Angie Chang: Welcome to Girl Geek X podcast, connecting you with insights from women in tech. This is Angie.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: This is Sukrutha.
Gretchen DeKnikker: This is Gretchen.
Rachel Jones: And I’m Rachel, the producer of this podcast, and we’re the team behind Girl Geek X. This podcast brings you the best of Girl Geek X events, dinners, and conferences where we’ve been elevating women in tech for over ten years.
Angie Chang: And today, we’ll be continuing our conversation about unconventional journeys since, Gretchen, you weren’t here last time to give us your perspective as the “non-technical” person in tech, and also having worked in tech for a … longer time.
Gretchen DeKnikker: I like how you’re so delicate.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: As long as you have.
Angie Chang: Yes, as long as you… Yeah, you were talking about 25 years.
Gretchen DeKnikker: You’re respecting your elders. Yeah, like 22 years. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah, I mean I think we covered a lot in the last one about obviously, you don’t need to have a CS undergrad to be very successful in tech, but also that there are other really unconventional journeys for people that maybe don’t end up in technical roles but they also weren’t four years old going, “I want to work in tech.” We have so much more fun stuff to cover today too.
Rachel Jones: One thing that we touched on in our last episode, but could definitely dive into more, is how family affects people’s career journeys. Have you seen any examples of people who have like had a kid and then come back and gone even further in their career than people would expect or just had their journey affected in some way?
Angie Chang: In our last episode, I talked about the woman who was working, and doing consulting, and had two sons, and then came back to work at a big company, and has continued to rise in the ranks after she returned. There’s a lot of, I think, a growing awareness of returnships for women who are exactly of this type, women who are coming back saying, “I’m looking for a ramp to come back to tech,” or any industry. And there’s companies, usually with larger companies with names you probably know like Walmart, and PayPal, that do have these returnships that are available.
Gretchen DeKnikker: And I don’t want us to sound like, “Oh, you have to have a baby, and go leave, and then come back.” Right? Obviously, there are many ways to do it. I think one of the things that I’ve observed the most is women talking about how much better of a manager they are after they’re a mom, and how all of those skills translate, and that they’re just much more efficient with their time, and they have a better sort of understanding of what motivates groups and teams, and so I think that’s one of the things I’ve probably observed the most.
Angie Chang: Sukrutha, what have you seen?
Sukrutha Bhadouria: I remember when SugarCRM first sponsored a Girl Geek dinner, and their CEO had four … She had four kids. And in my head that sounded, I was in my 20s, I was like, “Oh my god, how did she do it!” And she told us a story about how when one of her children was really little, how they knew she worked in software but didn’t really understand it and thought it was silverware and so he would tell his friends that she worked in silverware, because he didn’t know the difference.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: But I know that when I got into tech and I started working, I thought, oh, it’s gonna be impossible to be able to have a flourishing career and have kids, but through attending dinners, I started to meet more and more great examples of men and women who had had children through their careers.
Angie Chang: I mean, I really am grateful for Girl Geek dinners in the very beginning, when the first dozen dinners, meeting women who were obviously on maternity leave or coming back from it and just their enthusiasm in coming to Girl Geek dinners and pursuing their careers and still having one or two or three children, and then also hearing there’s some amazing women CEOs who have four or five, I think YouTube, she has maybe five children?
Angie Chang: Four children and is running a huge company, so I think to me, I’ve always seen nothing but role models and people out there who are doing it. But I also think that there is a price to pay, people have talked about, the price of that really expensive childcare, that really expensive night nanny, that really expensive nanny, that are employed to help women go back to the workforce and really crush it at their jobs.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Something that spoke to me, they were actually all parents at the panel and they spoke about how returning back from parenting leave being tough, they’re trying to force it to become more of a norm, so they were one of the first companies to introduce equal leave for moms or dads at the company and that encouraged more men to take leave as well and that made it less stressful for the women to take leave.
Angie Chang: I remember that event, I was really grateful that there was these women who were candidly talking about how they had kids and they came back and they’re happy to be here and here are some things to do, when you come back from maternity leave, come back to work on a Wednesday or a Thursday so you only have one or two days before the weekend because you’ll need that, and then you’ll kind of … Helps you ease back into working.
Angie Chang: So just being more candid about these experiences has been I think definitely encouraging.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: They also talked about, and I’ve also heard this from a lot of people, forgive yourself if you’re going to take some time to adjust back, it’s going to take time.
Angie Chang: I feel like while we were talking awkwardly about how family fits into women’s career journeys, it is something that comes up a lot at Girl Geek dinners in the Q&A section or off stage, so I think it is important to talk about … However, awkwardly we do it.
Rachel Jones: It is weird to talk about as a table of women who have had zero children, but yeah. That’s why we have a great quote from an expert!
Gretchen DeKnikker: I know! This is perfect because we have a great quote from Sheila Marcelo who is the CEO and founder of Care.com, which is the world’s largest online destination for finding and managing family care and pet care and all this other stuff, and I think what’s really amazing is Sheila’s not only a founder, not only a CEO of a publicly traded company, she’s also Filipina, and as we’re gonna learn in this next quote, she actually had a child between or got pregnant between her sophomore and junior year in college, had the baby and is still doing all of those amazing things, so I think if there’s anyone qualified to talk about this particular topic it’s definitely Sheila.
Sheila Marcelo: After I got pregnant in college I started to veer from my parents’ plans, so I wasn’t going to follow that designated profession unfortunately. Tough for my tiger mom. And to think about it, my Catholic parents were very, very upset when I got pregnant between my sophomore and junior year of college and decided to get married and keep the baby. And so, my husband and I were pretty much on our own. My parents weren’t speaking to me. They didn’t expect sending me to women’s college would result in my being a young mother. They thought that men were not allowed on campus at Mount Holyoke College. And behold they were very surprised. And then fast-forward when I was in grad school, another surprise pregnancy, Adam who is now 18, lovely gift, I call him. And during that time, I decided after HBS that I would join an internet company and again we needed help because the hours were so demanding that I asked my parents to come from the Philippines. At this point they were talking to me, they wanted to be a part of their grandchildren’s life. They came and then my father had a heart attack, while he was carrying baby Adam up the stairs.
Sheila Marcelo: My father’s alive today, he’s all healthy, but that was a big struggle for us because the whole point of my parents coming to the United States was to actually to help care for baby Adam. And I found myself at 29 years old stuck between child care and senior care. And I was also getting catapulted in my career at a young age to join a management team at Upromise, helping families save money for college and I didn’t have great care. It was really hard and I was going home working at a technology company but using the yellow pages to look for care. So, something really didn’t add up, which really lead to the next question. When I decided to start my own business, I had to ask myself, “What impact did I want to have on the world? Despite all the difficulties and challenges that I had faced so far …”
Angie Chang: Her story’s a great reminder that for women the challenges are not just family in the sense of children, but aging parents and also a lot of other types of life struggles that are natural but also makes it tough to really lean into that, as she said, fast paced management consulting job.
Rachel Jones: And it gets really beautiful how she founded her own company just out of this great need that she was experiencing and saw so many other women experiencing. Just taking that frustration of not being able to find good care and from that really bringing together her tech experience and really just solving an issue that was really important to her. I think it’s a great story.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: To me, the first thing I thought of was, that’s amazing that she saw a need and she tried to fix it, and she obviously had reasons along the way that could’ve slowed her down but she worked around her challenges and her constraints and she was still able to follow her dreams, which was really impressive.
Gretchen DeKnikker: And I think what we saw at the Care.com event, which is on our YouTube channel, if you guys want to check it out, was how focused the culture at Care.com is on creating a place for parents. Every woman who spoke opened with her personal story, which often included her children. Sometimes I think that can be something women feel like is their personal life and not their professional life and how in this organization you bring your whole self to work and that your children are sort of part of your journey.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: I also thought was really cool how she called out that caring for her children and caring for her parents were just as important and that’s why she tried to solve for both. Which is something that we don’t always talk about. We talk about maybe caring for kids, but we’re not always talking about the impact when we are in a stage where we’re taking care of older family members. That was interesting to me.
Gretchen DeKnikker: I mean Sheila’s definitely like this crazy example of an unconventional journey. You sort of look at her with all of these different things and different sort of twists and turns that her life took and she’s just standing stronger than ever, right? So, I think that’s really inspiring.
Rachel Jones: I think there’s definitely a lot that we can learn from that story, but I think our conversation around unconventional journeys, so far, has revolved a lot around people specifically in tech and technical roles, but what about people whose path isn’t all technical?
Gretchen DeKnikker: Well, I mean, I think on the elder stateswoman at the table, and if you talk to someone who’s been at the … In tech for more than probably 15 years, that just wasn’t even a path that people thought about. I mean most people’s stories are just going to be like some random like, “One day I …” whatever. Mine is crazy, I have a theater undergrad, I was going to go to law school so I have a pre-law degree with a Spanish minor, so those are all very highly employable, very looked for. So, what I was when I finished college was a really overeducated waitress. And I moved to San Francisco and just waited tables for a couple of years and then I started temping. And one day I got sent to this … It wasn’t even a real company, it was like a four bedroom flat in the Marina district of San Francisco, with 17 people, people were working inside closets. There was no wifi so all the walls were knocked out trying to wire it and I called my friend–from a pay phone. It was like 1997, I think.
Gretchen DeKnikker: And I was like, “This isn’t even a real company like I am so not staying here, like this is ridiculous. As soon as this temp gig’s over, I’m done.” But, they gave me more and more responsibility and the company grew from 17 people to 145 in 18 months and I was just given crazy levels of responsibilities and so … But you’ll find a 1000 stories like mine, right? Of just like, “I don’t know. I fell into it.” It was certainly … I mean it was definitely not in the theater, pre-law, Spanish plan, right? So, I end up working in tech.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: There’s so many roles in tech too, you could be a designer and then get into a tech company, or you could be in finance and get into a tech company. When I started working, one of the things I thought about where I wished I knew it would end up becoming a job, was the UX designer where people came with creative backgrounds, and then they were designing the look and feel of software. To me, that was super fascinating. Unfortunately, I’m not naturally creative or I would have tried to consider that but … Or at least try to be trained in it. But there’s so many various avenues, you don’t have to get into coding and maybe you need to know the basics to understand how it all flows and the logic behind it but I mean there’s so many ways to get into tech.
Angie Chang: Two women shared their journeys to non-tech roles during our dinner with Strava. Amanda Sim is a senior brand designer who brings the Strava brand to life and is constantly examining how athletes think about Strava. Lia Siebert is a product manager at Strava and she brings 15 years of operating experience from product development.
Amanda Sim: How did I arrive at being an in house brand designer? When I looked back at my full career, I kind of did this little, bloop, and I noticed that a lot of my work was in consulting. So, what that meant was a huge breadth of work, but I didn’t really get to go super deep. Because a client would essentially, as a consultant, they would come up to me, tell me a little bit about their company, maybe push some brand guidelines toward me and then it was my job as a consultant–before Strava–to come up with some designs, make some suggestions, present it and everyone’s like, “Whoa! That’s so shiny and new! I love it!” And I’d be like, “Peace!” And then the in-house designers would have to pick up all the pieces and then quickly scramble to try and figure out how to make sense of it.
Amanda Sim: So, I felt like it was like really love them and leave them and I was having a blast but I really wanted to see how my design could be implemented, get out into the world, what the feedback was on that and then how it could evolve into something else or how it would change over time. And so, bam! Strava. I came to Strava in house, for me this was a huge move. It was a little like settling down …
Lia Siebert: I’ve been fortunate to sort of make my way around the block in terms of the different functional roles. I started my career as an engineer, designer of physical things. That was incredibly motivating but also really tough because you never got to see the impact of your work. I was just talking to someone earlier today about how you’d have to wait for somebody from sales or one of the 10 ten doctors that you’re trying to influence to come and give you the case story. So, from engineering I moved into design, I was fortunate to be one of the early members of the Stanford D school. There, was designing physical spaces to try and change behaviors of teams and then finally this more recent chapter has been in digital product development, where that experimentation and that exploration can be so fast and really fun.
Lia Siebert: I’m personally really passionate about how people share expertise with each other and I’ve been able to work on that in education, in shopping, in e-commerce and more recently, in health and wellness. So, three chapters of career, all, believe it or not, they don’t quite hang together in the way that you’d expect but lead me to Strava …
Rachel Jones: I think it was really interesting that both of these women talked about these transitions in terms of what was exciting to them about the work or what stage of something they like to be most involved in. So, with Lia talking about really being able to be involved in the process of designing instead of coming up with cool stuff and then leaving and … And then Lia talking about being able to actually see the impact of her work being really motivating because we’ve talked a lot about journeys being motivated by skills that people want to learn or people just falling into something, but I think … Thinking about it as what challenges in the workplace are exciting to you or just how you want to approach your project is a different way to think about navigating an unconventional journey.
Gretchen DeKnikker: I mean I think that’s one of the things I love about tech. Within my career I’ve jumped into so many different roles. I’ve done sales, I’ve done marketing, I’ve done product design, I’ve done business development and all of its different iterations, right? And so I think what I love about their story is that they bring this different perspective and tech is still such a young industry that it needs that. It needs that outside force, like things can get very stale and so if you’re bringing … When we’re talking about having cognitive diversity at the table, if you’re bringing someone in to design something that … Their background is in physical design, they’re going to look at it with this completely different lens and that’s going to be so additive to the process of really remaining innovative.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: I like how Lia’s story talks about three different parts of her career leading her to Strava and that was really fascinating and inspiring for people who think they have to follow this one, straight path to get into tech or to get into a role that they are really passionate about.
Angie Chang: I enjoyed hearing from women who came from consulting backgrounds and how they came into in-house into the tech industry to kind of complete the cycle and see their thoughts be implemented and then iterate on them. That was really fun.
Gretchen DeKnikker: There’s a lot of people trying to somehow follow an idea of how to be technical and then the supposed prescribed answer to that is to learn how to code which is … Spending time learning how software is made, and sort of even just studying the software development life cycle, which if you google that there’s so much information in there and sort of understanding what products go in what part of the process and what stack your company uses and maybe a little background in database architecture. And then that’s way better than understanding a command in Python, right? That’s going to be incredibly valuable for you.
Angie Chang: I absolutely agree, I spend a lot of time talking to entrepreneurs and they’re always saying, “Should I code my own first prototype myself?” And I often tell them, “It’s not worth your time to learn to code that, just get someone to do that for you.” That’s a good test if you’re meant to be a CEO or a sales person. And to the point of what’s non-technical, I think there is this idea that code is technical and nothing else is. And if anyone watches The OA they talk about the technology of movement, and I thought that was really interesting, I was like, “That’s basically it …” There’s so many ways to think about even like sewing and math and analysis as technical so I don’t know why only coding is technical and some Silicon Valley’s rhetoric.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: And even when you go into engineering management, after a point you’re not directly coding. But you have to have a high level of understanding of what the architecture is. So, even when you’re in a more technical role, and you make a lateral transition, you can’t constantly be in touch with every single new coding language that comes out. You have to understand the concept of it and move on. Since I started my career in tech, there’s been so many changes in coding languages, there’s always something new. And you can’t learn every single line of it, you just can’t.
Gretchen DeKnikker: And there’s an opportunity cost to that, too, right? Of learning something that would actually give you a deeper understanding or more expertise in your functional role, right?
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, totally.
Gretchen DeKnikker: So, Rachel, I’m curious on how it looks because you’re fairly new to Silicon Valley, and you work in the non-profit sector, so what’s the rhetoric that you hear sort of as … Do people think that you should work in tech? And then what’s their advice or….?
Rachel Jones: I think definitely when I first moved here and was still job hunting, there was a lot of pressure to just explore tech or try to establish context in tech, very much just like, “Oh you’re here, so you got to be doing tech!” And I think now in the non-profit space, I’m definitely seeing a lot more roles that are technical but still within nonprofits. For example, data management and analysis is becoming really important in the non-profit space just because everyone who is funding you wants to know what’s happening with their money and being able to give them really great data that shows what you’re doing and what improvements you’re making is really essential, so I think there’s a lot of space for unconventional tech journeys definitely in the nonprofit world.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Priya Nakra, a product manager, shared her experience being labeled non-technical during our dinner with Blend. In her two years as a product manager in the company, she has risen through the ranks from a customer success consultant to enterprise integrations manager to her current role today.
Priya Nakra: So, it took me a while to understand, but being called technical is a spectrum. It means completely different things to completely different people all across industries. I had taken coding classes in school because my major was industrial engineering, but when I went to my first job in corporate consulting, you were either marked as functional or technical. There wasn’t really anything in between. I was told by my manager several times that if I wasn’t learning how to code or actively with the engineers looking at code and debugging things or drawing systems architecture diagrams for our customers, I wasn’t technical. And after four and a half years on the functional project management track, it was too late to try and be technical. And that’s what I told myself when I joined Blend, as well. But much to my initial chagrin, and eventual appreciation, the deployment lead job that I took at Blend, almost two years ago, led me to our largest enterprise customer, which is Wells Fargo, who also happened to have the most complex and antiquated integration points.
Priya Nakra: So I didn’t really have a choice but to at least learn the basics of how Blend could talk to other systems and their architecture in general. So I started with the bare minimum, understanding what systems Wells had, what systems we had, how we pass data from one system to another in order to support the process of the cycle of a loan. Then I dabbled a little bit into air handling, learning and monitoring, debugging some critical issues. It was essentially the equivalent of me tepidly dipping my toes into the really vast sea that is the technical world. It was at this time and during this project that our head of technical integrations, Irsal Alsanea, who’s also our only female engineer group lead, she and I were sharing a glass of wine in sunny Des Moines, Iowa, when we were at the Wells Fargo office and we kind of realized that we have these really symbiotic complementary strengths, right? She had a team of integration engineers who needed a lot of structure and I could provide that with my functional project management and in turn I could learn a lot about what it means to manage technical products.
Priya Nakra: And so it was because of this and because of where Blend was a company, she and I sort of created together this enterprise integrations program manager role where I could, again, learn more about being technical and also provide a lot of structure for engineers.
Rachel Jones: So, it sounds like Priya’s comments relate a lot to things that you all have seen about people being labeled technical or non-technical.
Gretchen DeKnikker: And I think Priya’s story will probably resonate with a lot of people, it definitely does with me. Because you sort of learn the skills as you go along, as like a survival. Way back in the day at one of my very first start-ups the marketing pages and the production code were all intertwined, so if I wanted to change a sentence on the page, I had to wait for the next push and this is pre sort of … We were still very waterfall method. So, you learn HTML and you learn CSS and you learn ways of not having to go ask or you learn how to run a few basic database queries because you’re looking for specific data to tell a story for sales or for marketing or whatever and you just need … You can’t think of exactly what data you need right away and you need to play with a little bit and look at different bits and pieces. And so, to get your job done, you don’t want to rely on someone else and you just sort of pick up these skills as you go along, definitely for me that’s how it worked.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: I like how Priya talks about how she learnt the basics of the systems in architecture in general and that made it easier for her to get more of an understanding on the error handling and monitoring and things like that. And she started small and she kept increasing her awareness … That obviously helped her in her final role. She learnt what she needed to learn and although that may have happened as an accident, I think we can all plan to be a little bit more deliberate about finding what is it that we need to know if we have to work across roles with someone else in a different role and understand what they’re doing in order to bring more impact. Especially when you’re a product manager and putting in requirements, you kind of need to have some level of understanding on how the pieces work together. So, I liked her journey.
Angie Chang: I liked how she talks about how being technical is a spectrum and how it means different things to different people across industries. One of the things I liked seeing in a lot of the Google Made with Code’s Instagram or social media stuff is how they always show how intertwined tech and art can be or how you can use something mildly technical like Google Docs, or a spreadsheet or something to help with your baking. And did you know that baking is basically running an algorithm, which is very technical or how sewing can be technical. I think it’s always fun to remind ourselves that technical isn’t just ones and zeroes and also that if we thought about “functional roles” such as HR or marketing, how we thought about tech, we would probably get further in moving those industries along.
Gretchen DeKnikker: I mean sales and marketing, especially now, particularly in enterprise software, you’re essentially a statistician, right? That marketing funnel optimization is dialed in. I think you’re as technical as you will believe yourself to be, and that if you work in tech, you are definitely technical. You are certainly more technical than someone who’s not. And I think my advice would be to like don’t be afraid even if you don’t totally understand what’s going on and you don’t want to ask in the middle of the meeting. Finding someone that you think will explain it to you … I mean you can always Google it but I’ve never found that that, particularly with systems and how they work together, I’ve never found that … I’m a really visual person so someone can sit down and draw me a picture and then we can have a quick Q&A and then I’m like, “Okay, got it. Now I know where this fits in to the big picture.”
Angie Chang: I think what always kind of astonished me was how often we would think about what we don’t have before we would think about what we do have. So, I used to find myself saying things like, “I don’t have a CS degree, but …” And then I talk about how I coded this and that. It took me a long time to realize what I was saying and then take out the part where I don’t … Apologizing for my lack of degree in this particular thing when I should’ve just started with, “I made this!”
Rachel Jones: Does anyone have final thoughts on unconventional journeys, part two, the sequel?
Sukrutha Bhadouria: I guess what we covered a few times was that there’s no one, straight journey, and you know if you were a salesperson at a cosmetics company, you would want to learn everything about the products, or you probably think about it that way and try to understand. If you were a sales person in tech or trying to sell a product, that’s technical. How much level of detail do you need to know? There’s also a whole spectrum of what being technical means and don’t try to fall into the trap that you have to learn how to code when you can just learn how the systems work.
Angie Chang: I like that, don’t learn how to code, just kind of try to understand the high level of how systems work. Maybe watch something on YouTube, one of those free college classes the intro to, or the episode that explains it all. Also, they can come to Girl Geek dinners and listen to Girl Geeks talk about their technical processes and kind of pick up on the jargon and feel comfortable with it, and then when you go into the interview you’ll have kind of been seeped in that knowledge.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: There’s this comic strip that compares living in New York and living in San Francisco-
Gretchen DeKnikker: Oh I love that one.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: And it shows a group of people saying where they work, what they do, while in the New York one, I think it says something like, “Oh, I’m in finance, I’m in sales.” And the counterpart comic drawing of San Francisco, shows everyone saying they’re in marketing in tech, in sales in tech, a lawyer in tech. So, that’s just how the environment might be around you.
Gretchen DeKnikker: I mean, I think if I were to give advice to my younger self I would not let other people tell me how technical I was because I think I believed that as I had all of these skills and was developing all of these skills, I think I believed that for a long time until I sort of realized, “Wait, you guys are idiots. I actually know quite a lot about this and I’m kind of tired of being talked down to or diminished in a conversation that I’m perfectly capable of participating in.”
Rachel Jones: I think this has been a super interesting conversation just being, the blatantly non-tech person at the table whenever we record these podcasts, but I think there are a lot of takeaways for me even just not complicating this tech, non-tech binary. Of just like there could be a lot of possibilities for me, and now where I am in my career, I’m trying to take stock of the things that are exciting, or the things that the kind of problems that I really do like to solve or just how I feel doing different types of work throughout the day, so I really am trying to think of the next steps in my career in that way.
Angie Chang: And Rachel, I think you’re very technical in podcasts.
Rachel Jones: I think that really counts.
Gretchen DeKnikker: Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Rachel Jones: I appreciate it.
Angie Chang: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Girl Geek X podcast. We’ll be back soon with more advice from women in tech.
Rachel Jones: This podcast is produced by me, Rachel Jones, with recording help from Eric Brown. To learn more about Girl Geek X, or buy tickets to our next dinner, visit Girlgeek.io. You can also find videos and transcripts from our events. If you’re interested in hosting a Girl Geek dinner, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Angie Chang: This podcast was sponsored by Care.com. Since launching in 2007, Care.com has been committed to solving the complex care challenges that affect families, caregivers, employers, and care service companies. Today, Care.com is the world’s largest online destination for finding and managing family care. This podcast is also sponsored by Strava. Today, Strava helps millions train and share progress through free mobile apps and has created a community of athletes from all over the world. Designed by athletes, for athletes, Strava’s mobile app and website connect millions of runners and cyclists through the sports they love. This podcast is sponsored by Blend. Blend is a Silicon Valley technology company propelling the consumer lending industry into the digital age through partnerships with banks, lenders, and other technology providers.