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Episode 9: Unconventional Journeys

May 11, 2019
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Angie Chang: Welcome to Girl Geek X podcast, connecting you with insights from women in tech. I’m Angie, founder of Girl Geek X and this podcast brings you the best of Girl Geek X events, dinners, and conferences, where we’ve been elevating women in tech for over 10 years.

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

Angie Chang: And normally we have Gretchen, our COO of Girl Geek X, but she’s out this week.

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

Angie Chang: And today we’ll be talking about unconventional tech journeys.

Rachel Jones: So how might this be relevant to our listeners?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I think it needs to be made really clear that you don’t have to have figured out in high school that you want to, you know, get a CS degree to ultimately end up in tech. There’s so many, so many avenues to get in this, boot camps, people have come in who are self-taught, so I feel like the barrier to entry has always seemed a bit high and so today it’s going to be really essential for us to be clear that that’s not the only way to get into tech. You can … there are various ways you can get in and you can have lots of unconventional entries into tech.

Angie Chang: We find that at Girl Geek dinners, every time a speaker talks about her unconventional journey and her career journey, people really like it so it’s really important to always bring it up because you’ll be surprised at what other person is like, “Wow me too!” And really gets a thrill from hearing how all these women have come into their technology careers with these sort of really exciting backgrounds, from political science … I was a social welfare English major and other people who have done PhDs in things like astrophysics and other disparate educations and paths to eventually come to work in something we now call tech.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Actually Angie, you and I have a friend who got into a tech job just because she participated in a Hack-a-Thon and she won and then she wasn’t previously in a tech career until then and winning the Hack-a-Thon, she got an opportunity to interview at Facebook and she prepared for the interview, passed the interview, ended up working as an engineer and then ultimately ended up moving into product management as a technical product manager. Seeing that journey up front or hearing about that journey up front really made me feel like there’s so many ways and so many ways to find success in tech.

Angie Chang: Absolutely. I’ve always met so many people who have learned to code in their 20s and 30s and found it thrilling and continued to do really fun, innovative things like start companies, build fun apps, and I guess now we call it work as a software engineer making lots of money, but for a while it was more about … it was just something we did because it was fun.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I was especially intrigued when I would meet the students at HackBright when they would do these really fun projects, all because they so badly wanted to learn to code and I think that motivation and that energy that they brought made it so inspiring for people who had gotten into tech, like me, gotten into tech with a more traditional journey, because with tech you very quickly get out of date. What was the hottest new programming language yesterday is very quickly replaced or there’s an updated version of it that if you don’t constantly stay on top of it and study it, you can very easily be replaced. So that experience of interacting with people who previously were working in Whole Foods as the checkout person and now working in a company as a Python programmer really put things in perspective.

Angie Chang: I think unconventional tech journeys, my favorite one that comes to mind is I met a woman who was coming back to work after raising kids for a while and she was contracting and then I found out that she got a job at Intel and became a director of marketing for Intel AI and now she was recently promoted to VP and I find that very inspiring because you always hear about women leaving tech or leaving–That’s the rumor, the idea that women will leave to have their kids, but they do come back and they are completely capable of doing so and succeeding so I’m really thrilled that she was able to show me that you can have grown kids and come … have a returnship without necessarily applying for and doing a returnship program. She just did it on her own.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah with like online tools like Khan Academy and Code Academy and all of these other tutorials online, it makes it so much easier to get access to content so you don’t have to sit in a classroom necessarily and you know back in the day we used to think we needed to buy these tech books and programming books, but because it changes so often all of these online tutorials also get updated and if you weren’t already a Javascript programmer, you can, through practice, you can actually become one without necessarily getting into a classroom, like I said. However, I do want to say that companies are also slowly changing their requirement, used to be so strict that you had to have a bachelor’s degree in computer science, at least. But now the focus is quite a bit on have you done projects or have you done anything that showcases that you have the skills before they even bring you onsite to interview you. People would be not even given the opportunity to showcase their skills in the past and things are getting better for sure. Although we have a long way to go.

Angie Chang: Yeah and I also … I think there’s big companies like Google that used to think that you needed a degree in computer science and now have changed their ways and unfortunately it seems like there was a lot of startups that were like, “Oh we also need to look for the degrees and such.” And now hopefully people really realize that the studies that say that … I hope there are studies because I’m pretty sure this is a case … we all know this … if you know people at all you’ll know that people are very adaptive and will succeed, even if they come from different backgrounds.

Angie Chang: When I was running a mentorship program at HackBright, I was talking to a lot of the mentors and I would look at their backgrounds because I would look at their LinkedIns to make sure they were adequate to be a mentor. I realized there was quite a number of our seniors, sophomores, and juniors, and all the engineering leaders that were industry workers who didn’t have a CS degree and it’s quite large number. So it would be a little hypocritical to say now that you need a CS degree when all you do is you need to know how to code and just be given a chance to succeed and I think there’s something to be said about pointing out, if possible, in a very nice way, when people are giving white men chances to succeed when we could be giving similar leaps of faith to women and people of color. I think there’s something to be said about that. You see a lot of implicit bias happening in who gets promoted and who gets hired.

Rachel Jones: So this leads really well into our quote from Carol Chen. She shared some stats on how many people work in fields related to their degree, during our dinner with GroundTruth, where she’s a director of engineering.

Carol Chen: I have my bachelor in architecture and when I get here I start to check out a few architecture firm. I talked to the architect in those firm and find what they were doing mostly residential expansions so to me, that doesn’t sound very exciting. So I was thinking, “What should I do?” But to me, internet and computer science, that’s an exciting industry so I was thinking computer science is an area I want to try. I went back to school and got my master in computer science. I was talking with some ladies during the dinner and one of the ladies was talking about she was thinking about making a career move. So I want to talk about a few point here. I think there’s a study shows only 27% of the college graduate work in the area that directly related to their college degrees.

Carol Chen: I want to ask how many people here are working in the area that is not directly related to your degree? Wow. Looks like the number definitely sounds true so what are the things that you want to consider before you jump into a different area? So I think there are two questions you want to ask yourself. What is your strengths and what is your interest? Ideally you can find an area where your interests is and use your strengths. That’s ideally. But what if it’s not really something you really interested in? So what can you do? I think there’s a lot of online courses. You can learn some of the courses. You might be interested and see if that’s something you want to do and another thing is, there’s a lot of meet ups if you want to get into data science so you can probably go to some of the data science meet ups and talk to those people who work in those area. What are the things they like about their job and what are the things they don’t like about their jobs? And see if that’s the area you want to get into.

Carol Chen: Yeah, I think another thing is you want to imagine yourself in that role and see is that something you want to do for the next 10, 15 years and does that sounds like something you’d really enjoy doing? If it’s not, probably that’s not the area you want to get into.

Angie Chang: I absolutely agree with what Carol said. I think that goes back to what I said earlier on a lot of senior engineers having many degrees that were not engineering and I think many senior engineers would also admit that they didn’t necessarily come through an engineering undergrad but learned along the way. If I hear all these of scientists who learned to code because they found it useful to processing their data. Even there’s a few doctors from Harvard Medical School that I know that were learning Python on the side because it would help their work and over time people change their careers and they’re able to do so many things.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, I started off in undergrad I was doing telecommunication engineering because that was the cool thing at that time and then I ended up doing a grad program in electrical engineering because I thought I wanted to code for chips and so I did have some exposure to programming but it was in the context of programming for hardware devices and then towards the last end of my semester I wanted to do more actual software coding and so there’s … I do at various times see the gap because I didn’t study the more traditional courses like algorithms and data structures, but you know what? The main times when I feel it is when someone’s talking about very textbook situations or textbook examples, but I don’t feel it on a day to day at work. So if you’re learning programming and coding with the more real world scenario of what one would do at work, don’t worry too much about not getting the specifics from what you would get from a textbook.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Zendesk SVP of Product Management Shawna Wolverton was formerly the chief product officer at Planet and senior vice president at Salesforce described her own unconventional tech journey during our recent Elevate conference.

Shawna Wolverton: Coming out of school with my fantastic degree in Russian studies and political science didn’t set me up for anything really obvious and it took quite a bit of experimentation and curiosity and I think that early curiosity is what has also kind of driven a whole bunch of my career. A strong desire to learn new things and an absolute hatred of being bored. My career was clearly not a straight line. I did start out as a localization project manager. You can see the … I did that job three times in my career so just moving on from it, finding myself in a position where it was skills I needed to rely to kind of go back into the job market when things had changed. I certainly didn’t expect to learn much that would help me in my career, taking that nine month apprenticeship as a handbag manufacturer with an Hermès-trained designer, but my goodness did I learn a tremendous amount about human nature, about how satisfying the wants and needs of customers in a way that I don’t think any other technology job would have given me.

Rachel Jones: What can we take away from what Shawna shared?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I like how in her slide it said … what she actually didn’t call out, but in her slide it said think about everything you would miss if your career was a straight line that went up and to the right and I like how she talked about what she learned from being a handbag making apprentice that she thinks she may not have gotten from a tech role where she learned a lot about pleasing the customer and understanding deeper and what they want without them necessarily always calling it out. That was really fascinating to me.

Angie Chang: I like Shawna’s long view. She’s able to … now that she’s very much entrenched in [inaudible 00:15:25] career look back and connect the dots and it makes a very fun, not straight line. I think … definitely things make sense after a decade or two but it takes that much time for you to make a lot of moves and I think if you’re unhappy at the short point, just know that if you keep nudging forward and trying different projects and teams and jobs, you will find 10, 15, 20 years later that there was some sense there only when you look back but no one could have predicted where they are now 20 years ago.

Angie Chang: If anything, I think it’s just … when I saw that chart it made me think we should all be a little more forgiving on ourselves, day to day because it’s only in hindsight and after a long time that you see the dots connect and you’re like, “Oh this all makes sense now.” But in the beginning, it’s definitely a lot of just taking on projects and jobs that are interesting that gives you different experiences so there’s things that I looked at–recently, I was like, “Oh I remember when I was an intern for the Taipei Zoo and I remember when I worked as a web designer and then I got promoted to marketing so then I learned that I was potentially good at marketing and then I learned that people want to hire you for this and that and give you money to do–for example, building websites. I was like, “Oh that’s a marketable skill.” And I never thought of that because I was a social welfare major so I never considered these things that I think being open to be back and the long haul is where we’re going to see the success.

Rachel Jones: Yeah. I really like this idea of thinking about how things in your experience, even if they’re not directly related to tech, they can still be really valuable in your tech career, so it’s not like you have this life before tech and this life after and everything you learned before is useless. There are things, like Shawna mentioned about how to work with customers, that can be really helpful to apply.

Angie Chang: I agree with you completely. There’s something I heard recently that I wanted to share was … there was a woman I met who got her job at a Stripe Girl Geek dinner and she mentioned that she had just finished a boot camp for data science called Galvanize and she was interviewing because she had met a speaker at the Stripe Girl Geek dinner and then she had coffee with this speaker afterwards and then during this coffee with the speaker, who’s an engineer at Stripe, she asked, “Do you have any internships available for data science?” And she was then referred to the manager of data science and he said, “We have no internships for this reason, but I am hiring, so why don’t you give me a resume?” And then she interviewed and got the job.

Angie Chang: But I think when I heard her give this story, which was very interesting because she didn’t go through a recruiter, she went through talking to a speaker at a Girl Geek dinner. She also pointed out that the way she talked about herself was very interesting to me because she didn’t say, “This is my first year.” She said, “I have a decade of experience,” and I also know that she has a decade of experience as an investment trader or in banking and finance, but she easily saw that this was a decade of experience and she was able to demonstrate her management and leadership skills to the hiring committee and so even though she was technically a pretty, a newcomer to “tech” she had a lot of transferable skills and her ability to demonstrate that so that she was not a newbie but a very senior person, I think that was very impressive and I’m glad that she got hired at Stripe as a data scientist as a result so I was very thrilled to hear that.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: That’s really awesome that she looked at her career as a whole and basically that’s what you want people to look at but I do find that we’re always nervous to take on a change because we’re worried that we’re going to be a beginner and we’re going to have to take a step down but there’s that quote, “Your career growth is not a ladder, it’s a jungle gym.” There’s various ways … sometimes to take one giant step forward you have to take two small steps backward and that to me, like I’ve thought about that so many times when I’ve been given opportunities or when I’ve noticed opportunities that for now may not feel like it’s a step forward but it’s going to add up because it’s … the whole thing it’s cumulative, your whole career.

Angie Chang: So we had a women speak at our Elevate conference, Rosie Sennett, who’s a staff sales engineer at Splunk and I really enjoyed her perspective on how to navigate your career path.

Rosie Sennett: I was a theater major and then at some point, sort of early on in my 20s I went to … it was continuing ed at Burke College and so I learned Cobol and BAL Assembly, Assembler language on mainframe right after they … I think we even saw them taking the punch card machines out and putting in the brand new things and then I got a job doing support at Information Builders, never looked back, but then I would fill in training because when you’re working in the industry, you can take training classes and so I would learn something interesting.

Rosie Sennett: I taught myself operating systems and things like that and scripting and languages and then you’re like, “Oh yeah, let me take a Linux class.” and then you learn what an acronym … “Oh, that’s how you pronounce that, okay.” And you fill it in and as you go you don’t even realize how you much you learned and how much you really, really know because you’re actually using it and it’s in the end. I’m just sort of a female version of a graybeard, right? As the years go by, you realize you know 10, 20 times more than anybody might come straight out of school. The needle flows so life experience begins to overshadow what you’re handed straight out of a program, right? You really do need to apply life experience to it and there’s a balance to it so 30 years later, does it matter that I had a theater degree? Probably not.

Rachel Jones: What do you think about Rosie’s advice?

Angie Chang: I think Rosie’s energy was amazing and how she approached learning, she was like, “I had a theater major and yet I continued to take classes over the decades and learn this and learn that.” And I’m seeing a lot of other people take classes, go back to school, take a non-linear path, find so many different ways of learning from online learning, community college classes, boot camps, programs, independent studies, that the energy was what I took away from Rosie. I know sometimes we think about when people talk about working in tech, they mention a lot about the long hours you spend making sure you’re on the cutting edge of technology because it changes so quickly. I’m sure that’s the case but she approaches it with such enthusiasm that it kind of really inspires me.

Angie Chang: Sukrutha, I remember when you talked about staying up to date it seems to be a challenge for some people. Is it something that gives you stress?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I mean, yeah like any time we’re uncomfortable, it does get stressful right? And anytime we’re uncomfortable is when we’re actually learning, so for sure it does get a little stressful but just… you know you can keep many goals like Rosie was saying stay relevant. You can subscribe to journals, mailing lists and keep up to date. You don’t have to go in and sign up for a boot camp every single time so that every time you’re updating yourself, it’s just the data you’re updating for as long as you stay fresh in your knowledge. But generally, I do feel like regardless of your entry into tech, this is something you need to do.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I do feel like we overthink it and we think, “Oh you know what? I’m never going to get to that point.” I don’t think that’s true. I feel like talent can be very limiting but hard work has no limits so you just have to look back and see what’s worked for you in the past and try to replicate that in terms of growing and learning. I’ve found that that’s really helped me. I know when I started working with Angie on Girl Geek dinners … I didn’t come into it thinking that it was going to help me career wise but now when I look back I learn how much it’s helped me, just the extracurricular aspect of it that I thought I was just keeping my evenings occupied, how it ended up putting me in a situation where I was learning consistently and the kind of learning doesn’t necessarily have to be from a course or from a textbook, it … meeting new people, learning what other companies are doing, what technologies they’re investing in, all of that is a lot of learning.

Rachel Jones: One thing that we haven’t mentioned that I think is really important to think about when you’re looking at unconventional journeys. There’s a quote, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I think a lot of people, even describing their journey as unconventional, it’s because they have this idea of how a tech career is supposed to look, which is based on other people that they’re watching. Yeah, it doesn’t make sense to try to compare your journey to someone else’s, just knowing how your experience can bring such a different perspective on tech for you and there’s no one path. Yeah, don’t try to look at what other people are doing for any sign of how things need to be.

Angie Chang: That’s absolutely true. I think what’s most exciting is how we keep pushing on the borders of tech and new tech, where suddenly I find that every five years, there’s new job titles. This data scientist role that we find very common now was really new five, ten years ago and recently I was looking at LinkedIn and there were these people who were standing at a talent brand conference and I was like, “Oh my God that day has come, where talent brand is something we have conferences about.”

Angie Chang: And the women … the two women that were standing in front of this board, I was like, “They are going to be showing people the way and they’re going to carve out this huge industry and more jobs around helping their employer build their brand and so I was really impressed. It seems like we’re always creating new categories for ourselves and new roles. 10, 15 years ago I don’t think there was nearly as many inclusion and diversity jobs as there are today and there’s just so many roles that we can create for ourselves that don’t necessarily look like anyone else’s or is going to be the next thing so I think it’s important for us to look ahead because everyone’s looking ahead at what’s there and the traditional job titles are pretty simple so it’s really about creating your own path that’s worked for you.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah and don’t be afraid to try something different just because it looks like a challenge. Courage is a muscle, the more you use it, it’ll get better.

Angie Chang: So thanks everyone for tuning in 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. 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 the events we talked about today. If you’re interested in hosting a Girl Geek dinner, email sponsors@girlgeek.io. This podcast was sponsored by GroundTruth, the leading global technology platform driving in-store visits and sales by leveraging location as a primary source of intent.