Learn more about personal journeys in the world of open source technologies and how it may open new career doors. This Girl Geek X Dinner was recorded at Confluent’s San Francisco office on September 29, 2019.
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Girl Geek X team: Angie Chang and Sukrutha Bhadouria welcome the sold-out crowd to Confluent Girl Geek Dinner in San Francisco, California. Erica Kawamoto Hsu / Girl Geek X
Transcript from Confluent Girl Geek Dinner:
Angie Chang: Hi, everybody, thank you for coming out tonight on a Sunday night. This is our first Girl Geek dinner on a Sunday night after over 10 years of hosting almost weekly Girl Geek dinners. My name is Angie Chang, founder of Girl Geek X. I wanted to say thank you for coming out on a weekend. It’s really great to see everyone’s faces here at Confluent in San Francisco, to meet everyone, and also really excited to introduce Sukrutha, my co-organizer at Girl Geek X, who is six weeks into her maternity leave. So she has the littlest Girl Geek now.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Hi, everyone. Welcome. Like Angie said, so nice to see such a huge crowd on a Sunday. I honestly can’t tell the difference anymore between a weekend and a weekday. But thanks for reminding me it’s a Sunday. But hey, I really wanted to explain, we always do this, we ask how many of you, is it your first time at a Girl Geek dinner? So do raise your hands. Wow. What’s been amazing in the last, I don’t know, a little over 12 months is that that number’s been increasing and increasing. And that’s been great because we want more and more people to join our community.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Why we do this is we want to elevate more women in tech, in various roles in tech, and each dinner and each event is sponsored by a different company. And these companies are kind enough to host all of you in their space and they provide you with great content through their talks. We also use this content in our podcasts because Angie and I used to do these long drives to Girl Geek dinners all across the Bay. And we started to talk about what else we should do besides dinners. And now in the last 11 years, we’ve evolved beyond dinners to podcasts and virtual conferences as well. So we’ve had two virtual conferences so far, and we want to make it annual. Do check out our podcasts. And we want to know if you have any other ideas for what you’d like the content to be, please share it with us. Do share on social media tonight. Know we have a lot of great speakers tonight. So do share what you’re learning tonight with the #girlgeekxconfluent. I can’t speak full sentences anymore. But that’s all I had to say. I don’t want to take any more time. Thank you again to Confluent for making this happen. Thanks.
Senior Systems Engineer Dani Traphagen emcees Confluent Girl Geek Dinner. Erica Kawamoto Hsu / Girl Geek X
Dani Traphagen: All right, what a beautiful crowd. There’s so many of you here and we absolutely love to see that. So welcome, everyone. We are really happy to have you here for dinner in our special San Francisco office. This is actually a satellite office to our home down in Palo Alto, and we’ll actually be moving soon next Wednesday to a new home in Mountain View. So we’re absolutely thrilled to have this stellar company of Girl Geek Dinner, dinners here at Confluent tonight, and I’ll bet you’re wondering what we do here at Confluent. So I’ll have a couple words about that. I actually luckily consult people about that in the subject of my day to day life.
Dani Traphagen: So my name is Dani Traphagen, and I am a senior systems engineer here at Confluent. What I do on my day to day is I work with account executives, specifically in the sales organization. So I technically consult large organizations anywhere, basically above $1 billion in revenue on how to leverage our technology. So that’s what I do. I really like my job. I love working with large companies on how to leverage our infrastructure and working specifically in the software realm on how to use real time software specifically.
Dani Traphagen: So this is my third company doing this kind of work. I have a background in database technology. And this is my third open source project and working in an enterprise on that. I actually ended up transitioning from bioengineering, though, specifically, into a career in tech after college, and this was many years ago. I will not tell you how many years ago. And I heavily leveraged events exactly like this to end up making that transition. So I really believe in them and the power of them, networking with people, making key mentoring relationships, and learning from role models, like some of the ones that you’ll hear from tonight, and kind of how full circle things are here, which is super bizarre. One of the men here tonight, Peter Feria, was at one of the events that I went to. He’s one of our videographers. Tim Berglund, who if you know anything about the Confluent’s ecosystem itself, and who’s kind of who in that world, you’ll see a lot of his videos online. He is one of our developer relationship folks. And he was my first boss at a company called DataStax.
Dani Traphagen: So it’s kind of crazy how full circle things go. So I really encourage you to meet, to network, to speak with people. And to just kind of learn more about all the things that you could possibly do. So now, a word about kind of what we do in this very building that you’re in right now, to just kind of bring things to a real visceral meaning. So Confluent provides enterprises exceptional expertise and tooling around the open source project Apache Kafka, and Apache Kafka as a fundamental way of moving event driven data from different sources within an organization to other interested parties within that same organization.
Dani Traphagen: So the way that I like to think about it is pretty much like the true heartbeat of your data pipeline. And it has become the central nervous system of many organizations, those specific organizations that I consult. With the Confluent stack, businesses can support streaming data use cases and optimize their insights and user experiences for many of their mission critical applications. So these are applications that are essential to their day to day operations. It has become an industry standard for the modern enterprise.
Dani Traphagen: Apache Kafka is an extremely robust technology, and it was co-created by tonight’s speaker, and pardon me, I should probably use my mic here. It was co-created by tonight’s speaker, Neha Narkhede, who is also Confluent’s co-founder and Chief Product Officer. It was inspired back during her time at LinkedIn in an effort to help manage the massive scaling efforts, along with her fellow Confluent co-founders. Neha has been an exceptional role model for so many women, including myself, and she has shown me in a sea of Bills and Elons and Steves, that something more is so possible in this world. And that has left a truly indelible mark in my path. So please join me in giving her a sincere and warm welcome.
Neha Narkhede: Thank you, Dani, for a very warm welcome and welcome Girl Geeks to Confluent’s very first Girl Geek dinner. It’s been such a long time since I first spoke at a Girl Geek event. This was about seven or eight years ago when I was an engineer at LinkedIn. Today, I’m so humbled to be hosting one and be here in front of all of you. I hope that you learn something new from this event. I hope that you make new introductions, and thank you all for taking the time to be here.
Confluent co-founder Neha Narkhede talks about starting and scaling the billion-dollar infrastructure startup at Confluent Girl Geek Dinner. Erica Kawamoto Hsu / Girl Geek X
Neha Narkhede: So let me start off by telling you a little bit about myself. I was born and brought up in India. I learned computers at the age of eight, mostly to play video games and draw on MS Paint. So while I didn’t learn programming while learning to write, like all the whiz kid stories that you might have heard in the Valley, it did interest me enough to take up computer science. So I moved to the U.S. to get my masters in Georgia Tech. After that, I took a job in a big company, Oracle, mostly to find a safe path into an H1B visa. This was during the 2008 crash. Pretty soon, I realized the power of the open source community to accelerate my growth and learn new things. So I specifically applied to a company that had a real investment in open source communities, LinkedIn.
Neha Narkhede: I taught myself distributed systems on the job. I was lucky enough to be on a team that got a chance to create a very popular distributed system called Apache Kafka. We open sourced it, it went viral. I sourced a business opportunity around Confluent, pitched it to my teammates. Fortunately enough for me, they agreed to start this company with me. This was five years ago. Today, we’re more than 900 people worldwide and growing very quickly. Over time, I’ve worn many hats. I started off as an engineer, and then I ran engineering teams, and I transitioned to product, so quite a few changes. That was a little bit about my technical journey. For fun, I travel, I go scuba diving, and I engage in a fair bit amount of retail therapy.
Neha Narkhede: So most of my career has been about introducing this new category of software called Kafka and event streaming into the world. So to tell you a little bit about why we started this, we were facing a pretty unique challenge at LinkedIn. And the challenge was that our users could use our product and they were using it 24 hours a day, in a very real time fashion. But all the software that LinkedIn had could only get access to all that data and studied enough to produce more patterns and produce better products, maybe a couple times a week. So that was pretty slow. We wanted to take that all the way down to real time experiences. And so this meant processing billions of events a day in real time. There was nothing out there that did that. So we started Apache Kafka to solve this very problem to process lots of events in real time. And to basically give all of LinkedIn software access to all of its data at a millisecond level.
Neha Narkhede: We thought that this couldn’t have just been LinkedIn’s problems, so we open sourced it and we were right. Pretty soon, in the early days, Silicon Valley companies, all the top tech brands that you can think of, adopted Apache Kafka. After that, it entered the enterprise. And today, we know that about 60% of Fortune 100 companies depend on Kafka as a foundational technology platform. And any company that starts off as a digital one, they ingest all their data is in Kafka from day one.
Neha Narkhede: So anytime this sort of an adoption happens for infrastructure software, there’s a lot more to it than a good product. There’s usually a paradigm shift that drives such a change. And 10 years ago, that paradigm shift was that every company was not only becoming a software company, but it was literally getting turned into software. So what do I mean by that? You don’t call a cab company anymore, you go to your app, and the entire ride is managed entirely in software. You don’t go to an ATM Teller, the whole transaction happens online. So entire parts of businesses and businesses themselves are being replaced by software. So that’s the entire sort of business paradigm shift. But that’s leading to a lot of technology paradigm shifts.
Neha Narkhede: So the rise of the public cloud for developer velocity, rise of machine learning to use data and software to make better business decisions, mobile first customer experiences, and last but not the least, event streaming, because all of these trends, if you look at them, they all need access to data in real time. And event streaming is sort of the underlying paradigm that ties all of these things together. So not only was Kafka, of course, a great product, all of these changes were happening at the same time over the last 10 years that led to that massive adoption curve that I showed you.
Neha Narkhede: Event streaming is disrupting entire industries. To give you an idea, this is what Kafka users and Confluent customers are doing with Apache Kafka. Your ride sharing apps are powering your ETA feature and surge pricing using Kafka. Your bank is doing your credit card fraud detection using Kafka. Practically every retail company is doing real time inventory management using Kafka behind the scenes and your Netflix movie recommendations are also powered by Kafka. This sort of a widespread adoption of Kafka was possible, largely because of a large and thriving open source community. That was sort of the impetus behind Kafka’s adoption. I just want to say that the same open source community can act as a real catalyst for your own career growth. This is what it did for me, and it can get broad reach. You can learn from a pretty large community of people. You can diversify learning. You can be part of actually multiple communities at the same time versus one particular company.
Neha Narkhede: Large foundational technologies today start off as open source. So if you’re in the community, you’re part of a paradigm shift in and of itself. And I think that kind of impact is pretty large, because whatever you work on gets adopted across many businesses versus one particular one. You get to learn quite a lot. So this is the theme for today, I thought I’d mention. So that was a little bit about the what, in my journey, I did want to spend a few minutes about what it felt like, my experience, my career has felt a little bit like this, an obstacle race of sorts, and not all of those obstacles were technical in nature. And in fact, many times I’ve had to work 2X harder than my male counterparts to get the same thing.
Neha Narkhede: And while that might sound a little stressful and unfair, I want to share some perspective that my brother shared with me. He’s a many time Ironman finisher. He says that if you have to swim a mile in the ocean, and you train to swim a mile in the pool and expect it to feel similar, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s the currents that you need to prepare for. So that keeps me going quite a bit. In the moment, it feels like an obstacle race. But when I zoom out, and I look back at the last 10 years, I’ve started realizing that it feels like crossing a chasm. And I like to call this the credibility chasm. This is a phenomenon that I’ve observed where underrepresented minorities early on in their careers, they get marginalized, doubted, have to work much harder than everybody else to prove themselves over and over again, until you finally cross and make it somewhere on the other side, where sort of the opposite happens, you get noticed pretty easily, you get celebrated pretty widely for your achievements. While I have not crossed this chasm, what keeps me going are two things, long term thinking and a lot of grit, judgment to make decisions sort of not optimized towards the short term objective, but towards some long term goal and the stubborn persistence to just keep going.
Neha Narkhede: I believe this grit is rooted at an early childhood value, that many of you who grew up in middle class urban India will identify with. This is what we now know as the growth mindset. My parents sort of instilled this value in me that if you were open to learning and worked very, very hard, that you can actually learn anything you want to and you can be whoever you wanted to. And that sort of has stuck with me the value of education and hard work. How many of you in the audience know what this picture is about? Blurt it out.
Neha Narkhede: Yeah, this is the ISRO project managers or scientists. ISRO is India Space Research Organization. This picture was taken when they were celebrating a successful Mars mission. They put a satellite in Mars’ orbit, and they made an attempt at probably one tenth, the cost of any other mission in the world that has done that. This picture went viral when it was published. When a young girl in India looks at this picture, I think she believes with conviction that she can be one of these scientists when she grows up. And I had the privilege to be inspired by a lot of role models, even though not these particular ones. And I can say that role models are a primary driver, I think of a lasting change. And I get very excited when I look at that picture. But not just role models, but I think, the one last thing I want to leave you with is developing a real sisterhood will take us very far in seeing the change we want to see in the industry.
Neha Narkhede: What do I mean by that? Little gestures go a very long way. Pull a fellow woman aside who you think is screwing up, give her direct feedback, all the guys I know do that very often and it helps a long way, stop a conversation in a meeting to hear her out, vouch for each other very loudly in calibration discussions, and give credit if possible and very frequently publicly, these are all the little things we can do to sort of see the change we want to see in the industry. So that is sort of something I want to leave you with. With that, I’m going to conclude this very short talk and now we can move toward the next part of the segment. All right.
Dani Traphagen: All right, and for this next part of the process tonight, we’re actually going to have a panel session with Angie and Neha. So I’ll leave them to it.
Angie Chang: Awesome. So I have some prepared questions to ask you. Thank you for that presentation. So people might know Kafka from its creation at LinkedIn. And for those who don’t know what it is, can you briefly summarize what it is and how it’s evolved as a technology?
Neha Narkhede: Yeah, so Kafka is a highly scalable pub-sub messaging system. That’s how it started. What it does is it sits at the heart of your company’s data center. It connects up all the applications and all the data systems so that they can share data in real time and process data in real time to power all the things that you saw, real time customer experiences. Over time, we added functionality to Kafka that made a lot of sense. So the a-ha moment in Kafka is that it was not only scalable, which no other messaging system was, but it could remember, it could store data, so you can rewind and reprocess data. And that’s what caused its success in the world. Over time, we added related functionality, we added connectors so you can move data from all the other systems in a plug and play manner. We added stream processing so you can do sort of SQL on top of Kafka like maps and joins and aggregates.
Neha Narkhede: So this sort of combined functionality of pub-sub, connectors, and stream processing is what is now called an event streaming platform. So Kafka has evolved from a pub-sub system into an event streaming platform.
Angie Chang: Awesome. Yeah, I’m getting really familiar with event streaming platform as a category now. Let’s talk about your career. You started as an engineer, and then became an engineering manager, startup founder, and now you’re running product. Can you share something from your playbook with everyone here?
Neha Narkhede: Playbook? So yeah, that’s a lot of changes into it. So my playbook is I do a couple of things when I have to deal with a lot of change, like the first thing is I do believe, I firmly do believe in the growth mindset. So when I encounter something new, I’m fairly sure that if I spend enough time on it, that I can learn the ropes of it. The second thing I do is sort of this crazy knowledge gathering. So I read every book on the new subject, I reach out to experts, and I set up time and ask them questions. I just sort of like to learn a new area before I jump into it. And the third thing I do is reflection. I sort of sit down and try to calibrate myself on how I’m doing in that new area. And I talk to a couple of my close champions to sort of get their view on the subject, and then just keep iterating from there on. So that’s sort of my, I don’t know if it’s playbook, but I do that very often.
Angie Chang: It sounds good. There aren’t too many infrastructure unicorn companies that were started by women. I think we could only think of one, Diane Greene of VMware, and now adding to that list Confluent and Neha as a co-founder. And we hear women starting consumer companies, and they’re on the cover of magazines, but they’re often consumer. And before the infrastructure startups, we don’t see any women starting B2B infrastructure companies. So what is it about you, Neha, that’s different in that you can do this? And how can we get more women in infrastructure to start companies?
Neha Narkhede: Yeah, it’s one of my pet peeves is that there aren’t a lot of us starting, not only just infrastructure, but B2B companies. I think there’s there’s some luck and a lot of hard work. But if I were to hypothesize on why that is, I think there are a few things maybe. The first is that it’s a very male dominated field to begin with. And so when you don’t see people that look like you as founders of B2B companies, and when you know that starting a company is probably like five or 10 years of very hard work, then you may not be encouraged to take that very first step.
Neha Narkhede: So that’s probably one reason. The second one is, and I think I can only hypothesize is, I think there’s some perception that women may be uniquely qualified to start consumer companies or marketplace companies, because you have a better understanding of the end consumer. And while I’m really happy about the rise of consumer unicorns, I think that’s the same reason that women are successful with consumer companies, this is the same reason they will be successful with B2B companies is we’re smart, capable people. But I think that will change over a period of time. 2019 is probably the first year when we saw so many unicorn companies that were started by women. That’s like the first step in the change. I think we need a couple more women starting B2B companies. I will say that starting B2B companies is much more of a playbook than starting consumer companies. Predicting company behavior is a lot easier than predicting consumer behavior, so if you’re thinking of starting a company, I can tell you that a B2B company will be easier to start and grow. And I think we just need to see a couple more successful examples to tip that.
Angie Chang: Definitely, I think, so I would definitely like to say, people that we know on a first name basis, Mark, Larry, whatnot, now we add Neha to that. So tell your friends. We need more role models out there. So thank you for hosting us tonight. We talk a lot about women in tech in general. So let’s focus on the leadership aspect. Based on your own experience, what’s the greatest barrier for getting women into leadership positions?
Neha Narkhede: Wow, I wish there was just one barrier. That way, it would be much easier to cross. I’ll say a few things. I think we hear a lot about the imposter syndrome, and I can tell you that not just women, but men face it too. I think the reason it’s so much more magnified for minorities is because this sort of external feedback loop is much more skeptical than the usual, “Go man, you can just kill it, and you can do this.” So it’s a lot harder, but I can tell you what it does for leadership is it can sort of not encourage you to take risks, because if you think about what leadership is, you’re there to take a few calculated risks, and then lead successful execution of that.
Neha Narkhede: And so, if you can think about it, just sort of take the first leap. The second thing is, there’s a ton of unconscious bias, and just sort of you experience it, as you grow in your career. And the impact it has is women are evaluated on experience and men are evaluated on potential. So the same thing that you think you deserve and which you do, you get it later down the line. And for that, I would say that ask for that thing until you hear a very loud and clear no. Hearing a no never killed anybody, and it will only help you in that journey, and that’s what I’ve done. But I think those are a couple of really big barriers, I would say. There are a lot of upsides too. So when you’re growing in your career as a minority, it’s much easier for you to get noticed and so it’s much easier for you to recruit good mentors. There are people in the Valley who want to help women in tech and want to help minorities in tech, and they will gladly allow you to sort of reach out and give you the time.
Angie Chang: Great. The theme for tonight’s Confluent Girl Geek dinner is open source for career paths. And what are some things that Girl Geeks can do to leverage the open source community for their technical growth and learning?
Neha Narkhede: All right? Well, let me start off by saying that I don’t want to recommend open source as sort of a silver bullet for your career growth. But I will say that any outcome is driven by a series of choices you make. So in so far that open source is one of the choices that are presented to you, I would say think very seriously and probably even take the leap. The reason is that you get a lot of broad reach, you can learn a lot of things, but you also don’t need to invest all your time. So there are many ways to get involved, you can get involved in community discussions and critique designs or you can submit newbie patches or you can take up a full time job and get paid to work in open source.
Neha Narkhede: I think the best thing about the community is evangelism. So if you try out a new software, write a blog post about your user experience or if you want to critique the design, write a blog post and explain what you thought was good and bad about the design. I can tell you that Confluent has done a lot of successful recruiting by reaching out to people who wrote blog posts, and not just good ones, the critiques also. And so you will get noticed and obviously learn a lot along the way when you write about something.
Angie Chang: That’s really good advice, to write a blog post. All right, let’s get down to the nitty gritty for the technical in the audience. Kafka is known for its scalability. So where there is a continuous flow of streaming events, what’s the operational challenge in navigating new software versions, especially if something is backward incompatible? And how do you ensure the high quality of service?
Neha Narkhede: Lots and lots of things to say here. I think this would be a a segment of its own. But I’ll say two important things. I think really paying attention to the public APIs and contracts of your particular system is really, really critical. And especially so for infrastructure software, because a lot of applications depend on it and you have to be clearly careful about compatibility.
Neha Narkhede: Something the Kafka community did to be careful about this is a discipline we call Kafka improvement proposals. So we took a leaf out of the Python community playbook, and we introduced this discipline, because over time, you don’t get time to review code patches. Everyone gets busy. So this is a discipline where we ask people to write a wiki on the public API and contract chain so that the community can pay closer attention to version compatibility, and also the user experience, so that goes a long way.
Neha Narkhede: The second thing, because you asked for quality of service, I think being able to operate that software as a service in a company or as a fully managed service goes a really long way. I think there’s one investment I can say about high quality of service, it’s operating it as a fully managed service. So something people may not know about Kafka is Kafka, its first claim to fame was it just worked right out of the box. And that happened because we always deployed the version of Kafka into internal LinkedIn systems and it’s sort of baked in production for some time, before we even released the version into the open source community. So the community always got a well tested baked in version. That wouldn’t have been possible if we couldn’t deploy it internally at LinkedIn. So it goes a pretty long way.
Angie Chang: Great. And final question, what is one thing that surprised you, something that you believed in earlier in your career, and isn’t true today?
Neha Narkhede: Fun. So I moved here to the Valley from a different country. So the impression that I had about the Valley, which is pretty well known is that that’s where the American Dream gets made, that it’s a very meritocratic environment, as long as you’re smart, and you can work hard that you can win. That is mostly true except for underrepresented minorities. It’s a little bit harder than that. So I was surprised about that. I came in with big, optimistic eyes, and I was a little taken aback by all the challenges.
Neha Narkhede: The other thing that surprised me, I think, is the tech industry’s appetite for failure. And that one is really important. There is a ton of opportunity, no matter whether you succeed or fail, and that was from my upbringing, that was sort of a surprise for me as well, whether you succeed or fail, there’s always going to be a good opportunity waiting for you. So I would say, definitely go ahead and take that leap. There’s probably something else that is good waiting for you, no matter whether you succeed or fail. And so take those risks.
Angie Chang: That’s great advice. Thank you so much for this fireside chat. And I think we will now hand the stage over to the Confluent Girl Geeks.
Neha Narkhede: Thank you for having me, Angie.
Angie Chang: Thank you.
Dani Traphagen: All right. Well, that was fantastic. I don’t know about all of you but my favorite part was about getting more of us into infrastructure, and kind of developing the B2B experience and more diverse voices there. I think that Neha outlined an excellent roadmap of how to start a business, so I hope you were taking notes. I think all of those questions were fantastic on how to do that and the play by play of it. So next up, we’re going to have Bret Scofield. And she’s going to give a lightning talk on her experience here at Confluent.
UX Researcher Bret Scofield speaking at Confluent Girl Geek Dinner. Erica Kawamoto Hsu / Girl Geek X
Bret Scofield: Thanks, Dani. All right, so I’m Bret Scofield. I do UX research at Confluent. And I wanted to start off with a little bit of background about me. So the theme throughout my career has been building things from scratch. So in undergrad, I built metal sculptures, did a lot of welding, all that sort of stuff. When I graduated, I transitioned into digital products and I worked as a product designer for quite a while. And then in the past few startups that I’ve been at, the big theme has been building a discipline and a team from scratch.
Bret Scofield: And so that’s what I want to talk to you all about tonight. So I wanted to talk through, this is a brief listicle, there’s a lot of stuff from Twitter, I love Twitter so tweet me. But the big thing here is five things that you need to learn or that you need before you build something like UX research or any sort of discipline from scratch.
Bret Scofield: So the first thing, sorry, the first thing is defining UX research. And because I think a lot of people in here have familiar with engineering, et cetera, and maybe you haven’t worked with a UX researcher before, so essentially, UX research is narrowing the gap between these two groups of people. So I think there’s always one set of people who are building a product, and then another set of people who are using that product. And the people who are using that product are doing all these amazing things with it. They’re talking about it, they’re doing unexpected things, et cetera, and they’re all these amazing insights.
Bret Scofield: And so the goal of UX research is really to narrow that gap between the people who are building the product and the people who are using it. It’s just sharing those insights with the people who are building things. And they will make better products if they know and can empathize with the people who are using it. So there you go.
Bret Scofield: So the first thing that I think you need to build something like UX research is fertile ground to build. And so when I came to Confluent, the concept of UX research existed. It wasn’t formalized, or anything, but a lot of product managers, designers, et cetera, were speaking with customers about designs, about ideas that we had, et cetera. And they knew that this was super important to do and to get feedback from our customers, from our users, all that sort of stuff.
Bret Scofield: And so when I came in, the work that I did to establish UX research is really just taking what had already existed, formalizing it, adding a bit more rigor, putting it on a regular schedule, that sort of thing. And with this tweet, I don’t necessarily think that Jay, our CEO, knows what I do, but I hope that Neha does. And so I hope that UX research can continue to grow.
Bret Scofield: The second thing that you need is really three people. And so the first person that you need is an unconditional believer. And so I think a lot of us, as underrepresented minorities, you’re going to have tough days when you’re trying to establish things. And so like with UX research, a lot of times there’s days when people are like, “What are you doing? What’s the value of this? I’ve never done UX research before. I’ve never heard of this thing.” And so you need someone who’s always in your corner, who’s always believing in you, and is willing to talk through those tough days.
Bret Scofield: The other two people that I think you need are a sponsor and a mentor. And so a sponsor is someone generally in your organization who can connect you to the right projects that have good visibility, high impact, all that sort of stuff. And then the last person is a mentor. So the best mentors that I have have been outside of my organization, and I think that’s really necessary. They don’t have to be outside of your organization, but they should be outside of your management chain. And I think that’s necessary because you really want that unbiased feedback. You don’t want people who are incentivized to have you act a certain way or do certain things.
Bret Scofield: So yeah, I think that mentor should be outside. And ideally, they’ve been in tech or your industry for longer than you have. And I think that’s super important, because essentially, they’ve seen the same situation happen 15, 20 times, and you get to leverage that knowledge. You don’t have to go through 15 or 20 like I want to smack my head against the wall, you get to leapfrog.
Bret Scofield: Then the third thing is just enough knowledge. So a lot of times, I think that as a UX researcher, we think that we have to inhabit and totally become the people that we’re studying. And so with enterprise software, these people are sys admins. There’s just no way I’m ever going to become a sys admin, a lot of them were born in the command line, all that sort of stuff. However, it’s super important that I do a certain amount of research and learn this is what the command line is. I need to be able to tell what people are doing in there, what their intentions are, et cetera. But I don’t need to know every single thing. And so it’s very important in the past experience I’ve had to learn but to draw the line and not totally become a sys admin.
Bret Scofield: The fourth thing is balancing strategic and tactical work. So I think the impulse when you’re starting something new is to right away be like, “How can I provide value? Let me do this tactical stuff that’s going to provide value and insights to the team. They can take action on it right away, that sort of thing.” And I want to encourage you to do that, of course, but to also balance it out with strategic work. And by strategic work, in the context of UX research, one of the things that we do that’s useful for the next six months to two years, et cetera, is personas and journey mapping. So deeply understanding our people, deeply understanding where are they touching the product, how are they feeling at each of those points, et cetera.
Bret Scofield: Whereas the tactical work is with an individual team. We’re focused on what can they take away from this research and immediately put into practice. So yes, so I think the fourth thing is really that mix of short term. This is valuable right away, and the long term, this can be valuable for a longer horizon.
Bret Scofield: And then the last message, I think, is to get popular first and then get selective. So in the beginning, people aren’t going to know what UX researcher is, they’re going to come to you with all this kind of science fair sort of ideas. And that’s awesome. You should say yes, to all of them, do all of them. And then as you’re doing good work, as you’re finding insights, all that sort of stuff, your reputation and your legend is going to grow. And then you can start getting selective about those projects and take the really high impact ones, that sort of thing.
Bret Scofield: So those are the five tips if you’re building UX research or any new discipline within your organization. The other thing here is that, the next thing that I’m looking at is people to join the team. We anticipate hiring in the next quarter or so. So please, if you’re interested in being the second UX researcher at Confluent, come chat with me. And I also want to hand over to Liz Bennett from our software engineering side.
Software Engineer Liz Bennett talks about her epiphany about being a hedgehog in a workplace at Confluent Girl Geek Dinner. Erica Kawamoto Hsu / Girl Geek X
Liz Bennett: Thanks, Bret. Okay, right. I’m Liz Bennett. I’m a software engineer at Confluent. So I’ll start with a little bit about myself. I went to school at Oberlin College, and I studied music and computer science. And after graduating, I went to LinkedIn. And I was on the newsfeed team there. And I really enjoyed being on the newsfeed team. But it didn’t take long for the itch to join a startup to get to me. So I went to Loggly, which is a cloud based logs as a service company. And that was really great. I learned a lot about streaming infrastructure. I got to work with Kafka a lot and Elasticsearch.
Liz Bennett: But after a few years, I wanted to expand my skill set. And so I joined the data platform team at Stitch Fix. And the data platform team is the team that builds all of the infrastructure and tools for the data scientists at Stitch Fix. And for those of you who might not know, Stitch Fix has an absolutely gargantuan data department. There were I think, 100 data scientists there when I joined. So I really got a chance to level up my big data skills. And I also built all of their logging infrastructure and their data integration infrastructure from scratch. But after about three years, I went looking for another change. And as of six days ago, I’m now at Confluent.
Liz Bennett: Neha asked me if I would speak at this. And my first thought was, “Yes, I would love to.” My second thought was, “What the heck am I going to talk about?” And at this time, I was between jobs. I had just left Stitch Fix, I was waiting to join Confluent. And the only thing I could think about was this job change I had just done. It was really actually quite a difficult experience. It was really painful, much more so than any of my other job changes.
Liz Bennett: So I wanted to just tell my story, and I hope that it might be useful for some of you out there, now or in the future. Okay, so why did I join Confluent? I could also frame this as why did I leave Stitch Fix, because that was kind of the real crux of what was going on. Every other job change I’d had before, I knew what I wanted, I knew what kind of opportunity I was looking for. It was much easier. This time, the one thing I knew was that something didn’t feel right at Stitch Fix. It didn’t feel like the right fit. It took so long to really put my finger on it. I was completely blindsided by it when I joined.
Liz Bennett: And I waited three years and it never felt right. It never got better. So I did a lot of soul searching and I came to a few realizations and I realized that the team I was on and the role I had was fundamentally mismatched with who I am as a person. So everyone, I’m a hedgehog. Has anybody heard the parable of the fox and the hedgehog? Anybody? So I heard this recently on the Hidden Brain podcast. And as soon as I heard it, it seemed to explain a lot of things for me. So the parable comes from this quote by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus. And the quote is, “The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
Liz Bennett: And over the years, this has been interpreted to be like there are two kinds of people in this world, foxes and hedgehogs kind of thing. And some psychologists have even used this as a way to describe two kinds of cognitive styles and people. There’re foxes who draw on a wide variety of experiences, and they use many different strategies to solve problems. They’re comfortable with nuance and even contradictions. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, they see the world through the lens of one unifying idea. They love to think in terms of big pictures.
Liz Bennett: And as soon as I heard this, I was like, “I’m a hedgehog.” I told my best friend about it, too. And she’s like, “Yep, you’re a hedgehog.” And I also knew, all of my teammates at Stitch Fix were all foxes. My manager was a fox, my manager’s manager was a fox, not in a good way. No, just kidding. And so I thought, “Okay, is that what’s going on here? Should I just go find another data platform team somewhere else, hoping that there’s going to be more hedgehogs there?” And in the end, I decided no, that’s not what’s going on. What’s happening is the team I’m on is just a better fit for foxes. As a hedgehog, I need to find an entirely different kind of team. So I kept thinking this through, and I came up with something that ultimately really illuminated this problem for me. And it was a really useful device when I was trying to explain to my friends and my colleagues, and especially my manager, why I was leaving Stitch Fix and joining Confluent.
Liz Bennett: So I like to call it the product platform spectrum. What is the product platform spectrum? It is the spectrum of teams that exists within a technology company, that span product, customer facing teams on one end, all the way down to internal, low level infrastructure teams on the other end. And depending on where you are on the spectrum, your role is going to feel really different. So at the top of the spectrum, you have your product teams, these teams are very close to the customer, they’re generally the source of revenue for the company. You’re really close to the company mission, there tends to be a lot of separation of roles and separation of expertise, like they’ll be UX researchers on product teams.
Liz Bennett: Supporting the product teams, there’s usually platform teams, and companies invest in platform teams because hiring somebody on a platform team is like hiring somebody on all of your product teams. That makes them all more effective and more productive. Platform teams, though, are further away from the customer. They tend to wear more hats, I think. There’s less specialized roles. I think they tend to own more surface area. They have to own more technologies and services. Underneath the platform team, in some companies, this will vary, but very often, there’ll be infrastructure teams. And these teams own the very bottom layer of data systems and services. They’re like the bedrock that the whole rest of the company sits on top of.
Liz Bennett: And these teams are great because their work is leveraged across the whole company. They’re also the furthest away from customers. And there’s no platform team supporting them. So they kind of have to write their own tools. They do a lot of dog fooding. They can be very autonomous, though, they, they set their own strategies, they do their own research, and they’re masters of their own destiny. So at Stitch Fix, I was on the very bottom layer of infrastructure. I built all of the Kafka infrastructure, I was doing that. And where I really wanted to be, though, was at the very top of the product spectrum. That was where I had been my last couple of roles.
Liz Bennett: Since I’m a hedgehog, given my hedgehog nature, I thought it would be much more comfortable in that role again, where I could really focus on deepening my skills as a software engineer, and also be really close to the company mission. So how can I get from the bottom of the spectrum to the very top? Could I get there while I was at Stitch Fix? My answer basically was no. The product teams at Stitch Fix were mostly full stack Ruby on Rails engineers, and I didn’t want to completely retool myself just to get to the top of the product spectrum.
Liz Bennett: So at that point, I realized, okay, I need to make a change. I need to leave Stitch Fix. But where? What do I do? Well, smeared across this whole spectrum is our B2B vendors. So there’ll be platform as a service companies selling products to platform–or product teams. There’s infrastructure as a service companies selling products to platform teams. So all I really actually needed to do was go from here, at the very bottom of the spectrum, took one little step into the B2B space. And suddenly, I was going to be at the very top of the product spectrum again.
Liz Bennett: So I mean, the one thing is I left a consumer business and went to a B2B business, but I was in the B2B business at Loggly, so I felt pretty confident that that was going to be fine. So at this point, I realized I needed to, I knew where I needed to go, I knew what sector I needed to go to. So then the last question is why Confluent? Why did I pick Confluent?
Liz Bennett: Well, I had been working with event infrastructure for the last three years at Stitch Fix, and I had become absolutely obsessed with this mission, Confluent’s mission. And being a hedgehog, I just wanted to go deeper. I wanted to keep doing it. And I wanted to focus on that. And I realized, what could be more satisfying than going from building event infrastructure for one company at Stitch Fix to going to Confluent where I could build it for the whole entire world? So that’s my story. I hope that it’s useful for some of you out there. Transitioning jobs is really tough. I don’t think people talk about it nearly as much and give it as much credit for how hard it is. So if anybody wants to talk more afterwards, I’m super happy. Connect with me on LinkedIn. And thanks, everybody, for coming. All right, so I’ll hand it off to Priya.
Senior Director of Product Priya Shivakumar talks about her career jungle gym at Confluent Girl Geek Dinner. Erica Kawamoto Hsu / Girl Geek X
Priya Shivakumar: Hello, everyone. I hope everyone’s having a great time tonight. I certainly am. It’s a pleasure to be in the company of all of you. So my talk is going to be a little bit about my career path, some learnings that I’ve had along the way, and how that’s come to apply to what I do at Confluent. All of us are looking to grow in different ways. And so the paths we take sort of reflect that. But for me, the common theme throughout has been to continuously broaden my perspective and keep learning along the way. That’s kind of the key decision driver for me.
Priya Shivakumar: And so my career path has looked something like this. I’ve used this format, instead of the format that my colleagues and friends have used before me, for two reasons. One, because it would actually age me and the second because it just wouldn’t fit on one slide. So this is kind of the path that I took. Growing up, early on, I developed a passion for engineering. My dad’s an electrical engineer, and he encouraged my brother and I to sort of take things apart to learn how they work. And I remember him and I taking apart quite a few VCRs and a few transformers actually in his station to get to the magnets inside. And those magnets were coveted positions. So I naturally gravitated to engineering for my undergrad. And from there, my career has spanned three key disciplines: engineering, product, and consulting. And I’ll talk to you a little bit about each one of those.
Priya Shivakumar: So in engineering, it was about building the product, how do you build a product. I enjoyed all aspects of problem solving, logic, it was a natural fit. Success was mostly individual in nature. I could have been successful without having interacted with another soul, potentially, or at least having a little bit of interaction maybe.
Priya Shivakumar: But I did not get to see how my code was being used. What was the impact it was having, who are my customers. And so that’s the reason why I moved out of engineering. As I stepped into IT consulting as an engagement manager at BearingPoint first, and then later into product management, the focus shifted over to customers, stakeholders, clients. There were a lot of competing priorities and a dearth of resources, and that’s the name of the game. And that required–success now meant being able to influence people, align teams, kind of create common goals and create common objectives. And that’s a very difficult and hard skill to acquire.
Priya Shivakumar: And what little I know of it, I will attribute to my consulting days. An example comes to mind, there was a post merger integration project. One large company had acquired another large company. And as a result of that, the system and the processes we were putting in place would result in the elimination of 30 to 40 jobs. And the data that we needed to build the system had to come from these very same people. So you can imagine how painful and difficult it was. And this particular example actually falls on the extreme end, but most consulting projects have some element of tension or friction in them. Think about it. You’re an outsider, you’re trying to advise somebody how they should do their job, nobody likes to be told that, one. Two, they may have some kind of perception that they may lose some control. They don’t like that. And they may also kind of think that their domains are going to shrink, or there may be a job loss in the future.
Priya Shivakumar: And so all of these things create for some very delicate waters that you need to navigate and kind of balance. So I think that was a core skill but it’s still a learning. It’s never, I mean, I wouldn’t say I’ve completely mastered that. But that’s something that I picked up a little bit in consulting. I would like to share another key thing that kind of happened during this time. So when I was at BearingPoint, after a couple of years in IT consulting, the work got repetitive. And like most of you here, I have a healthy paranoia about stagnancy. I wasn’t learning. And I went to my MD, my managing director. And I told her that I really wanted to move into strategy, from IT consulting to strategy consulting, and BearingPoint had both of those practices. She was supportive, she was actually well intentioned, and she sort of grew me within my role, but I had tech expertise, and I was a billable resource. So it did not make business sense for her to move me to the strategy consulting practice within BearingPoint.
Priya Shivakumar: So I realized early on that that was not going to happen. But I had to stay put for two more years. And that’s because I was trying to get my green card. I was pregnant with my first child. And the key here is that that’s okay. Right? That’s okay. There will be times in your life when other priorities take over. There’ll be times when you have obstacles that cannot be overcome, things that are outside of your control, like immigration things. So in those instances, it’s okay to set your own pace. Take your time, wait, rather, bide your time. And when the time’s right, get up and get going again. Just know what it is you want and what makes you happy. Go after that, though. So in my case, I wrote my GMAT in my ninth month of pregnancy, finished out my B-School essays in my maternity leave, got my green card, and I was out of there.
Priya Shivakumar: So the next thing I did was I went into, post B-School, I joined LEK Consulting. It’s a niche strategy consulting firm. And the reason I joined that was because I primarily wanted to work only in strategy, in the broad discipline that is management consulting. So it was a bit of an insane choice to make. I call it insane because it required me to work 60 to 80 hours a week. And the work itself was intense. We were advising veterans in an industry, typically the C suite, about what they should do to grow their business. It required you to get up to speed on their industry within a short period of time, do the research that was needed to draw insights from data, model out the market size trends, things like that, and then advise them about what they need to do to kind of grow the company by X percent.
Priya Shivakumar: So that was intense. And my husband was traveling on a weekly basis. And I had a two year old to take care of, two and a half, three year old to take care of. So there was a fundamental thing that I did, which not only helped me survive, but succeed in that role. I still wanted that role. I still went and got that role. But the fundamental thing that I did was hiring the right child care, and people say this all the time, but I cannot enunciate that enough. I applied the same rigor that I would to my job to finding child care.
Priya Shivakumar: So to me, the criteria that I defined for that was that I needed an au pair who would be with us 24/7. She had to be educated so that my child would learn from her and it would be easy for the whole interaction for the family. Also, I preferred someone who would have taken on responsibility early on in their life, so that she could independently run the place. And so the au pair was Aleja. She was 24 years old from Colombia. She had a law degree. She had taken care of two siblings while growing up and while her parents were working hard on their small business.
Priya Shivakumar: She came home. She just seamlessly became part of our family and completely ran my household, enabling me to focus on my work. So there will be inflection points in your career. And during those times, you have to get the support that you need. Do not skimp on that. I’ve seen too many people make that mistake. And it just results in burnout and a lot of not very good things. So I would highly encourage you to do that.
Priya Shivakumar: One other–then the time came to become a partner at LEK, it gave me pause. It was a very lucrative path and one that was a sure path, actually. But the reason I paused and decided to leave consulting, first was because I realized becoming a partner meant greater focus on sales, and lesser focus on problem solving and casework, which is what I truly enjoyed. The second part was that as part of an advisory or a think tank, that’s what you do. You advise, and you walk away, right? There is an innate satisfaction in seeing things come to fruition, things that you build, whether it’s the product that you build that launches, or a strategy that you can come up with that is activated, and you see that work in the market. And I really missed that aspect of it. And lastly, the industries we were working on weren’t super exciting to me and I was always passionate about high tech. And that’s why I moved back into VMware, and now to Confluent.
Priya Shivakumar: So putting it all together, the engineer in me loves the innovation we’re driving at Confluent. We are fundamentally changing Kafka in ways to make it ready for the cloud. The market is nascent, there are no clear answers, this data is limited. And this is where I really lean on my strategy consulting frameworks to answer questions like how should we price cloud, what segments to go after, what features are important by which segment?
Priya Shivakumar: I think there’s significant competition in the market but I do believe that we are uniquely positioned to really make Confluent’s mission successful. So putting it all together, I would say my execution from my engineering days and strategy from consulting and product thinking from VMware, enable me to drive this key initiative at Confluent, which is to grow the cloud business. Thanks so much. Dani, over to you.
Dani Traphagen: Thank you so much, Priya. All right, so everyone, I hope that that was really informative and gave you some food for thought. And now let’s actually have some food. But before we do that, just a couple of quick announcements. The other thing that we’re doing, as well, is providing a Women in Tech events at Confluent’s headquarters down in Mountain View in November. So if you’re interested in that, there’s sign up sheets also out at the front. And we’re going to do a quick Q&A before we start to network and have some food as well. So I’m going to invite everybody up for that right now.
Confluent girl geeks: Software Engineer Liz Bennett speaking on a panel with Neha Narkhede at Confluent Girl Geek Dinner. Erica Kawamoto Hsu / Girl Geek X
Liz Bennett: Okay, who’s our first victim?
Jiang: Hi, I’m Jiang, and I am particularly interested in the theme of this talk, because it’s talking about how open resource open opportunities for your career. I’m just wondering, how do you all kind of assess opportunities in your career? For myself, I kind of felt like sometimes it’s really hard to find the good opportunities. And I’m particularly interested how people looking for opportunities and how they consider those are the good opportunities.
Liz Bennett: Well, such a tough question. I think for me, I’ve usually, the best opportunities I’ve found are the ones where there’s the biggest vacuum, I guess, like there’s the biggest need for people who have your skills or experience or something that you want to learn. And you just go and find those vacuums, and you fill them as fast and as well as you can. I think that would be my short answer. Yeah.
Priya Shivakumar: I think that’s a great question. I want to add to that a little bit. I think, you go through the interview process, right? It’s really important to understand the culture of the place during that process as you meet people. One of the things at Confluent that I absolutely fell in love with was this smart but humble…requirement, almost. And that was very apparent throughout my interviews. I had eight separate interviews, and each person sort of embodied that requirement, I would say, and then I also look for how many women are at that company. And how many women are at the top. It indicates a certain thing, and it should not be… it is an important thing. Those are some of the things I look for, among other things.
Dani Traphagen: Next question?
Audience Member: Hi, I have a question regarding, I’m somebody who came from large companies and worked in the large company environment. And in that, you’re reporting to a manager, who reports into another manager, who reports into director or whatever. So you get a lot of hierarchy. So I recently switched from that large company environment. And now I’m at a startup where I reported to the CEO. So I’m curious, how do you manage that dynamic of this isn’t just my manager, but it is my manager, but they’re also here and not here. So any insights you have on how to define that relationship, how to set the tone for that relationship?
Neha Narkhede: I could probably add a little bit. So because you talked a little bit about the big company to start up transition, depending on the stage of your startup, early days or early years are all about survival, and that’s what the CEO is responsible for. So likely, they do not have a lot of time to tackle the day to day issues that a manager’s supposed to tackle as much as they would like to. Just the practicalities of running a start up don’t allow for that time. And so I would suggest sort of look for mentorship elsewhere, if you are running into those kind of problems, but really ask the person like, “What is your biggest problem?”.
Neha Narkhede: And that was sort of my way of working at LinkedIn is nobody really wanted to work on this Kafka problem. It was sort of just something that my co-founder, Jay was dealing with, and I sort of asked him, “What’s the biggest problem on your plate?”, and he was like, “Well, there’s this Kafka thing, but no one really wants to work on it.”, because it was sort of a mess of a situation at LinkedIn that we had to clean up using Kafka.
Neha Narkhede: So I think the what I learned from that is, if you work on the biggest problem their business is facing, and the CEO is likely to know that biggest problem, you’re quickly going to become a go to resource and you’re quickly going to learn quite a lot that would then position you for other opportunities in the company. So that’s sort of the way to look at it is expectation management is not going to have a lot of time for all the day to day problems as well as asking for what’s the biggest problem on their plate that you can take off.
Jenia: Hi. Thank you for your talks. Jenia, a founder of a B2B startup with its first paying customers. So I wanted to ask you all with the limited resources that companies have, especially in the beginning, how to make customers happy? What are the secrets like hacks?
Neha Narkhede: Well, I can add a little bit. So early days, and I imagine you’re probably talking about pre product market fit. And so I think pre product market fit is a lot more of an art than a science. I think Priya talked a lot about managing data to draw insights that happens later in the life of a startup. Early days is all about landing your first 10 customers. So it’s incredibly important to not worry too much about over fitting the problem, because first time customers are going to ask for the world, but it’s really, really important that you land them successfully, because then you know which are the next 100 customers that you want. So that’s probably a really important thing. Life is going to be very hard when you satisfy all the problems of your first 10 customers. You should just go in expecting that to be the case. That’s very expected. But landing your first 10 customers is probably your your biggest and most important problem in that phase.
Mike: Hi. My name is Mike. I have a question for you, Neha. I want to know what is your best practice or solutions that worked to receive feedback at the company and from your employees. I mean, there is so much to read in different books about recommended ways to receive feedback from employees. But having worked for a couple of companies, I see it being quite difficult for people at C level positions, specifically, to receive feedback from engineers. I want to know what are the things that work for you, like when was the last time that a really junior engineer could openly and honestly share with you feedback, how you receive that. I would appreciate your thoughts on that.
Neha Narkhede: That’s a great question. So something someone said to me reminded me of this when you asked this question, and he said that, Neha, you got to be careful in this stage of your company, because fat fingers cannot make small changes. And what he was really trying to say is, the more your company grows, and now we’re 900 people and more, is it’s going to be harder and harder for you to get that feedback.
Neha Narkhede: I think a couple things have helped us at Confluent to get that feedback, and I couldn’t deny that it’s getting a little bit harder, the first thing is setting the tone of the culture from the very early days. So when we started the company, all the founders, we encouraged a lot of open dialogue, a lot of open sort of pushback. You can actually get up and challenge the founders on their ideas, or even the CEO on many occasions, all the engineers could do that and they felt comfortable doing that. So when new people join the company, they could see that debate happening on an open Slack channel. So everybody could see how the people are dealing with it and we encouraged that sort of debate quite a bit.
Neha Narkhede: I think that sort of has helped us quite a bit. The second thing is anonymous sort of feedback channels, doing surveys in the company that sort of scales when you get to a certain size. And then what has helped me in particular is I have these friends who are sort of in different parts of the organization, and they’re at the beginner sort of medium levels. So they collect feedback, and they sort of bring it back to me, and they’re sort of my champions in their processes. There are some engineers who are going to bring sort of gossip or chat that’s happening at the lunch table. And I have other sort of champions sitting here that have gotten me feedback on what I should be careful about. All of that sort of really helps. You got to make sure that you have some of those champions sprinkled around in your organization, who could actually give you the second degree feedback, because people are not going to come and give you that feedback directly as you grow your organization.
Denise Hummel: Hi. I’m Denise Hummel, and I’m the founder and CEO of a technology enabled diversity and inclusion firm. And I’m way older than like 90% of you and it’s blowing my mind because I’m, generally speaking, the mentor of trying to move women through middle management to senior leadership. And I look at you guys, and you are an inspiration to me. So my first firm was a consulting firm that I scaled to 65 countries and sold to Ernst and Young, and became a senior partner there leading culture, inclusion, and innovation. And I thought, wow, this is just the story of the century. I was a single mom who raised two kids on my own while I was building this company. And then when I got there, I felt unable to navigate the nuance of standing out and fitting in, and everything that I had known to be the core of who I was and why I was successful as an entrepreneur, which is basically never take no for an answer and just keep forging ahead, was actually the bane of my existence, because I was considered to be too aggressive.
Denise Hummel: So here I am now. I have left to start this new firm, which basically is technology, using AI and nudge messaging to bring inclusive leadership to leaders in real time, which is super exciting. And I have to pitch for VC and I’m still running into the same issues that I was running into before, which is that as a woman founder, I have to be this assertive, take no prisoners person in order to convince VC that I have the stick-to-itiveness to get this done. But when I do, then I’m the aggressive woman, who isn’t like the quintessential female persona that they’re all looking for. So that’s a really long background question. But the actual question itself is, do you have any feedback on what we can do as women to walk that line to have that nuance between standing out and fitting in and being assertive enough to make it but not so assertive that we are the aggressive ones that no one wants to do business with?
Bret Scofield: I guess my initial thought on that is, because I think in a lot of situations, especially in enterprise and dealing with a lot of customers who are aggressive men, and I’ve tried being aggressive, assertive, et cetera. And it doesn’t feel right to me, it just doesn’t feel like Bret. And I think that’s fine because I think that I can be me and still get the message across and still be successful, and all that sort of stuff. And it feels better, it doesn’t feel like I have to be super pushy, and that sort of thing. So yeah, that’s where I come out on that because I think that you can try and be this person that you’re not, and it’s ultimately not going to come through as much as being you. So are there other thoughts on this?
Chief Product Officer Neha Narkhede speaks on panel at Confluent Girl Geek Dinner. Erica Kawamoto Hsu / Girl Geek X
Neha Narkhede: I can add a little bit. I’m going to channel an RBG quote on that, which is it pays to be deaf sometimes. And I say that because you got to keep going. You got to pitch your startup and it’s an extremely arduous opportunity. You don’t want to get bogged down by all this feedback, because it turns out that in order to start a company, you have to be ambitious and aggressive, and very, very persistent. So I wouldn’t worry a lot about the perception. There’s going to be feedback, I’ve gotten a lot of this feedback, “You’re too ambitious, you’re too aggressive.”, and I’m saying, “Well, thank you. I’m going to try to work on how that doesn’t come across sometimes.” But it’s absolutely necessary to sort of put your blinders on during a certain stage and just keep on going. Because you do not want to stop in your journey, because of a lot of this increased skepticism from the outside. So I’m going to just say, keep going.
Karen: Hi, I’m Karen, super lucky to ask the last question. First, thank you all for the talk. Totally loved it. This question is for Liz and Neha. I am a software engineer and I observed in my company, and maybe what a lot of companies, being an engineer, a female engineer, as you go up, you see less and less senior women engineers, actually have the data from my company. So I can’t share, but it’s like at some point, there’s a huge drop. Beyond that, you just don’t see women anymore. And in the industry, we definitely see less women architects or women CTOs as compared to other roles. So one thing I would like to know, is first, Neha, I looked at your LinkedIn. So I see you have a good career growth at LinkedIn. So at that time, what pushed you through getting to be a more senior software engineer? Same for Liz, I know you want to keep growing, being really focused on this one area. So what is your view of this problem? Yeah, I think that’s it.
Liz Bennett: Yeah, it’s definitely true. It’s kind of eerie how there’s so few women the further up the stack you get. I think, for me, I have always thought of myself as just a person. I don’t see myself, I don’t often think of myself as like a female engineer. I almost actively avoid thinking about how I’m the only woman in the room, and after years of doing that, it just kind of stopped occurring to me when it happened, and it just became a normal thing. And I think the less I think about that, the more I can just focus on being an engineer and focus on doing what I love doing, which is technical work.
Liz Bennett: I really love doing it. And I think people see that, and they see that you love it. And they see that you’re competent. I do have to go out of my way sometimes to advocate for myself. When I do it intentionally, and when I’m doing it, I’m conscious that I’m doing it. And it helps a lot when you say, “Hey, I built all of the streaming infrastructure at Stitch Fix.” People are like, “Oh, okay, she knows what she’s talking about.” You have to actually do that. There’s one thing that I think a lot about, well, I used to think about, but not so much anymore, but it’s kind of like the competency chasm that you’re talking about. I think for a lot of women, they’re seen as incompetent until they prove themselves to be competent. And for men, it’s the opposite. They’re seen as competent until they prove themselves to be incompetent.
Neha Narkhede: Sometimes.
Liz Bennett: So I think that I’m like, Okay, I have to go through this process, I have to prove myself. And I haven’t had too many problems with it. But it is something that I’ve come to learn over the years.
Neha Narkhede: I’ll add one more thing to that is, when you’re on this technology ladder, there’s going to be a point where you sort of feel like you’re running out of options. And that’s when you try to fall back to this management option, which is sort of a parallel option. And a lot of us take that because at some point, you get tired of advocating for yourself or pushing for that new opportunity. If it is the right choice you want to make, then you should take it, but if not, I would recommend, ask for things explicitly, ask for that new opportunity that, the same way Priya asked for this new opportunity on the strategy side, ask for things until you hear a clear no, because you never know where there is an opportunity where someone like you might be a good fit, but people are not quite thinking about it actively. You don’t want to wait until that sort of thing walks up to you. You want to go aggressively vouch for it and not be scared to hear a no.
Dani Traphagen: Cool. All right, thank you so much, ladies. Okay, so networking, deserts, maybe an added La Croix for the road. Whatever you’d like to do next, I hope that that was really useful for you. I know it was for me, I learned I’m a hedgehog. An informative night the whole way around. And yeah, if you have any questions for any of us, feel free to come up. The Confluent careers page is a fantastic place to check out. I hope you will. Feel free to check out our LinkedIn pages and and just go ahead and connect with us. If you have any further questions, we’re really happy to give you any advice that we can or help in any way and just actually have some friends in our community. So anything we can do. Thanks again.
Neha Narkhede: Thank you.
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Confluent founder Neha Narkhede and Bridge Foundry founder Sarah Allen meeting at Confluent Girl Geek Dinner in 2019. Erica Kawamoto Hsu / Girl Geek X
Neha Narkhede began her career as a software engineer, working at Oracle and LinkedIn. She was a co-creator of Apache Kafka, a popular open-source stream-processing software platform that was created at LinkedIn. She spoke on a panel Girl Geek Dinner while she was still in engineering there. She saw a big opportunity with Kafka and convinced her fellow Kafka co-creators to start Confluent as a B2B infrastructure company in 2014 – Kafka’s event streaming is used by 60% of Fortune 100 companies today.
With only 2% of venture capital going to women entrepreneurs, Neha beat the odds and demonstrated that it’s possible to thrive as a technical leader. She served five years as the company’s Chief Technology Officer, and recently became Chief Product Officer to continue growing the brand. Confluent’s founders recently raised Series D venture funding for the company at a valuation of $2.5 billion, and they employ over 900 people.
Silicon Valley needs more Nehas! Read more.