“Engineering Your Impact”: Sumita Palanisamy, Director of Engineering at CarGurus (Video + Transcript)

December 27, 2023

How will you engineer your impact as a mid-to-senior engineering leader? In this ELEVATE Session, Sumita Palanisamy (Director of Engineering at CarGurus) will impart her three keys for making an impact as a director. She will discuss the relationship hero, and make the case for being an objective player, and rethinking your organization. Attendees will be sure to get inspired and find their chart their own impact and path.


In this session, Sumita Palanisamy discusses the importance of self-advocacy and how it is essential for women in the tech industry to speak up for themselves. She emphasizes the need to prioritize work that will lead to promotions and to avoid taking on tasks that do not contribute to career growth. Palanisamy also highlights the importance of having a sponsor and mentor, using social media to showcase achievements, and being one’s own cheerleader.


Sumita Palanisamy: Thank you, Amanda. Thanks for having me and thank you everyone for attending. Super excited to be able to have this opportunity to talk to everyone and kind of discuss how to engineer your impact. So the session that we are going to talk about today is how to engineer your impact as a woman in the tech industry. So in true engineering fashion, I wanted to kick off the session with some cold hard data. What we are seeing right now in this particular slide is research based on McKinsey & Company. All women lose ground on the first rung to manager, but the broken rung holds black women and Latinas back the most. While companies are modestly increasing women’s representation on top, doing so without addressing the broken rung is not really a fix, it’s just a temporary stop gap. Because of the gender disparity in early promotions, men held up holding about 60% of manager level positions while women occupy 40 positions.

Since there are so few women to even promote to senior manager, the number of women decreases in each level. So as we progress, you can see how as an entry manager, a senior manager, to a C-suite, the number of women is consistently decreasing. And you can also see the disturbing trend such as the percentage increases year over year is really small, and also the number of women who are just leaving the workforce is really great compared to the amount of men of the same level who are leaving the workforce. So now we have seen the data and I think now we know that there is a plan or the need for a plan as to why we need a strategy to engineer real impact, and what are the valuable steps you can take to do so, and what would be the ripple effect, the after effect, of what you can experience as a result of engineering your impact. So this is what the session is going to cover, so let’s get started.

The first thing I want to talk about is self-advocacy and why that is so essential. So a lot of us have problems about self-advocating for ourselves, so please tell me if you ever had issues with self-advocating for yourself. You can say thumbs up… Yeah, exactly. So this is a common problem that we all have about like, ‘Oh, why do I need to do this?” Right? I see all your responses and I hear you. I see you. This is the same with myself. Whenever I talk to my friends about what is the reason, this is the same thing about why you’re here. Mary, I see your comment about how you have self-advocated for other employees and helping people. I feel like as women, we are really good at doing that for others, but not for ourselves, and this is something that I really want to nail down and see how you can love yourself as much as we do it for others. Yeah, exactly. So I think we need to change it a little bit and look into ourselves as to what can we do to do that to ourselves.

So the reasons I hear are modesty, shyness, cultural norms, fear of no, also to be grateful. Yeah, that’s so true because if you don’t have the option to speak up for yourself, you are essentially losing your most powerful advocate. No one cares about your career more than you do. And why to speak up for your career? This is the most important thing, to make sure that people know what you’re working on and to be able to talk about it as to, okay, this is what I have done and this is the impact I have created. And also, in today’s world, there’s lots of reorgs going on about people trying to save money, companies merging, acquiring and all that, so this is an important reason, again, to talk about your success, and also to have control of your career. I feel like too much power is given to bosses as to how they decide what are we going to do next. Instead, I think it’s time to take some of the control for yourself and decide, this is what I want for me in my future and this is how I want it done.

So we spoke about the essentials and why to do it, and the way that I usually prioritize this is to make sure that you only say yes to the work that will actually lead to a promotion. So don’t take on work such as planning office parties, planning a holiday event. How many of you have done these things? I myself am guilty of all of those. I have planned office events, I have planned… Yes, exactly. So this is something that I really don’t want to spend time on anymore because this is not something that you would put in someone’s promotion document as to, “This person planned a birthday party.” Right. Exactly. We do it as a part of our natural process, but it’s a time thing as to what can you ruthlessly prioritize. If you can study something or talk to an important stakeholder at the same time as planning for this party, what do you prioritize? So being ruthlessly prioritizing and being able to pick the time and your projects carefully is important. And not all projects are even given to us.

Stretch assignments are only given to people who are in good terms with the stakeholders. So making time to establish that is important. And we’ll dive into more of that in the coming slides, but I just want to kind of emphasize that pick glamour work and not office housework. And also making sure that you have a sponsor and a mentor. Women are often over mentored and under sponsored, so making sure that you have people who will speak for you when the room is closed and you cannot be in the room to self-advocate is important. And also use social media to your advantage. If you have a boss who does not advocate for you, always use this. Always talk about your achievements, always talk about what have you done and what are you doing. It’s not just important to learn things and achieve things, it’s equally as important to talk about them. I cannot emphasize this enough. All in all, be your own cheerleader, be your number one cheerleader, and to be able to stand up and be able to advocate is, I think, comes with practice, but definitely doable.

The other thing that I wanted to dive into today is a relationship hero. So what do I really mean by this is essentially, we’ve all had disagreements at work. Have you ever had a disagreement with someone at work who as soon as you say something, they’re just like, “No.”? I have had this at my workplace. There are some people who as soon as you project an idea, they’re just like, “No,” Just because it’s coming from you. So being able to take that on and being able to advance that objective is really important, especially because you can actually hear what are they trying to say and what is their exact pain point. A lot of times I’ve found that I’ve actually waited for them to finish their sentence so that I can talk. I realized that’s not the way it should work. We should actually learn to disagree and kind of see what is the way forward in this for the both of us, what is the middle ground that we can so importantly do?

Learning how to disagree can be a huge career advantage. It’s not something every people is good at. A lot of people avoid disagreements by, “I don’t want to meet that person. I don’t want to be in that room when this disagreement is happening,” Is usually people’s philosophy, but learning how to disagree is very important, and also equally important is to get buy-in from stakeholders before you get into that meeting. So you know that this SVP already agrees with my idea, so I can propose this forward, is important. So knowing when to disagree, the timing of when to say what, and also getting as much stakeholder buy-in as you can before you know that you’re going to get into a contentious meeting is important. So being able to say that, yes, I disagree, and this is the reasons, so people know that you actually stand up for yourself and you have ideas that will help the company grow.

And it also depends on the type of company you work in. If you work in a company that actually promotes active disagreements and you can work through them, then that’s perfect. If you don’t, then that is a different strategy. So knowing what kind of company, knowing what is the kind of person, and… Yeah, it’s definitely challenging to find a culture where discussing disagreement is encouraged. So knowing the type of environment and knowing the type of person beforehand. Essentially, pregame the meeting and prepare for the meeting. Another thing that I would like to highlight is, essentially, objectivity. We’ve all had projects that we are really passionate about. You know that that’s a good thing and you know that this is what you should do. How many of you have had projects like that that you know in your gut that this is it? Yeah. So we’ve all had this before. The problem is if you have a person who is a person you have to convince to buy into the project, acting passionate about it actually works against you.

So this is another key of where you can clearly point out, these are the pros and these are the cons, and kind of leave it up to the decision maker, the key stakeholders to make the final call. So end of the day, the way this works, that I see, is a win-win is because no matter what is chosen, you always get the credit because you are the person who actually did the research to present the pros and the cons of both. So no matter what wins, you always win. And also because you are not the final decision maker, if this project goes sideways, you’re still okay. So making sure that objective point of view, and as a person who has that is important because people will know that, okay, this person always has a clear point of view and has a fair point of view. So even though it may differ from their opinion, people know that you are a consistent source of truth and that’s the kind of name to develop way going forward.

And this is one of my favorite books. I love this. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. This is at a very pivotal point of tech for us. Like, Gen AI has taken every industry by storm. There’s not a single industry that’s unaffected by all this. So one thing I would suggest is knowing what your CTO cares about. What does your SVPs care about, what is it that matters to them, and upskilling yourself in this. I cannot emphasize this enough about how essential it is to get our teams and up skill our teams in this. Let’s say that your CTO really cares about Gen AI and wants to see how can they improve business process and where can we put this process in place. Being able to know that piece of information and being able to push in that perspective is important because that will give you the edge over people who are just watching this from the sidelines.

So don’t just get the information, but actually act on it so that you know are pushing on the right buttons and so that when there is an opportunity in that space opens up, they know that, oh, I know that this person is already upskilled in this area, or this person has already upskilled their team in this area, so why not consider this person? So I would up skill in this area, talk about this on social media so people know that you are learning and you’re upskilling and your expertise is known, hence also connecting your self-advocacy matter into this. So it’s essentially a ball of things that I would consider doing to engineer your impact.

And finally, I would also talk about paying this forward. A lot of people here are directors and managers who manage people, so this is really important for us as managers to be the best possible manager for our reports, to make sure that we avoid confusion, to make sure that we motivate and recognize our reports. And lots of people don’t leave companies, they leave their bosses, so to make sure that you’re the best possible boss for that particular employee and doing right by them is important. So let’s say that there is an office event that you need help for and you need planning. Have a spreadsheet of people who have volunteered before and make it fair so that everyone signs up regularly and you’re not asking anyone for volunteers, you’re instead just telling them, “This is a thing that I need help for. You did not volunteer. Can I get your help?” So let’s play it fair and make sure that we do right by our employees.

I would like to open this up for questions if there’s any. Yes, what skills to up skill at? I would look at what are the things your CEO or CTO are talking about? What is the thing that are being discussed in the quarterly earnings call? What is the thing that’s always coming up is kind of things what I would look into. And growing up in a different culture and absorbing a new culture is super difficult, I 100% understand this. And yes, it is 100% relearning new skills and how do we adapt and grow in that direction. Pinpoint the company’s CTO’s focus is essentially looking into what are the strategic objectives? Where are they putting the money at? If they’re putting money in AI or data models, then you know that’s where it is. If they’re putting the money in some other technology like data mesh or data governance, then that’s what it is. See where the money is going, that’s the skill you want to focus on.

Share this