for us, the company literally butters us up and they give us tons of stuff while we’re doing our hackathon. They’re like, “We love you guys for working. Here, have all your favorite things.” And I feel like they literally catered this food to me. Like sushi, they literally bring in sushi chefs and they make sushi for us. They give us acai bowls, which are my favorite thing in the world. Pizza, it’s like amazing. And they also give us tons of other stuff, like swag. I was going to wear my sweatshirt because it’s really nice, but it’s way too hot. And we get massages.

Brittni Gustaf: One of the best things that we get is that you really get to know people who work in your organization that you don’t really work with. It’s a lot of bonding when you’re trying to solve these problems really quickly and you’re all working in the same code base for 24 hours on the same thing.

Brittni Gustaf: We also like to take breaks, keep the brain lubricated. We’ve gone midnight drinking, which is always a lot of fun. So the client wins, they get wined and dined. The engineers win, the company’s trying to butter us up a ton, and the company wins, as well, because we’ve had a lot of really successful features come out of this.

Brittni Gustaf: Here we have something that came out of our first Measure hackathon, actually. Oh, I forgot to tell you how you win. So the clients, they get a hypothetical amount of money that they can spend on each prototype, so each project, and whoever gets the most money, we actually try and turn into a functioning feature on the website. This is our first one. And it’s one of the most successful products now at Quantcast. People really like it. Yeah. And then if you guys are interested in learning more about how you should prototype things, be customer first, you can check out our blog post. We have the last two years up there and it has some cool videos that give you a full feel of the entire thing. Not 24 hours on, just five minutes, but yeah. Thank you.

Dorothy Tse: Thank you so much, Brittni. I can attest to the comparison of the hackathons here at Quantcast to the hackathons at Facebook. And I’d much prefer the hackathons at Quantcast. So up next, we’ve got Somer Simpson to talk to us about how a small team can impact the entire industry.

Somer Simpson: Thank you. You guys still doing good?

Audience Member: Yeah.

Somer Simpson speaking at Quantcast Girl Geek Dinner.

Somer Simpson: All right. Awesome. So we have a pretty significant success at Quantcast. We’ve been on a lot of industry news over the past, it’s only been two months since May. And that’s like the marketing story. That’s like the cleaned up version. What I wanted to do is kind of give you guys the story behind the story and that’s really the interesting part. And also because I’m like super proud of my team because they seriously seriously kicked ass with a really really complicated problem. We’re going to talk about GDPR. Raise your hand if you’ve heard GDPR. Excellent. That makes my job easier. Cool. And I hope you really paid attention, as well, to the first presentations because it gave you a really nice clean overview of what the ad tech sort of industry looks like. So you kind of know the area that we’re going to have to play with.

Somer Simpson: So what is GDPR? I’ll give you the short version. So it is the General Data Protection Regulation. I have other words that I plug in for those those letters occasionally, but that works. So anyway, this is a law that was passed by EU regulators a couple of years ago. It went into effect on May 25th of this year, which was an incredibly fun day for me. It’s actually an addition to a previous law called the ePrivacy Directive that was passed a number of years ago. And basically, all together what it does is it says that companies who access users’ devices and they set cookies and they collect data on individuals and they process that data, they have to have consent from users to be able to do that.

Somer Simpson: When ePrivacy Directive was passed, there was no sort of like definition of what does that consent mean. Like what do we actually have to do? So it’s open to interpretation. All across Europe you see all these banners that pop up on everybody’s sites that say things like, “If you continue navigating the site … “ And often it’s like really tiny, down in the corner. “If you continue navigating the site, that means you consent to us using your data for any reason that we want and we’re not going to tell you why or how. And by the way, you’re first-born is ours too.”

Somer Simpson: What GDPR did, when they realized what was happening, it actually says, “Okay guys. All right. So first, here’s some rules around what consent means. It has to be unambiguous. You actually have to have somebody like click and take an action that says yes or no, I can send.” Everybody in ad tech, just about anybody on the web sets cookies. Everybody does some level of tracking. You go to a website now, everybody’s got plugin, browser plugins that show you just how many cookies are being set. We’re being tracked a lot.

Somer Simpson: If you can imagine, if every single one of those companies individually had to ask a user if they can consented or not, now when you go to a website, you’ve got 50 pop-ups happening in front of you, asking you for your individual consent. That wasn’t going to work.

Somer Simpson: We knew that disruption was going to be inevitable. But this is tied to revenue. Disruption is not an option, but neither is business as usual. We have to respect consumer privacy. We’re all consumers. We value our data, we value our privacy, and it’s important that the companies we work for and the companies that you work with do that as well. We set out on a project to deal with how we were going to deal with GDPR because we had significant business in the EU and it was important to us, being a privacy-first company to begin with, but to also address this and stay up to date with the clients.

Somer Simpson: We have been working with IAB Europe, Interactive Advertising Bureau, IAB Europe. They have had this working group going for a number of years. That started out mostly with the lawyers talking and trying to debate and understand and figure out what their thoughts were on it. And we kept getting closer and closer down to the wire of May 25th. And then last minute, they pull the engineers in and they’re like, “Hey guys, we need a technical solution for this. You’ve got three months. Go.” Yeah. That was mildly entertaining. We knew that we needed a solution, if that’s the solution to every problem.

Somer Simpson: What we did was we, at Quantcast made a bet on an industry solution. This was the only way that we were going to be able to prevent major fragmentation in the marketplace and still, as an ecosystem, be able to work together and at the same time, not just be compliant with the law, but actually really respect consumer privacy and listen to what their preferences were and actually honored those signals. A number of companies work together. A lot of competitors. Not only were we trying to solve a common problem that we all had, but everybody was coming to the table with their own agenda. It was a lot like herding cats. When I got pulled into these conversations, I’m a little blunt. I have a little problem with patience sometimes.

Somer Simpson: I went through two of these calls, actually three. They were happening weekly. Same set of people and we just talked about the same thing every single week over and over again and never made any progress. We had four potential solutions that had been proposed and we were basically debating like the most … The most ridiculous minutiae of each one. And trying to figure out which one we were going to do. Everybody got impatient. We’re like, “Okay. Fine. This Friday we’re going to put it to a vote.” And I’m like, “No. None of these work. They’re all awful for some reason.”

Somer Simpson: I went back to my team — and, which Brittni was on our team — and pulled everybody together and was like, “Okay. Here’s the situation.” And I explained everything, pulled our chief privacy officer in so she can answer the legal questions because I don’t have a legal degree and we basically had three days to come up with a better solution than what had already been proposed. And then bring that back to the group and hopefully they buy the idea and then we go from there.

Somer Simpson: This is the team. We had chief privacy officer. We had one incredibly busy designer because they always are. We had an engineering lead, who also had four other teams that he was having to manage at the time and then we had four engineers, who also had other work that they were responsible for and none of them had a legal degree, but had to still be able to understand and operate on that level. We had … Well, the first day was me talking so really three days. But four days to get … Until a group vote was going to happen on this proposed solution.

Somer Simpson: We had one moment of inspiration where one of our chief engineers who we talked to about the problem was out jogging one day and just had this moment of inspiration and came back in and he’s like, “I have an idea.” We pulled everybody together. We had three days to figure this thing out and then an hour to visit the idea and basically change the future of everyone in this working group.

Somer Simpson: The way we approach this, and these are the … It’s kind of the things that I think were what really drove our success, other than the fact that we had a incredible team of super, super smart people. We went consumer vote first. The problem with the working group is they were so tied up in their own agendas and figuring out what they wanted. They were forgetting that it’s all about consumer privacy. And that’s what we had to solve first. We did that, realized none of them were doing discovery and talking to consumers or even talking to very many publishers.

Somer Simpson: I very quickly went out, picked up the phone, started calling people, getting input, and and came up with a framework of what was being asked for. We added the context of that so we all got a crash course in the law and what our interpretation of it was, and then we understood the unique sort of positions of the other companies because they’re the stakeholders, you got to convince them. And then we prototyped this thing in just a number of days. Just so that we could have a proof of concept. Because talking about something and the architecture of something is not quite as valuable and strong as actually showing someone that this will work.

Somer Simpson: That’s what we did. We present it to the team and it was like dead silence and then the leader of the group said, “Do you guys want to vote?” We’re like, “Sure.” And then we all voted and ours won by landslide. I think we had one person who voted against it. The dude from the Daily Mail.

Somer Simpson: What we created was this industry-wide standard, and which allows all the system to talk to each other in the same language. It’s open source, which is something that we absolutely demanded because we didn’t want to get into arguments over who owned what IP. It was publisher-centric and it was consumer-centric.

Somer Simpson: The outcome: today, a little over two months since the 25th, we have a new industry. Consent management platforms. This is this whole new thing. We’ve got a 113 that have launched on the on the IUD framework, which is what we ended up calling this thing. We’ve got 400 registered vendors and growing every single day. You are a part of this framework and talking to each other and sharing consent. 19% of the top 10,000 US and UK sites now have an IAB compliant solution in place on their site. 45.3% of the tools, actually they have some sort of CMP in place, 45% of those are IAB compliant and Quantcast has 69% market share of all of those consent solutions in market. That’s it.

Dorothy Tse: Thank you so much, Somer. That was awesome. Somer and her team have such great impact on this organization in ways that I wasn’t aware. I didn’t realize what happened. And the biggest impact for me is that I was able to hire one of my most senior recent hires because of the leadership industry impact that Somer and her team did. So they … he was very aware of the work that we were doing and liked it so much that he joined the company. Thank you for that.

Dorothy Tse: Next, but not least, we have Disha Gosalia, speaking to us about her experiences navigating being a shy engineer. Thanks.

Disha Gosalia speaking at Quantcast Girl Geek Dinner.

Disha Gosalia: All right. Last talk and given the topic of my talk, I should start from a point of vulnerability or I can’t wait for this to get over so as you guys so we can all get back to our mingling.

Disha Gosalia: I run customer support and operations here at Quantcast. And why do I qualify and why am I here talking about this? Growing up in India, when you’re somebody who’s a straight A student, or academically focused, you’re kind of placed at a pedestal and you always make your parents proud and so it doesn’t matter if you’re a loner out there. I never realized that I was a shy, loner kid.

Disha Gosalia: Imagine my surprise when, after I completed my software engineering degree, Computer Science, and went for my first job as a software engineer, in my first half-yearly performance review, when your boss goes through all the great 10 things you did. But that one area of development that you always think about.

Disha Gosalia: He actually asked me, “So are you an introvert? I never see you walking around the desk of your colleagues or chatting up with them and you actually don’t even talk much in team meetings.” And I’m like, “Hmm. Am I supposed to talk much in team meetings? Well, I’m new. Should I not be listening more?” But that was honestly the first time I realized that my personality didn’t have a part to play in my career.

Disha Gosalia: Fast forward several years. Now, as I parent really sensitive kids who are often called shy and quiet, I grapple with this thought on a daily basis — like how do I raise confident young adults who can accept themselves as what they are but at the same time also has this growth mindset. And so today, I’m going to go through some of my learnings as I’ve navigated my career and hopefully as I share my story, you guys can pick up some tidbits here.

Disha Gosalia: One of my first experiences when I became a new manager, I attended a new manager leadership training. And the instructor actually asked me and actually the class to write down your word cloud. What it meant was what are qualities that you look in a leader that you want yourself emulate. And when I wrote that down, how this helped me is I kind of became sure sure of what I wanted to be, where I want to go. And I stopped actually feeling bad about traits that I saw in other people that I didn’t actually have. And so I think this helped me because the first step for me was to understand what I wanted to be and then everything else became easier. I just had to go get it.

Disha Gosalia: As Gandhi says, “You need to be the change you want to be, but then you need to understand what that change is.” Before I talk about personality inventory, I will share this story. There was a academic incident that was a big learning point for me.

Disha Gosalia: I was in a really big meeting with my colleagues, my boss was there, my boss’s boss was there, and we were discussing this solution, an implementation solution, a complex solution and the person presenting the solution kept going on and on and 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 just decided to kind of 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 of being indecisive.

Disha Gosalia: She said, “Why did you agree with me in the first place?” And I was really taken aback. I’m like, “Really? Did I even agree with you?”

Disha Gosalia: It actually gave me a couple of sleepless nights. And 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 the meeting was actually taken as agreement by her, and it was only because we have had different ways of processing information.

Disha Gosalia: Fast forward in the same manager training, they made me take this Myers-Briggs personality test or there’s the Myers-Briggs, the Enneagram kind of same type of personality test and my original thought with these was, these kind of pigeon hole you into specific categories and it’s like, “Do I have to choose between being a compassionate person, like Mother Theresa or being a leader like Martin Luther King. Why can’t I be both?” But being a good student that was, I went with the flow and what I understood was this wasn’t labeling me in a particular bracket, but it was really understanding how I communicated and how can I become a better communicator with my co-workers and team mates and kind of others in my circle of influence. But that’s what it is. That’s basically all this personality inventory is.

Disha Gosalia: Going back to that example, this person, the way she processed was she would talk and think while she’s talking while how I process was like think and then talk. Like I would have these long awkward pauses but she would keep going on and on, and what I realized in actually going through this process was I need to just find a pause and then ask clarifying questions and that’s kind of how to better communicate with her.

Disha Gosalia: Now to contrast that is the growth mindset. I read this really great statement that’s made a big impact on me about this contrast theory. The growth mindset actually tells you that, do you accept yourself the way you are or do you actually try to be more, more than what you are and constantly evolve and constantly grow?

Disha Gosalia: Bear with me for a minute. I want to actually give you guys an example that I read that, again, made a lot of sense to me. And this is about the metal industry and how do they rate the hardness of metals. They rate them from a scale of 1 to 10 from a hardness perspective. A diamond is a 10 and a tin is one. A copper is a three. Tin is the softest and copper is three. Now tin and copper are not found in the same vicinity at all. They’re like found in a completely different vicinity. Somebody decided to take tin and copper and combine them. You would actually think that that would be an average so its hardness would be a two, but no, combining tin and copper gives you bronze, which is a six.

Disha Gosalia: This is what happens, and it’s called the contrast theory. It creates this unique magical combination. And that’s how personality traits are. I mean you could be way over here as an introverted shy person or you could be way over here. Aggressive, type A sales guy. I work with sales guys a lot in this job so I can pull on that a little bit. But if you combine and while you are right here, try to get a little bit of this side, you can be unstoppable. You could be an engineer surrounded by a lot of shy engineers. Try to get more communicator, public speaking skills or even skills to make other people feel special and it will just be going places.

Disha Gosalia: This is … what Sheryl Sandberg says in her book Lean In, always sit at table. Don’t take side seats. And it was really important for somebody like me, who had a very soft voice when I was in meetings and if I wanted to say something, I would think and by the time, sometimes the time’s already gone to speak. But when you’re in that center stage, people can actually see your body language that you want to say and can actually give you a way in. I started showing up in some important meetings where I would know there are a lot of people before time so I could get the right seat.

Disha Gosalia: What this also did was when somebody disagreed with you, they actually had to look in your eyes and do that. I hate conflict. I don’t like that one bit, but when I think of some of the biggest innovative solutions, the breakthroughs I’ve been part of. They’ve usually been through a lot of intense intervention, conflict, and I’ve learned to put myself in those situations. Put your ideas out there, let it be beaten up and you will learn something through it.

Disha Gosalia: Beth Comstock was a leader I truly admire. She’s the ex Vice Chair and CMO at GE, where I was previously before Quantcast, said this: “Conflict is a primary engine of creativity and innovation.”

Disha Gosalia: And I’ve learned to accept that, however hard that is. Kind of let that in once in awhile. One other principle that I grew up with was, you do your karma and don’t worry about the results. Other way of actually putting that is you can actually outwork anybody else, you can out prepare anybody else and that’s kind of what I try to do. I try to be double prepared and triple prepared when I know it’s kind of my chance to do things that are uncomfortable.

Disha Gosalia: I use to get really flustered when I would be put in a position by someone or in a spot by someone where I have to give quick responses or make decisions quickly. And what I learned … It was actually a mentor of mine who helped me through this and coach me through this is, you know it’s okay to ask for more time.

Disha Gosalia: It’s okay to say that, “I’m going to need 24 hours. I need to sleep through this. I need to think through this,” and there’s no shame in doing that. Don’t let anybody else put you on the spot and make you give answers that you’re not ready to give.

Disha Gosalia: Let’s bring it all together. Find out what you want and just go for that. Always take a seat at the table, not the side seats. Always be prepared, but if you’re not, there’s no shame in asking for more time. Find a Yang to your Yin.

Disha Gosalia: This is something again, I’ve done when I hosted large events or large meetings, find somebody who is … who can compliment your quiet type of personality. Somebody who’s upbeat and funny and loud. It just makes things easier, and I don’t go to a social gathering where there are too many strangers without my husband who was a talker. There’s like no awkward silent moments. But he sometimes forgets when he’s talking that I’m even around. But that’s a different topic.

Disha Gosalia: Lastly, I think if you remember that all human beings are really at core, alike. And we all like to be respected and we want to perform in our jobs and want to be heard and and listened to. So I think when you remember that, I think everything else is just smaller. That’s it. Thank you.

Dorothy Tse: Thank you so much Disha for sharing your story. So right now it’s time for a Q&A from all of our speakers. Any topics you may want to ask any of us. So if you’re interested and have some questions, you can come over to my right side here and ask a question and all of our speakers will come up and answer any questions that you may have. Thank you.

Quantcast girl geeks answering audience questions at Quantcast Girl Geek Dinner.

Audience Member: This is kind of just general to everybody, but as a female in tech and in engineering and in product, what do you feel like is your biggest struggle and how do you succeed in this role when we are kind of overwhelmed with males in our community?

Somer Simpson: It’s funny when I first stood up here. I mean I’ve been in tech since 1994 and I’m looking out in the audience and I’m like, “You know what, finally I’m looking at what tech should look like.” But having been in tech that long, I learned a long time ago to just not differentiate. Not even admit or acknowledge that there’s a difference and just be myself and speak my mind and be a part of the conversation. Just don’t take no for an answer.

Disha Gosalia: Yeah. I mean I’ll just add in. I think Somer’s really right, what I’ll add is also you know, I’ve always had good women role models, who helped me like when I got first child. How to navigate that and just kind of go through things. So it’s important to obviously not see yourself as different from a man, but then we are different. So definitely try to find somebody that you can follow and who’s ready to like guide you through some life changes.

Esther Hsu: I will admit that it actually took me awhile to realize what a problem it was for women nowadays, and once I did, it was actually looking pretty discouraging. Like you notice all these differences from you to all the people around you and you kind of automatically see it as a detriment. And I think, for me, what made the biggest difference was just having mentors and people who I really look up to — men or women — who really point out all my strengths, and I’ve realized that all my strengths are the things that made me different. As cliche as that sound. It’s like when I started it’s like I hate hearing that too. But it’s like it’s so true. Everything that makes me different that people might see as feminine qualities are what make me a better engineer and a better communicator and a better leader.

Brittni Gustaf: So the thing that probably held me back to the beginning was like the imposter syndrome. I’m sure you guys have heard of it. And I really struggled with that at the beginning. I still struggle with it sometimes now, but at the beginning it was so bad.

Brittni Gustaf: It took me a really long time to realize that there are a lot of people who have very strong opinions and they voice them as fact — but it’s not.

Brittni Gustaf: You sit there and I always at the beginning, I was like, “I’m just completely wrong.” Like, “I don’t think this is right at all, but obviously this guy knows what he’s talking about. He’s so sure of himself.” It took me a really long time to realize that if I’m confident on something, you have to actually bring it up. And then a lot of the times, there are other people in the room who will also be like, “Yeah.”

Malvika Mathur: I feel like whatever I want to say has already been said. But I’ve caught myself in situations where I’m the only female in a team of people or in a meeting and I realized that nothing is bigger than logic. If you have solid points and if you know exactly what you’re saying, it doesn’t matter what gender you are or whatever else. It just like you have a good point and a good point always wins. That’s about it. Just note that. Sorry.

Dorothy Tse: I didn’t realize you were all going around. But one thing I will add is that as a female leader, I try to embrace it. I embrace the fact that we’re bringing a different perspective in a very male-dominated industry and that is an asset to a company. The different ideas that come from a woman’s brain and the types of perspectives that are brought sometimes are very unique and different. So I encourage myself and certainly others to think about just embracing that diversity.

Audience Member: Awesome. Thank you ladies.

Somer Simpson: Just one other thing to add. I think part of my sort of struggling in the journey was, I was fighting more to be queer in the work environment. So being a woman in the work environment kind of like took a side stage.

Audience Member: All right. Thank you ladies. You guys are all amazing.

Audience Member: Hi. I’m Sheryn and I’m a co-founder of a startup. We’re also only females. So it’s really great to see you guys up here. I think all of your stories complimented each other and it’s very nice. It’s a novel of stories that’s set in front of us. My question’s more specific in terms of the hackathon. I’m a UX designer, researcher, and when you talked about the hackathon, it seemed very developer focused. So I was wondering if that’s part of the culture here that the designers are also part of the hackathon or is it very engineer focused? Because you keep saying the users first and we’re the ones that were kind of super obsessed. We made our whole lives about the users. So how does that work here?

Brittni Gustaf: Yeah. I should have probably clarified that better. So it’s not just engineers, it’s definitely product managers and UX as well and all of the designers and we actually sometimes, we like get disappointed if you don’t have the designer on your team in a hackathon because having a designer is like a huge asset because things that look nice and work well for the user, tend to win really well even in your simple prototype.

Brittni Gustaf: So, yeah, they’re a huge portion of it and also a huge portion here at Quantcast at working with the product managers to make sure the design is what customers can understand. And we’ve learned that the hard way because we use to have tests where we would have people run through our stuff and that was just so painful to be like, “Just scroll down. What do you want? It’s just down a little bit.”

Brittni Gustaf: And like people are trying to get to certain paid and they’re clicking everything but the button they should be clicking. So yeah, that was the struggle we had and we’ve become a lot better at that by having both product and design create clickable prototypes and then have the user use it and then get feedback and then make improvements. Which has been really awesome and it’s really improved our products so far.

Audience Member: Thank you.

Somer Simpson: I was going to say that worked so well in the hackathons that we’ve actually reorged our groups to have dedicated teams to each product, that’s made up of a product manager, engineers and assigned UX person and a product marketing manager.

Audience Member: Hey there. The question I have is more specific to Somer’s story, but if it makes you think of stories that you want to share because of what I asked, go for it. My question was about your decision to say, “Wow! All these ideas suck. I’m going to come up with my own and present it and hope for the best.” What was going through your mind when you made that move? What other steps did you take to increase the chances that they’d go for it?

Somer Simpson: The options that were on the table, at the surface, all of them were great ideas. But once you scratch, pull off the surface, they all had problems. For instance, one idea was a centralized registry to store people’s permissions, but that would be one company building a massive database that might hold the trillions of records necessary to do it but all that data would be in the hands of one company. That was bad. And then we had one that was like this pure, what they called daisy bit, which was we just pass this information around.

Somer Simpson: What we ended up doing was we took kind of like the best of the solutions that fit everybody’s needs and were like not quite so controversial and created what we initially called a hybrid solution, but I mean it wasn’t completely my decision. I mean I walked back into the room with the team that’s like, “All these ideas suck.” But it was the team that actually really got together in understanding, in breaking down each solution, took the best out of each and came up with the right thing that ended up working well for everyone.

Somer Simpson: Brittni, you want to give your side of it?

Brittni Gustaf: I think that the other side of things is that it’s really important to bring in other people and get outside perspectives. That was one of the things that disappointed me most about the GDPR implementation is that IAB and all of these people who are meeting for so long, trying to come up with a solution to this. And all it took was pulling in more people with more ideas to be able to get the best one. But we spent so much time not getting there because we weren’t pulling in everybody needed and getting all the different diverse perspectives to be able to come up with the idea that was best.

Brittni Gustaf: I feel like we got a later start than we should have because if it had been … If the correct people had been pulled in sooner then we would have not have such a stressful time trying to get this done before the law was in place.

Audience Member: All right. Thank you so much.

Dorothy Tse: Ladies, thank you so much — and some gentlemen too. Thank you so much for attending the Girl Geek Dinner and we just want to emphasize also that at Quantcast, our greatest asset is our employees and there’s a bunch of folks around the room that are wearing Quantcast clothes as well as all of us up here and we would love to talk to you further about Quantcast. Thank you – we are hiring!

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Breaking All The Rules & Finding Your Own Way: Girl Geek X Guidewire Panel (Video + Transcript)

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Guidewire girl geeks: Priscilla Hung (Chief Operating Officer), Eileen Maier (Chief Business Officer), Lerk-Ling Chang (VP of Strategic Ventures), Sandia Ren (VP of Professional Services), Roopal Shah (VP of Go To Market Delivery) at the Girl Geek X Dinner held at Guidewire’s offices in Foster City, California.

Roopal Shah / VP, Marketing / Guidewire
Priscilla Hung / COO / Guidewire
Eileen Maier / CBO / Guidewire
Lerk-Ling Chang / VP of Strategic Ventures / Guidewire
Sandia Ren / VP, Professional Services / Guidewire

Transcript of Guidewire Girl Geek Dinner – Panel:

Roopal Shah: All right. Welcome everybody. We are so glad that you guys are here. My name is Roopal Shah. I’m the Vice President for Go To Market Delivery, which essentially is product marketing, sales enablement, business planning, and operations for our Go To Market functions. I’ve been with Guidewire for eight years. That hopefully tells you a little bit about what an awesome place this is to work at. Without further ado I would love to have each one of these ladies introduce themselves, tell us a little bit about what your role is, who you are, and how long you’ve been at Guidewire.

Priscilla Hung: Welcome, everybody, to Guidewire. My name is Priscilla Hung. I’m the Chief Operating Officer of the company. I have been with Guidewire for 13 years and two months. In Silicon Valley, that’s 1,300 years, as you know. I’ve been working in the Valley for about 30 years. This is, by far, the best company I’ve ever worked for. It shows because I’ve been here forever.

Priscilla Hung: My responsibility from a day-to-day basis, basically, is to make sure that the operation work, by design, but my direct responsibilities today include corporate strategy. That includes all the business development, market strategy, M&A, partners, product marketing, Roopal and Eileen’s team, and whatever that entails, including film marketing and definition of the market and product development. What else?

Eileen Maier: Film.

Priscilla Hung: Yeah. Yeah. I did alliances.

Eileen Maier: Influencing.

Priscilla Hung: Influence, like all the IT, IS, and security, cloud operations, customer success. I think that’s it. I really love the company. I love everybody here. I’m so delighted to see so many old faces here. I’m looking forward to have some conversation with you tonight.

Eileen Maier: Hi, everybody. My name is Eileen Maier. I am the chief business officer at Guidewire. I’ve been here 13 years. Today is my 13th anniversary! <clapping> I know! My role is chief business officer; I work for Priscilla. First things first, I do whatever she wants me to, but I’m privileged to lead the team that is actually the voice of the market. In understanding, you saw one of our customers talking about their market needs and what is it that they need to run their business. I have a team that is responsible for really understanding where those market needs are and to translate those into business opportunities for Guidewire. Where do we see a market opportunity by serving that customer’s needs?

Eileen Maier: Then, they work very closely with another member of Priscilla’s team, the product team, to realize that, to make it into something that we can bring to market. Then, I’m also privileged to have Roopal on my team because then it’s her team that does the Go To Market Delivery, so how do we translate that product or that solution into something that our sales people can sell so we can grow our business?

Eileen Maier: It’s been exciting and a wonderful journey to be with Guidewire. This is a relatively new position. I’ve been in it for about a year. I think that that’s something that I’d loved the chance to talk to you about, of transitions within your own company and how you can grow your career without having to change where you work. Okay. Over to you.

Lerk-Ling Chang: Hello, everyone. Can guys hear me? Is my mic working?

Roopal Shah: Yes.

Lerk-Ling Chang: Okay. Awesome. Okay. I’m Lerk-Ling Chang. I’m VP of Strategic Ventures here at Guidewire. My focus is on helping the company grow through acquisitions, through partnerships, and through venture investments. I’ve been with the company now for 16 years. That’s 14 years more than what I thought I would be here, so it does speak to the character of the company and what we love about the company. Encourage you guys to talk to the folks here who are wearing Guidewire t-shirts. Feel free to ask them why are you here and would love to share that with you.

Lerk-Ling Chang: I joined the company when the company was really small, 12 people, the company had just landed the first customer. Had just raised a first round of funding but didn’t have a product yet. They needed a product manager. I worked in one of the six co-founders at Ariba, a previous company where person that I worked at as well. He reached out to me and said, “Hey, would you like to join this startup of mine?” I was kind of in the middle of a transition. I ended up joining. Ken and I product managed the first product. Actually, I worked with Sandia on that one. A couple years later, led up the development of a second product, PolicyCenter. It’s been an exciting journey.

Lerk-Ling Chang: Now, I’m focused primarily on acquisitions, partnerships. Then, in the last few months, I’ve picked up the lead for our venture investments.

Sandia Ren: Hi, everyone. Is my mic on?

Roopal Shah: Mm-hmm (negative). No.

Sandia Ren: Hi. I’m Sandia Ren, and I’m a vice president on our professional services team. We’re the team that goes out to customer sites and helps them implement our product and use our products. We’re the ones who get to travel. I’ve been with Guidewire for fifteen and a half years, so a little less than Lerk-Ling. I actually started as a software engineer. Yes, she was my product manager. I wrote unit tests for our very first product. Now, I’m Vice President of Professional Services. I would love to tell you about that journey. I’ve been very grateful to Guidewire for the opportunities that I’ve had.

Sandia Ren: These days, I look after our specialized consulting teams. These are the teams that work on our products outside of our core systems. This includes our data and analytics products, our digital products, underwriting management, and then competencies like upgrades and testing and infrastructure, all the stuff that people don’t like to think about so that’s in there, the specialized umbrella.

Sandia Ren speaking at Guidewire Girl Geek Dinner.

Sandia Ren: Then, I also look after what we call the Guidewire Services Center. These are our delivery centers around the world that have lots of teams of consultants who help our customers implement and deliver our products remotely. We have four offices now. Our largest is in Dublin, Ireland. Then, we have a team in Pennsylvania. It’s our US team. Then, we also have a team in Madrid, Spain. Then, we just opened an office in Malaysia.

Sandia Ren: For full disclosure, I just got off the plane from Malaysia. If it sounds like I can’t get my words out, that’s my excuse for tonight but I do certainly feel very privileged that it’s my job to travel around and meet just exceptional people around the world who all share our values and are committed to the same goals and our customers. Thank you so much for coming. It’s really exciting to be here.

Roopal Shah: Okay. Awesome. Thank you for that.

Roopal Shah:Let’s start with our first question and this is to all of you. I would love to get your perspective on insurance, specifically there’s a lot of talk about insure tech and what a pivotal time this is right now. What are your thoughts on that? Do you think it’s a pivotal time and what sort of skill sets do you think insurers and insurer tech companies are looking for right now? Anybody want to take that?

Eileen Maier: I can’t speak unless you give me your mic.

Roopal Shah: There you go.

Eileen Maier: I now have control. To rephrase the question, is this an exciting time in insurance? I would say, “Absolutely.” We serve the insurance industry. We are an insurer tech. Within the walls of Guidewire, I’m just so excited because every day, I get to talk about innovation.

Eileen Maier: When I started 13 years ago, today, anniversary, innovation really meant can I improve my business processes? Can I innovate on how I do my business and run my core systems better? That’s still true today. You can see the benefits from that video that we looked at not too long ago but innovation is transforming the industry. When you look around a disruption, it is absolutely impacting the insurance industry. It’s disrupting the way that they sell their products because people are expecting a mobile experience. They really don’t want to buy insurance through a broker. They actually don’t really even understand it. People are looking for insurance actually more associated with the service.

Eileen Maier: I’m sure everybody here is an Uber user. Not too long ago, I got an email in my inbox from an Uber saying, “Hey, with your app, you can rent a car now.” Actually I’m going to rent the car. I’m not even going to think about insurance because insurance is bundled in with that service. We’re thinking every day about what’s disrupting and transforming the industry because we don’t want to deliver products that they just need today. Certainly, we’re doing that. We want to think about what are the products that they need to deliver in the future?

Eileen Maier: I think that if, going back to the second part of your question, what are insurers looking for? They’re looking for creativity. They’re looking for innovation themselves. They’re looking for ways to do things differently because they really don’t want to just continue to do what they’re doing today.

Eileen Maier: Okay. Anybody else want to take a swing at that?

Lerk-Ling Chang: Yeah. I can chime in. I think people can hear me. Insurance is really changing really quickly. In the last five years, it’s probably changed … If you talk to anybody in the industry, they feel like the change has really come at a much faster pace than ever before.

Lerk-Ling Chang: It’s really driven by three things. Eileen talked about some of the things that are coming from consumers. You and I, we all want different things from our insurance companies than we ever did before but it’s also coming from the insurance companies themselves.

Lerk-Ling Chang: I remember 15 years ago, going onto the first customer visit and seeing people still using mainframe systems. It’s shocking but that’s actually a very common system that people still use. When insurance companies are still using that, they can’t actually deliver the kind of service they need to. It’s not because they don’t want to. They’re just stopped by doing that. In that sense, it’s really an exciting time for companies like Guidewire, who have solutions that can help insurance companies provide better service to their customers. That’s been a lot of also additional investment into the industry that then, at least … In the P&C, Property and Casualty technology space, in last year, for example, there’s been a billion dollars of venture funding that have gone into the space. That’s been a lot of startups. We’ve been the beneficiary of that, being one of the leaders here.

Lerk-Ling Chang: The industry has seen a lot of change and insurers themselves are looking for new solutions. It’s one of the best times to be in the industry right now.

Sandia Ren: I thought I’d address your question about what I personally think about insurance. I’ll be honest. When I started 15 years ago, I just followed good people to Guidewire. I didn’t really think too much about the domain or even the product that we were working on, but over the last 15 and a half years, I’ve definitely developed a true, very strong appreciation for what insurers try to do. It’s been amazing to see it evolve over the years but certainly we’ve seen a lot more when it comes to natural disasters.

Sandia Ren: I’m from Houston. We went through Harvey last year. That really hit home when I was hearing my neighbors and that was all that the talk was about in the neighborhood. It was claims and all these terms that I understood. When being in professional services, what I love about it is I get to go out and I get to meet with our customers and understand their business goals. Their business goals are about how to help people like you and me when we’re in our biggest time of need. That’s pretty awesome.

Sandia Ren: In the beginning, we used to say, “Well, insurance isn’t glamorous,” and whatever. We didn’t talk about it too much, but actually I think insurance is awesome. It’s really meaningful. I just wanted to share that perspective because I don’t think it’s something that you really realize until you think about it. At least, it was for me.

Eileen Maier: I actually wouldn’t mind building on that because it’s also the industry itself has changed. One of the more recent acquisitions, the most recent acquisition that Guidewire made was with a company called Cyence. It really is representative of how the insurance industry has shifted because 13 years ago, there wasn’t the need for something called cyber insurance or cyber risk but now there certainly is. Innovation and technology has driven, they actually created a new risk for us.

Eileen Maier: This is really incredible because what Cyence does is they have created a data engine that allows them to sweep up massive amounts of data so that they can use algorithms, detect where cyber risk is. This is completely different type of insurance than the property and casualty insurance that you use to insure your car.

Eileen Maier: I think that there’s this dynamic change within the industry itself because what is an insurable risk or what is risk itself is changing, which means the needs of consumers or businesses is changing and the market has to keep pace with that. The times around us ourselves is actually making it a dynamic time for the industry.

Priscilla Hung: Yeah so maybe I just really briefly round out. I think the ladies will touch on a lot of points already, pretty complete but just a few words. I echo Sandia’s sentiment. When I joined Guidewire 2005 and I joined 100% because of the founders. I’ve known four of them from my previous job. I had no idea what insurance industry is. In fact, when Marcus, our CEO co-founder call me and say, “Come join us,” I was like, “Why do I want to work for a company that serve the insurance industry?” All I thought about is I have to write money to them and when I have a crash, that it takes them a long time to pay me.

Priscilla Hung: But it’s a little bit of a learning curve for me but very, very quickly I have completely falling in love with this industry because you got a preview of some of the videos that you’ve seen but genuinely, our customer, the insurance carriers, they are generally full of people that spend a life and their career in making people whole. They are learning every day and trying to respond to the market and is an inflection point because it’s only very recently that all of us spend all our waking moments looking at devices.

Priscilla Hung: This morning on Today … I don’t know whether you guys watch morning television. I live by them. It’s one of the morning news. It says that an average person I believe is an adult. It didn’t say age group. It says that it spent on the average of 11 hours on electronic devices and between the age of 50 and 65, 13 hours. I don’t know how many hours people sleep but imagine that you spend so much time.

Priscilla Hung speaking at Guidewire Girl Geek Dinner.

Priscilla Hung: People don’t talk to each other anymore. My husband and I were texting each other the other day. I was like, “We have to stop this.” What the insurance company is trying to do is they want to understand this pattern. They want to understand how you live now because in the past, older people like me buy insurance, they call an agent and they’re all, “You fill in the form,” but nobody talk to people anymore. Most of you don’t have a landline. It is to response to the market, respond to this really rapid change because of what technology has come to play. I’m really proud to be part of this team and provide enabling technology for these insurance carriers to respond to your needs.

Roopal Shah: Awesome. Is my mic on? Can you guys hear me? Oh! There we go. All right. Okay. Let’s switch topics a little bit and talk about careers. What I would love for each of you to tell us a little bit about your career progression, how you got to here, if you made any calculated moves, if you had sponsors, mentors, just tell us a little bit about your journey to where you are?

Priscilla Hung: Me first? Okay, sure. My career journey. You might expect me to say, “Oh, you know, you must plan, you degree that you study and you plan your steps.” Absolutely negative. In fact, I go completely opposite side. For those of you who were raised by Asian parents, I’m sure that you appreciate what I’m talking about. My parents wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer or a doctor or a lawyer, but especially I was pretty good at my grades when I was young and whatnot but I’m terrified of blood. My grandmother said, “Don’t be a lawyer because you will have to represent bad people.”

Priscilla Hung: Any case, so those path are gone. I said, “Meeny meeny meeny moe. So, what I do?” I ended up picking an engineering degree. It’s actually by elimination as opposed to plan. If you really asked me what I wanted to study, I want to be artist. I was a trained ballerina. I play pianos. I was a performer. I wanted to be artist. My parents are, “No, no, no, no, no.” You know how it goes.

Priscilla Hung: I got a degree that I really didn’t want to go for. Then, it’s like I go for a job now. I really stumble into … I finished my degree in the East Coast. I came over here because of a boyfriend. Two months later we ended. That was like, “Okay. All right. I need to look for a job.”

Priscilla Hung: It really, completely out of the blue, I got a call from a friend from high school who worked for Oracle. Oracle, at the time, in 1989, was a very tiny company. They were not in the Redwood Shores, up on Belmont Hills and said, “Come work for Oracle.” I was like, “Why to work for a database company?”

Priscilla Hung: I went through an interview that basically, in hindsight, if I were interviewing me when I was back in 1989, there is zero chance I will offer this girl a job because the interviewer asked me … I’m sorry. Am I running out of time? It’s a pretty long story. It basically is saying that, “So what would you like to do? You have an engineering degree. Would you like to be an engineer?” “Absolutely not.” I was like, “Okay. So, what do you want to do? Do want to be marketing?” “What is marketing do?” Show you how it goes. I thought, “Okay. You got good grades. You know, I’m going to hire you.” That’s when I started in 1989 at Oracle.

Priscilla Hung: In fact, I hop many, many jobs in the first 10 years because I actually didn’t really want to be in the discipline. I want to be an artist, remember? I hop around. I didn’t have a compass but I was fortunate in my career in the last 30 years that I ran into two people, both of them are my manager. Both of them saw that I’m someone that could be cultivated. I followed my first manager to three jobs. I finally, many jobs later, I landed at Ariba.

Priscilla Hung: I met someone that really wanted to develop me. He hired a professional mentor for me. The professional mentor was a retired woman executive. She completely changed my life. She completely utterly changed my life by basically putting a program together, told me five things I need to change, including my voice. “Don’t squeak like this. Don’t talk like a girl, so you have to talk with a certain voice.” This is my work voice. The second thing is, you won’t believe this, is that you smile too much. Stop smiling. I was like, “Stop smiling.” It actually took me a long time to really understand why do I need to stop smiling?

Priscilla Hung: The third thing is when you’re in meetings, talk at least once, speak at least once. Don’t go to a meeting and be in complete silence because if you are complete silence, you become irrelevant. Even if you’re repeating what other people are saying, paraphrasing it. Just speak once, and how you dress, how you present yourself. Now, I forgot what the fifth thing is but it’s five things.

Eileen Maier: Write things down.

Priscilla Hung: Yeah. Sure. Yeah. Yeah. Those things really completely changed my life. I would have to say that my career really started to go somewhere after I practice what my mentor told me. Add, after Ariba, four of the founders actually came from Ariba. Is again because of people I join here. The opportunity that the founders created for me. I got an opportunity to talk, do a lot of things that I have absolutely no experience, zero experience. It’s not planned for. It’s not because I’m experienced. It’s all because you have a new problem to solve. I work very, very hard. I focus on what I need to do, drive outcomes and then, one good outcome lead to another good outcome.

Priscilla Hung: Also, in hindsight, because all the randomness, all the different flopping around. My career actually helped my current job today because right now, I have a pretty wide scope of responsibility. Many of those jobs I actually have done in the past, not because I planned it. I would just say that I didn’t go through the traditional way. I didn’t plan but it worked out. I think it’s because of people that honestly is people relationship I built and people that help me along the way.

Eileen Maier: Okay. Are you sure you’re done? I’m going to start my story differently but then I think you’re going to find some similarities between my story and Priscilla’s story. Wasn’t an artist but also wasn’t an engineer. I got an English degree. I remember telling my father that I wanted to move from accounting to English. That was a pretty difficult conversation, at least for me. He took it pretty well, but it was, when you get out of college and you have a Bachelor of Arts in English, you do struggle a little bit to say, “Where am I going to get a job?”

Eileen Maier speaking at Guidewire Girl Geek Dinner.

Eileen Maier: This is where I think this theme of two pieces of advice. Be curious and also be open to luck. I think my parents felt a little bit sorry for me. I’m trolling around, living upstairs. They’re like, “You need a job.” Again, be open to luck. Take advantage of favors.

Eileen Maier: I got an interview with an insurance company. Really, if you’re an English major in Liberal Arts, actually insurance is a place that will consider. That’s how I entered into the insurance industry. Then, the curiosity kicked in because I was curious about, “Well, what it like to be an underwriter?” I had no idea. Learned that trade. Also saw what other opportunities were available for me within that insurance company. It was Liberty Mutual Insurance.

Eileen Maier: I was living in Philadelphia. I got the opportunity to move up to Boston. I took a role in a training organization. Again, within the same organization exploring different opportunities, different interests. I really started to learn something about myself by trying different things, by being curious. Through that, I got an opportunity to go into risk management. I joined a consulting group. That required me to get an MBA. It’s like these things start to build on each other and you follow a path. There’s something that you do when you get your MBA and you’ve worked for an insurance company for 10 years. You quit and you get another job.

Eileen Maier: That’s when I left and I moved to PeopleSoft. This is where I entered into technology but, again, being open to luck, why PeopleSoft? How could they possibly even consider me? It’s because somebody I went to grad school with. I called her up because I just wanted to get some advice from her. I wanted to understand how she made a career transition.

Eileen Maier: By reaching out and having a learning conversation, she actually wagged her finger at me and said, “I know exactly what you need to do.” We all want somebody to say, “I know exactly what you need to do. Give me the answer,” but she was right. She turned me on to this profession I’d never even heard of. It was called sales consulting or sales engineering. It’s where you have this opportunity to help customers, you’re consulting with customers, you’re understanding what is the business problem that they’re trying to solve. Then, you say, “Oh, well. I have just the thing for you.” Then, you go into a product demonstration and you show them how this product that you have can change their life and transform their world. It’s a little bit of performance. It’s a little bit of teaching. It’s a whole lot of consulting. It requires a lot of courage and empathy. I loved that.

Eileen Maier: I worked at PeopleSoft for quite a number of years. We got acquired by Oracle. I went on that journey too but it was within a couple months that I moved out to the West Coast, another similarity, poor guy. Within two months of being out here, my phone rings. It’s somebody again that I used to work with. He had just joined Guidewire. He said, “Eileen, they’re starting this team. It’s really cool. I’ve met the founders. They’re doing something very different. It feels like PeopleSoft,” because that was a bit of a culture, a cult. He said, “But there is one thing you need to know. Mmm, they serve the property and casualty insurance industry.” He’s pitching that to me like you’re going to have to deal with that. I was like, “David, there’s something you don’t know about me.”

Eileen Maier: With Guidewire, it was bringing together 10 years at Liberty Mutual Insurance, a number of years. I won’t give it to you because then you can figure out my age, at PeopleSoft in technology. Then, I joined here in 2005 and worked with Lerk-Ling because it was PolicyCenter, the second product that I was able to go out and start to build the sales consulting organization.

Eileen Maier: Then, with so many of the opportunities, the same thing that Priscilla has spoken about and you’ll hear Lerk-Ling speak about it and Sandia as well is that just in a growing organization, there’s so many things that need to be done. You start building a sales consulting team. Then, you start building a global sales consulting team. Then, you realize we really need a demo team infrastructure so we need to build that. Then, we really need to enable our sellers better as we’re starting to scale the organization so you start to build that.

Eileen Maier: With a mission and a vision, you start to collect really good people around you. I’m so privileged. I’m humbled by the people that I work with. It really is this journey of curiosity but also being open to luck and go into learning conversations, curious to find out what you might hear but also be transparent with what you’re looking for because you might be really surprised. Somebody might be able to wag their finger at you and say, “I know exactly what you need to do.” Anyway, that’s my story.

Lerk-Ling Chang: We haven’t planned this, but my career, it merged there, was not planned. I didn’t set out to work in a software company. In fact, I didn’t even know that was there was such a thing called software product management. Graduating from college, I had an economics degree. Coming out of college, the two positions that people recruited for was investment banking and management consulting. I picked the one that I thought was most interesting, which was investment banking. Did that for three years. Went to business school. Didn’t hear about product management either. Didn’t want to do investment banking, so decided to do finance. Eventually decided that was not my track. When I moved out to California, I talked a business school friend.

Eileen Maier: Was it for a guy?

Lerk-Ling Chang: It was not for a guy. I was already married, so not for a guy but it was through a business school friend who was working for the startup in Mountain View. I had no idea what a software company was, no idea what even development looked like in a professional enterprise. He just said, “Hey! Why don’t you join this software startup? Got this cool health care tech, monitoring health system,” called Health Buddy. It’s like this cool, little system. “They needed someone to help them with product partnerships. Why don’t you come join? You have investment banking. They’re going to need help us figure out how to put deals together.” I was like, “Okay. Great. Let’s go figure it out.” Anyway, I joined. Pretty soon after, I realized the product was not quite ready for any partnerships of any kind. It needed a lot more work in order to support and not any partner of any sort.

Lerk-Ling Chang: Then, I started talking with the product team and said, “Hey, you know, it needs this, this, and this.” There was only one product manager, who was completely overwhelmed with work. He wasn’t going to have any time to do it. I just ended up deciding to write up all the requirements that I thought would be needed for the product. I didn’t know this was product management. I just started writing out learning requirements, step-by-step flow of what I thought someone would need. Then, just started socializing it with the head of the product team. This guy said, “Hey! Do you want a job? Do you want to be our second product manager?” That’s how I fell into product management. I did that for a bit.

Lerk-Ling Chang: Then, got a job at Ariba after that, where I ended up working with Ken Branson, who is one of the six co-founders here. That’s how I end up here at Guidewire. I did product management at Guidewire for, I guess, it’s probably about 12 years. Then, decided to switch out of that role into something completely different, focusing on corporate strategy.

Lerk-Ling Chang: What that means initially was two things, strategic partnerships and then second is acquisitions. It’s been fun doing that because I worked on acquisitions as an investment banker before, but, at that time, you run numbers. You say, “Hey! You can cut cost here. You can add here. You can the increased revenues by 10% 20%,” but you don’t really know what it looks like.

Lerk-Ling Chang: Now, I’m on the other side of the table where we have to go through systematically to understand, “Hey, can we really grow revenues, work with all the different teams around a company to understand how to plan an integration and make sure the acquisition actually comes to fruition?”

Lerk-Ling Chang: I’ve been involved in all of the five acquisitions that we’ve done. It’s been a really interesting experience seeing that. Now, I’ve had the opportunity as part of this to now lead up our venture investments, which are going to be starting out and doing a lot more of.

Lerk-Ling Chang: It mirrors the careers of these two ladies here. It’s not planned at all, taking the opportunity, taking the initiative when you see something that’s a problem that you think you can help fix, taking the initiative to suggest solutions, and then working with people to see if that can actually come to fruition. That has helped quite a bit.

Lerk-Ling Chang: But the other thing, too, is finding people along the way that have helped me. For example, Ken was instrumental in bringing me here but even in my first job in investment banking, I had a senior managing director who I was able to work really closely with. She let me run a bunch of her deals, which is pretty unusual coming out of college.

Lerk-Ling Chang: Then, now I get to work with Priscilla and Eileen. You get different opportunities and you find people who can help support you and give you new things to do.

Sandia Ren: Okay. Going to be the same themes. Tells you something about Guidewire, but I remember looking recently at my high school yearbook. It has the question like, “Where you going to be in 10 or 20 years,” or something like that. I said I was going to be an electrical engineer and I was going to have two kids. That’s totally wrong. I am past 20 years so you can figure out how old I am but I have a three year old, and I’m not an electrical engineer.

Sandia Ren: Certainly my life didn’t quite turn out the way that I thought it would be, but I did start out on that path. I did get a computer science degree out on the East Coast. Then, I came to California. I actually followed the gold rush because that was during the dot-com boom, but I caught the tail end.

Sandia Ren: When I joined the company that I joined, I think the stock price was at 200. When I got the offer, it was 200. When I actually started, it was like 20. I caught the end so I had to work.

Sandia Ren: Anyway, actually and it’s all about people connections, too. The reason that I actually ended up at that company was because of somebody named Charlie Lee, which some of you guys know from the industry. He invented Litecoin and all of that stuff. But Charlie and I were in school together. He said, “Hey, I interviewed for this great company. You should really come and meet with them.”

Sandia Ren: I met with them and my hiring manager turned out to be the future CTO of Guidewire. I worked with him and had fantastic mentors there who taught me how to be an engineer. I think in school, you learn how to code but that’s pretty much it. I had a mentor who taught me how to work with the requirements, not to just build whatever was given to you but take a step back, understand why and make sure that you feel like this is the right way forward. I don’t think that’s something you learn in school. Just the start of learning from many wonderful mentors along the way.

Sandia Ren: Anyways, really, it’s when one door closes, a window opens. As was happening often there, the development at the company that I was at because they had gone from 200 to 20. The team was getting smaller and smaller. They eventually decided to outsource everybody to India. I was told that I had six months left.

Sandia Ren: I kid you not. That very day I had lunch with former co-workers who had left. They said, “Hey, Guidewire is hiring. Are you interested in coming to meet with us?” Sure. It was my old team, my old hiring manager and all of my great mentors who were over there. That’s how I ended up at Guidewire. Like I said, I wrote unit tests for our very first version of our product.

Sandia Ren: Then, I was a software developer for a while. I thought, “Yeah. This is the path I’m going to do,” but that lasted probably just for three or four years. That was when I started thinking, “Do I want to do something different?” I got enough…it was starting to feel a little routine, so thought maybe a different industry, maybe just needed a change. I actually started looking outside of Guidewire.

Sandia Ren: Then, I remember what pretty much changed my life, it was an email. Again, full disclosure. I am a huge Red Sox fan, being from Boston, so huge Red Sox fan. The year was 2004 and our Liberty Mutual had just gone live with our first product. Our head of professional services said, “They’re so excited. They’re as excited about the go live as the Red Sox winning the World Series for the first time in 89 years,” which is impossible but that’s what he said.

Sandia Ren: A light bulb went off in my head that, “Hey., maybe I can stay at Guidewire but do something different here. Maybe I can move into the services team and it would also give me the opportunity to move back to Boston,” which is what I had been hoping to do.

Sandia Ren: At that time, we were still pretty small. It was 2005. I went to Ken, and I said, “I have this really crazy idea.” I told him about it. Actually, I was working on PolicyCenter then. He said, “You know, it’s not a bad idea. You built PolicyCenter, so you can go implement PolicyCenter when we sell it.”

Sandia Ren: I learned really quickly how hard that was. Lots of lessons learned there, but he was really open to it. Again, just I think that is just a leadership style that I want to emulate. It’s being open to people’s ideas. I really appreciate it he didn’t say, “You know, that’s crazy.”

Sandia Ren: That really kicked things off. I found that consulting professional services worked really well for me because I really like to understand the business side. But I still got to use my technical skills in helping our customers come up with solutions that would work for them.

Sandia Ren: Then, from there on just within Guidewire, I was open to opportunities. I had managers who had crazy ideas, too, and for whatever reason would let me help them implement it. I think there are many times throughout my career where I was given a role that we could have easily hired for externally and would have found somebody who had been doing it for 10, 15 years to do a really good job at it, but no. They let me have a shot at it. I don’t know why but I’m really appreciative of that. I think it’s a big part of our culture as you’ve probably heard throughout, what the other ladies have said.

Sandia Ren: Now, as a leader, as a manager, that’s what I try to do as well. I’m so grateful for all the different roles that I’ve had because it’s given me a really good perspective of the business. That’s the type of career path that I want to give to my team as well. My team really focuses on growing people, development. I highly encourage transfers. We transfer a lot of people between consulting and product development, even over to sales consulting and education all over, but I think it’s a win-win for both the company and for our team member. That’s my story.

Roopal Shah: Okay. All right. Hopefully, that gives you some insight into how these ladies got to where they are. I’m going to do a quick hit, just because I want to make sure we have time for these guys to ask questions.

Roopal Shah: We’ll start with you, Eileen. You’re known for your presentations. Do you have any tips, tricks, anything to share?

Eileen Maier: Sure. No pressure. I’m going to tag off with something that Sandia said because she said, “Start with why.” If you’re doing a presentation, you’re thinking about a presentation. First, have an answer to that question: why am I giving this presentation? One of the questions that I’d like to challenge people with is what is going to be different in the universe after somebody sits through your presentation? So why?

Eileen Maier: In articulating that why, you really want to define for yourself where is the audience starting from and then where do I want them to end up? Then, I can get into a lot of techniques of how you tell that story but I think the most important thing is to also remember that it’s not about you presenting it. I’ve got this idea. I want this idea to get across. I know why I’m doing it but I’ve got this audience that I need to pitch it to. You’ve got to spend a lot of time thinking about who is my audience? Why are they coming here? Why are they listening to me? What do they want to get out of the presentation? What do they want to get out of this meeting? How are they hoping that their world is going to be different after they listen to me?

Eileen Maier: I think that that’s where a lot of people fall down because people get so in their head about presentations. They’re in their head because they’re thinking about themselves. They’re like, “I’m going to embarrass myself,” or, “I’m going to put myself out there and people are going to be judging me.” Actually, they want you to succeed. They’re going to be judging you if you get up and you actually waste their time.

Eileen Maier: Spend a lot of time thinking about why you want to give the presentation and then spend a lot more time thinking about your audience because you want to craft your message at a place where they can meet you because good communication isn’t just about speaking good words. It’s about speaking words in a way that they’re going to be heard. That’s really, to me, the key of a great presentation.

Roopal Shah: All right. Thank you. Priscilla, this one’s for you. You’re on the board. I know, for a lot of people, that’s a goal, for whether it’s to get to the highest rung on the ladder or to actually make a big difference. Would love to just get your perspective on what it’s like and just share with us.

Priscilla Hung: Yeah. Interesting. I think that when people say, “I would like to sit on boards as a goal,” I find it very interesting because I will always ask the question, “What do you think board members do that you want to sit on boards?”

Priscilla Hung: First of all, let me show you what board members actually do. Board members have fiduciary duty for shareholders and also as an advisor to the management team but primarily as a CEO and a CFO and key executive of the company. They show up in board meetings four times a year typically and a little bit more, if you are participated in some varying committees, like compensation committees or audit committees, so on and so forth. Of course, you get compensated for that.

Priscilla Hung: When people say they want to sit on boards, you have to understand just like why do you want to be in a certain job? You want to know the job description. It is work and it is work that it will be fulfilling to you, if you want to be in that role, like you want to be an advisor and you truly, genuinely want to help the management team.

Priscilla Hung: Of course, board members are a prestigious job but the thing is, if the goal of being on a board is…it’s a more of a fame or ego-driven goal, then you would not be a good board member and people can smell it because you got to be interviewed to get on a board as well and management team will seek out attributes from you or your vibes, then, “Why do you want to sit on their board,” and how do you help them?

Priscilla Hung: I would say that people typically seek you out as board members as a reflection of all the hard work you put into your career. It’s typically is the experience that you built, the reputation you built that people will come to you and say, “Hey, you have worked in all these company. You have these experiences. We have a company that, at this stage, would like, it would be lovely if you can share your experience and guide the principals along.” That’s you how you sit on a board.

Priscilla Hung: It’s very difficult to set that as a goal because it’s not something you apply for but again is if you focus on your work, you drive, focus, excellent work product and I would say that sitting on boards is a reflection of all the hard work you put into your career.

Roopal Shah: Thank you. It’s working. Thank you for that. Okay. Lerk-Ling, so you’ve been here for 16 years. Can you share with us or what it’s like to work for a mid-sized company versus a startup and any perspectives?

Lerk-Ling Chang: Sure. When I joined Guidewire, there were 12 people. It’s actually the second startup I’ve been at. I was at a previous startup that was not quite that successful. In fact, similar story. It was dot-com bust years, that raised $20 million and then effectively let 75% of the staff go within a year of raising that money. It was those crazy times. I’ve seen the whole gamut of startup all the way through the mid-sized companies.

Lerk-Ling Chang: Some of the things to think about if you’re thinking of do you want to work on a startup? Should you work at a startup? A few things, a couple things. As a startup, you definitely get a breadth of experience across many, many things. In the very early days at Guidewire, I was not only the product manager, I was also the UI designer. I was also the product marketing person, also did the sales demos, also did desk manager sometimes, was also the scrum master sometimes in the QA. The list goes on. Y

Lerk-Ling Chang: ou just do whatever you need to because they’re just not that many people and there’s stuff to get done. The customer is waiting for you. You just do whatever you need to get done. Great experience. A lot of breadth and something you get a lot more responsibility but it’s also very exhausting. You can imagine. Which one do you prioritize? It’s fun whereas as the company gets bigger, your job has to get more focused. It frees you up to actually focus on the things that are most important.

Lerk-Ling Chang: For example, in product management, personally I was very glad not to have to do demos anymore when Eileen joined, for example. I didn’t have to fly to go. It’s too hard to focus if you have so many things to do.

Lerk-Ling Chang: As the company grew larger and you have people who are much, much better at doing demos than I was ever at, I could then focus on being a good product manager. I focus on really understanding what makes the design, what things we should put into the product and how best to do that. That’s one example.

Lerk-Ling Chang: The other example is about, the other thing to think about … Sorry, but this is mid-sized. I talked about the company going downhill, the other startup that I joined. That was, I guess about 20 years ago, but very few people know that actually Guidewire also went through tough times. We actually had a layoff. I can’t remember when that was. You remember that? I don’t remember that. It’s long gone, but very few people know that. Actually, Sandia probably remember that. It was not great. We had to pull the product out from the market, not great.

Lerk-Ling Chang: As a startup, you’re still trying to figure out what the fine line is. You may have gotten one success but to actually get beyond that first few customers, that jump to the next level customers is actually not that easy. Being able to do that successfully is actually a lot of work. It’s a lot of …

Lerk-Ling Chang: I did a lot of things that as a typical product manager in a larger company wouldn’t get to do but it was also incredibly, very stressful. Just those things to think about.

Roopal Shah: Okay. Then, Sandia, I’ve got a question for you. I know one thing that you’re doing is leading this initiative called GROW. Can you tell us a little bit about that and what inspired you to start that?

Sandia Ren: Yeah, sure. GROW stands for a Guidewire Recognizes Our Women. It is an initiative that we have within the professional services consulting team that is focusing on our female colleagues and how to provide better support for them. I think we know the reason for things like this is because we don’t have that many females in the tech industry. Then, you add on IT consulting and then that number really dwindles even more. It’s something that’s been in the back of my mind. Then, certainly, of course, their current events have raised it to the forefront as well, but I have to say it wasn’t really me. Actually, there are a lot of people on the services team, a lot of women on the on the consulting team, that I think we’re sharing the same sentiment.

Sandia Ren: We came together and our focus, again, is I think most importantly to provide a forum so that we can we can understand what challenges women face in consulting and in IT consulting. Then, hopefully figure out things that we can do to make it better. As part of my own research and development, I have gone to a women’s conference earlier this year. I found that just being within that forum and being able to talk to other women like me was a huge help.

Sandia Ren: To be able to hear that one of the most accomplished people in science felt the way that I do, which is a hot mess a lot of the times, was comforting to talk to other women. I see impostor syndrome right in front of me, like it’s yelling at me, but to talk to other women who also feel that way, that, “I’ve no idea of what I’m doing half the time but I’m going to figure it out.” It was really comforting to me.

Sandia Ren: That’s really what we want to do in the beginning is to at least is to provide that forum because I think events like this, it really helps me to be able to talk to other people who are in similar situations and realize that I’m not alone.

Sandia Ren: Those are the things that we want to do with this is to look at women in our consulting team. It’s hard with the travel, especially those who have families and who have kids that we want to be home with and see what we can do to make things better. Then, second, just as important, is to raise awareness.

Sandia Ren: Guidewire has a great culture. We have collegiality as one of our strongest traits but even so, I think there is awareness that can be raised about the challenges that women face. When I’d spoken to my male colleagues about this, they’ve been very receptive. I’m excited to see what we can do with this.

Roopal Shah: Awesome. Final question. Then, I would love to get some questions. Tell us your most embarrassing moment, professionally.

Sandia Ren: I’m glad you qualified that.

Roopal Shah: Who wants to start?

Priscilla Hung: I don’t have any. I can’t think of … Okay. You go. You go.

Eileen Maier: Where do I begin? It’s funny that you ask me the question, Roopal, about presentations because, actually, my most embarrassing moment actually comes from a presentation, so don’t do this. I’m working for PeopleSoft. We’re doing a product launch and we’ve got, I don’t know, five, 600 people at the Hilton up in San Francisco. It’s a big stage and everybody’s in the audience. I’m giving a demo. I’m doing it with my boss. I’m up on stage. I’m up towards the back. If anybody here has ever seen a product demo. Actually in the audience, you really can’t see anything. You have to use big, sweeping motions and so, “Up here, you know, you see blah, blah, blah and if you look down here,” and with one sweep of the arm, I fell right off the back of the stage. I was just gone. I was just gone. I’m all mic’d up. It’s a tuck and roll. I’m under the stage.

Priscilla Hung: Oh, my god!

Eileen Maier: The one thing that did happen that was actually good about this is that it was right before lunch. Now, everybody is now up. They were like, “Uh!” They’re just waiting because … I’ve got the mic on. They just start to hear, “Heh, heh, heh.” I’m giggling under the stage. I’m sure I’m in total shock. I come out from underneath the stage. I pop my head up. I think the really embarrassing part of the story is that, at the time, I had really short, bleached blonde hair. I think that’s really the more embarrassing part but they see this blonde head out on the suit, climb back up on the stage. I don’t even use the stairs. I just climb back up.

Eileen Maier: You don’t know what to do. I’m like, “Well, I guess I’ll just pick up where I left off.” I try to get back into it. I could just tell I wasn’t settled down, the audience wasn’t settled down. If you’ve been on a big stage like that and you’ve just got like these lights in your eyes, you really can’t see anything. I look out into the dark where I know people are. I just look at them. I pause and I say, “I wish I could say that was my most embarrassing moment.” They’re like, “Oh, okay.” I finished out the demo. Then, I think I went back to my hotel room and I crashed for a good eight hours, but I think from that it’s like just keep going. It can try to keep it out of your head and you just get it done. That’s one of mine.

Roopal Shah: Anybody else willing to share?

Lerk-Ling Chang: Mine is somewhat similar. We have an annual user conference. This was probably about 10 years ago. I was doing an intro to new things in PolicyCenter. I’m talking about all the cool stuff that we have been doing the last year, all the accomplishments. Then, talking about one of the biggest news that we had was a new partnership that we had signed that I completely blanked on the name of the partner. Completely, no idea. Silence for two seconds. It felt more like two minutes, right?

Eileen Maier: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lerk-Ling Chang speaking at Guidewire Girl Geek Dinner.

Lerk-Ling Chang: Luckily, someone from Guidewire shouted out the name for me, and I just try to go on. Lesson there is, as they say, just go on. We all have that moment. I guess the main thing is you just have to keep practicing and hope that your muscle memory eventually takes over. Mine didn’t, so just keep practicing. Things happen. It’s okay. We all live to tell it.

Eileen Maier: That’s right. You’re still here.

Lerk-Ling Chang: Yes.

Roopal Shah: Anyone else?

Sandia Ren: Mine’s not really funny, so I don’t know if it’s a great way to end, but, so in consulting, you get to meet all sorts of customers with different personalities and different thoughts about the way things should be. Anyway, I was involved, working with a customer. We had gone to do what we call an inception project kickoff. We had done that and then we had finished.

Sandia Ren: Then, what we typically do is we go back periodically to check on how … We do what we call health checks, which is to see how the project is going and check in with the team and check in with the customer and such. I guess either this hadn’t been explained to the big boss in charge or he just didn’t want to spend the money because I traveled there. I showed up. I was sitting there at my desk working away. He comes up to me. He just pretty much hovers over me and says, “What the are you doing here?” I just froze. I didn’t know how to answer that. I stumbled a little bit but eventually was able to say, “I’m doing a health check and these were the benefits of it,” and such.

Sandia Ren: He really didn’t buy into it. That was my last health check at that customer, unfortunately, but I think it was very awkward moment. But, now actually my coworker, who was there with me, he tells everybody as a joke because he thought it was just the most hilarious thing ever.

Sandia Ren: We can laugh about these things years later but I think, at least for me, the lesson learned was that actually I think he was trying to intimidate me. I thankfully recovered and just have confidence in what you’re doing. I got through it.

Priscilla Hung: I really don’t have anything good thing. Maybe just like a little while ago, I forgot what was the fifth thing that my mentor said but now, in hindsight, the whole time of thinking what’s the fifth thing. Now, I recover because there’s actually no fifth thing. It’s the four things.

Roopal Shah speaking at Guidewire Girl Geek Dinner.

Roopal Shah: I would have loved to have things to make. You guys have any questions, concerns?

Eileen Maier: There’s one right here.

Roopal Shah: Mic?

Audience Member: Hi. I can hear you. Yeah. Hi. My name is Vera. I’m early in my professional life. I, too, work at Oracle, first job out of college. I’m currently working in online business sales and I’ve been passively or actively looking to move into another line of business. Sales just hasn’t been for me, but I’m struggling quite a bit. I get calls and emails from recruiters for sales positions but not product marketing or product management or customer success, or other things I’d consider. Do you have any advice from your experiences transferring lines of business?

Eileen Maier: Yes. I think that if you have sales experience and you’ve been out with customers and you have had difficult conversations because selling is not easy. Selling technology is actually very, very hard. You’re facing a very skeptical audience. I think that you have incredible understanding and empathy for what that sales process is like. I

Eileen Maier:  think that there’s a ton of jobs out there in what’s called sales enablement and actually going in and saying, “Okay, I’m going to go inside the company but I’m going to think about the processes of what it takes to actually scale messaging,” because you know what it is that the sales team needs in order to be effective. Big marketing decks that have value propositions that start talking about the company first.

Eileen Maier: That doesn’t actually help you sell. You can come in and you can help organizations understand how do I actually make my sales team more effective? I know that there’s a huge hunger within the industry to actually be able to fulfill that. People typically go into marketing jobs and stuff.

Eileen Maier: I think that, given your experience, that’s a really good transition. I think one of the people that you should talk to, after we get done, is this woman over here because she worked with me but it was really her hard work that instituted sales enablement here at Guidewire. I think that we could probably give you a little bit more insight of some other things you could be thinking about, but that would be something I would think that would be worth you exploring.

Roopal Shah: I think there was another question. Yeah?

Girl geek asking a question to the panel at Guidewire Girl Geek Dinner.

Audience Member: My question is similar. I’m actually in sales enablement and I have a pretty diverse background but I want to scale back into marketing and I’m finding that, because my background is so diverse, it’s hard for me to market myself to a particular skill set. How should I go about doing that?

Eileen Maier: Okay. I feel like Roopal should start to answer some of these questions, too. With sales enablement and you’re thinking about going into product marketing or more corporate marketing or …

Audience Member: Corporate.

Eileen Maier: More corporate marketing. Yeah, I actually think that … I’m going to now reverse it but say the same message, which is I think the most important thing is to have empathy for the audience that you’re trying to communicate to. I think when there’s the corporate marketing mandate and what we’re trying to do in terms of increasing brand awareness and do demand generation or just brand establishment, I think that you’re doing it on behalf of the sellers who are out there in the field.

Eileen Maier: I think using maybe that angle of understanding the audiences that you’re trying to deliver value to, I think is really important because I think often times corporate marketing can get a little bit hung up in the brand and the message and lose sight of the connectivity to the people they’re trying to communicate to.

Eileen Maier: Again, going back to what I said about presentations. There’s always two sides to communication. Think about what advantage you bring, what experience you bring in terms of understanding the dynamics of that conversation because I think that you do have something special, having been on this sales enablement side.

Audience Member: I think that interesting observation during the corporate…

Roopal Shah: It might be working.

Audience Member: It’s impressive staying with the company 10, 15, 16 years, which is rare in the Valley not just from a startup perspective but the fact that you stayed with the company. I stayed at Cisco for 14 years. That does not looked very nicely. There’s a negative connotation. “Oh, you stayed too long. You didn’t change,” but then when I look at my career, I started in engineering, went to business, then went into marketing. I’ve done sales enablement. I’ve been through that journey and I lived globally, which has enriched my experience even further given the opportunities I had.

Audience Member: I’m just curious. Two questions. One is it seems like Guidewire did the right thing, at least from a diversity perspective. Seems like they retain all of you for all these years and encouraged your growth. What was the culture like with the founders?

Audience Member: The second question is how do you address the perception issue, which is completely opposite of what we see right now? Any advice or generally think?

Priscilla Hung: Maybe I can take a stab at that.

Eileen Maier: Sure.

Priscilla Hung: There a couple of things. Your observation is spot-on. I would like to go back to your first question first before we address the culture. Of course, we have a very, very strong culture in the company that we really live by. It’s not just marketing slogan. We really believe in collegiality. We really believed in working amount equals. I think that one of the reason why we stay here so long is I think, I don’t want to speak for all of you, but we genuinely are working among friends. We generally believe in the mission of the company.

Priscilla Hung: Also the company is in the last many years, it’s been doing very well progressively. We’re all proud of being the founding building blocks of it. This company really allow a very basically open view for all of us who developed. We all come into different job and end up here in a complete different job and in high places.

Priscilla Hung: It is an environment, an openness to so focus on not what you look like or what gender it is but it’s purely on how hard you work, are you a good worker, and you got recognized. Also, in my particular situation is, I don’t have a lot of experience in doing a lot of things but it’s so progressively I added more and more to my plates because my boss believed in you a competent person, a lot of the problems are … And, in fact, I think I can generalize it. It’s unlike you’re like a rocket science or you are doing something very specific. I think that going to school, it’s a lot more difficult than working.

Priscilla Hung: In fact, in working, it’s every day is your general competence and general problem-solving can go a long ways, of course, with hard work and dedication. The other thing is really dealing with people. A lot has to do with people, people communication. You work with people. I think that Guidewire paved a very, very good foundation for all of us who thrive and not just us, as all our male colleagues as well.

Priscilla Hung: But go back to the negative connotation as, “Hey. If I apply for another job, you’ve been here for 14 years,” but I think it go both ways. If I’m interviewing for someone right now who want a job at Guidewire and that person has stayed 18 years in a stagnant company, has a poor reputation, bad culture, going nowhere and you look at the progression of the companies, within the company, that person goes nowhere. Then, that is a negative thing but if you are looking at a company that has a reputation like Guidewire or other places that is small and going very big, it’s a is a very attractive profile.

Priscilla Hung: I think you have to put things in context in terms of what you mean by you’ve been a dinosaur in a company for a long time. I think the brand of the company and what it represents makes a difference in terms of the perception.

Sandia Ren: Yeah, and I would add to that, that when we’re recruiting, if I see a lot of short stints, that actually can concern me, maybe just because we’re used to people sticking around so long but it’s certainly something that I will ask is because at Guidewire, we do, we invest a lot in people. We all like each other. We want people to stick around and find their career in growth opportunities within the company.

Audience Member: I realize I’m in the audience but I think … I was at Guidewire for five and a half years, left for three and a half, just recently came back. The reason that I came back was because of the people on this panel and Guidewire cultural integrity. It really is a family environment.

Roopal Shah: Here, here.

Audience Member: Okay. I have a question.

Priscilla Hung: Oh. You’re…

Roopal Shah: Lisa Walsh, our Vice President of Alliances. There you go.

Audience Member: And anyway. You guys all talked about the importance of relationships and people in your careers. What do you look for, someone that you choose to mentor? Sort of like start to pay back. What are the attributes of someone that you think could be a good mentor, that you would like to mentor?

Sandia Ren: I can take that. Actually, as I mentioned, I was just in K.L. We were looking for a manager for the office and we were interviewing, met a number of a number of candidates who had managing teams for 10, 15 years, built teams from scratch, et cetera but then we met this girl or, I should say, woman. This woman who was … She even called herself a new leader. She’s only been managing team for a two and a half years but, as I talked to her, I could just tell that she was really smart, really clued in.

Sandia Ren: She really quickly picked up on the things that we were talking about. She was really excited to learn. She says she wants to switch jobs because she wants to be exposed to more people, different people because she thinks that that’s how she’s going to learn. I could tell the ambition was there and just the openness to learning.

Sandia Ren: Now, I’m like, “How do I hire her,” even though she may not be the best fit for what we’re looking for but it’s that eagerness to learn, that passion, I think that goes such a long way.

Lerk-Ling Chang: Yeah.

Priscilla Hung: I mean, for me, it’s just to build on that a little bit. I think, for me, it’s the chemistry has to work because I really believe in mentorship because I owe my career to my mentor, but first of all is you can’t mentor 200 … I mean, it’s the time with issue. I think that when you click, you click. Also, the second thing is just like Sandia said is, you will get a sense that whether the person in front of you actually is open due to change. If there is closeness there, it’s a waste of time.

Eileen Maier: Thank you, because we’ve been talking about this, Lisa. I think one of the things that’s really important is people say, “Well, you know, I’d like to find a mentor,” and, “It’s so important to find a mentor,” but I think this is probably the most important thing you need to know is that you actually get chosen. You can ask somebody to be your mentor but you are going to get chosen. It’s really how do you represent yourself as somebody who’s open?

Eileen Maier: You’re whip smart. Show that you’re whip smart but recognize that that’s how the relationship is going to happen is that you’re going to get chosen by that person because I think that if we think about people that we’ve mentored, it’s because that connection happened.

Eileen Maier: Make yourself available to those people that you’d like to mentor you and see if you can establish that connection in somebody’s … I guess I’m also saying you have to earn it.

Roopal Shah: I think we have time for … Okay. We’ll take these two as the last two. Do you need a mic?

Audience Member: Thank you. I’m really happy to have heard stories from all of you because just today I was feeling a little bit … “I’ve been at my company for 13 years. Am I considered a dinosaur?” Now, I don’t feel so bad because, like you said, I’ve done four different roles at the company. I know I’ve grown with the company. Thank you.

Audience Member: As a new manager, we were doing more focused on execution and planning. As I grew into a director role, it’s more about strategy. What is it at the VP level and at the COO level?

Priscilla Hung: That’s a very loaded question. I would say that, as a COO … I was just joking. Who I was talking to? My memory’s going. I was talking with someone today that I’m actually not really doing much. I’m not saying I’m lazy, but on a day-to-day basis, so my job is I’m thinking all the time. My job is to think about are we heading in the right direction? If we’re not headed in the right direction, how do I direct or influence the team to go to that direction? How do I make sure that people actually work together?

Priscilla Hung: That’s my job but I’m not giving you code. I’m not writing a paper. Sometimes I’m not doing my PowerPoint. Higher you go, it’s more about overseeing people. I would just say that when you’re individual contributor, you are measured on and you probably have something tangible that you’re delivering but as you get higher and higher, that becomes probably not majority of your job.

Priscilla Hung: Most of the time is you’re really thinking you’re working with people, you’re managing people. You’re making sure that you drive productivity in your team. I would just say that you think more and you work less. You produce less from the perspective when you get into more senior position.

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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 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!

“The Art of the Interview: How to Evaluate and Handle Candidates in Your Pipeline”: Aline Lerner with (Video + Transcript)

Aline Lerner / CEO & Founder /
Gretchen DeKnikker / COO / Girl Geek X


Gretchen DeKnikker: Hey, everybody, welcome to our next session. Couple housekeeping notes. Make sure that you ask your Q&A at the bottom and then vote them up so that we know which ones to ask when we get to the Q&A section. The videos will be available online just after the sessions wrap up. Without further ado, I’m so excited. I’ve just met Aline and I’ve become a super fan in one phone call. It was a little crazy and so now, I stalk her.

Aline Lerner is the co-founder and CEO of, which she’ll tell you a little bit about, but I think the product is pretty interesting especially for the audience here. She’s going to be talking about the art of the interview and really looking at it from the angle of not just you being the interviewer, but what are the other elements and what kind of feedback do you get? So, without further ado, welcome, Aline.

Aline Lerner: Hi, everybody. I’m also a huge fan of Gretchen’s and have been stalking her since I met her, so it’s definitely been mutual. Really excited to talk to all of you today about technical interviewing, probably through a lens that you haven’t seen before, because we have some cool data that normally you don’t get. Rather than talking about what makes someone a good interviewee, today I’m going to talk a little bit about what makes somebody a good interviewer.

I’m the CEO and co-founder of a company called We are a practice platform for technical interviewing, but we’re also a jobs platform, so if you do well in practice, you get to talk to top companies. The cool thing is everything is anonymous. We collected a ton of data and I’m going to share some of the things we’ve learned today. I’m just going to jump right in. All right. Great.

How it works — once you’re a user of our platform … this is a little bit of setup so you know where our data is coming from. Once you’re a user of our platform, you can see some time slots, grab one, and then, at go time you log in, and you get a mock interview with an engineer from a top company who is good at interviewing and good at giving feedback. After each interview, there is feedback, which you’ll see in a moment. Top performers actually get to interview with companies right on our site and those interviews are anonymous as well. After each interview, whether it’s real or whether it’s practice, there’s some metric feedback. This is the feedback form for interviewees. Hopefully, you can see some of those questions. We ask things like, how was the interviewee’s technical ability, communication ability, and problem-solving? Then, the interviewer will ask stuff like … we’ll ask the interviewer to rank the candidate on stuff like technical ability, problem-solving, and communication, and then, we’ll actually ask the candidate to rate their interviewer and this is what this talk is about.

Normally, as most of you know, an interview is one way. You don’t really get to rate your interviewer and if you do it’s a survey afterwards and it’s not right then. We ask everything from whether you want to work at this company and with this person to how excited you’d be. Then, we also ask how you think you did and that will come up at the end. Great.

We have a ton of data. We’ve done about 20,000 interviews on the platform and I’m just going to get down to brass tacks and show you feedback snippets. We try to distill a lot of signal from these and come up with a few broad categories for what the traits of good interviewers look like. This is going to be more data-driven and hopefully less about platitudes. I’m really excited to answer your questions at the end.

Before I get into the details, one thing, a lot of people think that if you work at a company with a top brand, it’s a really good crutch. If you work at a Google or a Facebook, you don’t have to be as good of an interviewer. That’s not strictly true from the data that we’ve seen. In fact, we saw no statistically significant relationship between brand strength and whether people wanted to work with employers on our site. Brand will get candidates in the door, but once they’re in the door, they’re essentially yours to lose, so keep that in mind.

The first kind of huge thing that we noticed among candidate feedback was that when you’re interviewing people, it’s important to be a human being. So, for each of these broad categories, I’m going to show you exactly what the candidates said. For instance:

  • “I like the interview format, particularly how it’s primarily a discussion about cool tech as well as an honest description of the company. The discussion section is valuable and may better gauge fit. It’s nice to have a company that places value on that.”
  • “Extremely kind and generous at explaining everything they do.”

When I’ve listened to some of these interviews, and I haven’t listened to all 20,000, but I’ve listened to a lot, the best interviewers are people who take the time to get to know the candidate even though interviews are anonymous. So, what are you working on? What do you want? Then, they’ll create a narrative where their company is the next logical step in that candidate’s journey. So, everything you’ve ever worked for is going to culminate in you working here.

Here’s the bad:

  • “A little bit of friendly banter, even if it’s just, ‘How are you doing?’ at the beginning of the interview would probably help the candidate relax.”
  • “I thought the interview was really impersonal. I could not get a good read on the goal or the mission of the company.”

Choosing the question. This is a very erudite topic of discussion, and I know everybody has opinions on what makes for a good interview question. We just have the data, so I’ll just tell you what the data said. So, here’s feedback from people that thought the question was good:

  • “This is my favorite question I’ve encountered on this site. It was one of the only ones that seemed like it had actual real-life applicability and was drawn from real or potentially real business challenges.”
  • “I like the question. It had a relatively simple algorithm problem and then built on top of that.”

One of the recurring themes here is that candidates are used to these generic algorithmic problems and what really gets them engaged is taking it to the next level and tying it into something that your company actually does. This is especially true if people may not have heard of what you do, or you are in a space that by default doesn’t get people excited. Anything you can do to get in the candidate’s head and ask them something interesting and then have it stick after the interview is over is going to be good. Then, candidates also feel like you put in effort.

One of the things that we’ve noticed is that whenever there’s this notion of value asymmetry in an interview, so the candidate is expected to put in work, but the interviewer is not putting in work, that’s not good. You want it to look like you’ve put in work yourself.

Here, let me show you some of the examples of bad questions:

  • “This is not a good interview question. A good interview question should have more than one solution with simplified constraints.”
  • “Question wasn’t straightforward and required a lot of thinking, understanding of setup.”

You don’t have a lot of time with a candidate. You want to make sure that the time that you do use is used on being able to build a connection with them and then actually seeing if they can think rather than jumping them through hoops.

“Is there any way to sharpen the image? Text is blurry.” We’ll send out these slides afterwards. Sorry about that, guys.

That’s really one of the most important things too is making sure that you are getting signal from these people in a way that’s not arbitrary. Setting up the problem to gauge whether somebody’s a thinker and a problem solver rather than catching them on arbitrary a-ha moments.

Writing a really good interview question is hard. It takes time, especially if you’re going to tie it something you do at work, it’s even harder.

One of the best tricks that I’ve seen for doing this is coming up with a shared Google Doc for your entire team or really any collaborative software. Doesn’t matter. Any time you do something at work that made you think, and it doesn’t have to be cool. The bar for whether it’s cool can be really low so you don’t have to worry about it, but any time you do something that you think was non-trivial, just throw a quick line in that doc.

Then, you can come back later and look at all the cool things your team has done and use that as a jumping off point to craft questions that are unique to you. Then, candidates will be like “You did put in the work,” and you do stick in their heads a little bit.

Asking the question itself — One of the best interviewers I ever met was a chief architect at a large software company. He used this expression that I really liked. He said that the purpose of an interview is — “can we be smart together?” That just really stuck with me, and I think that the way you ask the question can really determine whether you can be smart with somebody else or not.

Here are traits of good interviewers when it comes to asking a question:

  • “He never corrected me. Instead, asked questions and for me to elaborate on areas where I was incorrect. I very much appreciate this.”
  • “The questions seem very overwhelming at first, but the interviewer was good at breaking it down. I like the fact that you laid out the structure.”
  • “I’m impressed by how quickly he identified the typos in my hash computation.”

Engagement is, of course, important when you’re asking the questions so you actually have the opportunity to see what it’s like to collaborate with somebody.

Another really important part of this is, and you can see this in the feedback, is layering complexity. This idea of taking a question that can start off very simply at first and then building on it. Building on it in a number of different ways and you can set up benchmarks and say, “A candidate that’s good enough is going to get through the first three portions of the question. Somebody who’s really good is going to get through four and someone who’s exceptional is going to get through five. Then, somebody who gets past that is probably going to challenge the interviewer. The sooner you can turn something into a discussion between equals and an opportunity to collaborate and problem-solve together, rather than a one-way exercise where you’re trying to see if somebody’s stupid or not, which is the worst way to interview, the better it’s going to be.

Here are some examples of poor interview feedback:

  • “It was a little nerve-racking hearing you yawn while I was coding.”
  • “What I found more difficult about this interview was the lack of back and forth.”

Anything you can do to engage with candidates and build on a question is going to be the best and if you can couple that with the previous point, come up with questions that are original to your company and layer complexity in ways that other people couldn’t, then you’re going to be in a very good position.

What happens after the interview? This is one of my favorite takeaways from our data, and it’s completely counter-intuitive. As you recall, we ask people how they think they did on the interview as candidates and then we also ask interviewers how the candidate actually did. We actually graphed this. The x-axis here is the actual score on a scale of one to four for somebody’s technical ability and then the y-axis is their perceived score.

As you can see, there’s quite a bit of imposter syndrome. In fact, we found that imposter syndrome plagues a disproportionate number of our users. So, what is imposter syndrome? It means that 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.

They’re going to leave that interview and then 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.”

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’ve 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.

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 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.

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.

Thank you, guys. I’m really excited to answer some questions. My email and Twitter are also on the slide, and I’m happy to answer them offline as well. Sorry, I saw some of you said some slides were blurry. We’ll send them out afterwards, not sure why that happened.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Great. Thank you so much. We have a few questions here and you guys still have time to submit and vote some up. So, the first question is, what do you think of take-home projects instead of whiteboard style coding interviews for those who grew to dislike them?

Aline Lerner: Yeah. I wish I had it with me. I drew this picture a while ago called the value asymmetry graph and I mentioned it in the talk as well. Value symmetry is this notion that we have two sides, both of them are putting in equal amounts of work. I think that if you’re a company with a top brand, you can get people to slog through a lot more shit than if no one’s ever heard of you. When you’re deciding as a company whether you want to use take-home challenges, that has to be one of the things you consider is, how badly do people want to work for you? If you’re Google or Facebook, at least before you get into the interview, at which point the playing field doubles a little more, people are probably going to be much more motivated to work for you than some company that just started and has no funding. You can’t always look to those companies and say, “If they use a challenge, we can too.”

If you do use a challenge, just like with interview questions, the best ones tend to be ones where it’s thoughtful and where it’s representative of the actual work because then the candidate is getting some value out of it… doing this work is going to be like the stuff I’m going to do every day, so here’s a preview.

On, what we’ve seen is the customers of ours that have people do coding challenges after their technical interviews — and if those challenges take longer than an hour, the best people tend to drop out because in this market, engineers are flooded with opportunity. If you make them do work, they’re probably not going to do it unless it’s really, really interesting work or some companies pay people. If you have something that’s going take five or six hours, consider giving them a consulting fee and see if that changes anything. But, you should probably just have a really good challenge that people want to do or not have a challenge at all. That’s different for data science and engineering also. Sometimes that makes more sense. For software, you probably don’t want to do it.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I have one I want to put in because we’ve heard this a few times. We’ve been recommending it and everyone’s like, “It’s in private beta. How do we get access?”

Aline Lerner: Yeah, we’re opening it up really, really soon. So, we have a really long waiting list and we’re so excited to get through it. For now, we’ve been favoring people that are still in the U.S. because it means that we can place them a little more easily. We don’t always look at it, but in tie situations, we’ll potentially look at someone’s years of experience because we have more job openings for senior folks than junior ones. Regardless, we are working on a way to open it up and I expect it will be opened up by next quarter. So, everyone that’s on the wait list, I’m really sorry and if you have job interviews coming up soon, send me an email and we’ll see what we can do.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah. Awesome. Yeah. It’s a great problem to have though, right?

Aline Lerner: Well, we really want to move on from that and just open it up, but yes..

Gretchen DeKnikker: Next question is, I’m unfamiliar with it but very interested. How anonymous is anonymous, first names, voices? Does that anonymity help level the playing field for women and people of color?

Aline Lerner: Yep. When we say anonymous, we mean truly anonymous. Everybody gets a handle. So, my handle on the platform is nihilistic defenestration. If you ever run into … I think I’m the only one that has that. IF you run into that, it’s me. It’s why I quote Nietzsche and wear black, but, in some cases …

For practice interviews, you can hear people’s voices. From voice, you could potentially glean gender and we don’t mask accents. However, we did just two days ago, we just got a patent on real-time voice masking. In real-time, we can make women sound like men or men sound like women or make everyone sound androgynous. If a company wants to use that for their interviews, then they have to turn it on across the board. If you let candidates decide, then there’s this other bias notion, who turns it on and who doesn’t. This way it’s turned on for everyone and we leave that at our customer’s discretion.

We did try making everybody change genders in practice to see what effect that would have and we found that surprisingly, at least to me, it didn’t really change how people did. So, women didn’t do better when they sounded like men and men didn’t do better when they sounded like women. We did notice that women were doing a little worse across the entire platform and I was confused by that ’cause I don’t think women are worse at computers.

What ended up being the case was that women were disproportionately quitting the platform after one bad performance in practice. Once you corrected for people that were quitting after one bad performance, well, the gender-based disparity went away entirely. So, we’re actually rerunning that data now that we have a lot more interviews and we’ll report back. Back then, we had a lot fewer, so all of that … As if the case with science, or in our case, pseudo-science, the stuff can be overturned.

Gretchen DeKnikker: All right. I’m going to do one more. We have 1,000 questions. I think we could mostly stay on this topic all day. You do have a blog, right?

Aline Lerner: Yeah.

Gretchen DeKnikker: So, if you want more from Aline, check out the blog on because she’s-

Aline Lerner: I’ll put it in the chat.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Perfect. Yeah. There’s a ton of information. So, I’m going to do one more. You touched on this a little bit, did any data, anecdotal or otherwise, bubble up around bias? For example, knowledge of algorithms, which can indicate recency of learning, younger candidates or those who got computer science degrees versus coming from alternative backgrounds?

Aline Lerner: Oh, God, yes. There’s so much bias. The most compelling bias or, I guess, the strongest signal of bias that we’ve seen has been against people with non-traditional educational and work backgrounds. If you didn’t go to a top school and you didn’t work at a top company, it’s going to be really, really hard for you to get in the door. What we’ve seen repeatedly, and this is the thing that blows my mind, is with some of the bigger customers that we have where they get a lot of inbound applications, people have applied, they’ve gotten rejected at the resume screen, so before anybody ever interviewed them, and then they came in … Then, they used our platform, practiced and got good enough to … or, in many cases, they were already good enough, but they got access to our employer portal, interviewed with those companies, and actually got hired.

Of course, once they unmasked after their interview, the recruiting team can see, “Oh, shit. This person is in our ETS but we rejected them six months ago before anyone talked to them. Oh, shit. There’s something wrong here.” In fact, 40% of the hires we’ve made in the last two years have been people that would have been [inaudible 00:21:03]. Companies admitted, they’re like, “Well, I never would have … What the Hell?” That’s why we insist interviews be anonymous, or they actually had been turned away by that employer.

Gretchen DeKnikker: All right. Well, I would love to stay doing this. Thank you so much for coming in and giving this talk. I think it was hugely valuable. Everybody, we’re going to take a short break. We will be back in 15 minutes, so go grab a snack and some coffee and we’ll see you at 1:20. Bye.

Aline Lerner: Bye, everybody. Thank you for having me.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Thank you.

“CTO’s Lessons Learned on the Journey from Software Developer to IPO”: Cathy Polinsky with Stitch Fix (Video + Transcript)

Cathy Polinsky / CTO / Stitch Fix
Angie Chang / CEO & Founder / Girl Geek X
Sukrutha Bhadouria / CTO & Co-Founder Girl Geek X
Gretchen DeKnikker / COO Girl Geek X


Angie Chang: Hi! Welcome to Girl Geek X Elevate, our first virtual event for the Girl Geek Dinner community. My name is Angie Chang, CEO and founder of Girl Geek X, and this is Sukrutha Bhadouria. We wanted to say “thank you” for joining us this Wednesday morning for our Girl Geek X Elevate. We have been hosting Girl Geek dinners here in the Bay Area for over 10 years — we’ve hosted over 170 dinners at 100 companies, over 100 companies — and we are excited to be able to expand and have world domination. When we thought about 10 years of Girl Geek Dinners, we wanted to rebrand and say…

is for the community, our community of 15,000 women. It is not just dinners — it’s events and podcasts and webinars and different formats that can help us reach more women globally. Our community of women has grown over the last 10 years, and we’ve heard lots of feedback from women that want to tune in to last night’s dinner by podcast, on their drive to work, or whether they want to tune in from where they are, which is not necessarily where we are in San Francisco. We’ve also taken this chance — and this opportunity to partner with mission-aligned companies, and today we’re grateful to have the support of fantastic mission-aligned sponsored like Mozilla, The U.S. Digital Service, PayPal, SalesForce, Intel AI, Clever, Quantcast, and

Gretchen DeKnikker: Is that me now, Ms. Angie?

Angie Chang: Yes.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Okay, hi everybody. I’m Gretchen DeKnikker, COO here. To build on what Angie was saying about how we are looking to change things going forward, and expand. We’re very excited, that we’ve worked very, very hard to have our speakers from a wide range of backgrounds today. 70% are women of color, and 40% are black and Latina. And we had a very special focus on that. We wanted to make sure that we’re bringing underrepresented voices to the table. The whole thing was to create opportunity for women to gain visibility and recognition and to share with the community. I think at this particular time in history, it’s really important as we get a seat at the table as women that we pull up another chair and that we be very mindful of the limitations that are greater than just being a woman, and the challenges. So just being more supportive there.

We do want to have more voices at our table. We’d like to invite in ideas on bringing more women of color into the fold, your guys’s ideas on how do we partner and bring more male allies in. These are all things we’re gonna be focusing on now that we’re on the other side of this event. Part of wanting to do this particular event was, like Angie said, to reach more people. But also to … Another thing that we’ve heard is mid- to senior-level career women aren’t necessarily represented strongly at the events, which is understandable. People have other things to do in the evenings.

We wanted to create this opportunity because as you grow in your career, the theme today is growing from a manager to a leader. So what happens when you become a manager of managers. In every stage of your career, the job is different. We have some great sessions today to help everybody on that journey.

We’ve got one on self-awareness and ego with Minji Wong. We have one on the art of the interview, especially around the candidates interviewing you with Aline Lerner from We’ll talk about delegation and empowerment and advocacy with Arquay coming up just after Cathy. And planning and goals and finding those metrics that matter. How do you lead by metrics when you’re not doing the work yourself, and you’re not in there every single day. And I think we’ll get into that a little bit at the engineering panel at the end of the day. So, Sukrutha.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, hi. I’m actually so excited because I’m seeing people dial in from everywhere all over the world, how cool. I saw people dialed in from San Francisco, Florida, and I also saw someone comment on our shared earbuds. For me, why we’ve been wanting to do this, especially have technical women give talks, not just about leadership, but about … because there’s more important things to talk about. Then we have talks about security, team learning, and just keeping yourself up to date in terms of your technical skills.

Why is this important is because you and I got into women on stage talking about what it’s like to be in technology beyond just what it’s like to be a women in tech.

So we have speakers from Facebook, from LinkedIn, from Salesforce who are going to be providing their insights, their experiences. And hopefully you all have, not just lessons learned, but you also leave with inspiration today to keep at it, going forward with it. So with that, I’m super excited to introduce Cathy, whose our first speaker, so who’s going to be speaking next.

Cathy Polinsky: Good morning, everyone.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: So really quickly I wanted to introduce Cathy. Cathy is the CTO of Stitch Fix, which is awesome. Cathy and I first met when Cathy was working at Salesforce as an SVP. She’s going to talk about her journey. What I really definitely want to call out is right now she leads the engineering team at Stitch Fix, and supports the company’s efforts to deliver services that meet the clients’ needs. Cathy has been working in great companies like Yahoo!, and Amazon, and of course Salesforce where we met. So Cathy, go ahead. I’d love to hear what you have to say.

Cathy Polinsky: Fantastic, thanks. And thanks for this opportunity. I just really appreciate having an opportunity to network and talk with other women. I just got back from a board effect meeting two weeks ago where we were talking about needing more women representation on boards, and more women representation in the industry. As many of you all know, we’ve come really far, we’re seeing a lot more women in the industry. But as the numbers come back, they can be kind of depressing that even though the number of women in software, in technology organizations has grown, the percentages haven’t changed that dramatically over the last decade.

I hope we can work together to build a more inclusive community and support system. I wanted to share my story of how I got to be from a kid who grew up in Pittsburgh, work my way through to be a software developer, and now to a CTO at Stitch Fix.

It’s hard not to be able to see everyone here. I’m not sure how many of you know of Stitch Fix. I’m hoping that there’s a lot of clients out there, but I’m sure there’s many of you who have maybe heard of Stitch Fix, but don’t quite know what we do. So let me just start a little bit with that so you can get a sense of what I do on a day to day basis.

Stitch Fix is really disrupting how people can find clothes and items they love, and look and feel their best every single day. So as many of you probably have shifted your buying behaviors to online, I’m the same way. I hate going shopping. Before I even learned about Stitch Fix, almost all of my purchasing was done online. I never really go to the store, and yet when I’ve tried to buy clothes online, it’s a really broken experience. There’s so much that goes in your head when you walk into a store. What items you think that look good for you and match your style preferences. And there’s so many things that go in your head when you walk into a dressing room to figure out whether something looks good on you, your complexion, your body type. There’s a lot that goes into thinking about your wallet and your price preferences for whether you’ll take that item and spend that money to go to check out.

When you go online and try to buy something, you get a flat image, you may get a review, but you won’t really know if that person is like you, if they have the same style preferences that you may have, or the same body type. So Stitch Fix really disrupting that business. You fill out a detailed style profile. It’s kind of like a dating profile. Everything that goes in your mind for what you do when you’re walking into a store, and what things generally work for you, and what things don’t. And then you get paired up with a personal stylist who takes that information, paired with tons and tons of algorithms and data science with detailed recommendations that are tailored exactly for you to pick items that will work for you. You get a box delivered to your door, you don’t know what’s gonna show up in that box. You open it, try it on at home. Hopefully find things that you love. But easily return things back that you don’t. You only pay for what you keep.

This was just so disruptive when I really got behind the scenes to learn about this business model and what it was doing and how we’re impacting clients lives that I was really excited to join this group, and now I’m the CTO. My role expands across engineering, IT, product management, and security. So it’s a pretty expansive role, and every day I get to do something different, and I’m learning new things as well.

I just feel very fortunate to have this job and to work with such amazing women here at the company. But I wanted to talk to you about my path to get here. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve had a lot of support along the way. I wanted to talk to you about things that I’ve learned along that path, and support systems that I have really benefited from that we can also help others along the way, as well. So I mentioned I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was in elementary school in the early 80s, and no one had computers at home. Personal computers were just spinning up and the Apple 2s were starting to make an entrance into elementary schools. What’s amazing is that Apple really wanted to nurture that community. They were giving grants out to schools, and donating computers to elementary schools. I heard they even had a surplus of Apple 2s when they launched the Macintosh and say they were really thinking about how they could use that for good. And I was one of the beneficiaries of that. My school took advantage of those programs and created a computer lab, and my teachers loved it. Every week we had a computer lab time where we got to go to the lab and learn computer programming.

My first language was Logo, which was a little tiny triangle on a screen, kind of like the predated Scratch, and you can draw little pictures. You can draw boxes and houses and make simple commands. But it was a real programming language. You could do loops and you can do procedures. It really started that spark for me of what technology could be. I carried that forward for quite some time, even though, after elementary school there were no real programs for me. Our middle school and our high school really didn’t have many computer classes. In high school, I was told about a program at Carnegie Mellon, which was near where I lived in Pittsburgh for a summer program for computer science. And I applied and got accepted into the program, and it was amazing. The morning was taught by a computer science professor at CMU. It was about algorithms and data structures. And the afternoon was special projects where I go to see an arm and try to program an arm robot to make knots and do some object orient programming to make and solve mazes.

After that summer, I really thought that this was something I was interested in and I’d want to pursue. And I had a lot of encouragement in a way through the professor that I got to meet at CMU who talked to me about colleges and talked to me about studying computer science going forward. That spark that I had through both teachers and professors really carried me a long way to thinking about this field because frankly a lot of people of my generation, a lot of women in my generation are only here because of having that spark from someone else, generally a family member. There’s generally someone, a dad, an uncle, even a mom who was a scientist, or someone in that field, but I didn’t have that. But the teachers and the professors that I did engage with really were my spark to enter in the field.

Fast forward, I went to a small liberal arts school in Philadelphia, Swarthmore College and studied computer science. Had a lot of support there for programs around women in technology. And then when I graduated in ’99, it was the peak of the dot com boom, and off I went to Seattle to work at It was quite an amazing ride, and just every month we were launching new stores. The growth was pretty crazy. The company growth was amazing as well.

It was not easy as I was one of the few women, certainly on my first team, I was the only woman. But I did find my little support group. I had friends that I got to meet, people who helped me through that way as I was trying to figure out a team that worked for me, and I’m forever grateful for that.

I was also there during the rocky bubble burst of the dot com industry, and I had thought that I had missed the interesting times at Amazon, and I wanted to leave and go see what it was like to work at an early stage start up. So I left Amazon, came down to the Bay Area, worked for a small start up, saw it go up and down, and realized it’s not fun to work on software that doesn’t get used. And I swung to much bigger companies since. I went to Oracle right after, which was probably a little bit of an overcompensation. But it was there that I really was starting to do team leading and thinking about being an engineering manager.

A piece of … I have a fun story about that, of I just happened to be meeting with an old friend, and was telling him that I was interested in being an engineering manager, and that I was thinking that I might transition to doing that within the next couple of quarters, it wasn’t gonna happen immediately, but I didn’t think anything of it. And then three weeks alter he calls me up and says, “Hey, there’s a position open for an engineering manager at Yahoo! that I think you’d be a great fit for, you should apply.”

And that just really surprised me. I never thought that another company would consider me for an engineering manager since I had never been an engineer manager. And it never would’ve happened if I hadn’t shared that story and spark with the friend of mine.

Advice that I give a lot of people is to be really free in sharing what your passions and interests are. You never know what opportunities are out there, and people will see you in a different light when you share those aspirations. So figure out things you want to try. Figure out things that you might want to do, and then tell people. It might be a different technology that you want to try, or a new project that hasn’t even been spun up for your company, but your manager or your colleagues may look at you in a different light when those opportunities come out and think of you as a perfect person for that fit.

Fast forward, I went to Yahoo!. It was the most trafficked site on the internet when I was there, ahead of Google. It was a pretty vibrant time when I first arrived. It kind of got rocky. I had my first baby there, and it was … I was working on a really tough project as we were revamping our ad network and really trying to figure out what was coming next for the business. I’d say one of my lowest points of my career happened there where I came back full force after maternity leave, I was excited to be back, I was excited to work on new projects. I even raised my hand to work on this brand new project that was revamping this architecture. Several months after that, I was realizing things just weren’t working. I was really unhappy. I was not feeling like I was being a good employee, not feeling like I was being a good mom. I’ve always felt like I was just chasing to get home in time to relieve the baby sitter, and my baby had stopped eating… I was breast feeding and pumping at work. Even though I had a good enough supply, she was gradually drinking less and less milk every single day. So I felt like this just isn’t working, I need to figure something else out because I don’t feel like I’m doing either job well, from being a great engineering leader, or a great mom. And so I quit — I went in, I went to my boss and I said I was gonna be quitting, and I made up some story about doing some other project.

To my surprise, they all tried to convince me not to leave.

So my boss really asked me a lot of questions. I hadn’t really felt like I was doing that good of a job, so it was really surprising to me at first that they would make all of these overtures to keep me to stay. Other peers and leaders also came to talk to me. And then finally the VP of the business came to talk to me. It was someone I hadn’t engaged with that often. He asked a lot of insightful questions, and I was really trying not to go into details or trying to make it into a way that they would convince me to stay. But he got to a point, and he said, “Cathy, I don’t feel like you’re asking for what you want, or what you need” and that really struck me.

And then he paused and he said, “I don’t know if I can give you what you want or you need, but you’re not even giving me the chance. So if you can think about what it would take to for you to be happy and successful, let us know and give us a chance to make that right.” And that was just such a powerful moment for me. And I was like, “Wow.”

It was the same advice someone had given me before about sharing things that I need and want for transitioning into being an engineering manager. But it was that same advice in a very different context for me when I was going through a difficult time in my job. So I really took a step back and said, “I’m trying to do too many things. I’m trying to be this amazing engineering leader and get the next promotion. I’m also trying to figure things out with my baby. I’m trying to travel to the different sites for these leaders. And I just need to figure out sequencing and not try to do too much at once.”

So I pared things back, I said I’m not gonna do these travel trips for the next 3 months. I also flew my mom out and she helped me with my baby while I looked for a new childcare provider. I got through those next three months, and I decided to stay. What happened after that is I got into this groove, things were doing much better for my baby, things were much easier for my job. I figured out how to do both of them a different way than I was doing it in the past. It really helped, potentially even saved me to stay in the industry at a time that was pretty difficult. It was really thanks to that VP Sandeep who had that conversation with me and made me look at things a different way.

Fast forward, I then went … Yahoo! had a lot of difficult times. I was looking for what’s next, and I had my eyes set on Salesforce. I came into Salesforce and I got to work on a lot of different really great initiatives, but I also got to see a different company that was really focused on giving back. It made me think about that time at Apple, how they influenced specific education and schools and students studying computers where Marc Benioff, the CEO over at Salesforce really wanted to think about how he could give back by not just being a company that makes a lot of money, but also is really successful in helping the community at large. So he created a 1–1–1 model, 1% of time, 1% of equity, 1% of the products were given to non-profits.

I think this is something we can all think about how we can use the power of the institutions that we work for to make a different in our broader community, helping to support other girls, helping women in technology, persons of color, helping with diversity and equality is something I feel like I been it for and I would like to roll forward to others.

I learned a lot working there, and I also feel like I had a lot of advantages working for a company who really cared about equality. So Marc had a program when I was there. He had a quarterly leadership meeting, it was called ECOM at the time. He would bring in his leaders and go business by business and go through the financials of the company. At one point he looked around the room and said, “Where are all the women?” And there may have been a chuckle or two. But after that he said, “No, we need to fix this. I want 30% of the room for all of my meetings to have women in them.”

It didn’t mean that the people who normally would’ve been invited didn’t get to come, it meant that another seat was pulled up to the table. I really liked what Gretchen was saying about just pulling up another chair is really what gives people different opportunities and advantages. I got that opportunity at Salesforce. I was invited to some meetings with really high level leaders at the company, and I got to listen in and engage and learn how the company was operating at that level, and that really helped prepare me for this role as a CTO. And I think that’s something that we can all think about is how can we pull up another seat to the table to give people an opportunity to see what’s going on in your meetings, to see what’s going on in your company, and to have broader access in this industry.

So fastfoward, I’m now at Stitch Fix. It is an amazing job, it’s great to be in this role. It’s something that I’ve always aspired to do and to be. But what I never aspired, and had hoped to work for as a company, that has such high gender diversity. Stitch Fix is 84% women, which is just amazing. Every day I walk into rooms that I’m completely surrounded by such amazing women. That’s something that was so difficult than any other company that I had ever worked. I had been used to being one of the only women in the room where I’ve gone and done the count and said, “Wow, what percentage of women are here today,” and I’ve stopped doing that. After being in a room with 60% women and 70% and 45% women, you don’t really need to do the count anymore. And what I found what’s amazing when you have that level of gender diversity is you really can be your authentic self. I remember early on in my career just wanting to fit in and be one of the guys. I wore T-shirts and jeans and wanted to kind of be appreciated for my technology, and not stand out as different than anyone else.

And now I get to wear dresses every day, I get to be myself, I don’t have to think about how I’m phrasing things or to couch my thought process or argument in a different way to fit in with the culture of the company. I feel like when you have a broader diversity group, everybody can just be themselves and focus on the business, focus on the clients, focus on how to make a difference. And that’s what’s exciting to me.

I love working at big scale companies, I love working at growing teams, growing technology, growing architecture, shipping software, and that’s what I get to do every day here. We’re in this amazing growth phase at Stitch Fix where we’re launching new business lines, where we’re growing our business. And it’s the technology that you see on the website, but it’s also everything that goes underneath it to power it from tools to run our warehouse to tools for our styling organization. Tools also for merchandise, of how we pick and buy and plan and allocate the right inventory for our business. I love wearing T-shirts and jeans sometimes too, and I love wearing dresses, and I love that I can choose. My aspiration going forth in this industry is that we can all be our authentic selves at work, that we can be recognized for what we do.

I hope that I’m seen as a great CTO, as a great technology leader, and not just a female CTO. And that my aspiration is that there are many more of you who rise to these levels as well, and that we can form a great community and support network. I think that that’s essentially my story that I wanted to share today. I think Sukrutha, we may have wanted to open things up for some questions? If anyone has any questions, and you want to type them in, feel free. Oh, there you are, hello.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Hi, I was looking at everybody’s comments. A lot of people were talking about how they’re loving your story and the honesty with which you’re sharing it. I see a question asking about who your current inspiration is.

Cathy Polinsky: I have to say my biggest inspiration right now is my CEO Katrina Lake. Katrina was a young CEO founder who came up with this idea while she was in business school. She was fascinated by eCommerce disruptions and the sense that the apparel industry was one of the few industries that had not reached double digit online sales, even six or seven years ago. And the sense of the reason is because the model was broken and she had an idea for a different way and a different model. It has not been easy for her. As a young female CEO going to Sand Hill to raise money was not a cake walk. So she really focused on how she could get to profitability as fast as possible so she wasn’t dependent on that industry. And the thing about her is she is just such an authentic leader — she is so smart and savvy, but does not put on airs and is really someone that I’ve watched her, as she’s had her first baby, and navigated the world of pumping and nursing and things that I hid behind. I remember one of my stories of pumping while I’m eating, and having a one on one and someone saying, “What’s that noise in the background?” I’m like, “What noise? I don’t hear any noise,” and not really being that authentic about what was going on and what I needed, really just trying to hide what was going on. And that’s something I don’t think she even thought twice about hiding anything about. She’s not trying to be a role model as much as just authentically is navigating that aspect of being a mom and being an amazing CEO.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: That’s awesome. Someone also pointed out about the fact that there was a podcast where Katrina shared her story. But I do see a lot of questions speaking to your story about Marc Benioff noticing not enough gender diversity and then trying to make a difference. How does one who is not in that level of influence… How would somebody else who would get impacted by a change like that… How would they bring about the influence when they’re not in the seat of power? What advice would you have for people like that?

Cathy Polinsky: I think we could all try to help at whatever level that we’re in — really raising this as an issue to your boss, or thinking about ideas about how you could help, whether it’s the community, or a local university that’s near you. Maybe it’s letting people shadow you in your job and bringing a seat to the table. And then it’s also the opposite of asking — asking, “Can I come to this meeting?” I think that people … It may not always work out for you, but it will never work out if you don’t ask. So really being able to assert yourself and to see if another seat could be brought to that table.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: That’s awesome. And next question, and I am seeing a lot of people asking similar questions, so I’m just summarizing the next question. It seems like a lot of people want to know how do you identify when is the right time to jump at an opportunity, or navigate towards a specific opportunity to grow in your career?

Cathy Polinsky: I’d say the thing I’ve always done is try to look at what are the big opportunities out there that no one is going after, and being open to them. I was going to talk a little bit about managing up. The aspect that has worked for me both as a manager, but also as a strong number two to other of my leaders is to really open myself up to understanding what are the big challenges that my boss is having at any given time, and see how I can make a difference —

What are the big chargers, what are the big opportunities that we’re going after. What are the gaps that we see and how can I lean in to make myself available when there’s challenges. I feel like that’s always helped me, whether it’s a brand new initiative that got spun up, or someone’s leaving the company, someone’s moving to a new role and there’s a gap in the organization. Really saying, “Hey, how can I help? Is there something that I could be doing here? I’d love to take a shot at helping on these projects.”

The way that I’ve always been able to do that is to build a great team. I love to delegate and hire the best people that I can and load them up as much as possible in the same way. And that gives me the space and the capacity to take on more when I am in a growing opportunity that needs more help.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: One quick comment I do want to add is that people are asking for all of your questions to be posted in the ask a question list. So just in case you’ve been posting them in the chat but not in the ask a question list, if you put it there people can vote. Next is actually one of my favorite questions. There are nine and counting votes for people who want to hear more about the differences in responsibilities and duties of being a software developer, an individual contributor, versus a CTO. How did you transition between those roles, what is the main differentiator do you think? Or the biggest challenges.

Cathy Polinsky: Let’s just talk about software developer versus manager because it is this really interesting thing that the things that help you be most successful as an engineer are not necessarily the things that you need to do once you’re an engineering manager. And that’s something that we’re not sure … We talk about that a lot at my staff meeting of if that’s true for a lot of other fields. I get the impression that that dynamic is not always as clear as it is in software development. When you’re focusing a lot on how you’re working on coding and projects and building up your technology skills, those things are great and important to lean on so you understand the projects are going on track, but there’s a whole other aspect of how you’re managing people and projects and initiatives that you don’t necessarily always get to do as an individual contributor.

It was a very challenging and different experience for me, but one that I really loved. I feel like as a software developer, you get these CS highs — You solve some problem, you are excited about getting to a solution that works, and that you can push out and deploy, and that’s just exciting that you get to see that solution, you get to see people using it, and you get to see the difference that you’re making.

When you’re a manager, and you’re not actually writing the hands-on code and influencing through people, things take longer. You can’t always see the, “Hey, I’m trying to give people advice and coaching them in this way. Am I getting through to them? Is this working? Am I shifting the team to be better or not?” It’s not that you can see that on a day to day basis, but that your impact is much broader, and if you can stick through it and realize it’s not the same as that every day, every hour, continuous feedback loop that you find other ways to see your impact, and that you can be really proud of the people and lives that you can influence.

That’s what I really love about the job is that I can have a broader influence and every day is different, as I mentioned. I’m working on a lot of different types of projects, a lot of different types of focus. And I think that’s the thing that also changes as you take on more and more teams, as you go from being a manager to a manager of managers, or a CTO. I was saying as I was making that shift, things when you’re a software developer can go quite fast. You can have a great day, and then you can have a bad day. Depending on the big challenge or bug or issue that you’re dealing with, things are a little slower as an engineering manager. You see the challenges and you’re working towards fixing them, or you’re seeing things working really well, and they stay pretty well for quite some time.

But when you have a larger scope of influence with teams that suddenly don’t have much commonality between them, you can go from one meeting and think, “Wow, things are finally coming together for this group and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and things are going great.” And then you go into a whole different meeting and you go, “Oh, now I have this other problem that I have been neglecting that I really need to help nurture.” It’s just a different pacing, and just being open to those shifts are really important — and to finding different people to get advice from because this job changed quite dramatically.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, totally. I can’t totally relate because I’m going through that as well myself. Thank you so much Cathy, I wanted to thank you from the bottom of our heart to get started with what’s our first ever virtual conference. Your talk was so inspiring, we see it through the comments, and we feel it too. All of the questions that came in, thank you for asking those questions.

Cathy Polinsky: Thank you for organizing this and thank you for inviting me. It’s great to be here.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you. Over to Gretchen [for our next session] …

Cathy Polinsky is the CTO of Stitch Fix. Prior to Stitch Fix, she was SVP Engineering at Salesforce.

Lean in, Geek Out: Girl Geek X SquareTrade Panel (Video + Transcript)

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

Josephine Chan welcoming the sold-out crowd at SquareTrade Girl Geek Dinner.

Wini Hebalkar / VP, Supply Chain & Operations / SquareTrade
Margaret Reeves / VP, Product / SquareTrade
Bonnie Shu / Product Compliance Manager / Harbor
Claire Hough / Head of Engineering / Udemy
Lisa Q. Fetterman / CEO & Founder / Nomiku
Nupur Srivastava / VP, Product / Grand Rounds
Staci Slaughter / EVP, Communications / SF Giants

Transcript of SquareTrade Girl Geek Dinner – Panel:

Josephine Chan (SquareTrade): Hello everybody! I am Josephine, Head of People at SquareTrade. We want to welcome all of you here tonight. I look around and what an amazing crowd in this room. All of us at SquareTrade are really honored to be host of this meaningful event, a panel of inspiring and wise female leaders will begin really shortly. I know they will help us lean and geek out. Some of us asked about what SquareTrade does, so I thought I would do a really quick 30-second intro — At SquareTrade, we are disrupting a $30 billion industry with innovation and also our attention to our customer happiness. We provide the protection that covers those everyday, little calamities like spills, breaks, and mishaps on your phones, or appliances, or TVs, or laptops, you name it. We’re also really proud to partner with some of the biggest retailers like Amazon, Costco, Staples, Target, and many, many others.

Josephine Chan (SquareTrade): What do we do here? We are turning a bad day into a good day every single day for our customers. We have more than 40 million of them and growing. Today we’re really excited to sponsor this really special event. Thank you Girl Geek for giving us this opportunity — our first dinner — and I hope this says a lot about our commitment to women in our field and actually, women in any other field, in any other industries, including all of you here. And now, I’m really delighted to introduce my colleague. She is also the moderator of the night, Wini – she runs Supply Chain and Operations at SquareTrade.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Thank you, Josephine. Can everyone hear me back there? We’re good? All right. Well, good evening everyone and welcome to the first SquareTrade Girl Geek Dinner. We’re very excited to introduce our six panelists who are going to be here. Each of the panelists is a leader in their own right and in a very different industry from the other… that was intentional.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): We wanted to showcase what leadership is within the broad range of industries represented here in the [San Francisco] Bay Area. Let’s start out with starting at the far end, introduce yourself, tell us who you are, the role that you’re in, and what is the one piece of leadership advice you’d like to share with the group here? Obviously some aspiring leaders, some actual leaders in their own fields. But what’s the one take away you’d like them to leave with or perhaps a story that you’d like to start us out with around how you got started in leadership?

Margaret Reeves (SquareTrade): I’m Margaret Reeves. I’m VP of Product here at SquareTrade, so welcome everyone. It’s very exciting to have you all here. Yeah, woo hoo! Gosh, takeaway…

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Take one, one piece of advice you’d like to share. Anything.

Margaret Reeves (SquareTrade): Okay, one piece of advice. This is a piece of advice I got from Lorrie Norrington who presented at an event like this. She was very senior at eBay, Intuit; she’s now an operating partner somewhere. Her piece of advice which has stuck with me all these years is your career is a marathon, not a sprint. You have successes and you have set backs, but remember, it’s going to be for a while so don’t get too down when something doesn’t go the way you want it to go.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Okay, Bonnie? Thank you, Margaret.

Bonnie Shu (Harbor): Hi everyone and thank you so much for having me here and Girl Geek as well. I’m so thrilled to be here. My name is Bonnie and I am running the Compliance team over at Harbor which is a compliance platform for issuing private securities. Before that, kind of along the lines of the career advice that you just heard, I actually started my career out as a lawyer, hated it, gave it up, went into tech. My advice to all of you is just to keep persisting. When you come up against a really difficult challenge or a really difficult moment in your life, just keep going.

Claire Hough (Udemy): I’m Claire Hough. I’m the Head of Engineering for Udemy. Udemy is an eLearning marketplace. How many of you have taken a course on Udemy? Yes! This is great. I do these events a lot and I always ask this question. In the beginning when I was Udemy in the early days, I would ask this question and there would be few hands that are going up, so come and take a course at Udemy, it’s a place where you can pretty much learn anything. It’s a marketplace, meaning we bring teachers as well as students together in the marketplace. We also offer those courses to companies, so any companies here can actually sign up to offer our courses to their employees. It’s not just a perk, it’s a learning opportunity. We have 400 people at Udemy, about 30,000 instructors and 45,000 courses. I’ve been at Udemy for five years and I’ve been around the block a few times as a Head of Engineering. Actually worked with Josephine in the old days. That’s how I got recruited.

Claire Hough (Udemy): One piece of advice I want to give you would be tech is many things, right? So you have to find the tech that you feel passionate about, like a lot of us here work in different things. If you are in a job where you’re not sure you really love the product, then go find something else because you’ll find that when you’re passionate about, you’ll go further in your career.

Claire Hough (Udemy): That’s my advice: find something you are passionate about. Udemy is an eLearning marketplace. Our mission is to improve lives through learning and who wouldn’t get on that mission? Because the mission is so compelling to me, I know that I put more of my energy and more of my passion behind the job that I have.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Thank you, Claire.

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): I have to tell you how energized I am to be here, to be around people who, you know, nobody forced your hand to go to Geek Girl. You’re here because you want to be here. I can feel it. We want to rise ourselves, we want to rise the community up. It feels really good. My name is Lisa Fetterman and I’m the Founder of Nomiku. We invented the home sous-vide immersion circulator. We manufacture our hardware, software, food, all here. We have our new program where you wave our food in front of the machine, it automatically recognizes it… In 30 minutes, you get a gourmet sous-vide meal, just the way Noma, Saison, Restaurant at Meadowood, Eleven Madison Park, Atelier Crenn does it because they use our machines there. I’m the writer of two cookbooks: “Sous Vide at Home”, “Sous Vide Made Simple.” There’s a theme there… I’m here because Josephine and I nanny share, yo! Yes!

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): That’s that female power network! That’s how shit gets done. The boys are smoking cigars and drinking whiskey; I’m like, “Hey, your baby friend takes care of my baby friend.” That’s a bond. My big piece of advice for everybody here is that … Well, more of what I see is you are right. Whatever it is you are building right now, you’re right. I guarantee you: you’re right. If I could give a piece of advice to myself when I first started Nomiku, which was in 2012 and invented the home sous-vide immersion circulator — holy shiznit! I went to a party and I was like, “I invented the home sous-vide.” They’re like, “Oh, I invented Post-its.” I’m like, “Uh … Okay.” I would just say to myself, “You are right.” Just imagine if you’re right. If you’re right and you can’t go wrong, why wouldn’t you do the next thing that you’re going to do? Just know that you’re right and move in that direction.

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): I am so energized right now and hungry! I really want a sous-vide piece of meat, so maybe later at night. Hi everyone! My name is Nupur. I lead Product at a company called Grand Rounds. I think I was invited because I’m in the same building — that’s basically why I was invited.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): You can tell there’s a theme here.

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): Yes. They want to … I think you guys believe in limiting gas emissions or something, making sure our commutes were easy… so yes, I’m in the same building! I’ll tell you a little bit about Grand Rounds. I completely agreed on the piece about passion. At Grand Rounds, we connect members to high-quality care. We’ve spent the past five years trying to understand what exactly makes a high-quality physician and we help members that are sick get connected to the right care so that they can get better faster. When we first started the company, we were shocked — Over 66% of the patients that were coming to us were changing their diagnoses or treatment. There’s that much bad quality healthcare in this country. We try and do our best to get patients to better care and we sell to large self-insured employers so that we can give their members access to high-quality care so that they can get better faster.

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): The piece of advice that I will give, and some of this will make more sense as I share some stories, is it’s kind of cliched but I truly believe you miss all the shots you don’t take. In my life, I’ve been lucky to have many strong women around me and on my team and I can firmly say that it’s really important for you guys to demand what you deserve because time and again, I see really, really talented women underselling themselves and not demanding what they deserve. So you miss all the shots you don’t take, you gotta try, and you gotta ask for things that you deserve.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): Good evening everyone. My name is Staci Slaughter and I’m the Executive Vice President of Communications for the San Francisco Giants. Yeah, go Giants! My kids would probably laugh that I’m here speaking to a bunch of people in tech because I’m the most technologically challenged person on the Earth. I was one of the first female executives in Major League Baseball. I guess maybe that’s why I’m here. I work with a lot of dudes, as you guys probably all do.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): But I think, I guess for me, one of the things that I tried to do from a management style perspective is my philosophy in management is that you want the people who work for you to be able to step in and do your job at any single moment if you by some chance get hit by the proverbial bus or you can’t come into work, that you don’t hold people down, that you feel like they can work alongside of you.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): Really, my goal is to get the next generation of Giants folks — we’re a 138-year-old franchise and I’ve been there 22 years and it’s time for me to think about the next stage in life at some point. I want to make sure that the folks who work with me are able to take their experience and then be able to be the next generation of stewards in our organization.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Thank you. Here’s the first question I’m going to direct at you guys. Some of you described and provided some great advice around leadership and what people can take away today, but think back to the point in your career where there was a pivotal moment or a turning point that propelled you into a “a leadership position.” Right? Whatever that might mean for you, whether it’s the current role you’re in or a role that you had prior to that that set you up. Nupur, would you like to start us off?

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): Sure. So I’ll provide a little bit of a background. I joined Grand Rounds about four years ago and I joined as a Senior Product Manager in the company. I loved the company and worked to build out a great product team. There was a time when I got promoted to Director and I was really excited about it. But we were scaling as a company and my CEO told me that he’s looking to bring in a VP of Product to consolidate different product functions that we had.

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): I was actually really excited; I helped interview, I was actually vouching for a couple of the candidates. Once I was in the room with him, we were discussing a candidate and he looked me straight in the eye and said, “Why have you not asked me for this role?” I was like, “Because I didn’t think it was an option. I didn’t know that’s a thing you can do.”

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): It really was a pretty shocking and pivotal moment for me because he saw my leadership potential way before I believed I could be a leader or even deserved to be the VP of Product. I was lucky he gave me the role. Now I lead the Product team and I’ve grown the team out. But I think the biggest thing that taught me is …

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds):  This comes back to why I was saying – “You miss all the shots you don’t take.” It really made me think about what are other opportunities where we’re not raising our hand for? And what other things are passing us by?

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds):  That is a moment that has stuck with me and I constantly think of that, even with my own team, which I certainly tend to have it be female-heavy because why not? You’re always looking out for these instances where people are not asking for what they deserve and I see it time again. If Owen, my CEO, hadn’t said that to me, I would have been probably still happy but reporting to another VP of Product and probably not talking to you guys tonight.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Great. Bonnie, how about you?

Bonnie Shu (Harbor): For myself, well, Harbor’s a pretty young company so I’ll talk about my previous experience. After I quit law, gave it up, decided to move into tech, I joined a company called Zenefits. While I was there, I was basically hired to put out fires. I was put on this client escalations team which basically meant anyone who’s really, really pissed off came to my team. Really what that did, though, was put myself in the spotlight for really high-profile issues. Whenever there was a company-wide issue that was impacting a lot of clients, myself and my team were the first people that the leadership would come to.

Bonnie Shu (Harbor): When I tackled that head-on and jumped right into it, didn’t shy away from it, really. Sometimes it’s easy for us, when it’s a really difficult problem or a really stressful problem, or a really high-profile problem, it’s easy to freak out and throw your hands up in the air and say, “I don’t know what to do here.” But really, it was a lot of persisting, as I said, and just trying to figure out a solution to the problem. I was blessed with a really great group of operations analysts that were working underneath me, some of whom are here, actually.

Bonnie Shu (Harbor): My team was really involved in the clean-up crew. We would help fix client issues. After that, the leadership team, really, I think, saw the potential for me to take on more very highly stressful clean-up fixes.

Bonnie Shu (Harbor): Whenever there was a high-profile issue like there was a time where we had a tenuous partner relationship and we needed to build a new payroll product, they came to me and said, “Will you help us build this?” And then when compliance became in the spotlight for the company, they came to me and said, “Will you build this compliance team out?” And so really, I think what it was was getting to be on these really high-profile issues and proving myself as a really hard worker and someone who didn’t shy away from the issue.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): So raise your hand again, right? Make sure you volunteer for those opportunities.

Bonnie Shu (Harbor): Exactly, exactly. Step up in those rare moments where you can really shine.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Margaret, I know you have a story to tell around this because you and I have talked quite a bit about it.

Margaret Reeves speaking at SquareTrade Girl Geek Dinner.

Margaret Reeves (SquareTrade): I do have a story. A big turning point in my career was actually when I turned down what was essentially a promotion. And I turned it down because I was in an operations group at the time and this role required a daily 8:30 meeting. I am not a morning person. This was not going to work. My manager was like, “But this would be great! We think you’re really suited.” I’m like, “Yeah, no. Thanks, no.” And the people who work with me are all going, “Yeah, I can see this.”

Margaret Reeves (SquareTrade): Finally, they came to me and said, “Okay. We want you to take this role. You don’t have to go to the meeting except when there’s a major incident.” Somehow we left this meeting, my boss thought I would come to this meeting when there was a major incident and I left thinking I would not come to this meeting when there was a major incident. Never went to the meeting. Did take the role. It really played into a lot of my strengths. It allowed me to … I grew from there. I took on a lot more responsibility, I got a team, so it was a great stepping stone. Like I said, I played to my strengths and I managed to not have to deal with my weaknesses or worked around one of my weaknesses. Yeah, big turning point but started with actually saying, “No.”

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Staci, I know you’ve been in the industry and in the communications role for a very long time. What started you off? What was that pivotal point?

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): In communications or leadership?

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Either.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): Well, gosh, I’ve been working in communications for long time before the Giants. I graduated from Berkeley. Go Bears!

Claire Hough (Udemy): Bears!

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): I went to work for a PR firm. I grew up around journalism. I worked in politics before; I had been the Press Secretary to the Mayor in San Francisco before the Giants called. But I was always an implementer, you know? I wasn’t a manager, if you will. And so even when I got hired to work for the Giants, I was hired to work on all of the communications and media strategy around the building of AT&T Park, so this is how long ago it was. We still call it “the new ball park” but we’re having our 20th year next year. I was the one writing the press releases, I was the one taking the media on tours of the construction site, I was doing media communication strategies, but I still had a staff. I kept getting promoted and I had folks that I … But I was still kind of trying to do everything myself and not delegating and not empowering people to do the work.

Staci Slaughter speaking at SquareTrade Girl Geek Dinner.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): And really a turning point for me was actually when I went on maternity leave with my first child because it was the year the ball park opened and he was born in the middle of the season. Of course we went to the playoffs that year too and I had to let go. I had to handoff and I had to say it because I had just never taken time off, really. I had to say, “Okay, you guys are going to have to handle that,” or, “You’re going to have to do that.”

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): It was empowering for them because they were able to, like I said, step into my shoes, and do my job, and deal with our CEO, and deal with our Team Manager and General Manager. So for them, they were growing professionally and for me, it was a growth opportunity for me too because I realized that I could step back and trust the folks to do the job they needed to do. I didn’t have to do everything myself.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): It was a really pivotal moment for me to realize okay, that I don’t have to be there for every moment, that I can trust people, and I think they grow professionally as a result of that.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): So you really delegated then at that point?

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): Finally, yeah.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrae): And let go.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): Yeah, I let go.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Very good. Lisa, you started out in journalism too. What was that pivotal point that triggered that leap into leadership for you?

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): The leap into leadership happened every moment of my life.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Okay.

Lisa Fetterman speaking at SquareTrade Girl Geek Dinner.

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): I just created a … It’s a leadership moment when someone’s like, “Hey, who’s going to throw the ball at jacks? Who’s going to throw the hacky sack?” I’m like, “Me, me, me, me!” Very early on I was just like, “Yo, people don’t like to be leaders maybe because I’m dominating in all these leadership positions.” And then when I started Nomiku, that leadership moment, I was 22 and I put “CEO” next to my name and I was like (laughs). I was like, “I have to work really, really, really hard to grow into this title.” And at the same time, I was like, “That was it.”

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): So there’s nothing stopping everybody here from, tonight, updating your LinkedIn and Facebook being “CEO of ____.” Then as an exercise, put away some money and go through the exercise of creating a LLC or a C Corp or an S Corp and then you’re the CEO. You might be like (laughs), and then you grow into it. That’s what happened. I just made myself room to grow.

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): I mean, first it was small like, “Oh, who’s going to …” Like every role, when I have a small group from church, they’re like, “Who’s going to lead?” I’m like, “Me.” She knows. She’s from my church group. Holla! So many networks. I love community and I love leading it. Whether it’s like a small thing like, “Who’s going to bring snacks?” “Me!” Or, “Oh, I chose for me to be CEO.” I’m just constantly swimming towards it. You can do it. There’s a holy kind of of, “(singing) Ah! Leadership, take the baton!” And then it’s like I say, “Me!” and then it becomes you! The sooner you start the better because if you say you’re CEO now, four years from now, people are like, “Oh yeah, she’s the CEO. It’s been on that LinkedIn for a while.”

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): So Claire, what are you the CEO of today?

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): Can you just ask her all the questions?

Claire Hough (Udemy): Yeah.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): When did you become CEO?

Claire Hough (Udemy): No… so when I hear Lisa talking, I see this duck that’s smoothly sailing in the lake, but underneath the water they’re pedaling like crazy. That’s you, working very hard.

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): That’s one sexy duck.

Claire Hough (Udemy): You look very … yeah… you look very smooth.

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): Thank you.

Claire Hough (Udemy): Yeah. I have to say I’ve been around the block a few times but young women these days impress me every day. I am so proud and privileged that I’m still sitting here being able to talk to you about my experience that sounds like it matters. I’m Head of Engineering. Not a lot of many women in Head of Engineering. So I am just proud that I was resilient enough to just keep in it.

Claire Hough (Udemy): One of the reasons why I stay there is for all of you to know that you can be Head of Engineering anywhere you want, right? There were a lot of opportunities for me to get out of engineering. People offered me other jobs like product, GM, or whatever. But because tech is such an unfriendly place for women, I didn’t want me to add to the number of women who’s getting out. I wanted to be resilient, stay in it, and add value.

Claire Hough (Udemy): So that’s my story of why I’m so old but I’m still in it.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): So stay in the game.

Claire Hough (Udemy): Yes.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Stay as long as you can.

Claire Hough speaking at SquareTrade Girl geek Dinner.

Claire Hough (Udemy): Stay in the arena, take risks, and just be in it.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Maybe I’ll direct this question to a couple of folks here. Some of you have described attributes or qualities that keep you in the game. So raise your hand, make sure you ask for that promotion, make sure you ask for that opportunity. Who in your life was a mentor, an important person that you might be able to attribute some of your success to? If there’s one thing I have learned in my career it’s that you can’t do it alone. You’ve gotta rely on your network around you, your support system whether it’s your family or otherwise. So who’s that important person in your life that you might attribute some of that success to?

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): I grew up in a family of all girls and my dad was very clear about, “You can go do whatever you want.” Neither of my parents went to college. My dad didn’t graduate from high school. He’s a very successful political columnist in California. There was just never this barrier that you’re going to stay at … If you want to pursue a career, you can do that. If not … And my husband was always that way too because he’s always like, “You don’t ask for enough when you go in there and negotiate. You gotta go and ask for …” Kind of that same thing. But I’ve had Larry Baer, my boss, for the past 22 years.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): I really thought I was going to opt out when I had kids quite honestly. It’s just there were no women in the organization. We didn’t even have a maternity leave policy. I just always thought that I would and I had so many friends that opted out. There were times that my husband was in a trial and he’s a lawyer and I was working and I had these two little kids under two. I’m just like, “I don’t know how I’m going to do it.”

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): I remember going into Larry’s office saying, “I think I need to take a break.” He’s like, “You may not quit. We will do whatever it takes. If you want to work three days a week, I don’t care when you get your job done. I don’t care if you come in late and stay. If you’re available, we have got to make this work.” That push, they knew it before I knew it that it was going to work. I got through those early years when the kids were really little and then they went off to school and I was like, “Okay, I’m so glad I stayed in it.”

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): I think that’s really good advice that it’s staying in it and really continuing to grow professionally that gives me the flexibility now that I can go and do other really interesting things in addition to my job. I think that having that support network of men really saying, “You can do this and we’re going to make it work for you” enabled to create more flexibility within the whole organization. I’m proud to say we have a maternity leave policy, we have a paternity leave policy, and more men in our organization take advantage of that than women do. That’s important.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Very, very cool. Thank you, Staci. Nupur, how about you?

Nupur Srivastava speaking at SquareTrade Girl Geek Dinner.

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): It’s a very similar answer. Growing up, very much my dad. We were a family of six — four girls, two boys. My dad never made us think that we were any different than the boys. I grew up in the Middle East but in a super supportive household where my dad made me believe that I could do anything and fueled any interest that I had. I distinctly remember I really wanted to go to Stanford for business school and I was terrified that I wouldn’t get in, but it was the only place I wanted to go. I remember calling my dad and he said, “Just apply. What’s the big deal? You’ll get in.” I was like, “Okay.” You know? I was like, “That was easy.”

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): 37 essays later, I was super lucky to be accepted there but without my dad’s confidence, I wouldn’t be able to. I think right now, it’s probably my husband. I know he’ll be very happy to hear I mentioned him tonight. Nana, please tell him I did. That’s my sister. It’s really important, I think, to have a partner that’s super supportive. I think he’s certainly pushed me a lot and given me the confidence I need time and again to keep reminding myself that I can do what I do. So very similar.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): One of the things we’ve been talking about at SquareTrade is this concept of an imposter syndrome. Show of hands, who’s heard of the imposter syndrome? Wow, okay. Pretty good. For the few of that didn’t raise your hands, what the imposter syndrome is a concept in psychology where you have a feeling that you’re somehow not worthy of the success you’ve had.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Many of the women in leadership honestly have had this experience and had this feeling where they feel like no matter how hard they try, and how many levels they are successful at achieving, and how many projects and successes they’ve had, that somehow they don’t deserve it. They’re a fraud. So to just get a sense from this panel, how many of you have experienced the imposter syndrome and what do you do to overcome it?

Margaret Reeves (SquareTrade): There was recently a New York Times article also that said that it’s even stronger if you’re not like everyone else around you, you don’t have the standard background for your role. I’m here VP of Product, we’re a technical product team. I don’t have a CS background, I don’t have a tech degree. History, woo! And I don’t have a MBA. That’s the other common background for my role. I’m not the normal background.

Margaret Reeves (SquareTrade): A few years ago, we were talking about hiring practices here and somebody brought up the concept, you’ve probably heard this, that A players hire A players and B players hire C players. I was like, “Ooh, what am I?” What I did to talk myself out of it, which I did, was I thought about all the people who had hired me over my career and did I think they were A players? Yeah, they’re some … And about half of them were women and they’re amazing women.

Margaret Reeves (SquareTrade): I also thought about those people who had hired me, no matter what level I was, they were Senior Manager or a Director, a good percentage of them, amazingly, have gone on to be C-Level. So not only do I think they were smart, the world thinks they’re smart. They are smart. So they’re most definitely A players, so if they’re A players, then I gotta at least be a B+, A-. I’m good. I think, you know, think about the people who support you, and believe in you, and have entrusted you to do things. They’re smart so you’ve got this.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Bonnie, how about you?

Bonnie Shu (Harbor): Yeah, so starting out as a really young female attorney straight out of law school, of course I felt the imposter syndrome. You have these opposing counsels who are really mean and scary, and they’ve been 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. Really for me in those moments –

Bonnie Shu (Harbor): I kind of have this tough love approach with myself where I’m 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.’

Bonnie Shu speaking at SquareTrade Girl Geek Dinner.

Bonnie Shu (Harbor): So 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.” You just gotta kind of 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.”

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): As women, we’re pretty humble. Many of us are. But if you do get that opportunity, and you do have that success, don’t sell yourself short. Really. Don’t sell yourself short, right? You have earned it. You’ve earned the right to be there. You’ve earned the right to that success. It’s not just a team effort; it’s your success. Own it. I think that’s the one piece of advice that somebody gave me a long time ago. It was a mentor of mine. And it stayed with me for a long, long time. I’m sure, Staci, you have had a similar experience when you’ve had to overcome that imposter syndrome. What’s your story?

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): Well, yeah. I mean, gosh, going to work, my job at the Giants, it was all men, all the time. Then we were building a ball park so I’d be in these construction meetings. They were all incredibly supportive and nice, but I did feel like, “Oh, I didn’t completely measure up. What am I doing here?” I think part of it is I just started to get them to mold toward us a little bit more. There was this badge of honor you had to stay until the very last out of every game, even if you didn’t have game day responsibilities, or you had to travel with the team and all this stuff.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): There were women at the Giants and other men at the Giants who were like, “No, we’re not going to do that. We’re not going to have our children raised by nannies, we’re going to have a life outside of the game.” Slowly but surely, people started taking vacations in the middle of the season, and having people cover for them, and starting to change the culture of the organization.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): It was a really slow turnaround. But there was a group of folks who wanted to say that there was a different way to do that. And so rather than trying to conform to what was the norm there, we tried to have them conform more toward us. Then I started feeling much more comfortable in my role at the Giants and I’m still there.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): So build your posse.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): What’s that?

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Build your posse, build your network around.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): Yeah, build your nest, your posse, and have people who think like you. I just think it’s balance, it’s trying to find balance.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Yeah, balance is super important. Claire, maybe I’ll ask you to start us off with this next question. What are some strengths that you think female leaders bring? Now today, I have not really talked about women in leadership; we’ve really talked about leaders and showing you how women can be amazing leaders. But there are some ways that women differ from men in their strengths and what they bring to the table. What are some strengths that you think you bring? What have you seen work well in the workplace and what should we watch out for?

Claire Hough (Udemy): I think we have all the strength the men bring to the table, number one, and perhaps we have even more because I think our brain is wired to be able to handle multiple issues and find that balance, right?

Claire Hough (Udemy): As a female leader in a mostly male executive team, I think what I bring to the table, for me it’s been a different perspective and also my experience of many years of being in tech. I think these are things that men can bring as well. I think you should approach all situations with confidence that your experience brings that specialness, whether you’re women or men.

Claire Hough (Udemy): I think as a woman, people think I have more empathy and you know, today one of my women engineers said, “You smile more than other male leaders.” I don’t know why they don’t smile as much but I think these are your strengths that you can bring to the table, who you are, being authentic, and approaching people with what your personality brings to the table. I am actually very interested in people in general, so I want to get to know people, I want to get to know their strength, I want to get to know their backgrounds and all that. I think that builds very strong relationships and when you actually build that relationship of trust, it’s much easier to get stuff done because they trust you, they know you trust them.

Claire Hough (Udemy): Even if you’re in times of crisis, how you handle those situations together as a team, it changes the whole picture. I don’t know whether any of you have read Kim Scott’s “Radical Candor” — I am actually very blunt communicator; I just get to the core of the issue and yet, people don’t get offended by it because they trust that I trust them. I’m giving that feedback with personal care as well as just good intentions of wanting to do the right thing.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): How about you, Lisa?

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): The strength of the female leader is the element of surprise! It really is. For me, what I’ve found is people have preconceived notions of what women might be better at than men and what they come to toolkit with, and then what we may be insecure about like imposter syndrome. I’m going to be like, “I’m going to whip it up for you. Done.” In fact, I’m hungry for more recognition and did you know I also did this? I just like to go into whatever I’m going in with where people are … I just surprise them. There was one meeting I had with a VC and I presented my magical life-changing machine. It’s magical! It cooks food for you in 30 minutes. The same food that Michelin Star chefs do.

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): I’m like, “Go! This is revolutionary. Put it in your mouth. Yum yum!” I did the whole thing plus presented the numbers. Like, “Wow, numbers! Look at this chart! Up and to the right, up and to the right,” and then afterwards … Same energy too, same energy. I was met with like this. And then he was like, “Yeah, you know what? I’m going to talk with my wife about it because I’m going to see if she’ll use it.” And here’s where comes the element of surprise, okay? I said to him, “Wow! Your wife is also a GP too at this firm, just like me and my husband are co-founders!” And he didn’t talk to me ever again.

Claire Hough (Udemy):: If you didn’t sign up for Nomiku, it’s the time to go do it. I signed up. But had I met Lisa before I signed up, I would have run to the counter.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Okay, before I turn it over to the audience, one last question from me. Think back to 10 years ago, what advice would you share with your younger self knowing what you know today?

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): That’s a tough one. I think I was always high-strung, so I would say, “Things will work out, calm down.”

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Okay.

Bonnie Shu (Harbor): Okay, I think I’m ready. I think for myself, I came out of school expecting to have a set path, a set career, knowing exactly what I was doing for the rest of my life.

Bonnie Shu (Harbor): I think I would tell my younger self, “Stop thinking about this so much. Just do what you want to do. You can change careers. It’s not the end of the world. You can change jobs, you don’t have to stay at the same job for the rest of your life. So just chill,” I think, I would tell myself.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Margaret, how about you?

Margaret Reeves (SquareTrade): I’m trying to think back to what I was doing 10 years ago.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): We can go back five years.

Margaret Reeves (SquareTrade): I think 10 years ago, I actually, I think that’s when I was actually making a big leap and I left a company I had been at for a long time and was making a switch. I’m not sure I’d give advice to myself but I’d tell myself, “Don’t worry, it’s all going to work out. Leaving is the right decision.” Sometimes moving on is the right choice, although not for any of my team who are here by the way. No, now is not the time to move on. Stay.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): It does matter if you’ve been here a long time.

Claire Hough (Udemy): I would say I wish I had the self-confidence. When you’re young, you’re generally insecure or maybe a lot of you are not. Just tell yourself that you deserve at least 10x more self-confidence than you already have because you do. If you look at people who are successful, they carry that presence and self-confidence.

Claire Hough (Udemy): I think that’s one advice I would give to anybody walking into interviews or walking into meeting people who could influence you. Just lift yourself up, just tell yourself, “You deserve 10x the self-confidence you’re walking in with.”

Claire Hough (Udemy): I wish I had that advice because I think always going in, underselling yourself, it’s not where we ought to be. We are many, many years from where our mothers were, so let’s lift all ourselves up because I see a lot of women coming into interviews underselling themselves. Their resumes written in a way they undersell themselves. Stop it. You deserve much, much more.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Okay. I am now going to open the floor to questions. Who has questions?

Audience Question: I do know there was some mention about how your engineering is very male-dominated and I found personally that women who are more successful are often viewed more negatively by both men and women, while men who are more successful are often viewed more positively. How have you handled this challenge and how do you think that the status quo can be changed?

Claire Hough (Udemy): I’ve been in tech for a long time and it’s very disheartening to me that tech has become increasingly unfriendly for women, especially women engineers. Statistics say that a lot of women get out of engineering at a faster rate than men. These are all very disheartening statistics and I think we’re trying to turn that around.

Claire Hough (Udemy): You can only turn that around by educating people and actually having people become really aware that we’re all people, we all have strengths, and we have backgrounds that we bring to the table. A lot of companies do unconscious bias training. That alone, it’s not enough. You have to have these conversations constantly.

Claire Hough (Udemy): During my career, of course every job I go to, I have to reprove myself, although my resume is very long and has very reputable companies in it and I’ve earned promotions at those companies. And yet, sometimes when I get a new boss, they always question, “Can you do this job with mostly, in dominantly male population, male engineers?” At one time, one female executive actually said, “I’m not sure you could handle our male dominant engineering team,” even though I came out of companies where it was-

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Very male-dominated.

Claire Hough (Udemy): Largely male, right. I think we have to just keep educating others and I think actually, the younger generation’s much more open to this idea of diverse work environment, that you could learn from each other. There’s lots of statistics that diverse engineering organizations actually deliver better products or diverse companies do much better in the marketplace. So these are not just, “Diversity’s good therefore you should do it,” there’s statistics that better products are built, better companies come out of having more diverse workforce.

Claire Hough (Udemy): So we need to be constantly educating, but also being empathetic to learning about each other’s background. When I talked about imposter syndrome with my entire engineering team which is about 80% men still — actually men also raise their hand when we asked, “Do you have an imposter syndrome?”

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Wow.

Claire Hough (Udemy): It’s not just women. So we have to be empathetic to what their imposter syndromes may be and just have that empathy and through conversations and through sharing experiences, I think we could change the workforce.

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): Nobody has to like me as long as they buy my stuff and my girl gang likes me. That’s the most important part. Having your best, best girls who you really, truly admire like you and anchoring yourself in that, that’s how … Everybody’s like, “Oh, they didn’t like you,” I’m like, “Mm, sucks.”

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): It’s a good thing my kids like me, and my husband likes me, the girls, people with high moral fiber like me. I’m like, “Oh yeah! I’m into that.” This whole thing, the way this question’s framed, there are less likable duh, duh, duh. Does that matter though? Does that matter? Because they better get used to me, they better get used to us, and then they’ll like it. They’re like, “Oh yeah, what’s not to like. They’re all just right there.”

Wini Hebalkar (Squarerade): Cool. Wow, wow.

Claire Hough (Udemy): You just won.

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): I like you.

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): Thank you. See? She likes me. Nice!

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): There you go.

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): I like you too!

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Who here does not like Lisa after that one?

Margaret Reeves (SquareTrade): Unconscious bias training only goes so far. One tactic I use is I try to call things out when I see it, but I try to do it with humor. It’s kind of been a joke around here when everybody says, “Man power” or “Man hours” I’m like, “People hours.” I’ve actually got some other people doing it now. Just trying to make people realize but do it in a not … I do it in a non-threatening way at least and making it not … I’m not accusing them of doing something of wrong, I’m just making people aware.

Audience Question: What you said about stepping into leadership, 100%, love it. That’s always been me and I don’t apologize for that confidence because I think it’s one of the biggest career pushes and personality pushes you can ever enable for yourself. But be that as it may, the biggest challenge or one of the biggest challenges I’d say that I run into with my leadership style is that time and again, the feedback I get is that I am intimidating. I hear that and it breaks my heart because I am a kind person, I care a lot about how I’m able to mentor the people in my community, and build strong leaders to take over when I graduate, and keep on creating the community that we love.

Audience Question: When I hear that, part of me wonders how would this be perceived differently if I was a guy? To what degree do I care? How do I handle that without diluting what makes me a strong leader? Sometimes I want to call BS on it. The other times, it has an effect on how I’m perceived in my community and how effectively I can lead because you can’t empower people who are nervous around you. So I was wondering if you had any experience in that space and what kind of advice you would give for remaining a strong leader and not apologizing for your confidence while continuing to bring people up around you.

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): How would it be different if you were a guy? You already know the answer. I used to get that all the time, that I was intimidating. All the time when I first started. I was like, “What the eff is going?” So then I tried this new method — well, it’s an old method — it’s the Socratic method.

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): Whenever somebody, I could feel them pulling away from me, I would just ask a shit ton of questions about why they do this? Why do you think this? Why is this place there? Why did you choose that color instead of that color? What is the message you’re trying to get across?

Lisa Fetterman (Nomiku): Ever since I started the more questioning thing, I never get “intimidating“ anymore. People are just like maybe, “annoying,” maybe “exhaustive,” but no longer “intimidating” when I added way more questions, way, way, way more.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): Can I jump in on that?

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Yes, Staci. Go ahead.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): Someone was saying something and it reminded me of when you were asking that question. There’s another woman who I work with and we were both two of the early senior leaders in the organization. We would say something or we would do something and we would get these weird looks. One day she and I were talking, we’re very close, and I was like, “Do you think they’re intimidated by us? If we say something, they automatically jump.” I’m like, “Why are they afraid of us?” Because I had that imposter thing going on at the same time.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): So what I realized is all of a sudden there was this ah-ha moment that she and I are in these pretty high positions within the organization and when we say something, apparently people are supposed to jump and do it. What I found is to try to break … Because you know, I grew up in the organization. I was a 20-something when I started and I still saw myself, even though I had senior position, now I’m a 50-something.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): What I tried to do though is to meet people where they were on a personal level, so really making the effort to get to know people outside of just the meeting we were in about whatever event we were planning and really try to get to know each other on a human level.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): If someone had a baby, check in with their family, things like that. And really spend time with them, go grab coffee, go grab lunch. We started putting together these women mentor groups at the Giants because the really cool thing now is that we’re half women and half men and we have just an incredible group of young women and we have squads.

Staci Slaughter speaking at SquareTrade Girl Geek Dinner.

Staci Slaughter (SF Giants): We have older women paired with — there’s about 10 of us in a squad — older women with younger women in all different senior leadership, middle management, administration, everything. It’s really cool because a lot of times we just go for a walk around a ball park. We’re like, “Okay, meet at 12:00, let’s go take a walk around South Beach.” It’s breaking down those barriers outside of the meetings that I think has really helped with the breaking down the intimidation factor.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Okay.

Josephine Chan (SquareTrade): I think, Wini, we have a question here.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Yeah, we have time for maybe one or two last questions.

Audience Question: I’m a Product Manager here. I wonder what’s your advice on what’s the difference between from IC to your leadership position that you’re in now and how you would prepare for that in terms of, for example, strategic thinking and other aspects that you probably know much better than me? Thank you.

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): It’s very different. Very, very different. If you’re an IC, you’re mostly evaluated based on your scope, your project delivery, how you communicate with others and what have you. As a leader, your product is your team, so a lot of your role becomes enabling your team to success; a lot of your role becomes making sure you have the right leadership bench so that they can deliver the right results; your role becomes setting a strategic vision so that everybody feels like they’re swimming in the same direction with a goal that actually motivates them.

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): The notion of being authentic and open becomes really important because that’s when your team trusts you and works hard to deliver results for you. So it’s actually an incredibly different role when you move into management from being an IC. Obviously a very exciting one and one that I think everyone is more than capable of doing, but a very different skillset for sure.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Is there anything that Individual Contributors can do today to prepare themselves for that shift?

Nupur Srivastava (Grand Rounds): I would just say quickly that I think many of you, even in your IC roles, I’m sure have opportunities to display leadership, right? Whether that means stepping up, raising your hand for a tough project, helping your team rally behind a goal, communicating difficult things to your management and giving honest feedback. I think I see many leaders in my team, even though they’re ICs. So I think there’s plenty you can be doing in the way you carry yourself, and in the work that you do, and in the results that you deliver that make me see leadership potential for ICs as well.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Okay. One last question.

Audience Question: What I’m struggling with right now is managing my time. How much technology should I be studying versus how much leadership skills should I be studying? Like soft skills versus hard skills, which I believe should be called technical and non-technical skills. How do you find the perfect balance without jeopardizing your Individual Contributor role?

Margaret Reeves (SquareTrade): I have thoughts. I think the switch from Individual Contributor to managing your first person is the toughest shift in your career. I know I did it terribly the first time I did it and I’ve seen other people do it terribly. When you’re a strong IC, you’re really good at your job, and you’re on all the details, and you know everything, and you know the technology, you know your product really well. And then you’ve gotta manage someone and you’ve gotta trust that they’re going to do it.

Margaret Reeves (SquareTrade): You have to let go and empower them, and not micro … It’s really hard to not micromanage because especially if they’re taking over some of your stuff, and you know it so much better than them, and if only you were doing it, it would get done in half the time but you don’t have that time and that’s why you’ve got a helper.

Margaret Reeves (SquareTrade): You’ve got to learn to let go and how do you coach and mentor and have the patience to let them make a few mistakes but guide them along the way? So rather than training for it, I would think about, okay, you’re now a manager. How are you going to empower the person who you’re managing, who you’re leading, how are you going to lead them and help them along the way, help them do their job? That’s my perspective.

Claire Hough (Udemy): I think as an engineer, I think first chance that you get at showing some leadership is how you mentor more junior engineers. You’re still keeping up your technical skills because you’re still doing your technical work, but you’re reviewing somebody else’s work and giving them advice or giving them good feedback on how they’re approaching problems and all that. I think that builds your skills alongside your technical skills, so then your mentoring skills become one … You’re mentoring one engineer, you’re mentoring the next engineer, and then you’re building that. As you’re taking on those mentoring skills and time to mentor, then you are going to do less technical work over time, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not keeping up with technology. Right? At some point, you may have a big team such that you cannot keep up with every single thing that everybody’s doing. That’s when you have to let go and trust other people that they know what they’re doing.

Claire Hough (Udemy): I think I always tell the first-time managers that your success is not about you; it’s about your team. The output that you should measure yourself is the output of your whole team as well as the growth of your whole team. You have to, at some point, change that, change how you’re looking at yourself. But I think there’s a lot of satisfaction in mentoring others, so enjoy that where that’s happening and don’t worry about that whatever, that 20% of time I’m spending mentoring others is somehow taking away from me. It’s not. It’s adding to who you are as an engineer by giving that feedback.

Wini Hebalkar speaking at SquareTrade Girl Geek Dinner.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Wow, some amazing advice to leave us with. Make sure you mentor some junior team member, make sure you don’t sell yourself short, stay in the game. If you guys are early in your careers, you can always be an Individual Contributor and a successful leader at the same time by doing just this one other thing.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): Mentor somebody else, form a network with like-minded individuals like you, and help promote them and help promote yourself. I just want to take this time to thank our panelists for being here — I hope you guys all enjoyed it.

Wini Hebalkar (SquareTrade): I hope you all took away at least one thing that you can implement as soon as you go back home or maybe tomorrow morning when you wake up.

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“From Cat Herder to Air Traffic Controller: Engineering Leadership” — Girl Geek X Elevate (Video + Transcript)

Laura Thomson / Director of Engineering / Mozilla
Miriam Aguirre / VP of Engineering / Skillz
Rija Javed / Senior Director of Engineering / Wealthfront
Vidya Setlur / NLP Manager / Tableau


Laura Thomson: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the panel on engineering leadership from cat herder to air traffic controller. My name is Laura Thomson, and I’ll be your moderator. I’m going to begin by introducing the panel, and if each person could wave or tell us who they are as we go around, that would be great. First up we have Miriam Aguirre, who is the VP of Engineering at Skillz. We also have Rija Javed, Senior Director of Engineering at Wealthfront. Vidya Setlur, a NLP Manager at Tableau. And my name is Laura Thomson, as I said, and I’m the Senior Director of Engineering Operations at Mozilla. Welcome to the panel, everyone. We’re going to try to do this in a conversational way. I think a good icebreaker question is for us each to talk about what our career path was. How did we get here? How did we end up in these roles? So who would like to kick us off? Miriam, maybe?

Miriam Aguirre: Sure, absolutely. I actually graduated from college in 1999, and immediately moved to Silicon Valley. I went to MIT and graduated with a computer science degree, and it seemed to be natural for me to move to Silicon Valley. I spent most of my career here in the Bay Area, big companies, small companies, from HPs to two or three people companies. As a software engineer primarily, made my way into architecture and then joined a startup where I felt like I finally had to break into management just because I wanted to drive more of the decisions on what products to work on and what teams to build and how to build those teams. I just felt kind of like there’s only so much I could contribute as an engineer, but there were a lot of decisions where I felt like I could make better decisions at the management level. So I carved my way into leadership at Skillz, now as an VP of Engineering here.

Laura Thomson: That’s great. What about you, Rija?

Rija Javed: I’m originally from Canada. I went to the University of Toronto, did undergrad and grad school there. And then similar to Miriam and, I think, a bunch of people that moved to the Bay Area, that being the hub of tech and software. I was at Zynga, which was a very interesting experience, given that it is a gaming industry, very famine and feast, I was there for about a year, and then this interesting opportunity from a company called Wealthfront came about. The engineering culture really spoke to me, and I joined the company when they were about 20 or so people, and then I recently left when we were about 200+ people. So I was able to contribute across various different areas, and just grew within that role from being an individual contributor to leading and managing that core business area for Wealthfront. And, yeah, met a lot of great people and learned a lot professionally.

Laura Thomson: That’s awesome. What about you, Vidya?

Vidya Setlur: Well, I am originally from India, and so I did my undergrad in India and came here for grad school. My background is in research, so I’ve been doing research and NLP and it’s natural language processing and graphics for more than 10 years. And most recently, an opportunity came up at Tableau where I could manage an engineering team in this space, so it’s just been a great opportunity to practice some of the technical expertise in this area as well as people management hand in hand.

Laura Thomson: That’s terrific. All right, I’ll tell you about myself. I’m originally from Australia, which you probably never would have guessed. When I started college in computer science, the web didn’t exist. And then I decided that that was what I wanted to do for a living, so that worked out well. In Australia I ran a consulting company, went to grad school, and about 11 years ago, I moved to the US and started working for a company that did consulting for startups, really like a lot of scalability stuff. I’ve done a lot open source work and written books and so on, and that’s how I ended up working there. And finally, about 10 and a half years ago I came to work for Mozilla, and I started as a senior engineer and worked my way up to where I am now, which has been a great ride. I wonder, often, how much longer I can go on, but it’s been fantastic.

Rija Javed: Nice.

Laura Thomson: Okay, so next question I have is what’s your management philosophy? How do you approach managing up, dealing with your people that you report to, and down, which is sort of an expression I hate, actually, but, you know, the people you manage. Who would like to tackle it?

Vidya Setlur: I can. I’ll start off. My general philosophy and just watching people that I admire is leading by example. I find it highly uncomfortable asking my team what to do, but intrinsically motivating the team and inspiring the team to really feel the passion and being part of this journey and working on items. I can take the horse to the water and force it to drink, but there’s something lovely about someone who is just excited and passionate about working on certain projects. But, you know, by me getting in and working and leading by example, that’s for me, one way of getting people excited and passionate. The second aspect is just being a really good listener, listening to what people are saying, listening to their signals. There’s a lot of implicit listening that I like to do, their body language, their gestures … Are they uncomfortable? Does their voice need to be heard? So really acutely signaled into some of that as part of the way that I approach leadership.

Laura Thomson: That’s a wonderful answer. I really like that part of it, being a good listener. That’s really important.

Rija Javed: I guess my experience, the way I envision it, for in terms of people managing to me, I very much believe that a job of a manager is to make the people successful, and that’s not while they’re within this particular team or within this particular company. And the way I always look at opportunities, especially within the company scope, is what are the company’s priorities? What are the person’s skills, and what are their interests? And you always want it to be a step up for them, while keeping all of those things intact. And in terms of people higher up than me, I very much believe that an individual’s job is there to make the company successful, all the while, especially when you have people reporting to you, making them successful as well, too. But I feel like I myself have grown a lot within the companies that I’ve been at, and I think good things will just happen to you. You’re then able to make that impact, and other people will see the value that you bring to the table, and it will all work out professionally for you. But, yeah, for me it’s very much making sure that that individual is successful throughout their career and maintaining those relationships and having a good communication system.

Miriam Aguirre: Yeah, really understanding where people want to go and helping them get there and doing the right amount of pushing versus not. Listening, but also listening for things that they’re not saying, and digging in and asking those questions, and trying to steer them towards where they think that they want to go, and giving them those opportunities to see what that’s like. A lot of times you know, or you feel like, something will not be a good idea, or it may not necessarily turn out the way that they think, but you want to be supportive, and you want to give them that space to grow and find out for themselves what they want to accomplish. You taking on that support role is super important for me, in terms of management, just making sure that you’re being supportive but also pushing. I keep pushing them forward.

Laura Thomson: Right, I hear a lot of common things and things that I try to do as well, but maybe not as eloquently stated. A couple of things I really like to do … I like to meet people where they are and not try to force everybody to work the same way or follow the way that I think they should work. As long as they are doing good work, then it doesn’t really matter how they do it. I try to give people the freedom to be themselves. Also, really want to push responsibility to the edges. Wherever possible, the person who knows the most about the thing should be making the decision about the thing, and a lot of the time that’s not me. Those two things are really important.

The other thing is I try to encourage them. I take a philosophy 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.” And 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, and that’s not helpful. What you have to do is be kind by telling them, by sharing that with them. Be direct. Say what you mean. And 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.

Vidya Setlur: I think, adding to that point, is a fantastic book. I don’t know if you’ve read it. It’s called Radical Candor.

Laura Thomson: Oh, I’ve heard this is really good. I’ve not read it.

Vidya Setlur: It’s a very good book. It’s all about honesty and how you can care about people through honesty…

Rija Javed: I think … Sorry, one other point. One of the things that I recently read in a book … It was by Ray Dalio, and the quote there was that the job of manager and especially any person in a senior leadership role is to figure out the individual’s motivations and ensure that those align with the company strategy and goals. If you’re able to do that, then you’ll really be able to help the people grow, which are the most important part of any organization, and that will help the company grow itself.

Laura Thomson: That’s really great. What do we have next? Oh, this is a great one. So what are your thoughts about mentorship or sponsorship? I’ll just qualify what I think the difference between those are. Mentorship, it tends to be helping someone grow or receiving advice. Sponsorship is more the act of helping someone in their career, like offering them stretch opportunities, helping them be seen, and so on. So how have mentors helped you, and how have you been a mentor to others now that you’re a leader?

Miriam Aguirre: I’d like to hit on that one. I definitely feel like, as someone who has now spent a better part of two decades in tech, being really mindful of where I spend my energy. And especially when I think about giving back to the community, whom I choose to mentor and whom I choose to sponsor. I can only sponsor people who work at my company effectively, but who I choose to mentor, it could be outside of my organization, and that’s where I feel like I could make a big difference if I help girls in junior high or people of color before they leave STEM. And so I try to focus my energies around that.

In terms of my own mentorship and allyship, I try to be pretty focused about what I need from certain people. I have a senior executive that I consult with at Lyft, and I ask him for information that would not be readily available to me. For example, what would a white male ask for in terms of salary for this kind of position at this stage company? And him having that experience is able to give me that information pretty easily, and I don’t have to feel like without this information I can’t negotiate effectively. So being really specific and intentional about the info that you want or the kind of sponsorship or mentorship that you need really helps guide me and focus my energy.

Rija Javed: I like to echo that point, especially in terms of mentorship for outside communities. When I was in high school, in terms of my maths and sciences classes, it was actually most of the girls or women there that were actually achieving the highest grades. But careers, in terms of the STEM category, is just things that they would not think of, so they would try to go into more of a business side of things, whereas it would be more of the male population that would think about going into it. And to be honest, I actually first was doing undergrad in terms of business and economics, and then I just loved math way too much. So since high school up till now, for the past 10 years, I’ve tried to focus a lot more in terms of those diverse groups that wouldn’t necessarily automatically be thinking about the STEM careers, just to open up their mind to learn more about it.

Rija Javed: And then in terms of mentorship within the industry and within the company that you’re working with, I think it takes on lots of different forms. There are, of course, more specific relationships like onboarding mentor relationships, but there’s also a lot of stuff that you learn more implicitly from people. And I feel like I’ve really benefited in terms of that. While people may not necessarily be doing it, but you find them to be inspirational people, and that’s how I carve out my career journey. I think about it. It’s like those are the traits or those are the experiences that I would like to have.

Rija Javed: I think in terms of sponsorship, I read a great article, which I think is probably one to two years old now on Medium. But that was talking about how mentorship is not the answer for why women leave tech. The answer is actually advocacy at the higher exec levels. And that’s actually one of the things that I’ve been more mindful of, given the leverage that I’ve had at the company and thinking more about that diverse group and how I’m able to speak up for them. Because I also know that I’ve been able to grow in my career because there’s been that one person for me that’s been speaking up for me at that high level E-staff and board level.

Laura Thomson: I really like what you said about the implicit mentorship. I always think you should watch what people do, and if there’s something they do that’s great, ask them how they do it and steal it. Make it your own so you can … It doesn’t have to be a Yoda-style relationship where they guide every action, and you’re running through the jungle and learning all these things in this really hard way.

Rija Javed: Yeah, exactly.

Vidya Setlur: And I think that also dovetails into the previous point I made about being a good listener, but also being a really good observer. Because what I’ve realized is the best advice I have given as a mentor or have been given from a mentor is stuff that just happens implicitly without any sort of descriptive advice. I’m not saying that there is no place for that, but sometimes watching situational awareness and how people react in various situations is a really great way of observing and learning and recalibrating ourselves as individuals. I think for all of us here on this panel, we have the responsibility of mentoring the upcoming generation and our peers as well as continuously observing and learning from other people that we look up to.

Vidya Setlur: And the sponsorship thing is really good. Both Rija and Miriam raise some interesting points on, yes, you always want to have someone who can advocate for you or advocate for certain values in place in addition to someone intrinsically motivated and mentoring and helping you grow as a career. And you need both, and there’re places for both in a company and situation.

Laura Thomson: I think that’s really true. Sponsorship is sometimes an easier model, too. And I saw that as a question that I’m not going to answer it particularly or directly about finding people to mentor you at the mid and senior levels, and sometimes sponsorship is a better model there. It’s okay to approach somebody and say would you sponsor me, but I think you need to figure out what you want to get out of it first and make sure that you identify somebody that has the skills or is in the position to help you. And be prepared for them to say no. But I think one thing you can also in those situations is if somebody says no, say, “Well, can you suggest somebody else that might be able to help?” So don’t be frightened to ask. The worst you can get is no.

Laura Thomson: Okay, I did want to mention there are a bunch of questions coming up. We’re going to do a few more questions that we prepared earlier, and then we’ll switch to doing questions from the group. So if you haven’t had a chance, if you’re in the audience, look at the Ask a Question section, vote up questions that are interesting, write your own while we’re talking, and we’ll look at them in a few minutes.

Laura Thomson: Next one I have… let’s talk about challenges, challenges or failures that you have faced throughout your career. They could be things you overcame or things that you don’t think you handled particularly well. Let’s talk about those. Who would like to go first?

Rija Javed: I can start off. When I joined my prior company, the company size was 20, and I was the only female, let alone female within engineering, and certainly people who had five to 10 years more professional experience than me. So I really had to show my value in terms of the work that I was delivering. But one of the disconnects that was there for some time was you might be acting within a role and delivering that impact, but not necessarily getting the title that’s associated with it. And certainly situations where there were people with me that were not necessarily as diverse — they were white / male — and the treatment that they got versus the lack of audience that I got in that situation and the answer that I was literally told were like, “Well, yes, for this very powerful person, you don’t look like the people that he’s used to dealing with, and you just look very different to that.” And I think that prior article that I mentioned of why women leave tech, that Medium blog post …One of the things that it did mention was if … sometimes there are stereotypes associated with women.

So, if you are this very strong leader, then sometimes in conflicts that can be viewed negatively, whereas potentially a white male, who people are more used to, can get more claps on the back of, hey, you’re a strong leader, and you stood up for those ideals. Those are certainly some of the challenges that I’ve had to work through. There’s certainly technical challenges as well, and that’s a conversation that I was having with one of my peers, as well, is I think especially as you go higher and higher, it’s more so about cultural challenges that you have to deal with, and I certainly believe like no situation, no company is perfect, there’s going to be politics everywhere but it’s like what level of politics are you okay with and at what level does it really start to get super toxic?

Laura Thomson: Yep.

Miriam Aguirre: I think for me personally, when I think about my growth in tech, when I think about failures and challenges, what really stands out to me is how much time I feel like I’ve wasted fearing to fail as opposed to overcoming the actual failures. They’re not that remarkable now that I think about all of those failures and some of them I can’t even remember but there’s been plenty of failure throughout my career. What I feel most bad about isn’t those failures themselves, it’s actually how much time it took for me to make those decisions and not be okay with taking that risk and that’s really what I would like to change, not the failure itself. I think failure is just part of our roles, part of our jobs. We have to be able to manage through that. It’s really the lack of decision making that I feel bad about personally. When I think about how I approach my work now, it’s not out of a place of fear, and definitely like I know how to get through failure, I’ve done it plenty of times now. It’s more like let’s be decisive, let’s make good decisions, and let’s do it quickly without wasting time around being afraid.

Laura Thomson: That’s a good one.

Vidya Setlur: Yeah, I think for me, I think the general thread of thinking whether you classified failure as challenges, that’s to be discussed, but I think this is just sort of reminiscent of women in tech who tend to overcompensate for the role that we have and you just talked about that too. I found that starting from grad school because I chose to have a kid in grad school and as it is being a woman in a computer science department pursuing a PhD has its own bias feed and that on top having a child leads to all sorts of assumptions and opinions that people, especially men tend to have, “Are you really cut out for grad school? Is this what you want to do?” Comments like, “I guess I’m not going to see you once you have your kid.” I think for me, the way to address those challenges has been to just overcompensate. Working really hard as a grad student, not playing video games like my male peers, right? Because you feel like you’re constantly judged based on what you’re doing and I think it’s a common thread for me as I have grown professionally. I mean Tableau has been a great company but just because I have been trained and sensitized to overcompensating, I realized that we all wear so many hats that are beyond our pay grade or job requirements and we just do it. I have seen guys saying, “You know what? You’re asking me to do this, you need to give me a salary hike,” but we dare not ask such a question, right? We just do it and we sort of underplay or downplay that overcompensation that we’re doing because we feel that we need to prove ourselves beyond this stereotype that is often there. To me, part of the undercurrent of challenges that I face and I feel that a lot of people can kind of relate to that as well.

Laura Thomson: That’s a good one. I know for myself, one of the biggest challenges I’ve had through my whole career is I have really bad imposter syndrome and I’m sure I’m going to learn that probably like 99% of the people on the call have this to some extent but it’s really frustrating. Like you sort of feel like you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I have this thing that I want to work on, if I talk about it people will think I’m an idiot, is it really a good idea? If we do it, what if I fail and I’ll look stupid and all this kind of stuff. Like it was a very strong problem for me.

One of the things that’s helped me a little bit with that is realizing that it applies in every aspect of my life. I’m also a parent and when I became a parent, I said, “I have no idea what I’m doing, but all of these other moms know what they’re doing.” I was like, “This is imposter syndrome again, I just can’t get rid of it.” It’s kind of good to know that’s just how my brain is. That actually helped me a lot with the career stuff, was it was like, “Okay, this is how it works, I just have to ignore it.” It’s super helpful.

Vidya Setlur: Yes.

Laura Thomson: What do we have next on the list? Okay, so what do you do, each of you, to develop and hone your leadership skills?

Miriam Aguirre: Sure, I’ve got a couple of networking groups. I participate in an engineering Slack group as well. I like to, on my very long commute, I listen to podcasts or catch up on blogs and kind of follow different leaders in engineering and just kind of catch up on articles and keep in touch with the community. I find that kind of research really helps me keep abreast on what other people are doing, what other companies are doing and if they’ve solved some problem that either we are facing or we’re about to face and I don’t even know it yet. I can stay ahead of that stuff and kind of really reach out and kind of get more information around like how they approach the problem and how they came to those solutions because even having the framework for solving those kinds of problems is really valuable even if the problem isn’t directly applicable. I like to read up on the industry and also leaders that I feel are really good leaders at really good companies and try and model after them.

Rija Javed: Yeah.

Vidya Setlur: Yeah, for me, I definitely lean towards honing my technical aspect of leadership. I found that in a meeting, if I’m having a conversation tying it back to something that’s technically grounded often helps me in my role because of the nature of the team that I’m leading. Since I came from research, I continue to be very active in the academic community. I publish at conferences. I do peer reviews with papers. I also, the Bay Area has a lot of opportunities to mingle because there’s so many meet ups on various technical issues, also kind of women in tech issues, so just socializing and being out there and listening and learning and just being actively learning and growing is something that I continue doing.

Laura Thomson: Yeah.

Rija Javed: I mean, I don’t necessarily do as much reading. I try to keep up with some of the stuff but for me, the value that I really place on is on the individual themselves, so I have this collection of people, not necessarily engineers themselves, but within the tech community and some a little bit outside that I very much respect. When it comes to some like high-level decision-making process that I’m going through, I tend to look at a lot of the metrics, like try to be data-driven, but then I also place a high value on the opinion and advice of those folks, and also try to — which I think kind of echos what Vidya and Miriam mentioned as well too — try to learn from the people around me and that doesn’t necessarily need to be like the people that are laterally above you, but people that are around you or below you because everybody has a different way of doing things, and you might be able to learn something from that.

Laura Thomson: Yeah. Yeah, and I think that’s not just learning what to do but sometimes you can learn things that you don’t want to do, right? We just started saying about work too, I mean reading blogs and whatever but I hope it will all work out but one of my awesome colleagues, Selena Deckelman has just started Management Book Club and when I was talking about this when we were preparing, someone said, “Did you actually read the book?” I think it was Miriam and it’s really well-structured for managers because it’s like a chapter at a time so you know, we’ll meet to discuss chapter four. That’s okay, I think everybody can commit to reading like a chapter. I’m hoping that works out really well, but I think the conversation is about it with the other leaders is probably even more important than reading the book.

Vidya Setlur: Laura, what’s the name of the book again?

Laura Thomson: We’re going to do different books, I can put a link to the one we’re doing first. Ask me again in six months if we kept it up. That would be a good question, but I really like the idea. Okay.

Tell me about a bright spot in your career. What was something that you think of as a highlight or a high point, something that went really well.

Miriam Aguirre: I’ve been pretty pleased the way we’ve approached hiring at Skillz and kind of some of the resulting stats from that. Deep down, everyone believes that diverse teams help a company perform better. I wanted to actually apply that and have some results come of it. When we were named the fastest growing company revenue-wise for Inc. 500, I was like, “This is exactly like the proof that people want to see, right?” Sometimes people do things the right way because it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes they want to see that the numbers look good and this is kind of a sweet spot where I feel pretty happy that we’ve got both those things and really want to share that success with other leaders and kind of help them achieve that same level of success because I do feel like at the end of the day, the diverse team really does help the company build a better product and if you’re in a business that wants to make money, that’s very important and you can’t overlook that. It costs money to overlook that.

Laura Thomson: Yep, that’s a great story.

Rija Javed: I think for me, the highlight of my career and the best project that I worked on, which has also been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was, I was managing that core business area for Wealthfront so we were trying to scale the existing platform but we also wanted to remove some of the middlemen that are associated with the brokerage and financial industry so re-architecting that whole platform and taking all that responsibility in-house, which was a massive undertaking but we didn’t also shut shop so we’re still delivering the new client facing features on top. We also went through like a massive hiring endeavor too as well with somewhere around like 40 or so people just within like a three to four-month span.

That six month period in terms of onboarding, that was like a net negative and a very painful experience for me, but I truly also believe that people are the most important part of any aspect so once they were fully onboarded, and this endeavor — I call it a project but it was a two and half-year endeavor — and it just kind of like really opened up the gates for my company in terms of the products and the areas in which we wanted to expand and also just the control we should take in-house. Then we decided to build while this was going on, a new client facing feature on top, which we knew nothing about and the timeline was compressed on us because our board financing the decision but because I had a great team. There were a lot of tough challenges both technical and to be honest, cultural as well too because we were working with 30 different vendors and hiring people from traditional industry who were just not used to tech at all, so for me to be able to kind of like onboard them and work with the different mental models, certainly the hardest thing that I’ve had to do but also probably the proudest thing because I was just humbled to have worked on it, let alone be able to lead and manage that whole thing of 80+ people, certainly something I’m proud of and a highlight.

Laura Thomson: That’s amazing.

Rija Javed: Thank you.

Vidya Setlur: When I joined Tableau almost six years ago, it was nothing about natural language. Tableau had been an analytics platform supporting visual analytics and I joined a research team but people would look at me oddly and say, “Oh, you have an NLP background, but I guess you also have a graphics background so it makes sense that you’re in Tableau.” I think what I’m particularly proud about is working on the research team on a bunch of prototypes, which focus on the research team, primarily women, I must say, and there was a precipitation point where it’s almost like you have to be at the right time at the right place, the stars need to align for a company to really buy into a research idea. It’s a multi-factor optimization. It goes with competitive landscape has to be just right, the idea has to be well thought through. It needs to excite the decision-makers in the company. It needs to make sense to the company’s business because there’s so much beyond just a good idea and we presented a particular prototype to the executive board where they got so excited that they started a seed engineering team with a female engineer, actually, and then Tableau acquired a start up and now NLP is a first class citizen at Tableau. Everybody talks about NLP. So it’s just exciting to see that technical shift and kind of the respect and the whole ecosystem that comes with that. You have sales people passionate about it talking to Tableau customers. There’s a whole body of work in the research community that’s looking at NLP with visual analytics. It’s just been remarkable and I would just say it’s been lucky I’ve just had a lot of good people working with me and just some good luck as well.

Laura Thomson: Yep. That’s amazing. For me, I think the thing I’m proudest of over the last couple years is actually more of a cultural change than anything. There’s a lot of technical change but mostly a cultural change and the program we have that I came up with, which is called, rather unglamorously, Go Faster.

I come from a web development background and when I moved to actually start working on Firefox, I said, “Why do we only ship every six weeks? Why don’t we just deploy this continuously?” I think I upset a lot of people by saying that. The nice thing about that is, I’ve always kind of thought with continuous deployment, the things that you do to promote that [inaudible 00:35:11] for your culture anyway. It means lots of tests, lots of sort of good data and experimentation and trying small incremental things and seeing if users like them and iterating quickly. We’ve historically been a risk averse culture, which might surprise you, and also a culture that is like allergic to collecting any kind of data because it’s sort of the clash point between Mozilla’s mission. We’ll respect user sovereignty but also try and deliver a good product. It’s like we’ve had to come up with sort of set of lean data practices so we can collect data about the product without invading anybody’s privacy to iterate quickly and make a good product. We can do that now. We can ship multiple times a day if we want to. We mostly don’t but we do a lot more experimental work. We do a lot more testing and experimental features and feature flagging and a lot of things that I am used to doing as a web dev. I feel really proud about that. I think it was sort of one of the key things that allowed us to ship Firefox Quantum last year, so it feels really good to have pulled that off and it kind of surprises me still.

Rija Javed: Nice.

Laura Thomson: It was fun.

Rija Javed: Yeah.

Laura Thomson: Okay, so I have one more question from our prepared ones then I’ll go to the audience questions. This last one I think is a really good one for this audience, which is what do you do to promote inclusive leadership and make people from diverse backgrounds feel welcome in your team? That includes intentionally including people that have a various sort of intersectional differences.

Rija Javed: I think, sorry, I can get started unless-

Laura Thomson: Yeah, go on.

Rija Javed: I think one of the things that I really try to focus on is like the different level of diversities. Like it’s not just, and a lot of companies tend to focus like oh race, gender, and now like maybe thinking about like say sexual orientation or socioeconomic background, but there’s also different personalities in that mix and one of the things that I have been very much cognizant of, especially in the last six to eight months, is some people are more outwardly and happy to speak up for themselves and also opportunities that they would want, which kind of works well within the startup’s culture, as well too, where you almost don’t have like a whole lot of hierarchies associated. Other people are just as impressive, they’re just more behind the scenes and not necessarily super comfortable about even expressing their wants about which project they want to work on and what opportunities they’re next looking for.

One of the things I’ve been cognizant of like trying to really assess the team that I have in terms of, like it’s that whole ecosystem as opposed to the individuals associated with it, and how they’re kind of contributing and working together. First off, as soon as I start mentoring or managing somebody, it’s trying to figure out what their motivations are to like really grow, like why are they even an engineer? Not just working within in this team or within this company but what they want to achieve? Then within that set of how they compliment each other’s skills and the opportunities that are available, try to kind of give them those prodding or those opportunities even if maybe it’s like, “Oh, Julia, you had this great idea, or Bob did this thing over the weekend that actually was great results, or as somebody else mentioned this article.” Yeah, it’s not necessarily super concrete because I think it just depends on the team that you’re working with.

Laura Thomson: Yep. Great.

Vidya Setlur: I would just say just responding to that, I love the word ecosystem and for me, it feeds into kind of a broader philosophy that I have for my team that everybody needs to be in this [inaudible 00:38:44] mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset. In order to achieve that active learning mindset and growing from other people on the team, you need people from different backgrounds, the typical ones that we often see but also more nuanced as we just said. Introverts, extroverts, different skills.

If I have a team that is all highly-functional with superstars and all senior engineers and no junior engineers, people can get cocky. They’re like, “No, we all know what we’re doing,” and there are no opportunities for mentoring and helping junior engineers or even interns [inaudible 00:39:30] and at the same time, interns or junior folks have an opportunity to be mentored and learn and ask the right questions of more senior people. You can slice and dice these across different types of diversities, right, but at the end of the day, you have a puzzle, they’re not all going to fit perfectly. I mean there are going to be bumps, that’s how we are as humans. It’s not perfect, but in that process, you learn, right? Everybody learns and constantly recalibrates and figures out, what can we do to make this situation better?

Laura Thomson: That’s great.

Miriam Aguirre: I feel like this is one of those things that if you start out with a non diverse team it gets harder, and harder to fix that problem. But if you start with a very diverse team it lends itself very well to continuing to promote diversity; from the hiring decisions, the recruiting, how it’s done, how we present ourselves. But very hard to fix later on. You can start by doing the right thing, and things will be kind of steady state and not that hard to fix later on, or you can be in a situation where you’re like a Google or a company like that, where you just have a ton of work to do there. I think for us, because we’re in this situation where what we’re trying to do is to continue to promote that. We’re more open to different backgrounds, we’ve got objective testing that can help us suss out whether or not you’ve got the technical skills to succeed here and we don’t really look at that CS degree as a bar that that’s the first barrier to entry.

We feel good about processes downstream being able to inform us whether or not we think the person is going to be successful on the team. Then once they do join the team we make it part of multiple peoples goals to have that person succeed here at the company; so it isn’t just that individual out there floating by themselves. Multiple people are responsible for the success of that person; and they know it and everyone is aware of, okay you’re this person’s tech lead, you’re this person’s mentor, you’re this person’s … All of those pieces of the onboarding that we try to ensure that once they’ve joined the organization they’re going to have the support framework to succeed here. That really helps us, all of us, be invested in the success of any one individual; just at the end of the day just fixing hiring isn’t going to fix the other problems.

Laura Thomson: I want to pick up on one thing you said that I absolutely agree with you that it’s so much easier to have an inclusive environment if you do that from day one, right? To use a terrible engineering analogy you don’t build the product and then try to tack on security with duct tape, because you’re doomed to failure. It’s so much easier to start from a diverse, inclusive place and just build on that. I suppose it can be done, but it’s always going to be an uphill battle. For us, I really want people to be able to bring their whole selves to work. A couple of things I try to do to help with that are to talk about like, this is a really really basic example, you know if I am sick, or I’m taking time off because I need to do a parenting thing or whatever, I tell people about that. I know some people might feel like they have to hide that they have to take time off work because they have children or whatever. They can feel embarrassed, like oh I’m a mom and therefore I’m unreliable, blah, blah, blah. I always say, I’ve got to take off early today because of this child-related thing, because I want other people to be able to be free to do that. I talk about it because it’s a way of sort of making it clear that that’s okay. Using the privileged position that I have to establish that that’s a good baseline.

There’s just more basic things, like making sure quieter people get heard in meetings and not having every team building be about drinking beer and riding ATVs, and all sorts of … There’s lots of really basic everyday things. I’ve learned a heck of a lot from our head of D&I Larissa Shapiro was on this call and she’s awesome — so can’t say enough good things about her, how lucky we are to have her working with us. I am going to jump to the audience questions. Top of the list is, how do you find mid to senior career mentors? I feel like every time I look at a mentoring group they only want me to be a mentor, which I’m happy to do, but I want both.

Rija Javed: The approach that I’ve taken is just kind of really seek out, and to be honest, kind of like grab the opportunities and just go and ask the people myself. I try to … I like my prior opportunity just because I think it truly attracted top talent from various … Not just within engineering, but seeing the people that I respect, who have delivered and are able to inspire people. Not just given the past work, and what it says on their CV, and on LinkedIn, but the value that they’re delivering right now and you’re able to see. Then just kind of literally go and seek out those relationships. Be like, hey would you mind going on a coffee, or whatever. What I’ve actually found is people are more than happy to provide that mentorship and that advice to you. I’ve had the reverse happen to me as well too, but I’ve seen that people have been shy about it, so I’ve literally kind of taken them out and then once you’re there, then a whole bunch of both hypothetical and actual, real practical life questions come out that they just want your advice and feedback on.

Laura Thomson: That’s great. Anyone else on that?

Vidya Setlur: I would add that at least a couple ways one could possibly find these mentors is, what I found helpful is finding a mentor that would sustain a long term relationship. When I started as fresh out of grad school I had a mentor and both of us have sort of grown professionally over time. There’s still an interesting relationship in terms of the types of experiences that person can relate back to me, as well as growing in my professional career and exchanging notes. That relationship has changed over time, but it’s sustained because the underlying theme is trust and context. I don’t have to give my whole dump of where I am every single time, because it’s sustained. I would say those type of mentors can be rare, because we move, and switch companies, or people get busy, so things happen that way.

Another piece that I have found useful is, especially for people like us in senior levels, we probably have changed companies a few times, or changed management lines a few times. I have found, personally, that some of the best mentors that I’ve come across have been people who were my managers in the past, maybe at a different company, or in a different line, who I have respected, trusted, but because they are not my manager anymore there is a different type of relationship where they can be more mentors. Mentoring as opposed to managing. There’s a lovely reflection there that happens. Kind of seeking out into your network and finding those [inaudible 00:47:28] examples of people that you’ve worked closely with, or that managed you, whether that be directly or indirectly, and seeing if they can help mentor you in your next path, or next endeavor.

Miriam Aguirre: I would reach out to executives, especially if you want to meet someone at that executive level. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a person in your company’s executive team, but they will probably know other executives and can maybe recommend someone. If you’re specific enough about what you’re looking for, what problems you’re looking to solve, or what kind of mentorship you need, I feel like reaching out to your execs, or having them reach out to their board is not out of line for this kind of mentorship. A lot of people are very interested in sharing that women in tech stay in tech. I think that expanding your search and having other people who are already in those positions help you with that search can also be beneficial.

Laura Thomson: That’s great. Okay. I don’t I have much to add, so we’ll go to the next question. If know you’ve undervalued yourself in terms of salary how do you approach your manager to correct it so you’re paid fairly on par with your peers?

Rija Javed: I think the way to look at it is more objectively. I think companies, especially startups, kind of go through various different phases of that, but hopefully there’s some sort of engineering, or within whichever function, some levels associated it. Which is like, hey this is the roles and responsibilities that come with it, and that there’s advance associated with that level in terms of the compensation and various different rewards that go with it. I think having a very open and honest conversation in terms of the value that you are delivering; both objectively in terms of what you’ve delivered in the past, and making sure that you are prescribing and delivering on that particular metric, and hopefully by going through that feedback assessment, or whatever feedback loop that you have, your peers both within engineering and depending on the level that you’re in you’re probably working cross-functionally with folks as well too that can kind of really attest to that in a way.

The worst way you could potentially go about it is the compare and contrast approach, which as human beings, however much you try both preach and try to do, it’s just really hard to get out of. It’s like, oh hey I’m doing this, but this other person is doing that, and I think that’s how much their level, or title, or what they’re actually being paid is. I’ve seen both, me myself potentially being in that situation, or somebody having that conversation with me. Compare and contrast is usually, I think, the bad way to go about it. You want to look at it more objectively in the value that you yourself are bringing.

Laura Thomson: That’s great. One thing I would recommend is go with data. If you can collect any data points, and also it’s really good to rehearse any kind of those awkward conversations where you’re asking for more money, or you’re asking for a promotion. Rehearse it, practice it on a friend, a coworker, a spouse, whatever, so that when you actually go to have the awkward conversation with your boss … Because none of us like to talk about these things, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s like giving a talk; if you’ve done it before it will be easier.

Miriam Aguirre: Yeah, actually I feel like if your friend is up for it, they would really do you a favor by saying no and then that way you get that shock out of your system and you don’t freeze, because that is a potential outcome of this conversation. If you can practice that no with a friend, have your points, and your follow ups ready to go I think that will go much smoother when negotiating in person. I definitely agree with that practice the negotiation in advance.

Vidya Setlur: Yeah, just adding to that. Getting a friend who can play devil’s advocate is good.

Laura Thomson: Yeah, and never work for somebody like that. But yeah, absolutely. I think it’s really important. One of the things that I have done, more on the asking for a promotion than asking for a salary, is to say, what’s the gap? If you’ve said no, what do I have to change? What are the things that you need to see from me in order for me to get this and will you help me work on those things? Make them invested in your success, because it’s their success too.

Rija Javed: Yeah.

Laura Thomson: The next two-

Vidya Setlur: We complete goals, right? What is the delta? This is what you’re expecting of a promotion and just articulating the action of the item. That’s also useful as being a manager of individuals on a team. When you give them feedback and helping them identify learning opportunities, coming up with concrete actions that [inaudible 00:52:09]. Obviously to have data, have points of view that are more concrete.

Laura Thomson: That’s great. Okay, the next two questions are related. I’m going to read them both and then people can tackle whichever part of them they want. The next one is I’d love to get more details on the managing up questions from the panel. The second one is, leadership has two roles, managing those in the organization, but also managing and leading up. As leaders in tech, what advice can you offer for influencing company values to be more inclusive towards diversity, and other values that are meaningful to employees who aren’t white men, especially when there might be resistance to that.

Rija Javed: In terms of just managing up, one of the philosophies that has been one of my go to things and that I actually tell people within my team to do as well too, is over communicate versus less. If you think this information might be useful, even if you don’t think it is. I have literally kind of like — we used to use HipChat as opposed to Slack — but like literally spent selling spam messages almost, I like to call them, just because you don’t know what their filter might be and you always want the information to be going up as opposed to, like I had this one odd case. I was on vacation and got a text later on at night because of it, where the information because of the cross functional group went all the way up, down, and then… It was just this weird thing where you always want it to be going up. And to one of Vidya’s points much earlier, which was in terms of what your leadership skills are, I think both over communicating versus less, because people as you start to go higher up, they tend to lose context.

Maybe this is a bad example given the current tech world that we are in, but people love information, right? That is power. As leaders, you also want to be leading from the front. Having that social capital, and that social equity of the people that you are actually leading, because you are actually able to deliver, or have delivered in the past as well, and you know what you’re talking about. Then that’s also going to speak volumes at the higher up levels, because you have that social capital to back you, as opposed to just this potential — as organizations sometimes scale there’s this different perception; the upwards and the downward perception, and you want to keep that consistent. If you’re able to deliver, then the team itself is going to be kind of speaking for you, and the higher ups are going to believe more of what you say versus like no this is more of a middle manager, and maybe the team is feeling differently.

Vidya Setlur: I think for me there is a certain craft in terms of … kind of going back the point that communication is really important. I think there is a certain craft that comes with communication depending on whom you’re talking to, whether it’s managing up or down. For instance, there needs to be a way for me to articulate what our team is doing, or what it’s focusing on, and the customer value in a way that folks above me can either understand, or be active, but given communication that comes from upstream, downstream, or the way I need to communicate it with my team, you have to be more nuanced, or filtered, or updated based on how people are going to perceive that communication. I think getting more skills in terms of how one crafts communication, and the nuances of that based on who the target audience is, is definitely something that helps someone grow as a leader.

Laura Thomson: We are getting low on time. I think we can try to do these next two questions, because they’re both, I think, really quick to answer, then we’ll wrap up.

The next question is how many of you are still coding on a regular basis while being managers. I’m going to go first, which is I don’t code at work. I don’t code for work because it’s not my main job and I would just be blocking somebody else from getting something done. When I code these days it is like on a side project — on a plane is a great time to be writing code, I spend a lot of time on planes, that’s awesome — but yeah, I don’t want to be on the critical part for anything, because that’s a huge mistake in my mind. Anyone else?

Miriam Aguirre: Same for me. I don’t actually code anymore. I do on occasion peek into pull requests, and drop in some comments, but no, they don’t let me check into the repos anymore.

Rija Javed: Yeah, I’m on a similar path as well, too.

Vidya Setlur: I actually actively code.

Laura Thomson: Yeah, that’s fine.

Vidya Setlur: I review code, I write code, I look at the engineers. Yeah, I figure out which projects I work on… For me, being technically hands on is important.

Laura Thomson: Yeah, for me I think the crossover point is somewhere between being a line manager, and a manager of managers. About when you become a manager of managers it stops being a good idea. Anyway. One other question, I noticed all of you went to grad school, do you feel it made it easier for you to become a director or VP, or that it’s necessary to become one. I’ll start by pointing out I dropped out of grad school as is quite traditional in this industry. You don’t need it.

Miriam Aguirre: I didn’t go. Yeah, I didn’t go to grad school.

Rija Javed: I didn’t find it useful.

Vidya Setlur: I found it useful, especially with something as specialized as NLP. I’m kind of the black sheep.

Laura Thomson: Yeah. I think there are exceptions to that. If you want to be in research, if you want to be in data science, it doesn’t hurt. I’m sure there’s other things where it’s obvious, but it’s never going to stop you from getting a job, I think, at the end of the day, not at this point in our industry anyway. Okay, any last words? Anyone have anything else that they want to add that I should’ve asked? We have one minute.

Vidya Setlur: I should just say the questions that were coming in, I’ve been watching them, I’ve been really awesome.

Laura Thomson: They were great questions, yeah.

Vidya Setlur: Thanks very much and I hope the audience found this useful.

Laura Thomson: Thank you all for coming today. I had a lot of fun. I hope you did too. Thanks.

Miriam Aguirre: Thank you.

Rija Javed: Yeah. Bye.

“The Hardest Job I’ve Ever Loved“: Julie Meloni on Building Solutions with the US Digital Service (Video + Transcript)

Julie Meloni / Engineer / United States Digital Service
Gretchen DeKnikker / COO / Girl Geek X


Gretchen DeKnikker: I’m super excited to introduce Julie Meloni. She works with US Digital Service, yes, the government. She is going to tell you about the hardest job she has ever loved, working with USDS. Welcome, Julie.

Julie Meloni: Thank you so much. I hope you can all hear me. I am really excited to be here. I love talking about USDS. Every time I do, I am confused because I never thought I’d work in the government, who would love working in the government, certainly not me. But it’s the hardest job I’ve ever loved, and it’s hard for a lot of reasons that don’t have anything to do with technology. It has everything to do with people.

The technology is the easy part. Complex systems are hard. I’m going to talk a little bit about the types of work that we do, who we do it for, and how we do it. The funny thing is — spoiler alert — the things that we do and the way that we’re successful isn’t really unique to USDS.

You can all do it in your own organizations. While I would love for you all to come work at USDS and do it, as a takeaway, I’d like you to think about how you too can use all of your knowledge and expertise and your entire whole selves and bring it to your own work because sometimes it’s all we have.

If you’re looking behind me, this is the fancy digs we have here at Jackson Place for the US Digital Service. I am indeed in a basement. I am in the fancy room in the basement. That just gives a little bit the sense of just how we work. Scrappy is how we work at the US Digital Service. What are we? We’re about three and a half years old. That means that we were started in the Obama Administration. We’re still here in the current administration.

We’re a bunch of very passionate nerds, who use designing technology to help the government deliver better services to the public.

Very specifically, we don’t say the American people because we also serve people who want to become American citizens, and we still do that work today. We’ll talk a little bit about that as well.

What are our objectives at the US Digital Service? One is to transform critical public-facing services. That means anytime that a citizen, or a person wanting to become a citizen, interfaces with the government, it’s probably digital or should be digital. Those are two very different things. If it is digital, we try to transform those services into circa 2010 technology would be really awesome. 2017, 2018 technology is an amazing achievement and sometimes we get good partners in agencies who are amenable to that. That is amazing. But really, we’re trying to bring interfaces from the ’80s, ’90s, and sometimes the ’70s into the 2000s, 2010s. That is hard. It’s hard for a lot of reasons, and we’ll talk through that in a little bit.

We also want to help agencies figure out how to buy better services. That means really digging into what people are trying to do because they’re usually trying to do the right thing and helping them weed through bad contracts, bad requirements, bad everything, and trying to get them to a better place where they can buy better services that are maybe modern and don’t lock them in, maybe, sometimes uses open source, and maybe, sometimes uses new things like agile. We help them buy better services and save money, and that’s a big deal. If we can keep someone from spending $500 million on something that should have been $5 million, we’re going to take that win for us and for you any day of the week.

Another thing that we do is making sure that we’re expanding the use of common platform services and tools, and that could be tools that we help build such as, which is a joint effort between the US Digital Service and our partners in the technology transformation organization, 18F. That is meant to be a government single sign-on solution at a very high level of authentication.

We would love to be able to roll that out across agencies. Wouldn’t it be nice to sign in to do your taxes with the same user information that you used to fill out your FAFSA at the Department of Education?

What path can that bring? Even if it’s not a specific tool that we build, it might be a common platform. It might be the use of the Cloud. It might be the use of, I don’t know, some sort of, any sort of continuous integration and build system. It could be a lot of things.

We try to make sure that what we use can be used in other places as well because, if we don’t, we’re just as bad as the contractors who lock agencies into one thing.

Finally, we want to bring hot technical talent into public service, and that’s all of you and your friends who are probably too busy working to be here today, get them too. If you are super experienced, especially in complex organizations, if you have a very high EQ, and if you want to give back in some way, *especially if you never thought you would work in government*.

Take a look at US Digital Service or 18F and see what might fit for you.Not knowing all 2,000 of you or whatever it is watching this today, I can guarantee that we need all of you. I’d be happy for five. We need the help.

Who are we helping? That’s the fun part, right? We help as many people as we possibly can and this is why it gets hard because we can’t help everyone. We have an agency team at the Department of Homeland Security.

We work to create tools that help asylum officers adjudicate their cases quicker, which means they can help more refugees come into the country, more asylees come into the country.

We are trying desperately to make the immigration form process better. Generally, in all the situations that I explained, what we really do is we try to unfuck the government that is really fucked, from a technology perspective.

We have a team at DHS working hard for immigrants and refugees and working a little bit now with FEMA to try to make the grant system not suck quite as much as it does especially for people who have just lost everything in fires and floods. They shouldn’t have to go through as much paper as they do.

We also help veterans. This is one of our favorite stories because there is so much that we owe to our veterans and so little that we do well for them from a technology perspective. There are 598 distinct websites where veterans go to get information about how to get the services they’ve already earned like healthcare and education — 598 different websites is like 597 too many.

We have been working with the VA to make all these websites at least flow through one kind of interface like a portal, very cutting edge portal technology at, and trying to make the paper forms not paper anymore, so incrementally taking bad things and making them better in terms of interfaces. You’ll notice a common theme as we go through here.

Military service members — We work for them. One of our teams at the Pentagon, the Defense Digital Service, they’re working on a better platform that helps active duty service members and their families move. The moving process which hundreds of thousands of families do every year, all at the same time, is a very antiquated computer system that usually goes down and results in people not being able to move and so we’re making a better one because that sort of cognitive load. You don’t want to think about how you’re going to move your family from one end of the country to the other while you’re sitting in Afghanistan getting shot at. That’s the last thing that you should be thinking of, so we try to make sure that you don’t have to think of that.

We also help students — In 2015, USDS and 18F worked together to create the new version of the college scorecard which focused on actually listening to students and their families, really figuring out what it is that they wanted to see, and then making that so.

Medicare/Medicaid recipients — We work with the team at Health and Human Services at the centers for Medicaid and Medicare services and we’re working on opening data basically providing APIs for third parties to access Medicare clean data so that doctors and other third parties can work with that data and present it to patients in a better way, make sure that they’re sort of looking at their trends and how can that help provide better service for seniors and anyone, actually.

Farmers — this is my personal favorite. There is a process that we went and discovered. We do discovery sprints here at USDS. We get a bunch of people together like four, five, and we go out for a couple weeks and we learn everything we can about a topic. We interview people, we ask the question, “You know if you had a magic wand, what would you change?” Then, we come up with a report that says, “Here are some things that we think we should change,” and then, if we’re lucky, we get to work on enacting better legislation or even building a better technology system.

With farmers, we found that farmers have a really hard time getting guest workers to pick the crops. This is a food security issue for all of us. If you can’t pick the crops, the crops die, and then you have to plow them under and we have no food. Farmers often have to single handedly manage hundreds of pounds of paper in order to get their guest workers into the country because there’s nobody domestically that wants to do the work. There are five different government agencies that they have to work through to get the workers. Farmers need to farm and not do paperwork for five different agencies, so trying to help people figure out how maybe not make that what farmers have to do. Also, that’s a lot of paper.

Finally, small business owners — I say finally only because that’s the last icon on the screen, not because that’s the end of the people that we help or that we are working for. We have worked with the Small Business Administration to make the application process for certification smoother, much easier, less burdensome, also for the analysts inside the SBA who are adjudicating cases.

Again, we’re using paper and working through nice, clean, modern technology with a UI that makes sense to just to do their job so that small business owners can do their jobs and their families can survive. That’s a lot of stuff right through there. One of the reasons that I worked really hard there to do that quickly was because if I pause, I cry because this is really hard work. There is literally nobody that we could walk past in the street who isn’t served by some of the work that we’re trying to help our agency partners do. That can be really emotional, and that is hard to do sometimes.

Actually, the number one reason that we choose projects, is this project the one that has got the greatest impact for the greatest number of people? If it doesn’t, then we have to prioritize it a little lower. Is the likelihood of success high? If so, awesome, so far so good. Can we scale it across government?

If it’s some really great project that has a high likelihood of success, in time, and we can take something from it and teach others across the government or implement technology somewhere else, even better. That’s when we will choose that project to do. That was a lot.

How do we do it? This is where the takeaways come in for you guys because the values that guide our work, you can use these in your jobs too because they’re very simple and they’re not prescriptive. Hire and empower great people. It’s as easy as that, right? Super easy. No. It’s very hard. Our talent team works tremendously hard to recruit and find the right type of people. Type doesn’t mean the most super senior person in the world. It doesn’t tend to be senior, but it also means someone with a really, amazing upside and high EQ and a high ability to get shit done in a mission driven and complex environment.

If we hire you, you are automatically empowered to go do whatever needs to get done and we’re going to do our level best to support you in that process. Find the truth and tell the truth, this is my favorite value.

We don’t pull any punches. If something is messed up in the government, we will tell the cabinet secretary in charge of it that your thing is messed up. We’ll probably use fancier words and be a lot more technically detailed than that, but generally, we need to find the truth and tell the truth because we don’t have time not to.

Similarly, optimize for results, not optics. We don’t have shareholders except for everybody that pays taxes. We don’t even make fancy presentations to the Board of Directors or whatever. We just need to show our results. If we’re showing results, that is the biggest optic that could possibly be. Let the results speak for themselves.

The minute we do something because someone on the Hill wants us to, it would look good, whatever the case may be, the President thinks it’s cool, then we’ve lost our reason to be here. We are here for results, whatever that means. Sometimes the results are not good ones, sometimes we fail. We learn from them and move on. Sometimes, we succeed, and sometimes, we learn about a lot more stuff that needs fixing.

Sometimes, we have to go where the work is because sometimes that stuff that needs fixing is in Afghanistan and sometimes it’s in Southern Illinois and sometimes it’s in Lord knows where. Especially when we work with military families, those military families are stationed at bases in remote places. The people that are doing the work supporting our deployed troops are in Afghanistan or other remote areas. We have to go there to work with them to figure out what it is we’re designing because we’re designing it for them and we’re not going to make it up just because it’s scary to go to Afghanistan.

We do everything with passion. “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm,” so says Ralph Waldo Emerson and so say we all. If we’re not making momentum in our projects, if we’re not helping our agency partners move forward, we’re not doing a good job.

Finally, designing with users and not for them. Users are at the core of everything that we do. We have to work with them and not make things up. The minute we stop designing for our users, just like the minute you stop designing for your users, the minute you’ve lost the reason for making your product. All of that having been said, join us, please. Any questions, I’m happy to take them here offline, online, on the Internets, wherever you want… I’m here for you.

Gretchen: Great, Julie. People are so inspired and a lot of thank you’s for doing this work and an empathy for how hard it is. Most of the questions that we got, we just have a few minutes, so I want to kind of paraphrase.

Julie: Sorry, I went long, my fault.

Gretchen: No. Just listening to you is so awesome. If you click this, thanks to our sponsors, you can learn more about jobs at US Digital Service. On that page, you’ll find a list of the types of roles that they’re looking for.

I did want to ask you, Julie, there was a question around, “What special skills? Are there part time things available?” Maybe if we could do that one.

Julie: Sure. We’ll do part time, first. The answer is “No.” Also, we don’t even do remote because it is very difficult to work on the ground with users who are in DC when you’re not in DC. If you really want to work in a modern digital services type of environment and give back to the government and you cannot move, do look into our friends at 18F. They allow remote work.

In terms of skills, if you’re an Engineer of any flavor, please join us. If you’re a Backend Engineer, a Security Engineer, an SRE, a Front End Engineer, we work a lot with React, join us. If you are a Product Manager with technical chops, you’ve led and deployed technical products with a team, join us. If you are a UX Designer or Researcher of any flavor of UX because UX contains multitudes, join us. That should cover all of you.

Gretchen: [laughs] You probably inspired a lot of people to think about this in a way that they never would have. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Julie: Sure. Also, remember, you can do all those things in your own company. You don’t just have to join USDS, but again, we’d love for that.

Gretchen: They’ll all want to come and work with you [laughs] .

Julie: You could all come work with us. There’s only 175 of us. Like 175 is not enough to do all the work that we have to do.

4 Tips For Self-Care From 8 Women Working in Silicon Valley!

Nobody starts a job with the goal of burning out from it. With the start of a new year is time for self-care and drawing boundaries. Here are the best practices from 8 Silicon Valley women in tech – productivity hacks for success!

Girl Geek X talked to eight Silicon Valley women in tech who have been working for a decade or two, and a therapist for the tech set, to discuss productivity hacks and wellness trends – the future of work.

1. Boundaries

Entrepreneur Rachel Thomas has a valuable piece of self-care advice: Quit if you are in a toxic work environment.” She recounts “expending a ton of energy trying to take care of myself (at various points focusing on yoga, better sleep hygiene, weight-lifting, therapy, acupuncture, or mindfulness – which are all good things), when the fundamental problem was my work environment and I needed to quit my toxic job to actually be able to take care of myself”.

Rachel Thomas earned her PhD in math so you don’t have to! The author of the viral blog post “If you think women in tech is just a pipeline problem, you haven’t been paying attention”is now teaching deep learning in an accessible way — welcoming bootcamp graduates to learn.

Rachel has watched many friends have similar experiences “pouring energy into trying to change themselves when in a dysfunctional workplace – and it’s like trying to bail out a sinking ship with a thimble.”

She argues for treating the root problem of a toxic work environment by getting a new job. Vote with your feet!

Kamilah Taylor contributed to LinkedIn Engineering team as a Senior iOS Engineer for over 5 years before starting her own startup. She worked on the LinkedIn learning app, contributing technical solutions and making the app more accessible.

Engineer-turned-entrepreneur Kamilah Taylortalks about load balancing her life. She recommends “being drastically honest about what you can take on.”

She acknowledges that balancing a busy load of 3–4 projects requires figuring out what can be negotiated: “Something will suffer if not health and well-being, then a project. Think about how you are balancing projects over time, whether this month or another month,  and how things like classes, projects, contracts can often be moved around, whereas things like conferences cannot.”

Negotiate your time and energy wisely quarter over quarter and you can do it all over time – just not at the same time!

Nicole Chung, PsyD is a practicing psychotherapist works with many clients struggling with feelings of guilt and self-criticism in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Depending on the person and their work situation, she encourages her clients to take time off for a break and declare a “mental health day” and see what that feels and looks like.

Taking a few days off over a year and making time to explore is not just for rest and rehabilitation. Executives and entrepreneurs also create time in their calendar for planning for a long and fulfilling career.

Tech executive Sophia Xiao spoke at a Girl Geek X event hosted at GitHub.

She explains her master plan: “I learned to be the master of my own time and calendar, and prioritize ‘thinking time’ over the years. I protect ‘thinking time’ in the mornings each day, and start ‘thinking time’ with yoga and meditation. Then, I take the time to think about my day, prioritize my to-do list before I start my ‘working’ day. Equally important is ending my days with a 3-minute calming breathing exercise.”

In addition, Sophia’s plan is to take a day every quarter to reconnect with friends, seeking their advice on challenges she’s facing, and finding opportunities to continue learning from them.

2. Optimize Your Sleep Algorithm / Habits!

Keep displays of non-stop status updates out of the bedroom! A mirrored OLED display in the bathroom is OK.

Many people answer work-related emails before bed, draining them of positive energy for restful sleep. Nicole the therapist recommends setting a boundary for not checking email after a certain hour (e.g. 10pm).Some folks have even banned devices like phones in the bedroom to ease the winding down process in the evening, and use smart alarm clocks to ensure a productive waking experience in the morning.

“Because sleep impacts mood, you can feel like you are depressed and anxious when you don’t have sleep, and can begin neglecting normal tasks like laundry, showering, and getting out of bed in the morning…” – Nicole Chung, PsyD.

One way to ensure sleepfulness occurs is to make time for regular exercise! Whether your style is Soulcycleor Barry’s Bootcamp, rigorous exercise with a group can pay off. Or if you need solo exercise on the go, try Gixo.

Sukrutha Bhadouria dutifully keeps her Instagram updated of her workouts.

Salesforce senior engineering manager Sukrutha Bhadouria learned to train toward and complete a race.

“I found out there’s an option in triathlons that lets me do just the swim and run!” she exclaimed excitedly.

Then she joined some local organizations that help you get started with training toward a goal, like SF Tri Club.

Serial startup COO Gretchen DeKnikker has found taking classes for hip hop a great reprieve from the everyday tech bubble. In her Mission in the Mix hip hop workshop, Gretchen enjoys not having to make decisions and or being asked for her opinion. “[Instructor] Micaya is my hero. In class, I’m only responsible for myself. These were hours I cherished,” said Gretchen about the weekly practice of hip hop.

She reminisces: “Hip hop has been my happy place since I was 12 years old. Hip hop welcomes people young and old (ages 11–72), different socioeconomic backgrounds, etc. Given how I grew up, that feels a lot more like home than the office.”

3. Practice Recognizing When You Are Slipping – And Acknowledge Micro-Progressions!

The ability for a person to realize that these small areas of neglect are warning signals means that a person can take the opportunity to change something in their life. For example, a person can begin exercising more for endorphins — or make a new rule that when your laundry basket is full, you will do it instead of letting piles form.

Break out of a loop by starting a new pattern in your lifestyle. A time management coach encourages workers to consider “at least one weeknight, you won’t take any work home” in a series of mindset changes to reduce stress and try drawing small work/life boundaries.

Self-criticism and imposter syndrome are especially common in people seeking therapy as a tool to change their lives. Many people do not practice self compassion in self-talk.

Self-care stickers by Gemma Correll — (buy them on Olympia)

One way to remedy this is to recognize small victories in the day — whether it’s that you got up in the morning even though you didn’t want to, or that you brushed your teeth, or celebrate the small deal or win that you had at work.

I like to focus on micro-progressions. People beat themselves up as they come in and want to make change, and they want to change faster than they are. The 25-year habit they want to change needs more time, self-compassion and self-realization of micro-progression. Let’s say, you are a big spender – celebrate that moment of hesitation when shopping online, and reflect back that, hey, you did think about making a different decision and didn’t, but that didn’t used to happen before, acknowledge that growing self-awareness,” said Nicole Chung, PsyD.

4. Mindfulness and Meditation — Yes, Startuppers and Entrepreneurs Do It Too!

Product manager Christina Pan shares that her workplace has been “doing a 5-minute meditation each day at 3pm, or if we have meetings, we move the meditation time slot a bit. We have a Slack channel with a bot reminder 5-minutes beforehand – Slack is where we chat to coordinate meeting for meditation.Some of coworkers already had meditated before so that helped. The Simple Habit meditation app has really wonderful 5-minute meditations with all types of meditation teachers (offering 1-minute, 3-minute, 10-minute, 20-minute meditations). It’s hard to start with unguided meditations as a newbie so this is much more accessible – it’s also fun with other people! In addition, Calm and Headspace have 3-minute and 5-minute meditations. It sounds small but it makes a difference! Small things daily add up,” she said.

Jennifer Arguello giving back & speaking at UC San Diego school of engineering.

Product manager and diversity advocate Jennifer Arguello enjoys a simple mid-day walk around the block. “If it’s not raining, get some fresh air in the middle of the day if anything else,” she advises. This simple midday hack has helped her sustain her impactful work at GitHub and Kapor Center. In fact, science has shown that getting out in nature doubles your attention span. So take a breather and stretch your legs by walking around the block already!

Share with us your tips for maintaining balance in your life by tweeting at @GirlGeekX your experiences and stories! We hope to continue to amplify the stories of women in tech doing great things.

Additional Resources:

Happy 10 Year Anniversary, Bay Area Girl Geek Dinners! Meet The NEW Girl Geek X

This month, we reached our first decade of Bay Area Girl Geek Dinners, rebranding as Girl Geek X to celebrate our decade of growth! Careers span decades as top women have held a variety of roles within a company, tried new ventures, some failed, some kept going — whether at the same company or different ones. Since launching in 2008, our community has grown to over 15K women in tech, and hosted over 150 dinners. In 2017, our events were attended by 2,800 girl geeks! A snapshot of the 2017 attendees:

Girl Geek X is partnering with companies looking to connect with our high-caliber network of women in tech by sponsoring Girl Geek X programs/events with the content girl geeks want (eg. podcasts, videos, webinars, workshops).

From left: Co-organizers Sukrutha Bhadouria and Angie Chang give opening remarks at a Girl Geek Dinner hosted at GitHub in 2015.

What we are excited for in 2018 . . .

MORE GIRL GEEK EVENTS! Girl Geek X Dinners will be held WEEKLY in the SF Bay Area starting in 2018. These are unique learning & networking events where women share leadership in STEM & career expertise in a fast-paced industry. Retention and recruitment of mid-level/senior women in tech is a critical lever for increasing the ratio of female CEOs, executives, engineers and entrepreneurs. We are hosting non-stop, weekly events in 2018.

MORE SPONSORSHIP OPPORTUNITIES! Also, Girl Geek X offerings are EXPANDING with sponsorship opportunities for more events, content & partnerships! We are determined to create lasting impact beyond events — amplifying women’s sustained voices with multi-channel distribution (eg. video, podcast, blog posts, social media). Please get in touch with me at to learn more.

What happened in the last decade to the leading women in tech — and their careers — since the first Girl Geek Dinners in 2008?

Where are our Girl Geek Dinner speakers of January 2008, today?

From left: Serial entrepreneur Sumaya Kazi ran social intelligence startup Sumazi for 7 years. Venture capitalist Katherine Barr founded her own early-stage venture capital firm Wildcat Venture Partners after a decade at Mohr Davidow Ventures as Partner. Google Director of UX Irene Au is now a Design Partner at Khosla Ventures. SlideShare founder Rashmi Sinha accepted the acquisition offer from LinkedIn in 2012 for $118.75 million in cash and stock. Missing from the photograph because she had an acute case of food poisoning that day: Pownce founder Leah Culver is still working on building early-stage startups! Pownce was acquired by Six Apart in 2008, and Leah is now CTO and co-founder at Breaker, a social podcast startup out of Y Combinator. {Watch the 2008 Girl Geek Dinner panel discussion on YouTube here.}

Update from Facebook Girl Geek Dinner speakers of June 2008 —

From left: LOLapps founder Annie Chang worked at Homejoy, where she led product. Facebook’s first female engineer Ruchi Sanghvi left the company to start Cove (acquired by Dropbox in 2012). She left Dropbox, and now invests in startups. Angie Chang is running Girl Geek X a decade later. Zivity founder Cyan Banister joined Founders Fund as the firm’s first female Partner and is also an angel investor. Holly Liu co-founded Watercooler in 2006, pivoting the company several times to become the billion-dollar gaming company Kabam, which sold in 2016 for $800 million. Facebook product designer Julie Zhuo is now the VP of Product Design at Facebook, and has shared thought leadership on Medium. Facebook app developer Alina Libovas company was acquired by Facebook, and today Alina works as a venture capitalist at Initialized Capital, where she is a General Partner.