“Designing Products Scaling Human Experiences”: Samihah Azim with Lyft (Video + Transcript)

Samihah Azim / Product Designer / Lyft
Sukrutha Bhadouria / CTO & Co-Founder / Girl Geek X


Sukrutha Bhadouria: [No audio 0:00-0:16] Hi, welcome everyone. I hope you’re having a good time with our conference so far. Welcome to Samihah, who is going to be our next speaker. She’s a Product Designer at Lyft, where she’s also the intersection of business calls and designing experiences impacting local communities. Prior to Lyft, she actually designed for a local commerce at Postmates and crafting high quality patient healthcare experiences at One Medical. Outside of design, she does a lot of cool things. She mentors for the State Department TechWomen program, enjoys power lifting, and also loves to cook. So, without further ado, I do want to say that these talks are going to be recorded and you will have access to the videos later after the conference, so go ahead, Samihah, thank you.

Samihah Azim: Thank you. Hello everyone, my name is Samihah as Sukrutha has said and I’m a product designer at Lyft. Thank you all for being here and Girl Geek X for having me and also, speaking of Lyft, shameless plug, we are hiring across the board. It is my favorite job. Prior to Lyft I was designing at Postmates, prior to that One Medical and today I’m going to talk about design as a powerful tool to scale products that have a core human to human experience. And, it can often be slower to scale these experiences and to get to that North Star vision for the products, but technology can be used to scale strategically and augment the human to human experience that’s happening outside of the software.

Samihah Azim: So, how does design add value when a product is scaling? Well, most products have a longer term North Star vision and if not the product, then certainly nearly every organization has a long-term North Star vision of what they imagine the future to be. But, it’s nearly impossible to get to that future today. You can’t go from zero to 100 unless you’re Drake and you’re on the catch up, but most of us are not Drake.

Samihah Azim: Designers, we’re very good at creating artifacts of what we imagine the future could look like. Where we can add value here is to really bridge that gap between today’s world here and our ideal world tomorrow. We can phase out what we have and what we need today, where we also add a tremendous amount of value is in using qualitative research that helps inform what our users need in each phase in order to come along the journey to our North Star vision. If you imagine that this the world here today and the North Star is up here. What is it that our users need in order to come up to this journey with us?

Samihah Azim: With design thinking, we’re really distilling a problem to understand how to solve it. Data helps to tell us and inform us in a lot of our decision making by telling us what’s happening. It doesn’t necessarily tell us why something is happening and that’s really where design adds a tremendous amount of value. We can help guide what we should test, if what we’re testing is the right thing to test and highlight if there are confounding factors that are potentially affecting the results.

Samihah Azim: When I worked at One Medical, we knew that a longer term goal was to make high quality affordable healthcare accessible to more people, but healthcare is a business, where that human to human or that human interaction component is still very important and technology isn’t something that will likely replace it but rather it would augment the experience. Brick and mortar is core to One Medical and technology augments the healthcare experience, so how do you scale a business where that human to human interaction is so core to everything but it also requires more operational resources that are often harder to scale. In short, it’s not easy.

Samihah Azim: When your product has a service that’s core, where humans are interacting with other humans, these are experiences that are happening outside of software but that will be associated with the product experience. This is where designers, we need to look at everything on a systems level and when I say systems level, I mean on the entire ecosystem and especially the business model and revenue streams. How does a company make money to further scale? I’m going to tell you a story from when I was working at One Medical and how I used design to learn how to scale human experiences.

Samihah Azim: In healthcare, medical practices make money through insurance billing codes and appointments are seen as inventories. Inventory is limited because doctors are limited, so how do you scale? Well, this is also where it’s important to look at what users need. Users that need to see a medical provider are booking appointments but not everyone that’s booking an appointment needs to be seen in person. There are acute issues. Issues such as flu or yeast infection, cough, nausea even getting an STD panel ordered that don’t require a physical visit to the doctor.

Samihah Azim: At One Medical, we knew that we wanted more patients to get the help that they needed by using virtual care products that we had built. I ran a design sprint with cross functional colleagues to understand the problem of why more people weren’t using care channels outside of the office visit. What we found is that people’s mental models today is that virtual care is something that, and specifically video visits, is something that is associated with travel or 2:00 a.m. emergencies. If it’s a 2:00 a.m. emergency, you should probably call 911.

Samihah Azim: One of the three projects that came out of the sprint that I had facilitated is a project that we called Integrated Booking Flow. Essentially, we wanted to test if educating users on virtual care and giving them what they needed today would get healthier patients to use virtual care in order for that to free up inventory for more sick patients that actually need it, and would that be something that the business could then scale and make high quality affordable healthcare accessible tomorrow.

Samihah Azim: The product manager on this project and I, we had really tight feedback loops, where we would meet regularly, multiple times a day and frequently we would also pair on both product management, as well as design. There’s a clinic next to the headquarters, so what we did is we would hop in there multiple times a day over a two-day period and test a bunch of paper prototypes as well as InVision prototypes. And, you can see on my screen, on the slides at the top, are the many prototypes … a sampling of the many sampling of the many prototypes that we had tested, the Guerrilla Usability Testing and what this helped us learn was what would work and what wouldn’t.

Samihah Azim: It was invaluable in not only helping us to learn that but also managing the many opinions of stakeholders and people who weren’t necessarily stakeholders but were involved in the projects. Essentially, this project was a test to see if integrating traditional equipment booking with video visits was further investing in and then, you can see on the screen on the bottom. That’s a sample of all of the feedback that we managed to capture and the action or inaction that we may or may not have taken, and the reasoning to that based on the usability testing that we had done.

Samihah Azim: When we rolled out the test, what ended up happening was that … Well, it was too successful. How often can you say that, right? We ended up having to turn it off because the virtual care providers were getting far too many requests and the SLA that we were communicating ended up being incorrect. We did validate that when mental models were gently guided towards this new shift in thinking, when users learned that video visits were for more than just travel and more than just emergencies, they adopted it for minor issues.

Samihah Azim: We didn’t spend weeks trying to perfect that most perfect V1, we shipped something that was good enough in order to learn and, in fact ,the screen on the slides, you’ll see the flow of integrated booking. Where a user goes to book an appointment and that middle screen was actually something that I had come up with by pairing with the data team to understand. We knew that a lot of the data was unstructured and so with their help, we were able to pull the top seven reasons why users are coming in for an appointment visit, which actually don’t require a physical visit but can be treated virtually.

Samihah Azim: Then, in that second to last screen is the alternate booking screen that users would see, patients would see if they chose one of those reasons, and we were gently guiding them towards and educating them that they could get care virtually for those issues and it would be much faster. If there’s one takeaway from this learning, it’s that it’s okay to move fast and ship an imperfect V1 in order to test and learn, so that you can iterate and ship that perfect V2.

Samihah Azim: This doesn’t mean shipping shoddy visual design. You can absolutely have pixel perfection without the V1 being in that ideal state. On the note of imperfect V1: sometimes when a product is scaling and especially with products that require that human to interact with another human, some team members might get a little too scope happy, scope cutting happy. I am that designer that cares a lot about things like client side load time and I’m also cutting scope or finding another way to solve a problem but there are times where you do have to introduce scope in order to have a viable product to test.

Samihah Azim: There was one company that I worked at, where we were working on an experiment and if successful, we would have further developed it, turned it into a core part of the feature in our products. But the product manager on the project was on this huge scope cutting spree. That by the end of it, it was barely a functioning test that made many of us question why anyone would use our product when competitors had far more basic functionality? And, we likely would have gotten a bad signal had we built it and tested it, where the … It came to a point where the term minimal viable product no longer applied. It was, the viable part got lost.

Samihah Azim: It’s important to ask questions because running experiments requires time and resources depending on your user set or what you’re testing, you have to wait until you get statistical significance, which can take a couple of weeks to a couple of months. You want to make sure you’re testing the right thing because you’re also using up engineering time, as well as design time and often times marketing time as well and you want to get a good signal.

Samihah Azim: That doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be a positive signal or a positive performance rather since you can learn a lot from negative performance but rather, what you want to learn are what is the metrics, what are they telling you? Is it something that you can learn from and does it fit into the overall product on a systems level?

Samihah Azim: If someone wants to test a popup flow at the point of user conversion, maybe there’s a good reason, ask why? But, it could also be that users are tapping on it because it’s a popup and it’s there and not necessarily because they find any value from it, so some questions … On that note, ask some questions. Some questions that I like to keep in my back pocket and ask are, “Why are we testing this, after this experiment what’s next, how do we know that the metric move this way because of this variant or XYZ confounding factor, did we even reach stat-sig, bro?” Well, maybe ask it a little less broy than that.

Samihah Azim: Why, and this is my favorite, why does it look like we’re p-hacking the data? Luckily at Lyft there is no p-hacking of any data. In a lot of organizations moving fast, growing, and scaling has the perception of being incompatible with staying true to your values. Designers, we want to feel like our work has a positive impact on the world. Sometimes when we’re so close to the data, it’s hard to have that perspective that work that grows an organization or a company that aims to do good with good intentions, is having an impact on the world.

Samihah Azim: Two of my favorite Lyft core values are uplift others and make it happen. At Lyft there’s actually an entire team that’s dedicated to growing the business, I am on that team. It is called the Growth Team, some creative naming there, but when we think about growth, we’re really looking to grow with intentionality so that we can continue to make a positive impact on the world. In fact, at the core of Lyft is tipping. It’s been a core part of the business and part of growing the business means initiatives that uplift our drivers.

Samihah Azim: Actually, recently this week, we actually got half a billion dollars in tips. Oops my apologies, I have the wrong data on there, it should be 2018. We actually raised … So, there were 250 million in tips in 2017 and just this week we hit half a billion. It took five years to get to quarter of a billion and then a matter of months to half a billion, and that really goes to show how growing a business can also help do good in the world as well. So, drivers are an important part of Lyft, so designing experiences that make a Lyft driver’s life easier, helps them earn more and that’s a design challenge where we’re doing good by one set of users and by doing good we can further scale, which helps us do even more good.

Samihah Azim: We also think about important causes and when we think about growing the business, it is also in the context of, how can we better benefit the society and without scaling, it’s hard to grow social giving. Last year in 2017, the team introduced a feature called Round Up & Donate, where Lyft passengers could round up their ride to the nearest whole dollar and that change would then go to a cause of their choosing, so 3.7 million dollars were donated to 14 causes. A lot of these causes were standing up for civil liberties, supporting service members, and investing in teaching members from underprivileged communities to code.

Samihah Azim: Now, I want to end on a couple of key points on what can designers do to be the most valuable team member possible? Well one, we can show value. The best way for design to show our value is to really to start caring about business goals and team metrics and then, being comfortable with an imperfect V1, so that we can test and learn to build that perfect V2 and move faster to that ideal North Star. Then also being really cognizant of what’s being tested when designing and what effect it has of other metrics, as well as what effect it has on other users or on users. I am not sure if we have time for Q&A but if you have any question, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, thank you so much, Samihah, this is great. We have time for one question and so, the one that’s gotten the most votes, “Could you share with us about a technical challenge that you are currently working on and what are the technologies, tools, and concepts that you are using?”

Samihah Azim: Unfortunately, I can’t talk about any products that have not been released yet, but I guess I could talk about it on a very high level, so there’s a project that I’m on, where I designed this, what we would consider the ideal V1 and there are some technical limitations on the engineering side, where we could get to that point but it would take about six weeks.

Samihah Azim: When I heard that I was like, “That is a really long time, how do we get there faster?” Because I think it’s also important to learn as quickly as you can. If we spend six weeks building that ideal V1 maybe it doesn’t perform that well, maybe there’s a lot of assumptions that we’ve made. What I then did is paired really closely with engineering, as well as the product manager on the project and we broke the different pieces down, and really understood what the scope of each part would be and how we can get to shipping the test faster.

Samihah Azim: We went from six weeks to three weeks, which is great because that means we can then … Once we ship that we can … once we hit statistical significance, we now have enough data to learn from that to then make adjustments to the idealized version. The benefit of that, the current, what we’re calling V1 now, which would take three weeks as well as having that idealized V1, which would now be V2, is that the backend engineers now understand what direction we want to go in, so that way they’re able to build in a way that’s scalable to the future where the client side engineers they … to them what’s more relevant is the immediate V1 that would take three weeks to build.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you so much, Samihah, we’re actually out of time. Thank you everyone.

Samihah Azim: Thank you and thank you for having me.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you.

“Using Statistics for Security: Threat Detection at Netflix”: Nicole Grinstead with Netflix (Video + Transcript)

Nicole Grinstead / Senior Security Software Engineer / Netflix
Angie Chang / CEO & Founder / Girl Geek X


Angie Chang: Alright, we are live. Welcome. This is our 11:00 AM session. We have Nicole Grinstead, a senior software engineer at Netflix. A few things she’s focused on are things like corporate identity and access, applying user behavior analytics to threat detection, and user focused security. She’ll talk to us today about Netflix anomaly detection project [inaudible 00:00:44] and how it enables Netflix to find and act on high-risk corporate user behavior as threat detection is becoming increasingly valuable in today’s complicated corporate security landscape. Hand it off to you.

Nicole Grinstead: Great. Thank you. Thanks everyone for joining me virtually today, I’m really excited to be here. A huge thanks to the Girl Geek Elevate conference organizers for asking me to speak, and a huge thanks to the sponsors as well. Without further ado, I’m Nicole Grinstead and I work at Netflix as a senior security software engineer on our cloud security team, specifically on information security. Today I’ll be telling you a little bit about what we’re doing for advanced threat detection. Specifically, how we’re using statistical modeling and machine learning to detect malicious behavior.

Nicole Grinstead: Really quick, just to define user behavior analytics for everyone. Basically, what user behavior analytics are, it’s kind of the industry-wide term for what we’re doing here. It’s looking at what are users normally doing on a day-to-day basis, and then finding deviations from that normal behavior. When we see deviations from the normal behavior, they might be doing something a little different out of their ordinary, but it could also be indication that an account has been compromised, and that’s something that we as the security team want to look at. That’s kind of what it is.

Nicole Grinstead: Example, if you think about what a software engineer does, for example, on a day-to-day basis, you might look at your source code repository, you might look at some dashboards to look at your logs, some deployment tools. Then let’s say all of a sudden one day you look at an application that holds your company’s very sensitive financial data. That’s pretty weird and that’s something that we as security team might want to take a look at even though maybe you just were interested, that could also mean that someone has gained access to your credentials and is using them maliciously.

Nicole Grinstead: To give you another quick example, let’s say you’re maybe an HR or a PR employee and you spend most of your day working in documents. Let’s say we have a baseline of your normal amount of documents that you read or that you modify, and say that’s 20 on a normal day-to-day basis. If all of a sudden that shoots up and we see you downloading or touching a thousand documents, that looks pretty weird and it could look like data exfiltration. Again, that’s something that we might want to take a look at.

Nicole Grinstead: To take a quick step back why we think this is worth that kind of big investment. I mentioned at the beginning, we’re using machine learning, statistical modeling, that takes quite a bit of effort on our end. To give you some perspective, a 2017 study done by IBM security estimated that data breaches cost anywhere from around $3.6 million if a breach does not include any sensitive data, all the way to, on average, $141 million if that breach includes sensitive data.

Nicole Grinstead: These are top of mind things, data breaches have been in the news recently and it’s very costly. It can cost a company a lot of brand reputation and other very severe monetary consequences. One way that data breaches can occur are phishing attempts. This is really common. It’s estimated that on average, about one in 130 emails sent is a malicious phishing attempt, so not to say that one out of every 130 emails that makes it all the way to your inbox is a phishing email, but some of these things get pre filtered out.

Nicole Grinstead: They’re super prevalent and they’re very commonly used by organized hacker groups. About 70% of organized groups are using phishing emails as one of their modes for attack, and that’s because they’re very effective and successful. If you think back to some high profile data breaches that occurred recently, the 2016 DNC breach before the election partly was caused by a successful phishing attempt.

Nicole Grinstead: Also, the 2015 Anthem data breach, again, successful phishing attempt. Not to say that there aren’t other ways to mitigate phishing attacks and not to say that that’s the only way that accounts can be compromised or credentials can be compromised, but this is one really prevalent issue and really prevalent attack vector. Just to give you an example and demonstrate the kind of things that we are facing, the threat that we face and what we’re doing about it.

Nicole Grinstead: Basically, this is the fun part of the talk, I think. I’m going to explain at a high level what we’re doing at Netflix to detect that malicious behavior. The data is all there in our raw logs. We have SSL data of what users are logging into what applications, where they’re logging in from. We also have application specific logs, what users are doing within sensitive applications. Also Google drive data, for example, what types of actions people are doing, how many documents you’re accessing, that kind of thing. So we have all of that raw data and that’s really where we’re finding this information of where the deviations occur.

Nicole Grinstead: The first thing we do is clean that data up a bit. As you can imagine, it might not tell the full story, just one raw line and your logs. We make sure that we enhance that data and get kind of the originating IP address if, for instance, a user has come through VPN or something like that. That’s really the first step as we enhance our data, and make sure that we have everything that tells the full story about what action the user has taken.

Nicole Grinstead: Then we start to take those actions and model what their normal behavior is like. Just to give you an example of a few of the things that we think are interesting. If you think about what a user typically does, you know, they’ll come in, they might access the same types of applications, so that’s definitely one thing that we detect on is what type of applications does a user normally do versus what are they doing right now, and is that weird?

Nicole Grinstead: Another aspect is if you can think of a user probably normally logs in from the same device on the same browser. User agent is a really common thing that you can see in a log where we can tell what kind of machine they’re coming in from, and that usually doesn’t differ. Sometimes people get new machines, sometimes they upgrade their browsers, like we have some logic to dampen those upgrades or things like that. But if all of a sudden that changes, it might be a signal or an interesting thing to look at.

Nicole Grinstead: Additionally, location. People do go on vacation, but normally if you think about a user’s behavior, they’re probably either logging in from home or from their desk at work. These are all signals that we can look at and model out a user’s normal behavior and see when there’s deviations, that might be something that’s interesting to us.

Nicole Grinstead: As you can imagine then, just generating anomalies and figuring out where things are different doesn’t necessarily give us a full picture of when something is malicious or if something might be going wrong. That’s where the next step is on top of these raw anomalies that we’re generating. We apply some business logic to be a little bit smarter about what we think is important to investigate, because just seeing raw anomalies, it could be interesting but it also can be a little bit noisy. As you can imagine, people do deviate from their normal behavior sometimes.

Nicole Grinstead: This is then kind of the step where we try to figure out is that actually risky to our business if this action is occurring. As I mentioned in one of my first slides, if you think about accessing really sensitive financial data, that’s something that’s higher risk than maybe accessing our lunch menus. If I never accessed lunch menus for Netflix and then all of a sudden I do, well yes that was anomalous, but does the security team care if somebody is looking at lunch menus? No, we don’t care. There’s no sensitive data to be gleaned there and it’s not something that we want to spend our resources investigating. That’s one aspect.

Nicole Grinstead: Also, I think in all of our organizations, some users have access to more sensitive data than others. Also, if you think about executives, not only do they probably have access to more sensitive data than some other people in the organization might, but they also might be a larger target because they’re high profile and externally visible. We also kind of look at what type of user it is, and if it’s a certain type of user, they might be a little more or less risky. These are the types of things that we apply after the fact to weed out the noise a little bit and see what are the really high risk things that we should be focusing on and looking at.

Nicole Grinstead: The final step is when we’re actually going to display this to our security team of analysts. We are using Facebook’s open source technology graph QL to enhance that anomaly. [Audio drops from 12:05-00:12:44] Hey, hopefully everyone can hear me again. I’m not sure exactly what happened, dropped briefly. Okay, great. Yeah, then, that final step is where we get information from outside of just our anomaly generation and tie that up with other interesting data sources.

Nicole Grinstead: If we are looking at not just that interesting event, but then events around that. What does the user typically do, what kind of applications did they log into right before, what types of applications did they log into right after, that type of thing. Also, what organization they’re in, what type of job they do, so any other extra information, extra data that we can use to kind of enhance that and tell the whole picture of who this user is, what they typically do and why this was a weird behavior and if it’s risky.

Nicole Grinstead: That’s kind of at a high level what we’re doing. I really appreciate everyone joining today again. I think we have some time for questions.

Angie Chang: Thank you, that was excellent. Thank you for hanging on while we had minor technical difficulties. We do have some questions. First question we had from Carla is how do you handle and what steps do you take to keep it protected for a cust … How do you keep customer data protected and maybe used internally to diagnose a problem?

Nicole Grinstead: Actually, thanks a lot for the question, that’s a great question. We on the information security team are more focused on our corporate employee accounts. On the consumer facing side, if a consumer’s account is compromised, you won’t have access to intellectual property or financial data, stuff like that. On my team, that’s more explicitly what we’re focusing on with this particular project. Not to say that that’s also not a problem or an issue that we face or that we work on, but that’s not my area of expertise, I’ll say.

Angie Chang: Thank you. All right. Another question we have here is from Sukrutha, which is, how has your knowledge of security breaches and anomalies impacted your relationship with tech?

Nicole Grinstead: Yes, great question. I would say our relationship with … It definitely makes you think twice when you’re getting like a random email from someone that you’re not expecting or whatever. I’ve had a lot less, I guess base level trust in technology in general, maybe I’ll say. I shouldn’t say base level of trust, but just … I always have that hat on of someone could be doing something malicious here and there are a lot of malicious actors out there. It’s just something to be aware of.

Angie Chang: Okay. Thank you. Another question we have is how did you get into security?

Nicole Grinstead: Yes, that’s a great question. I just kind of fell into it. It was one of those things. I just started working on an identity and access project previous to Netflix when I was at Yahoo, and you just kind of ended up being a gatekeeper for sensitive information, you have to be very security aware. I just kind of found that it was super interesting being on the defending side of trying to keep things safe, so just delved in more from there.

Angie Chang: Cool. Let’s see. A question we had from Andreas is, how do you determine what a normal behavior is?

Nicole Grinstead: That’s a great question. Basically, this is where we’re using statistical modeling to build a baseline of what a user is normally doing. We’re looking at our logs and seeing these are the normal behaviors over time, and then seeing if this current action or if you can think about this current log that we’re looking at, if that deviates significantly from what a user is doing on a day-to-day basis. We’re using that log history over time to figure out what a user’s normally doing.

Angie Chang: We have a question here about, does the assignment of risk level happened manually or is it automated by machine learning system?

Nicole Grinstead: That’s automated, I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily machine learning at that part, we’re using more just business logic to assign risk level. We know where our sensitive data is, we know which systems and which applications hold that data. For instance, one level where we say if this thing that was anomalous is a risky system, that risk level is overall little bit higher.

Angie Chang: Does the system alert you when outlier behaviors happen?

Nicole Grinstead: It does.

Angie Chang: Okay. One last question, quick question, what does working as a security engineer at Netflix like?

Nicole Grinstead: Sorry, could you repeat that? It cut out a little bit for me.

Angie Chang: How is working as a security engineer at Netflix like?

Nicole Grinstead: It’s great, it’s really rewarding. I’ll say that there’s just tons of interesting problems to solve, I think in the security space in general. More specifically at Netflix, one of the great things about the culture here is that there’s a lot of freedom to … Where we see opportunity, anyone at any level is able to call that out and drive that forward. It’s a little different from other organizations I’ve worked in where it might be a little more resource constrained and you’re kind of a little more maybe, you work a little bit more in a specific role. I’ve had the ability here to do a lot of different things that I’ve found interesting. I’d say it’s really exciting and fast-paced, fun place to work.

Angie Chang: Thank you. That’s awesome. Thank you Nicole for joining us and pulling through. We have ran out of time, but thank you so much for joining us from Netflix today and people are tweeting, so feel free to answer the tweets and we will for next week. Thank you.

Nicole Grinstead: Great. Thanks so much everyone.

Angie Chang: Bye.

“Focus On Your Story, Not The Glory”: Leah McGowen-Hare with Salesforce (Video + Transcript)

Leah McGowen-Hare / Senior Director, Developer Evangelism / Salesforce
Sukrutha Bhadouria / CTO & Co-Founder / Girl Geek X


Sukrutha Bhadouria: [inaudible] some people making popcorn and pouring the wine. While we get ready, we had a little bit of a technical difficulty, but we’re all set and ready to get started. So introducing the senior director of developer evangelism at Salesforce. She has over 20 years of experience in technology, mastering a variety of roles including consultant, developer, manager, and technical trainer. I can tell you from my own personal experience, she was the best technical trainer I had. Her career reflects the evolution of computing technology. She uses her knowledge and experience to demystify and make technology more accessible to youth, girls, communities of color, and that’s through organizations such as Black Girls Code, Technovation, Girls who Code, and Vetforce. Thank you so much for making time for us today. I can’t wait to hear what you have to share with us. So go ahead and get started.

Leah McGowen-Hare: Yes. First of all, I’m Leah and I always start with the forward looking statements. Now, I’m not sure that I’m going to be speaking about some products, but if I do, I need to cover my backside. So I want to make sure that any purchasing, implementation decisions are made based on what’s currently available, and not anything that I might speak about that’s in the future, but I really want to start with this. I want to start saying thank you. I want to thank you, Angie, I want to thank you Sukrutha for first of all, having the vision for something like this. This is amazing, and taking that vision and creating it. And I believe you guys started with like the Girl Geek Dinners 10 years ago, and now you’re revamping this. This is amazing. And you two are trailblazers, so I thank you for your vision, your tenacity, and creating this platform and allowing me to be a part of it and share my story. So thank you.

Leah McGowen-Hare: Yes. So as Sukrutha had mentioned, a lot of people know me from different things. They may know me from the classroom. Here, I’m teaching at a hands on training at Dreamforce, probably apex class. I’ve taught Visualforce classes, or you had my week long classes, learning admin tool one, or you may have seen me delivering keynotes for TDX, TrailheaDX, or doing interviews and pre-shows or the Dreamforce keynote. So I often tell people, you see my glory. People who are like, “Oh, you just sashay up there. You just get up there, and you do this,” and I go, “But what you don’t know is my story.” And everybody has a story. And I think while it’s wonderful, and it’s amazing to be on these stages, and sharing and inspiring, really knowing sort of a piece of the story behind the scenes has a lot more power from my perspective.

Leah McGowen-Hare:  I’m going to share with you very little bit about my story, and I share this because people often go, “Leah, I have questions about branding and my branding,” and I’m often like, don’t focus on your branding, focus on the value you add, and everything else will begin to fall in place. And it’s really easy to get caught up in that branding piece, particularly with social media and all of this good stuff. And I’m always like, “Well, let’s take a step back and what is your story? What are you trying to build? What is the story you’re trying to create?”

Leah McGowen-Hare: With my story, I started developing coding when I was really young. You can see my little picture. I was busting the collar up, I was very fashionable, and that’s a Commodore PET, where if you see it, there was no memory stick, there were no CDs. It was a cassette tape that you actually had to push play, and that’s how the computer started turning. That was me back in the day coding, when I was much younger, but I did not have visions of myself working at technology because, for twofold, first of all, nobody was really doing that then. It wasn’t a widely known field.

Leah McGowen-Hare: And two, it definitely was not representative of females or African American females at that matter. I was more inclined to go to, I wanted to be a dancer. I loved Fame. Probably many may not know Fame. Fame, Flashdance, I wanted to be a dancer, and Alvin Ailey, I wanted to dance. So I went off to college at UMass Amherst, and I started my career as a dance major.

Leah McGowen-Hare: And my father, who was a professor, who was just really gracious about it, he said, “Leah, you’re multifaceted, you have many gifts, many talents, and I don’t want you ignoring one completely, such as your ability to really problem solve, coding, math, and science. You have a real innate gift for that.” And I said, “Yeah, whatever, Daddy.” And I twirled away with my leg warmers and headband. But he allowed me to explore that side of me. So every summer, I would go to New York City, and I would do the whole starving artist thing. And one summer, I was there living in New York, I was a waitress, and I was working at a restaurant called Honeysuckle and there was this other waitress there.

Leah McGowen-Hare: And at that time, I’m maybe 19, 20, 21 I should be because they had alcohol, but she was working there, and she too was a starving artist and she was 30, and I thought, “Oh my goodness, this woman is 30.” And that felt ancient to me at the time. Right? And I was like, “And she’s still trying to make it? Oh no.” I went right back to school and I changed my major from dance to computer science, and I was like, “Oh no, I’m not trying to do that.” I went off, and I was grounded in computer science, and let’s see where this is going to take me. Once I graduated, I worked for a company called Andersen Consulting, which is now Accenture, and that was out in New York City, and I worked on a lot of the older systems, mainframe, batch programming. We’ll talk a little bit about that.

Leah McGowen-Hare: Then I moved from Andersen. I moved out from New York office to San Fran, and I started working for a company called Peoplesoft as a developer. And I did a lot of development there. And after doing development for a while I realized, “I’m good at this, I’m okay, I’m good.” But there was a piece missing for me, and that was the interaction with other people. I really liked interacting with people, even talking about technology. My manager, who was really nice, at the time, said, “Leah, when you’re in the office, morale goes up, but productivity goes down,” and I was like, “What?” She goes, “You get this, but I think there’s something more you can do. I think there’s something different, a different path that you should look at.” And while she wasn’t saying I didn’t want you in my group, she was just saying, “I just don’t think this is serving your innate talents well.”

Leah McGowen-Hare: She said, “What about there’s, this position, be a trainer, training developers how to code using the Peoplesoft tools.” And I was like, “Trainer? No way, that’s too close to my parents. My father’s a professor, my mother’s a teacher. I’m not trying to become my parents.” She was like, “Just give it a go and see what it’s like. Just go ahead and try it.” I went in and tried out, tried out because you actually had to do a test teach for this position, a little begrudgingly. And I did it, and I then soon quickly realized I actually loved it. It mixed the two things that I loved, which was technology and talking to people. So I was helping people understand technology, and it was almost like a game to me, like how can I explain these really complex concepts in a way that people can understand it.

Leah McGowen-Hare: From explaining things like polymorphism of objects, or being object oriented languages, how do you break that down in a way that’s consumable by those that may never have heard this before? I had room of Cobol programmers learning how to code in People code, which was object based. It was a challenge, but I was up for the challenge.  I did that. It was amazing, I traveled the world. I really stepped out on faith and was like, “Okay, I’m going to try something that I didn’t think was for me.” And it turned out it was, so much so that I went and got my masters in education and technology because I really wanted to take it a step further, and really see what are the different ways that I can help people learn very complex technological concepts. So I went off and I got my masters in that, and after I got my masters I had my company, this was while I was getting my master’s.

Leah McGowen-Hare: I was working full time in my own company, and I was a grad school student full time, and I was a single parent at the time, just doing it all, making it happen, just grinding it out. And it was an amazing time for me. It was challenging, but I really surprised myself with how I rose to the occasion.

Leah McGowen-Hare: And then I went on and came to Salesforce, and I started, at the time it was called Salesforce University, and I started training here as a developer trainer, training on Apex, Visualforce, the system admin journey helping people get sysadmin certified. It was amazing, and did that for seven years. And then in the last year, it hasn’t even been a year, but I left SFU and came over to TMP, and I was working for a organization called TPL under Lisa Marshall, and then recently, I think it’s as of August, have joined the Trailhead team, which has just been amazing. 

Leah McGowen-Hare: My story has lots of curves and turns and downward turns, upward turns. It’s just been amazing, and it’s been lots of learning that I’ve truly embraced, and I’ve just learned to be open to opportunities that I may not initially see for myself, but allowing myself to at least try and go out and take a risk. So if you notice on the slide, I have the trail still going because who knows what’s going to be next.

Leah McGowen-Hare:  I wanted to kind of hone in a little bit about, talk about my development journey going through this. So in developing, I started off in mainframe. Now I wasn’t coding in the 80s. I mean I wasn’t working full time in the eighties. I’m not that old, but when I did start, it was on mainframe, writing in Cobol, JCL, and that’s a time when customers built everything in house. They would build their own systems. You had a slew of developers, huge organizations, huge server rooms, just everything in house. Everything was custom built, and so you would go there and work on these different clients. I worked on so many different clients, modifying their information, debugging their Cobol batch programs, or if you were one of the cool kids, you got to work on the online portion called CICS, which was just the terminal online intermediate transactional system.

Leah McGowen-Hare:  I did that. And then when I moved on over to Peoplesoft, I went from mainframe technology to client server technology. And that’s when a shift started happening in the marketplace where people were beginning to not buy the software. When they buy the software, it still was on premise, meaning it was in house, all of their servers, everything they maintained from their database servers and app servers or web servers. Everything was in house. The infrastructure wasn’t that much of a shift, you still had in terms of everything was on premise, but now with client server, you have these new pieces, you had your web server, you had your app server, these other pieces that you had to integrate and work with as well. I had to learn that, that was a little bit of a shift. The big jump is when I jumped from client server into cloud computing.

Leah McGowen-Hare: And here, now it’s more subscription based model, and this is where customers are, it’s no longer on premise, it’s in the cloud, and of course, there’s some hybrid ones and things like that. But I’m talking straight cloud technology and subscription based. That was a huge jump for me from a development standpoint, and I was reflecting on that and what that looked like for me. I wanted to share what that transition was for me from moving from an on premise to a cloud based technology, particularly multitenancy, which is very different than a non multitenancy.

Leah McGowen-Hare: From on premise standpoint, when you do that, some of the costs and expenses that occur, not necessarily development, but tying capital expenses, you have a lot of things in pieces that you have to purchase from licensing fees and maintaining, and if you have your app servers, your web servers, new releases that now require new upgrades and slow product releases, things did not happen quickly ’cause, “Okay, now we got to do the product release, we have to upgrade our app server, but that isn’t compatible with this database server that might not be compatible with this web server.” So there was a lot of checks and balances that went in place across that, and it took a little bit of time. So it was also longer to proof of concepts. You couldn’t quickly and easily spin up a proof of concept like, this is what the system would look like, or here’s what the flow would look like. And slower time to market. But that was what I was used to working in.

Leah McGowen-Hare: Then, jump on over into the cloud. Here, if you look at some of the cost things, you have lower total cost of ownership because at this point, it’s subscription based And it’s interesting because I had a conversation with someone who is looking to go over from on premise to cloud, and they go, “I don’t like the fact that,” and this is a while ago. They’re like, “The cloud will have all my data, and what if I don’t like it? I’m stuck because my data stuck in the cloud.” I go, “Let’s look at this picture. What would it look like if you go with this on premise system? You’ve got to purchase all of the different hardware pieces, all of the infrastructure, everything there. Then you install the software and guess what? Now you don’t like it. Well, guess what? You’re stuck with it because you moved it into your home. You’re stuck with it. Whereas if you’re in the cloud, you can extract your data and keep it moving. It’s less baggage.”

Leah McGowen-Hare: They hadn’t thought about that perspective before, and they’re like, “Oh, that’s true.” There’s a lower barrier for entry. You can actually try, and many of you know, for those that back in the day before Trailhead, you could go and create a DE org, and go and play in the DE org, and it did not cost anything. Now with Trailhead, you can definitely get in there and start playing around and be like, “Oh, this is what it looks like. This is how I can customize it. These are the kinds of things that I’d need to know to change the process or make it more conformed to look like my processes, rapid development cycles.” And because there’s a lower barrier for entry, you have more people coming in there playing, and you don’t necessarily have to be with a company that’s using Salesforce.

Leah McGowen-Hare: You can go out there and just start learning it for yourself with Trailhead, and that creates a larger community, a larger developer community, a larger user community, so you have a larger support group. And this is a little bit more detail, but this is more personal for me, was coming from an on premise to cloud development, particularly multitenancy, it made me a better developer. Now what does that mean? So when I, on premise, from my standpoint, I have infinite resources. I can write code the way I want. If I get an infinite loop, I call the DBA and be like, “Oops, did something, can you kill that for me?” And for those out there that know SQL, there’s this thing called SELECT *, where you select every single field that you want.

Leah McGowen-Hare: And then, I admit I’ve done this in the past, long time ago, where I would say SELECT * and it pull in 500 fields into memory, and then I may only end up using five or 10. Now that’s not being very efficient. Well, when I’m developing here on the platform, I have to be very explicit about the fields that I want. There is no SELECT * in your sock or SQL statements. You must select the particular fields that you have to explicitly state the fields that you want, which causes you to be very mindful about how you develop your code. So it makes you think through things in a more efficient way. You use your memory space. You use as much or as little as you need, but you’re a green coder.

Leah McGowen-Hare: You’re not wasteful with that virtual shared memory space because for anybody who knows works in Apex, all of our code runs in the same memory space, hence the reason we place limits so that everybody has equal performance, so I can’t go in there and create an infinite loop because it would impact somebody else’s performance, and those safeguards are to ensure that everybody is getting good performance. So, really changing my mindset when I moved from an on premise to a cloud development really shifted a lot of the different ways that I thought, and that was just one of the examples. But I know we’re short on time, and I just wanted to sort of talk about, you’ve seen some part of my story, and then I wanted to kind of hone in a little bit more detailed, and see what my development story looked like because I know they wanted, Angie requested something a little bit more technical. And at this point I would, Angie and Sukrutha, if you guys are open to question and answers.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. So like you said, we want to be a little bit mindful of the next session that’s going to be happening soon, but we’re sorry for the minor technicality that we had at the start. This was such an informative session, and Leah, you’re such an inspiration. Thank you so much. The questions that we’re getting, we’ll have them answered via Twitter with the Hashtag. So use the hashtag, everyone, GirlGeekXElevate, and we’ll get you all the answers that you need. And seeing so many amazing comments like, “Leah, you’re the real deal! Such an inspiration!” And other amazing comments like, “I remember you in that gown at Dreamforce.”

Leah McGowen-Hare: It was a great time. It was a good time. This is an amazing community. I have never come across anything like what I see with the Salesforce community. It really is a reflection of all that is good and inspirational.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yes. So thank you. With that, thank you so much, Leah.

Leah McGowen-Hare: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you.

Leah McGowen-Hare: Okay.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Bye.

Leah McGowen-Hare: Bye.

“Absorbed into the Borg: What Happens After Your Startup is Acquired” — Girl Geek X Elevate (Video + Transcript)

Shanea King-Roberson / Senior Technical Product Manager / eBay
Claire Vo / VP,  Product / Optimizely
Selina Tobaccowala / CEO & Founder / Gixo/Evite
Sarah Allen / Founder / RailsBridge & Engineering Manager / Google


Shanea King-Roberson: Okay, I think we’re live everyone. So I’ll get started since we’re running a little bit late.

Shanea King-Roberson: Hi. My name is Shanea. I’m going to be the moderator today for, “What Happens After Your Startup Gets Acquired?” And since we’re running a little short on time, I’d love to have each one of our panelists take 30 seconds to introduce themselves, let everybody know what the company they had acquired is, and what they’re doing now.

Claire Vo: I’m Clair Vo. I am currently the VP of Product at Optimizely and I was the CEO and co-founder of a company called Experiment Engine that was acquired a year and one day ago, by Optimizely. We at Experiment Engine built solutions for enterprise customers to scale and manage their experimentation programs and that has been recently, as of January, re-released as part of the Optimizely platform as Optimizely Program Management, which top enterprises use to collaborate, manage, and report on their high velocity experimentation programs.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome. Thanks, Claire. Next.

Selina Tobaccowala: Hi, I’m Selina Tobaccowala. I’m the CEO and Co-founder of Gixo. We do live coach fitness classes right from your phone. In terms of previous startups, I had started Evite, with actually the same co-founder from Gixo, about two decades ago. So, the only reason you don’t see gray hair is ’cause it’s been dyed. But, we got acquired by Interactive Corp.

Selina Tobaccowala: And then on the other side of the table, I was at Ticketmaster and did about ten acquisitions and was the President and CTO at SurveyMonkey and also did a number of acquisitions there. So I have experiences both sides of the table.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome.

Sarah Allen: So my name is Sarah Allen. The first company I co-founded was straight out of school, was The Company of Science and Art, which was acquired … created After Effects was acquired by Aldus in ’93, then subsequently by Adobe in ’94. And then more recently I founded Blazing Cloud, which was a consultancy founded in 2009 and it was acqu-hired by Indiegogo in 2013. So the team joined Indiegogo.

Sarah Allen: I’m now at Google as an engineering manager, leading some teams doing server list events for serverless compute and a security policy.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome. And I guess I should probably go, too.

Shanea King-Roberson: I currently today am a senior technical product manager at Ebay and before that I was a product manager at Google and I started a digital marketing agency doing digital marketing and web development for women entrepreneurs, experts, and authors that I sold my half of the company to a different partner. So, I’m happy to be here. And we can jump right in.

Shanea King-Roberson: So, I’d love to quickly go over the types of acquisitions. So what are kind of the buckets in which an acquisition could fall on, or why you would like to get acquired.

Shanea King-Roberson: Let’s do that.

Selina Tobaccowala: Sure. Did you want one of us to start, or-

Shanea King-Roberson: Yes. Yes.

Selina Tobaccowala: Okay, sure, I can walk through in terms of … So, there’re different reasons, especially as an acquiring company, why you might want to acquire a company. I mean, the first is an acquihire, where you really wanna get the talent and that’s one type of acquisition.

Selina Tobaccowala: The second is when it’s what called accretive, which is where either the revenue is growing faster, the user growth is growing faster, than the core company, and so that’s where you essentially are buying it for the financial or business value.

Selina Tobaccowala: And a third situation is really if it’s like a strategic option for a product area or product advancement that you want to, essentially, go do. Which is, you’re sort of a small business and now you’re bringing somebody in who’s giving you enterprise experience. Or there’s different strategic tie-ins or fit-ins.

Selina Tobaccowala: And those will generally be the main sort of, philosophies around acquisitions.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome. That’s great.

Shanea King-Roberson: So what I’d love to do is if anyone on the line as any questions, feel free to put them in and we can have about ten minutes of Q&A at the end. But, I’m going to ask, starting from pre-acquisition.

Shanea King-Roberson: So there are people on the line that are in different stages of their careers and founding of their companies, so what are some of the ways that you can be prepared to be acquired before you’re ready? What are some of the things that entrepreneurs on the line should be thinking about, before they ever start to get acquired?

Shanea King-Roberson: How about Claire, you take this one.

Claire Vo: Yeah, so I think … Actually, somebody asked me that question a while ago. Like, “What should you do if you want to sell your company?” And I was like, “If you want to sell your company, you’re not in a great place to sell your company.” So, almost, if you are preparing to be acquired before you’re, quote, unquote, “ready,” you’re probably not focused on the right things.

Claire Vo: So what I would say is, the best preparation for an acquisition is a highly functional, value-generating, company. And so, the thing that you should do is try to maximize the value of your business by focusing on customers, growing revenue, reducing friction in whatever marketing or sales funnels you have, and ultimately building a valuable asset that somebody would want to acquire.

Claire Vo: I think the things that lead to a good business are going to lead to healthy acquisitions, and so you actually … I don’t recommend you do anything special, if you’re not intending to be acquired or aren’t ready to be acquired, that you wouldn’t already do to make your business valuable.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome.

Sarah Allen: So yeah, I wanted to-

Selina Tobaccowala: I would absolutely plus one that, with kind of the one exception being, trying to really make sure that way before you get acquired, you have a conversation with your co founder, if you have any, about what is either that number or what is that situation that you want to be acquired? Because it’s very different in the heat of the moment when people are coming to you and really making sure that you have sort of that baseline understanding with your founders of, are we trying to build this into a multi billion dollar company? If we get an offer for … If somebody comes in tomorrow … For a hundred million dollars, would we take it? Or, is it 15 million dollars? And having that conversation upfront, because what you don’t want to do is when something … If somebody approaches you, be on very different pages with your founding team.

Sarah Allen: Yeah, I was gonna chime in. Can you hear me?

Shanea King-Roberson: Mm-hmm (affirmative). We can hear you.

Sarah Allen: I was gonna chime in on that too. I think that people who are founding their company for the first time, don’t necessarily think through all the different things that might happen, and while you might be starting to be an independent company that IPOs, having a frank conversation with your co founders is like, “Well, what if it’s year five, and we expected to have this big outcome in year three, how are we going to feel about it? How are we gonna value what we’re doing? How will we handle that situation together? Because having that pre-conversation, like you mentioned, is where you can have a really healthy discourse around that, rather than waiting until your co founder is burned out, and they’re ready to quit and then you’re stuck with a company that is maybe on the verge of profitability but not doing everything you want. You want to be doing it together.

Sarah Allen: And of course, the best way to get sold is to … Or the best way to go into any of these situations, is to be in a great situation. But sometimes, just to be honest, people sell their companies when things aren’t going so well.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome. Those are really, really, great answers. Thanks.

Shanea King-Roberson: Since we’re kind of in this pre-acquisition conversation, I would love to take the flip side of this. So, what does the acquiring company look for that entrepreneurs today should be aware of?

Shanea King-Roberson: So if I’m a company and I want to acquire another company, what are some of those things? What are they looking for? What are some of the big ticket items that an entrepreneur should be building for?

Claire Vo: I think they’re reflected in the types of acquisitions that were described at the beginning of this session, which is actually like, will acquiring this company net us ROI positive in terms of revenue? Will it add strategic value to my product portfolio or my company portfolio, or does it add talent that’s otherwise difficult or expensive to acquire and retain?

Claire Vo: I think those are pretty simple. They’re looking for money. They’re looking for strategic advantage and they’re looking for talent. I can actually … There’s no like secret sauce [inaudible 00:09:05] a company’s looking for, other than to generate value for shareholders, and so those are the three things that can do that most directly.

Sarah Allen: Well I think to … There is another nuance to it. What you say is absolutely correct. The other thing is, they want to have … They’re looking for a company that’s gonna be successful in bringing that value to the new entity. And so, one of the things that both sides need to know is what’s the culture of the company that’s being acquired? Is it where the bigger company wants to go, or is it substantially different in a way that the acquired team is gonna have to adapt?

Sarah Allen: And that’s something where … Nobody acquires a company because they think it’s going to not go well, yet, a lot of times, the goals of the acquisition aren’t met, right? Or it doesn’t quite live up to its hopes, and I’ve sort of been in bigger companies where teams have been acquired and then their product gets canceled when that wasn’t really the goal.

Sarah Allen: Sometimes that it expected and just matching expectations upfront and if you are bringing your culture to the company and they’re really excited about that, how are you going to infuse the company in that culture, with that culture. Or, if your culture is very like, “We’re a little, tiny startup and we’re excited about that,” how are you gonna survive in this giant company? How are you gonna make that a positive experience for the company and for your team?

Sarah Allen: And so, I think that they’re looking for, how is this going to transition into a success?

Shanea King-Roberson: Yeah, that’s a really great point. So I think it’s actually a segue into kind of, conflicts of acquisitions and some of the challenges that can come with after you’ve been acquired and the actual negotiation process. So, I’d like to dig a little bit more into that.

Shanea King-Roberson: So, let’s say that I receive an offer for an acquisition. What are some of the basic negotiation tactics when you’re negotiating an acquisition if you are the starting founder?

Sarah Allen: I can chime in there.

Sarah Allen: By the time you receive … I haven’t had ton … I mean, I don’t know. Some people have had like eight companies acquired. From my data points and from the people that I know, by the time you receive an offer, you’ve pretty much already negotiated everything. That’s not where you start negotiating. On your first meeting with the acquiring company, is the beginning of the negotiation, and so what I found that was really a discovery process in … When I was looking at having Blazing Cloud acquired, that was … There were way more things that were negotiable than I ever thought to negotiate. And I really learned that because we were approached by a company which then sort of triggered me to sort of think about, “Is this the company we want to be acquired by?”

Sarah Allen: And then, by talking to a number of different companies, I realized how different the situations were for my team, and then I was like, “Oh, well maybe this other company would offer this thing,” and I had to really think about, “Does the team want to stay together or are they super happy just joining the new company as like individuals?” … So this is what they call an acquihire, so it was really just the team transitioning into a bigger company.

Sarah Allen: And so I think that there’re all sorts of value that the company can give to you and that your team can bring to the company, that aren’t dollars and shares.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome. Did anybody else have any tips on negotiation?

Claire Vo: Yeah, I think this was said a little bit before, on you need to get in alignment with your co founder on what would be the outcomes or the situations on which you consider an acquisition. I think you also need to have, as a leadership team, whether your co founder or part of your board or whatever that is, your priorities in terms of the things you negotiate.

Claire Vo: You can’t negotiate to every end on every thing and get like the perfect deal done, so you really have to stack order what’s important to you. Is it the financial outcomes? Is it the outcomes for the team? Is it the structure of the deal? Is it the title that you’re coming in on? Is it what happens to your product? There’s a whole bunch of things that aren’t just dollars, and you really need to prioritize kind of, your give-to-gets. If I can get the financial thing, I’m okay taking a lower title or my team being broken up, or whatever those things are. And if you have clarity on it, it makes the negotiation a lot easier.

Selina Tobaccowala: I think there’s also, similarly, aligning those things in terms of, why you’re being acquired and what the company’s actually looking for. So, if your negotiating on financials, as an example, there’s a question of how much of your financial equity will you take now, and how much are you willing to take depending upon certain or specifics targets. And then it’s an interesting way to sometimes look at structure.

Shanea King-Roberson: Is Selina frozen?

Sarah Allen: She looks good to me.

Claire Vo: Nope. I can hear her.

Shanea King-Roberson: Oh, there you are. Hi.

Selina Tobaccowala: Hi.

Shanea King-Roberson: Sorry, you froze for me. But everyone heard her, right? Yes? Okay, good.

Selina Tobaccowala: Sorry about that.

Shanea King-Roberson: So, one of the things a few of you have mentioned is managing employee expectations. You’ve mentioned your teams, you mentioned the other people involved in the company. Does anyone want to talk about managing the expectations of your team and your employees through an acquisition, if some people are excited about the acquisition and some people are not?

Sarah Allen: I’ll speak to that first. I think that it’s … Particularly in my most recent situation in acquihire, the team’s the whole thing and so if knowing going into it, that these two people out of these 12 are just not into it, then … In our case, we were just super open about it. Okay, they’re not going.

Sarah Allen: And then in one case, I had somebody who was on my leadership team who was very skeptical about the acquisition. Just in general. She was like, “I don’t know if I want to do this thing.” And so then I was just upfront with the people we were talking to. I was like, “Well, depending on what type of a situation you provide, you may or may not get my whole leadership team.”

Sarah Allen: And I think with a small team … I’d be interested in the people who might have had bigger teams … Being open about it was really good. The other thing is, often with an acquisition these days … This didn’t use to be true in the early 90’s … But, now they want to interview all the engineers and that’s kind of a weird thing, interviewing for your own job. But, we ended up doing that together. We did practice interviews together, then we went and interviewed at a bunch of different companies together, and it was this real bonding thing, which was kind of fun and unexpected.

Sarah Allen: So, whenever you can, have fun with it, because it’s … The uncertainty of an acquisition is incredibly stressful to your folks, because they’re not in a decision-making position. And it’s incredibly stressful for you, but if you’re negotiating and you have the power and you’re the final decision-maker, or at least on the decision-making team, it’s a whole different situation. So, think about ways that you can make it good for them, and fun for them, and make it clear, if it’s true, that they’re … That you’re taking their situation into account.

Claire Vo: I’ll add an alternate point of view, which is, I took full-on, mama bear, protectionist mode when we did our acquisition, and essentially shielded the entire team from the acquisition process, because ultimately we needed to build a valuable business either way, and I saw the potential for the acquisition to be just kind of like, a point one percent thing that was gonna like … We’re gonna negotiate to something that we liked and even if we did, were we gonna get through all the legal stuff. And then we get through the legal stuff, we get to the appointment stuff and then we sign a deal and it all happens and it’s happy, I just … You can ask my team … Up until the point the acquisition happened, I was like, there’s a point five percent chance this is gonna happen, so let’s act as business as normal.

Claire Vo: And part of that was exactly what you said. I didn’t want my team interviewed for jobs that they already had. I went to the leadership team of the company that acquired my team and I said, “I have credibility. You can interview me all day and night, but I hired a great team that built a great product and if you don’t trust me, that they can add value to our team, that’s a big problem for me.”

Claire Vo: So, I actually took a more proactive stance, in term of isolating the team from the acquisition, because it was so distracting at the scale we were at, that I didn’t see necessarily the up side. And I think you would talk to my team and they would say that I very much protected their personal and employment interests in that thing, so I didn’t put them in situations that were bad, but I also didn’t bring that stress and uncertainty into our business that we were still running day to day.

Selina Tobaccowala: And I think there’re various scenarios. There’s one scenario, which is the acquihire scenario, where as an acquiring company, if you’re acquiring the talent, that’s what you’re buying and you want to actually interview the talent and so, you have to bring your employees along, but at that point, presumably, you’ve been transparent with the team with why you’re in an acquihire situation.

Selina Tobaccowala: And then there’s the strategic, sort of product … Where you’re helping us enter a new space, and in those acquisition scenarios, normally you can keep the team fairly intact, but the difficult part in those scenarios is you have to figure out if your culture that you’ve been building as a company, is aligned with this culture of the acquiring company. Because you have to expect there’s gonna be a certain amount of turnover in your own employee base after you get acquired, if there’s a culture mismatch with the parent company essentially.

Selina Tobaccowala: And then there’s a third scenario, where it’s like they’re buying your revenue and potentially your customer base and often in those scenarios, there is a document which shows synergies between the two companies, which essentially means, cutting of staff. And so, you have to understand, when you’re the CEO and the founder of the company, what is that sort of intention of the company you’re acquiring and in the third scenario, how are you protecting the downside of people that are gonna get made redundant or let go or whatever, because there is that scenario.

Selina Tobaccowala: And as Claire said, how can you elevate that in a negotiation conversation at the beginning, if that’s important to you, in terms of your gives and your gets.

Selina Tobaccowala: And so it really depends on the type of acquisition, in terms of what the team is gonna … Is gonna happen, but I don’t think that … I’ve seen very few acquisitions where 12, 24 months on … Especially off the retention packages are 12 to 24 months on … You don’t see a certain amount of turnover from the team that has been acquired, and so … I mean, ’cause there will be change, and I think being able to be honest with your team saying, “There is going to be change after an acquisition. There’s no way it can stay exactly the same.” You can do your best to keep a lot the same, but it is impossible to keep everything the same.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome.

Shanea King-Roberson: So I think we talked a lot about post-acquisition, so I’d like to get to that in a minute. But how do you juggle multiple opportunities and when do you know to turn down an acquisition? What are some of those red flags?

Selina Tobaccowala: I mean, I think one of the biggest red flags is if you don’t … Again, it’s a little bit of that culture, which is, if you want to … You know, there’s always the pure financial outcome, where it’s like … Where people are gonna get their financials, and maybe that’s all that matters in the scenario, but if you’re trying to have your product live on and, or you’re trying to have your … Essentially, the employee side, I think it is important to understand what is the incentive of the acquiring company, and are we aligned to that strategy. Is that strategy something that we actually want to do?

Selina Tobaccowala: And so I do think that a red flag from your perspective is if you don’t feel like you’re able to get that openness with the acquiring company. And that’s true … If you think of it as a new job, as if you’re interviewing for a new manager … ‘Cause that’s essentially what you’re doing … You need to make sure there’s mission alignment, culture alignment, and transparency. And it’s your doing backdoor references on that acquiring company, is your responsibility as the CEO.

Sarah Allen: Yeah, I think that value and goal alignment is really important and I’m glad you mentioned the sort of backdoor references, because you want to know … You want to get a sense of, “Am I going to … Is this going to be successful?” And if you get indicators that they’re not being genuine with you, that they’re not being upfront … Which could be unintentional. It could be a mismatch of how you communicate, or any number of things … Then, especially if you’re anticipating that there’s a payout … Usually there’s like, “Okay, after a year you get this. And two years, and three years,” … If you’re not gonna be able to hit those milestones, then just walk, because then it’s just not worth it.

Selina Tobaccowala: And some people who are good to talk to are previous founders who have been acquired by that organization.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome. Claire, did you anything to add?

Sarah Allen: And the investors of previous founders who have been acquired.

Claire Vo: We were lucky. We shared investors with our acquiring companies. We’ve had a good inside tract.

Sarah Allen: Yeah, that helps.

Sarah Allen: Yeah, and I think that’s worth mentioning. So with Blazing Cloud I never took any money, because I didn’t want to be beholden to investors, and then I realized when we were … Because I never anticipated … I didn’t know that you could actually get acquired as a consulting company. It never even crossed my mind that that was an option, and then all of the sudden I was like, “Oh, it’s a thing,” and so I talked to a lot of other people who’d been acquired and gone through these acquihire things, and then I discovered that for many of them, their investors did the negotiation and knew the people on the other side of the table and then it … I was like, “Wow, I’d love for somebody to do this for me.”

Sarah Allen: So I mean, there’s two sides to that, because sometimes the investors have things that are goals that are different than yours, but it’s just I hadn’t really thought through how positive it can be to have an investor in going through changes in your company.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome.

Shanea King-Roberson: So, we’re starting to get some questions in and we will take those in a few more minutes, so if you have any more questions, please put them in to ask the question.

Shanea King-Roberson: I’d like to get into the post-acquisition. One thing that we really want to think about is, what was that transition like for each of you, from CEO to now, employee of a large corporation or midsize corporation? What was the best thing about that and then, the worst thing about that?

Claire Vo: So I can start. The transition was super easy. I’ve worked at companies of all size and I was never a CEO that started a company because I didn’t want a boss. That wasn’t my motivation and I used to joke I took venture capital so, I had bosses and they were a little bit more intense than the ones I had at a corporate job. So, the actual transition back to the quote, unquote “corporate world” was very easy for me; very comfortable in at-scale companies and I think my background added a lot of value immediately to the company in terms of management strategy and operations and things that we needed at the size of the company that we’re at now. So, my personal transition was easy.

Claire Vo: I think the hardest part has been emotionally letting go of my product. I mean, my product is integrated into our ecosystem. It’s part of the platform. I have a product manager that works on my team that runs my product, and I still have that CEO … Like, “Oh, we should and how do you …,” and I actually had to pull him aside in a meeting the other day and be like, “Look, I just love this thing, but this is your baby now and you do what’s right with from a product perspective and I’ll be super excited about it, but ultimately it’s yours to own.” And so, you really do have to let go, especially if you were brought in to take on a much broader role across the organization and not just baby your product for years and years on end at the expense of the overall success of the company.

Selina Tobaccowala: I’d say for me, it was such a long time ago that I was first acquired as [inaudible 00:26:20], but I was kind of in the opposite situation where I had never seen a company at scale. I was a first-time founder and that was my first job right out of college, was doing Evite, and so it was a big transition for me, to suddenly like be in a company and even things like … You know, little things, but it was like expense reports or doing big Power Point decks and stuff like that, that I had never really had experience in.

Selina Tobaccowala: And so it was a pretty big transition, and the biggest thing that was supportive to me, was I was … In the acquiring company, that’s what I was saying, is the person who became my boss was an amazing mentor to me. His name’s Sean Moriarty and he’s now the CEO of Leaf Group, but that was a really important thing for me because I didn’t, unlike Claire, I wasn’t walking in with experience, and so I do think if you’re a founder and it’s your first startup and you really haven’t kind of … I was 24 years old, I think when we got acquired, and so I think who is gonna be that manager and how are they gonna be able to help guide you through, is pretty important, depending upon where you are in your career cycle.

Sarah Allen: Yeah, when my first startup was acquired … CoSA was acquired by Aldus … We were all like in our early 20s and we were … And I think building those alliances, like Enrique Goodrow managed the acquisition from the Aldus side, and he remains a friend to this day and he just helped us navigate this corporate world.

Sarah Allen: And I think the one thing that is kind of a counterpoint to what Claire was saying, is that sometimes you know your domain better than the acquiring company. In that case, they really acquired After Effects so that they … That was gonna be the cornerstone of their digital media group, and then less than a year later, all of this was acquired by Adobe, which had Premier. And so, they stacked up the products that had some redundancy between Adobe and Aldus, because there was like Freehand and Illustrator and these different … But mostly it was complimentary and they looked at After Effects and Premier and they said, “Okay, we’re gonna have to cancel After Effects,” and so the team did … So our product managers, but we all participated in really sketching out that the video space was broader and educating them that there’s post production and special effects and there are these different parts of the market and then there were some other products that we put into this two by two matrix.

Sarah Allen: So to really focus on what is … Your little company is no longer a thing. You are doing what’s best for this big entity. And sometimes, you have to let go and sometimes you have to hold on to what’s right because you understand this … You were acquired because you understand some part of the world better than the acquiring company and you have to explain that.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome. That’s a really great segue into like … Getting into post-acquisition. So after you’ve been acquired, how do you foster inclusion and retain your culture of being a smaller startup inside this larger company, and, or what are some of the things you’re thinking about when you’re trying to merge with a new culture?

Claire Vo: So this is a really tacticall thing, just make sure that you have culture specific emojis set up in Slack, so … We’re from Texas, so the first things that got set up were like our old logo, the Texas flag, the hook ’em horns, because I’m a Longhorn, and a taco emoji. So immediately we infused the communications culture at Optimizely with very important cultural touchstones.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome.

Claire Vo: But I think part of that is like, what can … You know, you don’t have to drink the Kool-Aid. You don’t have to come in and say, “You have to do everything the way you’ve always done.” You’re bringing something, you’re bringing a really special team into a company and in that first year in particular, you’re at a point where people celebrate that and they want to be excited about it and they want to know what your team brings to the office. And so, just kind of introducing the personality of your team, introducing the personalities of the people on your team, and really giving company-wide platforms for displaying that so it can be infused across the entire organization.

Claire Vo: I found it has just fostered a lot of friendships, fostered a lot of excitement around the acquisition, that has made the product and team much more successful. So, it sounds really simple, but I do think … You know, what are those list of like, inside jokes and priorities that you had at your old startup? Bring those in and show them to people, ’cause that’s a fun part of your team, too.

Sarah Allen: Yeah, I think having rituals. My startups were acquired before Slack was a thing … Like, with After Effects, I think because we were just … Maybe we were a little naïve, maybe we were insulated, I don’t remember there being a lot of challenges to how we did things. And we just kept doing the things that we were doing. And we had a very strong beta group, where had very good relationships with the post houses that used our software, and we continued to have that community that spanned our customers and our team throughout basically two big mergers.

Sarah Allen: And I’ve seen that with … I now work at Google and work with a team that was Firebase, and they were acquired and they have like team lunches every Wednesday and Friday, that they had before Google and they have after Google and they have certain things that they do, that they’ve always done, and they adjusted things a little bit, but then they just kept doing the things that make them who they are, that aren’t like … None of these kinds of things are like, “Oh, yeah, my company doesn’t do that.” But, you’ll hear that.

Sarah Allen: Sometimes you’ll be in a big company and they’ll be like, “Oh yeah, but we don’t do that here.” And I think that you want to, in a nice way … Like, not say, “No, we’re going to do something completely different from what you’re asking me to do,” but practice the, “Yes, and,”. “Great idea, I’m going to interpret it this way.”

Sarah Allen: And then I also wanted to acknowledge with Blazing Cloud, I didn’t go with the acquisition. I didn’t even realize that one could do that, but it turned out, one can. And so, that’s just … All the things don’t have to be the way that you might hear about them being done.

Claire Vo: Yeah, and I wanna kind of just rip off one thing that you said, which is, also, as the leader and the founder or the CEO coming in, you have to be a leader for things that are gonna change. Like, you have to be the person that says, “Yeah, I know. We used to do things that way and it was super easy and fast and chill, and now there’s a four-step process and that’s life.” And you know, you have to know your movable objects and I think as kind of the leader, the team, whether they get dispersed to different departments or report to you or not, are gonna look to you to set the tone. And so, you have to be clear about the things that are gonna change and the things that aren’t gonna change. Keep your rituals that are really powerful and important, but also, say when something’s not serving us anymore in this new context, you need to let it go and move on to bigger and better things.

Shanea King-Roberson: Absolutely. Awesome.

Shanea King-Roberson: So we have about 13 minutes left and there’s about four questions, so for managers at acquiring companies, how can they support the [inaudible 00:34:10]

Shanea King-Roberson: Can you hear me?

Selina Tobaccowala: No, you-

Sarah Allen: [crosstalk 00:34:18].

Selina Tobaccowala: I think you were asking a manager how you can support the acquisition?

Shanea King-Roberson: Yeah, for managers at acquiring companies, how can they support the transition or what should they not do?

Selina Tobaccowala: So I think that exactly what Claire was saying, which was making sure that you have that open communication with the leader of the team … Of the person who you’ve acquired and making sure you’re collecting feedback from them often, so that if there are things that are minor that are important to people, you can help make those changes. So, whether that’s the … You know, you hear that story of Jet and Walmart, where Jet had happy hours and Walmart said, “We don’t do alcohol.” And the Jet leader said, “Well, we’re gonna keep doing happy hours and it’s an important part of our culture.”

Selina Tobaccowala: And so it’s like, which of those things that are important enough to the leader that on the organization that when they’re pushing back on you, you can really take that try to make the change, and which of the things you have to say is, “Hey look, we’re not gonna be able to change on this issue and here’s why.” Like, here’s the thing that is important.

Selina Tobaccowala: And the other thing is, is people during an acquisition, it is a big change for them, and so the more you can communicate about, here’s our company, here’s our culture, here’s how we plan to operate things, but we’re open to feedback; we’re open to change.

Selina Tobaccowala: Obviously, I’m a little biased, having spent so many years at SurveyMonkey, but it’s collecting that feedback, whether through surveys or through talking to people, but making sure that you’re keeping that sort of employee engagement understanding of the company that you’ve acquired, I think is extremely important. Because if you don’t get those employees engaged and at least for 12 to 24 months, the integration into your platform’s nearly impossible.

Claire Vo: Yeah. I would say continually evaluate the talent that you’ve brought in from an acquisition on a regular and frequent basis, because even if you go through, let’s say, a formal interview process, you just never … You just don’t know until people land into the acquisition and start performing how they’re gonna do.

Claire Vo: I’ve been really proud that every team member that we brought into the acquisition has been … Done really, really well and has been super successful. No one’s quit. Some people have been promoted. But the acquiring company took the time and effort to continually evaluate performance and say, “Wow, we really underestimated you because we didn’t have tons of visibility into what you were doing, but now that you’re here, you’re a total rockstar,” really helped keep employees engaged, which meant that we go the product integrated very quickly, which means that we got it in the hands of customers and started driving value.

Claire Vo: So, I don’t think there’s … There are very few things that are as expensive from a time and money perspective, as a failed acquisition, so it’s worth the investment to continue to make sure that that’s successful.

Selina Tobaccowala: And I think added to that is that making sure that what the integration plan and strategy is very clear and laid out very quickly. So, you’ve had a lot of time with the company to start having the conversation. In most cases, the team is unaware of the acquisition until it happens, and so … But making sure that you’re not just talking about the deal, but that you’re strategically aligned with, what are you gonna do with that product after, so that within a 60 or 90 day window, you can very quickly come out with, what is the integration plan from a product and technology and sales team perspective. The quicker you can show people what your integration plan and strategy is, the better off it’s gonna be. And that plan could say, “For 12 months, we’re gonna do nothing.” But at least, coming up with a clear communication plan.

Sarah Allen: Yeah, I think … Well at this point, all those points are really great. I think also, from the technical side, especially these days, it’s really important … The techs [inaudible 00:38:05] are never the same and usually the big Co has something that’s like horrible from a startup-founder perspective, and sometimes they love it over there … Or sometimes they acknowledge that it’s horrible and that’s just how … We don’t have time to fix it. We need to integrate your stuff. And sometimes they have some super awesome thing that you would never find if you’re not in “the know.” So I think it’s really important for acquisitions that involve engineers, to find key senior engineers and make … In the acquiring company … And make them responsible for the success of the acquisition and partner them with individual senior talent who is … So they can learn from each other and really position it, if I you can, in a collaborative way.

Sarah Allen: Because that knowledge transfer is so important and these days it is … Just I’ve seen a lot of friends go through this, and companies goes through this, and in all different big corps, and it’s just a little culture shock. “Oh, I used to just deploy five times a day from my machine and now there’s like this process and I have to … Maybe I have to use a different language.” Maybe, they’re using three versions ago thing that they can’t upgrade until 2020 and you’re like, “What?” And that’s very hard on engineers, and so there has to be this social … Like the professional social connections where they can kind of hack the system together.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome.

Shanea King-Roberson: So, do any one of you have any regrets or things you would do differently if you could do you acquisition over again?

Claire Vo: I would have mama-beared slightly less and let my team be interviewed, because some of them were I think undervalued at the point of acquisition, and they were very quickly corrected and we could have skipped that whole cycle if I had just not been like, “My team. Back off.” And so I think that’s one thing I would have managed slightly differently. I still like insulating the team, but I think I could have done it in a more effective way.

Sarah Allen: I think I would have more proactively assessed … Like, had more confidence myself in my understanding of what the other company needed. In some cases I just … Like, I deferred to them. Like, “Oh, you want x, y, z, and don’t want a, b, c. Okay. Let’s work with that.” And took that as a fact, instead of realizing that I actually really understood their business and there were things that happened after the fact that I was like, “Oh, I was right and I should have taken the time to really talk through that with them and present more of my ideas of how this could play out.” I mean it was a good outcome from my perspective, but there was details where I was like, kind of a missed opportunity there.

Selina Tobaccowala: I would say, from my perspective, it wasn’t necessarily the regret of the acquisition, but is what led you to get acquired. So in the sense of, we took for Evite, far too much capital, and so it put us in a position where to get the investor return, meant we had to essentially make a revenue base that was so high that the better path for us was acquisition.

Selina Tobaccowala: So I think there’s this question of like, “Why would you ever get acquired. Why wouldn’t you just build your business to be great?” And those are various different instances. One is because it’s actually the best financial outcome for your investors and yourselves. Another is because you see that when you look at the strategic window, you actually see that this may be a better home, to be part of that larger organization or larger strategic approach, versus just trying to go at it on your own.

Selina Tobaccowala: So I don’t think we have regrets around the acquisition. I think when you looked at, especially for us, Evite is one of the few platforms that’s still around from that era of the dot com bust.

Shanea King-Roberson: You actually answered one of the questions that was already in our queue, which was, why would a startup want to acquired as opposed to [inaudible 00:42:24], so thanks for that. And I think we have time for one more question, so from the employee perspective, if they don’t want to be a part of an acquisition or an acquihire, at what stage would be the founder or CEO would like them to voice their opinion? Would it be better for them to just leave as soon as they realize you’re heading in a direction they don’t want to go? Would you rather they wait until they see a little bit? What’s your perspective on that?

Claire Vo: Well, no one’s ever gonna force you to take a job. No one can put a gun to your head and force you to take a job, so you’re never stuck. So I think my advice is know your priority. I mean, we’ve said this multiple times. Know your priorities as a CEO, know your priorities as a company, know your priorities as an employee. And if you’re going into an early stage startup that has … Particularly one that may have taken capital, being acqui-hired is an option and you need to be straight with your leadership team. “Hey I’m in it. I love early stage, but if we get on the path of an acquihire, I just might not be part of it.”

Claire Vo: I think that’s really fair. I don’t think you’re ever going to be contractually stuck in an employment situation you don’t want to be in. So, I think the risk there is fairly low, to just kind of see what your options are and play it out as you want.

Selina Tobaccowala: And I think there’s also … There’s not much risk either to … Especially if you’re never been in a situation that is scaled, is to see if you like it. There’s often times you go into that situation and you know, when I got acquired, my father said, “Do it for a year and then make a decision if you like being at a scaled company or a startup company. You’ve never seen the other side.” And in the end, I learned a ton from being in that type of environment.

Selina Tobaccowala: Eventually, obviously, I’ve gotten to start something from scratch again and love that more, but I think you don’t know what you’re gonna learn, so it’s hard to take that position really strong upfront. I would just say, try to think about the flexibility around it.

Sarah Allen: I think that’s a really good point. I think as a manager and a CEO, I always appreciated it when my employees were upfront. But I love this perspective of like, go for the ride. I feel like, in my career I’ve had the opportunity to like … Silicon Valley tech tourism. If you haven’t been through an acquisition, you’ve missed out on something really kind of interesting, even if it’s horrible, the stories are incredible that you can’t tell publicly, but like over drinks.

Sarah Allen: It makes you stronger person to understand both sides and to understand how the industry works. And you’re always, even as an individual contributor, you’re exposed to this business side, that normally you don’t get to see as an individual contributor. So yeah, I think that … I would encourage everybody to go along for the ride, and to just take a deep breath and experience it. Give it time. Not infinite time. Like, don’t check out and say this is sucky, but just be in it, but don’t get caught up in it, because it’ll change every three months and you know, I like the idea of riding it out for a year and see what happens. You can always quit.

Claire Vo: And rarely do people get paid less. We’ve never really seen that happen, where people are like, “Oh man, we did this acquihire and I’m making way less.” That’s not usually what happens.

Sarah Allen: Yeah, I’ve never seen that happen, either, so there’s an up side no matter what.

Claire Vo: Yeah.

Shanea King-Roberson: So, in our final minute, what is the one last piece of advice you’d like to give all of your entrepreneurs on the line?

Claire Vo: Think that [crosstalk 00:46:23].

Selina Tobaccowala: Oh, sorry, I was just gonna say-

Claire Vo: No, you go first.

Selina Tobaccowala: Don’t build your business ever for acquisition. Just build a … Try to focus on building a big business that has good financial structure and pillars and then acquisition may be a possibility in front of you, but don’t walk in thinking about that as kind of the goal.

Claire Vo: Okay, I regret letting you go first because you stole mine, which is don’t build your company, looking to be acquired. Don’t go seeking an acquisition. Build something awesome and an exit will come, but that’s not really [inaudible 00:47:02] engineer, you can only engineer a great company, so that’s what I would focus on.

Sarah Allen: Yeah, I think I agree with those things. I ran a consulting company knowing that I wouldn’t do it forever and it was sort of a happy exit of like, “Oh, wow, I can get acquired. Great.” But I think build relationships with people at other companies, so your partners, the people who buy your software … Knowing other CEOs, whether they’re a company you’re doing business with or just a peer company, will teach you so many things you didn’t even need to know; you didn’t know you needed to know. And then having those relationships, if suddenly you’re put in a situation where somebody makes you an offer and you didn’t expect it and you didn’t plan for it, having those relationships built already so you can talk to friends who’ve been in the situation before, is invaluable.

Shanea King-Roberson: Awesome. Well, I think we’re all done.

Selina Tobaccowala: Thank you so much.

Shanea King-Roberson: Thank you so much. It’s such a pleasure. I’m sure we’ve all learned so much from all of you ladies and invaluable experiences.

Claire Vo: Thanks ladies. Bye.

Sarah Allen: Bye. Thank you.

Shanea King-Roberson: Bye.

“It’s Not Them, It’s You: Self-Awareness & Ego”: Minji Wong with At Her Best (Video + Transcript)

Minji Wong / Founder / At Her Best
Angie Chang / CEO & Founder / Girl Geek X

[Transcript of “It’s Not Them, It’s You: Self-Awareness & Ego”: Minji Wong on Unleashing Your Power to Lead]

Angie Chang: Hi. Welcome back to Girl Geek X Elevate. I have with us Minji Wong. She is the founder of At Her Best, a workplace movement to empower high-performing employees to transition into parenthood and return, thriving, to the workplace. She has 13 years of Fortune 500 experience, including a Fortune #1, among the leading tech companies like Facebook and Ebay, empowering leaders to realize their potential.

She’s worked with people at different pivot points in life, ranging from senior executives to stay at home parents and specializes in millennial leaders and working parents. She’s a board member at Girls On The Run, a national nonprofit organization committed to empowering girls to develop leadership skills through running their first 5K. Today, we’re really privileged and happy to have her join us. Minji?

Minji Wong: Thank you so much for the introduction, Angie, and hello everyone from across the world and here in the States. My name is Minji Wong, and I’m the founder of At Her Best. I’m super excited to be here and develop community and connection with you over the next few moments. But more importantly, what I’d like to focus on are the crucial transitions and pivot points that we all experience in our careers.

And so those transitions could include an increase in roles and responsibilities as our scopes. It could be the transition from an individual contributor to a people manager or even a people manager to an executive. There are those pivots, too. It could be that career change, it could be a re-org, it could be a layoff, it could also include a life change, becoming a mother. So there’s a lot of different things that happen in our entire careers and it’s what we do in these small spaces that make the biggest impact.

So where I’m going to focus today is around drawing self-awareness and reflection into being and becoming your best self One thing that I really wanted to share and just really hit home is when we think about our career path and our career direction, it is never something that’s just super straightforward and super easy. In fact, the reality is we have those transitions and pivots. We have those setbacks. We have the two steps forward, one step back. We might even have obstacles along the way, and it’s important to be equipped with the specific skills and competencies to be able to get through those and drive through those.

What I wanted to do today was introduce a very, very simple and pretty straightforward framework in order for you to achieve and encounter any obstacle in your way with a strategic mindset. So it starts with the importance of thinking about more, better, and different, but most importantly, the core of all of that is having a growth mindset. Many of you might be familiar with Carol Dweck’s work. She’s a researcher at Stanford and she focuses on the importance of growth mindset, which is really continuous learning.

It’s the ability to overcome setbacks. It’s for you to learn from your mistakes, build resilience and grit, versus the other side, which is a fixed mindset which is more of the victim approach in terms of, ah this happened to me. This is just where I am. This is who I am. I can’t change and I won’t change. And I underscore this importance because in order for you to drive and be able to move forward, you have to change your attitude. Your attitudes and beliefs change your behaviors, which changes your actions, and eventually the outcomes in your entire career.

The first area that I wanted to focus on was around thinking about more. So ask yourself right now, what are your specific values in life and, specifically, in your career, and are you living those values as we speak? Don’t worry. Many people don’t necessarily know or have those top five values in mind, but it’s super important for you to really, really be true to yourself and understand what those priorities might be right now.

The second area to focus on is around your strengths, and you might be familiar with Marcus Buckingham’s work around StrengthsFinder and several of the books that he’s published, but the importance of strengths is what helps us excel in our careers. You know, one of his quotes was that focusing on strengths is the surest way for job satisfaction, team performance, and org excellence. What are you doing right now in your day job and in your life to actually focus on those strengths?

Bringing everything together is the importance of having a vision statement. I know initially when I heard a vision statement, I thought okay, it’s something about work, right? But it’s also about us, and it’s being able to collect not only our priorities through our values and our strengths, but being able to have an end goal in mind for us to be able to achieve because we can’t start and commence any journey without really knowing where we want to go.

The second area that I wanted to focus on was around thinking better. I’d like to introduce a very simple framework in terms of thinking about goals and thinking about where you want to be in terms of beginning with the end in mind. And it’s the GROW Model.

In my 13 plus years of experience, having worked at various tech companies, e-commerce companies, retail, and various industries and sectors, I’ve managed several leadership programs and experiences with high performing individuals. And in my conversations with them…now, what do you want to do? What do you want to be? Oftentimes the response I’d get is, “I just want to develop these specific skills” or “I want to be able to explore, kind of learn and develop myself in my career”. I never, not never, but I rarely actually had a response that that would let me know, hey, this is who I want to be and this is where I want to go.

It’s super important to realize that and recognize that because if you don’t have that end goal or that end destination, anything and everything you do may not necessarily contribute to that end goal. Now I realize nothing is ever static. In fact, things are dynamic. Things can change tomorrow or even yesterday. But again, highlighting the importance of having an end in mind, knowing that that can change is very important. That’s the goal.

The second piece of the GROW Model is, what’s your reality? What are your current circumstances right now? Where are you? I think a big piece of knowing where really you may be is around getting feedback from your peers and colleagues. We’re going to dive deeper into the feedback piece, but really asking people whom you trust, not necessarily your friends, to really give you a real assessment around where you might be in terms of your skills and in terms of your capabilities to get you to where you need to go.

The third piece is around options. So it’s super important to be able to throw as many options as blue sky, as out of this world, as realistic, but also as dreamy as possible in terms of really thinking and having as many to be able to choose from. The fourth piece is your way forward. So it’s really putting it all together. It’s that action plan.

It’s okay, now that I know where I am, where I want to go, and my reality, what are the things I have to do and put in place as I experience those obstacles and resilience and as I apply that growth mindset to where I need to be? So for example, if I’m a domain expert and I have incredible technical expertise and knowledge, and I’ve shared an interest into becoming a people manager, what can I do now and what are the specific skills that I need to learn and know that go beyond domain expertise that focus around people and leadership, and how can I discover and explore the specific skills to be able to reach those specific goals?

Another thing that I wanted to mention around that is for you to think about a very simple, SMART acronym, which many of you are familiar with. When you think about those goals, how specific is it? How can I measureit? How can I really attain it within this specific amount of time? Is this even relevant to where I want to go? And for many of you who work at companies that have performance management cycles, they can either occur on one year, six month, or even quarterly, OKRs. So when you think about that, those cycles, keep that in mind in terms of what goals you can actually set and what you can actually attain within these specific cycles.

When we think about this learning journey oftentimes, and in my background, having spent 13 plus years in leadership development and learning and organizational development, I oftentimes hear people say, “Oh, I need to develop the skill. Let me go to this training and then I’ll be cured and I’ll be healed.”

The reality is a lot of our learning, 70 percent of our learning occurs on the job and that’s through those stretch assignments, that’s through the cross functional work, that’s through being thrown a new project that you have very little experience having really managed through and learning literally in the trenches.

Twenty percent of learning actually occurs through conferences like this where we can hear from amazing and incredible women in the field and where we can learn and develop community and connection from each other. It’s also through coaching and mentoring. So my question to you is, do you have a coach and do you have a mentor? And if you don’t, what are you doing to get to where you need to be. Even if there is no mentoring initiative in place or if there isn’t any formalized coaching program at your company, what can you do to get …

There is this incredible poem — specifically a quote that I love from Maya Angelou who talks about, basically you can say you anything, you can do anything, but what people remember is how you make them feel.

How do you make other people feel, and what experience do you leave them with? Some of those behaviors include your energy levels, your interests, your emotional intelligence, the ability to become reflective and self-aware of your own behaviors and how you show up.

I was working with a leader who has an incredible brand presence via social media. She’s strong, she’s to the point, she’s powerful, and she’s just on top of it. And when I actually met her in person, my initial experience of her was very different. She appeared to be more shy, a little more meager, didn’t necessarily focus on eye contact. When I gave her a handshake, it was more of a limp handshake. These signals and these behaviors weren’t consistent to the persona that I had seen behind the screen in terms of social media.

So my question to you is, while we have the intent to be a certain way,what kind of impact do we actually leave with other people?

The second P is actually a product — so it’s what brought you here. It’s your technical expertise, it’s your acumen, it’s what makes you awesome and badass. And at the same time, those behaviors include those leadership skills and innovative thinking.

For those of you who are people managers or who are interested in becoming people managers, typically early in your career, the focus and the emphasis is around your expertise, your ability to execute and focus on the product itself.

As you become a people manager, and a manager of managers, and eventually leading the organization, there is a seismic shift in how you see yourself, not just from your product knowledge but to the persona, specifically the experience you create for other people and how you make other people feel in terms of wanting to work for you and wanting to work and really believe in this vision statement.

New managers who have recently been promoted from an individual contributor can still fall into that specific trap of having that domain expertise, and wanting to do it all, and wanting to help their team, and focus so much on the work, and we all know that sometimes those are micromanaging behaviors that may not necessarily give the specific coaching and support that a team member might need.

The third P is around permission, and it’s really owning your seat. It’s not just bringing your seat to the table but having a point of view. So it’s really taking action and not necessarily asking for permission. It also involves specific risk taking as well. So I love Yoda’s quote, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

The fourth is around packaging, so it’s your visual manifestation or it’s just literally what someone who is sitting here could actually watch and see of you. So it’s not just your physical appearance, it’s your behavior, it’s your environment. So how does your desk area look like? Is it completely messy? And if so, that’s fine because Albert Einstein wrote, “A messy desk is a sign of genius,” and at the same time it could also show you might not necessarily be on top of things.

Are you always late to meetings? Are you always five, 10 minutes late to meetings? What kind of impression do you necessarily share and show to other people? Especially for those of you who are interested in becoming a senior leader, it’s super important to dress the part as well. So again, each company and each environment has their own norms. Look at what other people are doing, especially people whom you admire and people whom you want to become.

When we think about communication, 93 percent of it is nonverbal. So it’s not even the words that I say because most people think that that’s communication. It’s my body language. So 55 percent of it is, how am I standing? Am I just totally just tired, low energy? Do I have my arms crossed, looking and appearing to be more closed off? Or am I open? Then 38 percent is the actual vocal tones. Am I super excited to be here or am I super excited to be here? And then the actual seven percent is the actual words itself. So my question to you is, again, how are you showing up in ways that you may not necessarily intend with impact that you actually have?

The fifth P is around promotion and so the promotion is really being able to seek out specific people and really share what you’re doing and highlight what you’re doing. It’s becoming strategic about what you’re doing and your specific message.

I know that these five P’s are things that we have various muscles in. So my call to action for you is to… [no audio 16:21–16:42] Who you are, what are the consequences of people not necessarily knowing and being able to see or hear if you’re intense? If people can’t see it or hear it, it may not… or to the consequences that you are actually not looking forward to.

In summary, everything begins with a growth mindset. Really learning from those mistakes, learning from and becoming more resilient, always finding new ways and new approaches to learn.

Being open is the groundwork and the foundation for you to become a strategic person in terms of learning. What can you do more of? So again, focus on those values. If you already are halfway there, of five values, think about those five values that matter to you right now. Again, they’re dynamic. They can change, but it’s important for you to have that North Star.

And again, what is your strength? What are the things that you do in your day-to-day job that brings you joy and brings you flow? It might appear to be like the hardest thing ever, but for you, you just nail it. Again, we want you to focus more on your values and strengths. Create a vision statement out of it so that you have that end goal on where you want to be.

The second area is to think better. So again, through very simple goal setting, I introduced the GROW Model. There’s other goal setting models out there in terms of having a strategic mindset be able to think differently using those tools.

Angie Chang: Thank you, Minji. We have a lot of questions for you, actually.

Minji Wong: Okay. I’ll try my best.

Angie Chang: So we have a question here. What we’d love to hear more and learn about the StrengthsFinder, and is it free to test out for individuals?

Minji Wong: Yeah, there’s actually a lot out there in terms of for StrengthsFinders. There’s actually, if you buy the book, you can actually get the assessment from the book, but even if you do a quick Google search to even just type in “strengthsfinder assessment,” you can actually find something that’s pretty straightforward and helps you focus on strengths.

During my time at Facebook, there was an initial emphasis around StrengthsFinder and I think it moved out or moved forward towards standout. So that could be another area and aspect that we focus on as well. And I think even if it’s just having a simple conversation with yourself, with your peers, colleagues, or even with your team, it could be a really great opportunity for you to just target, you know, in my day-to-day, what brings me flow? What do I find joy in?

Strength is what you do well in. There’s an activity, again, it’s pretty simple and it’s something that you might be able to deploy right now, actually. It’s called love it, loathe it. And what I’ve done over one week is you keep this either at your bedside table, which is what I’ve done, or even at your desk, or if you have some collaboration doc, just add it, kind of break it down to a T chart. So you focus on the activities and things that you really enjoyed and loved and actually found flow in, and things that just like you really detested and just things that you’d rather not do. Write those behaviors down. You’d be surprised at how many behaviors probably fall in the loathe and how there are certain things that might become reoccurring themes and they loved it.

So if you’re an extrovert and you love being in front of people, and you love and find so much energy just around being able to influence other people, standing up in front of other people and just really being with people, well that might show a lot about you in terms of perhaps the field or a specific area of work that you do. On the other hand, if you don’t necessarily like being that analytical or that technical, or if you don’t like details, again, there are certain parts of your day that you might be able to hack in ways that that might benefit you.

Angie Chang: We have another question that asks for you to talk a little bit more about the strategies on how to take maternity leave and still advocate for a promotion.

Minji Wong: Wow. Where do we begin? I think this will take another half day. Well, do you have another half day? Do you have like another half year?

Angie Chang: Elisa is coming back from leave, right? As a promotion cycle, discussions are starting, so she wants to make sure she’s included.

Minji Wong: Yeah, so thank you for addressing that question and this is a big emphasis on what I’m doing in my current role with At Her Best. I think it actually starts with phase zero, so taking a step back. Phase zero is before you leave. Once you become pregnant, before you even announce things, what is your game plan? What can you do to set yourself up such that when you have that conversation with your manager and your team, it’s not going to be end all be all.

Specifically, when thinking about the work that you’re doing during phase zero, before you even have any conversation with people, what can you do? Take an overall inventory of the stuff that you’re doing. What can you do that you can probably wrap up over the course of the next few months? If this is something that is ongoing, which oftentimes is the case for many projects, who are the people that you work with right now that might be able to take on more responsibility or be able to help you during that time and during that leave?

It’s also inquiry in terms of, what is the culture and what are the current HR policies around maternity leave? There are big companies, so my husband works or he recently left Google, and he actually … At Google and that many big companies, there’s generous maternity and paternity leaves, but the reality is that may not necessarily be the case for smaller companies or even startups as well.

So the point that I’m trying to make is get a good idea of what the actual leave of absence might look like. What are the benefits and policies that are there? There are some companies that are really starting to listen to the importance of advocacy and the importance of returning back so that you can hit the ground running. They might actually offer you some transitional forms of working part time, or even being able to be paired with a coach, or being able to get additional supports and resources.

So that said, do all the housework phase zero. I think phase one is then when you do share the news, the exciting news, with your team, really expressing your commitment on what you’re doing and how that isn’t going to change in terms of how you actually get work done. I think the reality is when you do return, it’s super important for you to line up and think about all the important things that come with having, now, a party of three.

Before, it used to be you and your partner or even just as a single parent, you, but now there is another person. There’s the plus one. And the reality is that person’s going to need childcare. So unless you have a full time nanny or daycare or preschool, there’s going to be some implications around pickup and drop off.

Going back to the five P’s, it’s important for you to actually share your intent with other people because it’s a change curve and it takes time. So when you have a conversation with someone, it’s not going to happen overnight, which takes months, maybe even years, hopefully not. So knowing that, what can you do to get ahead of it?

Angie Chang: Great. I think we have time for maybe one more question.

Minji Wong: Okay.

Angie Chang: Can you offer some strategies for setting meaningful stretch goals? From Sarah Sherman. Sorry about that, folks. Technical difficulties. We have one more minute until the next speaker is due. So I will just … Yes, we have the recordings. We will have them for you after this day. They’ll be available at elevate.girlgeek.io, so you can go check them out. We will ask Minji these questions in a blog post and make sure they’re answered for you. Feel free to tweet questions to #ggxelevate and we will have Minji answer them as well. Thank you.

“3 Key Skills for Staying Relevant in the Tech Economy”: Sophia Perl with Oath (Video + Transcript)


Angie Chang: Hi everyone, welcome back. It’s Angie Chang here. We have, today, Sophia Perl, Director of Product Management at Oath. She will be talking to us about how to stay relevant in the tech economy.

Sophia Perl: Ah, thank you Angie. Hi everyone. I’m Sophia. I’m here to share with you top tips for staying relevant in the tech economy. Some of the topics that I’m going to cover are, the first one is where can you find inspiration for figuring out what you should learn more about? The next, I’ll share with you some of my tips of how I set up my home environment to really encourage, and commit myself to learning. Then lastly, I’ll share with you some stories where I’ve applied newly skilled, newly learned skills to side projects, and even at work. I just want to warn everyone too, my slides are full screen so I can’t see all the comments that are happening. But, Angie is here to help me, so she’ll let me know if there’s anything that you guys are talking about that I should know about.

All right, so a little bit about myself. I work at Oath. I previously have worked at Ebay and IBM, in a variety of engineering and product positions. I’ve worked in ads, marketplaces, identity, and databases. On my personal side of life, I am one half of a full-time working couple. I do have kids, and I am known for breaking or bruising parts of my body from snowboarding. No, they’re not from doing the half pipe. It’s really just trying to get to the bottom of the hill. All right, let’s get started.

How many of you have seen this Atari Breakout game? One of the things that I love about this game, is how similar it is to our industry, and to our roles and responsibilities. Imagine that you’re this paddle at the bottom of the screen going back and forth. The ball is a skillset, and the blocks are tests that you have at work. As you’re going about in your day, you’re knocking out these tasks with all these skillsets that you have in your toolbox.

Every once in a while, your skillset, you don’t have that skillset. And so, you find it more challenging to tackle these tasks. This is how I think about the tech industry especially. There’s so many things that are changing, and it’s hard for us to keep up. I know for me personally, I’m always trying to learn things. And, always not having the time to do and learn everything, it’s been quite a challenge.

That brings us to, we’re super busy people. This is pretty obvious. There was actually a study done by the US Bureau of Labor, who looked at how much time does a working professional spend on any given day? What you’ll see here is, for educational activities, we spend less than seven minutes a day. Then, if you take a look at leisure and sports which is just a couple rows down, we’re spending up to four hours on leisure and activities. I mean, I get it. We all need to relax, and work out. But, I think there is some focus that maybe we need to shift some of our time for educational activities.

Another related study, this is by the Pew Research Center: 63% of us consider ourselves life learners. I would like everyone, just mentally ask yourself, “What bucket of learners are you? Are you a life learner, or are you a non life learner?” As we look at articles, and additional studies, we know that we need skills for the future. One of those skills is life learning — being able to consume information continually, and sort of adapt with our changing environment. We also know that people who are life learners, do benefit in the workplace. They’re able to expand their professional network, advance within their current, in their organization.

Up until this point, we’ve established that our industry is continually changing, our roles and responsibilities are continually changing. We don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to learning, but we know that for the future, we need to be a life learner, and we know that life learners do benefit in the workplace. So now, what I want to do is share with you some of my tips on how to get us into life learning mode.

The first topic is, where do you look for to pick a focus for what you want to learn more about?

Now, this slide I would say is more of a baseline. I hope it’s nothing new for many of you, but it’s really understanding what’s going on in your industry, your company, the competitors, and even your role and responsibilities yourself. You could get a lot of this information from news blogs, and newsletters. But, most importantly, if you’re thinking about perfecting your craft, someone actually gave me this idea where they said, “Hey Sophia, if you really want to understand what it takes to be a great PM at different companies, or even at your own company. Start being an interviewer.” So, start thinking about sort of a forcing function. Think about what I would look for in a person in terms of their skillset, and how would I assess that this person possesses these skills? And, is it a good fit for the team that we’re hiring for, for Oath? Also, is it a good fit for the company?

If some of you are not doing interviews on behalf of your company, I highly recommend that you do that. Because, it does sort of forces you to think more about assessing yourself, and also assessing what is a great fit for the team, and the company that’s hiring. My personal favorite on where I could find inspiration on what I should be learning about, is really tapping into my professional, and my friends network. What I mean by this is, earlier we established that everyone is super busy. Why not have people do the heavy lifting for you?

Every once in a while I’ll reach out to my friends, or my professional network and I’ll ask them, “Hey, what are you currently learning? What do you think I should be learning?” It’s super relevant when you are reaching out to folks who work in the same industry that you’re in, or even the vertical. And, who are doing similar roles and responsibilities as you. I highly recommend reach out to your personal network, have them do the heavy lifting, and see what curated lists they already have. And, use that as another set of ideas.

Lastly, as all of us, I’m assuming all of us here are leaders, are really aspiring to be leaders. One of the things that I highly recommend, and has worked very well for me, is consider taking a self-assessment. What this helps you do is really understand that under the hood, why do you operate the way you do at work? Understanding your communication style, how you collaborate with others. About, I would say two, three weeks ago. I actually took the Insights Discovery Test. The way this test works is, it sort of identifies which colors you’re most comfortable operating in. You have cool, blue, red, yellow, and green. Usually people fall into two to three colors in terms of your colors that you’re most familiar with, the ones that you sort of leverage naturally.

What I liked about this is, it sort of informed me what colors that I fall into. But, it also talked about how I should be perceiving others, and what colors they may be, and how I would interact with them coming from a different color perspective. Again, we sort of went through looking at your industry and company, we looked at maybe even perfecting your craft specifically for your role and responsibilities. Then lastly, looking at so sort of soft skills. How do you like to operate? This is really relevant for people who want to move up in the leadership track.

All right, so the next set of tips that I have, is how do you set up your day to day life to help you commit to learn? Once you figure out what you want to learn about. Again, that’s a very personal choice, depends on what skillsets you have. When you figure that out, then it’s looking at, “Okay, how do I make the time in my day so that I’m continually learning?”

This diagram I ran into recently and I really like it — by the author Edgar Dale. What it talks about is, that there’s many different methods for learning. What he advocated is that, you want to leverage multiple methods so that you can show, learn the breadth and the depth of a particular topic.

If there’s one thing that you take away from my talk, this is the one thing I would want you to take away. I think we all have learning methods that really resonates well with us. Meaning, when we learn through a certain method, the content sticks a lot. If it’s something similar to what I go through, that’s usually reading a book, or taking a class. But, I would love everyone to open up your minds, and think about, look.

You could either wait for that perfect moment where you dedicate a lot of time, and maybe energy to do your preferred learning method. Or, you could actually maybe … I would say get your second or third best learning method.

I’ll show you that in the next slide. But, think about finding opportunities where the learning method meshes more well with your day to day life, instead of finding that perfect moment where you have to dedicate a lot of time to learn about something. That’s just something to keep in mind.

I’ll give you an example in the next slide. All of these apps I’ve used one point in my life. The one that actually sticks out the most is OverDrive, which is a free version of Audible. Audible is the monthly subscription that you get on Amazon. You pay $15 a month for access to a bunch of audio books. OverDrive is actually connected to your local library. If you don’t have a library card already, I encourage all of you to go get a local library card. Then, hook it up to OverDrive. What OverDrive allows you to do, is to download eBooks, or download audio books for free.

I did a side-by-side comparison between what I could find in my library, and what I could find at Audible. I found about 70% to 80% of the books that I was personally interested in, I could find for free on OverDrive.

Consider leveraging apps to help make it easier to consume information.

All right, so on this slide, in conjunction with leveraging apps you want to think about what devices you want to be using, and for when you would use those devices. This is a … Angie, this is one of the times I’m going to ask people questions here. She’ll sort of summarize.

For me, on the left hand side, this is my setup. In the morning, I would love people to guess, where do you think this is, like what room in my house? Bonus points if you could tell me specifically in what area in the room do you think this setup is? In the morning, I have an Echo Dot, I have two waterproof speakers, and I have an iPhone holder.

Angie Chang: In the shower? Someone said the kitchen.

Sophia Perl: Yes. Kitchen is actually a good one. I do have an Echo in the kitchen, but yes. This is in the shower. I don’t do this all the time, but I have been known to watch YouTube videos of people lecturing, or different workshops. I have it pressed up to my screen, or to the glass of my shower door. Then, I listen to the talks while I’m in the shower.

If you think about it, what times do you have where you could actually listen to content? For me in the shower, I’m spending 15, 20 minutes in the shower. Then, you could read the rest driving, and in the evenings.

In the evenings, it’s great for me because I’m actually not multitasking as much. But, after I’ve put my kids to bed, and later in the evenings, that’s when I find time to meet with people who are more flexible in terms of meeting late evenings. I have my laptop and phone so I usually do Hangouts, and so forth.

If you are considering leveraging devices, which I highly encourage, think about leveraging IOT devices, because you’re sort of killing two birds with one stone. You’re using it to consume information, but then you’re also leveraging it to be an early adopter of an IOT technology, like tech gadgets.

All right, so the last section is, just do it. I want to give you some examples of how I’ve taken what I’ve learned recently, and apply it to side projects, and at work. Here is my first example. When I first coded my first IOS app, I was PM at the time. I had attended two Hackathons. Made some friends along the way who ended up being my mentors , and I also got a bunch of books, and a Macbook to code apps.

My first app that I coded is, I called it, “Eventabulous.” I still have the domain name, so that’s super. Eventabulous.com. It doesn’t do anything but show this app. What it does is, I was really into events, and I loved networking. I thought, “Why not put that passion and apply it to something that I’m also trying to learn about?” — which is developing apps. What it does is, based on your current location it will tell you events that are located near you, within 20 to 30 miles. It will show you nearby Tweets. I was thinking, “Hey look, if I can monitor the tweets near the location, maybe it tells me if it’s a good or bad event.” Then lastly, you get directions to event. I was leveraging, at the time it was Yahoo Upcoming Events API. I was leveraging the Twitter API, and I was leveraging the Google Maps API.

The second app that I ended up coding, was actually had got better adoption. It was surprisingly, it’s called Pic Predict. It was a picture fortune telling app. Every week I actually consistently got 20 to 40 downloads. I completed the app during my maternity leave, so I was towards the end, when I was getting a little bit more sleep. Fun fact, this app used to be called, “Magic Create Ball.” I was trying to spin on sort of a flexible Magic 8 Ball. If any of you know the Mattel Magic 8 Ball where you shake, and it sort of says your fortune. I did have that name, and then iTunes rejected it because of trademark, so I had to change it to Pic Predict.

Yeah, I made two apps. Really it was for fun, but I really, I would say the lessons learned from going through this process is, I wanted to build something from idea, to market. I did everything on my own. I came up with the graphics, and I coded everything. It was a great experience. I would say it was my first foray in mobile apps in general.

I want to share another example, and this one is more relevant to work. It’s a small example, and it’s more just to show you that it doesn’t have to be a big project, or big thing that you have to apply this new skill too. You just need to find small ways where you’re incorporating things that you’re learning outside of work. This one in particular, I really wanted to hone in on my brainstorming skills. I was asking around on a Women In Product Slack group like, “What are some of the ideas, or what should I be referencing?”

Someone recommended this Sprint Book, which is the Google Design Sprint. Basically, it talks about a five day process where you go from idea to proto-test, and prototype, and putting it in front of a customer at the end of the week. I read more about it, and I actually had friends who had taught workshops on this. It was great that I had friends that were teaching people, and had also applied it at work. I ended up using it to generate ideas for a product roadmap. The results of that, I actually, a lot of the ideas that came out of it, ended up on my roadmap. I also had people who had never done it before, who told me they really enjoyed the process. I ended up being a doer and a teacher for this project, so that was pretty cool.

All right, so before … Actually, one more thing I want to put before I go to this slide is, as you think about the trends, and the technologies that you’re learning outside of work.

One of the things that I also try to do, is think about how does that technology apply to work? And, maybe it doesn’t apply initially to work, maybe it’s more thinking big box, unlike how would you use the technology?

To give you an example, I work in ads. How would self-driving cars be applied to ads? Is it ads showing up on the speaker, ads on the outside of the car? I mean, it really gets your juices going, and it gives you really a broader perspective on what you could bring to the table when you’re talking with your colleagues, when you’re brainstorming ideas.

I would also recommend thinking about pulling apart the technology. I’ll just stick with self-driving cars. It has sensors, different cameras. How can the image recognition be applied to something that you’re doing at work? It may not necessarily be self-driving cars in its entirety, but maybe it’s parts of it that could be applied. That’s another tip to keep in mind.

All right, so let’s go to this slide. You could benefit from showing off your newly learned skills. As I sort of explained a little bit earlier, you solidify your learning by doing, and also by teaching. Eventually, that makes you a subject matter expert in the area. Think about that, about how you could bring your outside skills, and use that at work. Then, become more relevant as your team is looking to build skills in certain areas. Maybe you actually lead that initiative at work.

Then lastly, I know from personal experience that I have gotten notice by hiring managers. As I talked about those two apps that I had worked on, that was during the time that I was at IBM working on very large scale enterprise software. The apps showed another side of me that other companies weren’t considering. Which is, “Hey look, she could build consumer apps, she understands the consumer side of the house.” That’s something to keep in mind as well.

All right, wrap up. We went over how to pick a focus, how you could commit to learn, and how you could just do it. Applying what you just learned to the workplace, and maybe even side projects. That’s it.

Angie Chang: Okay Sophia, I think we are out of time. That was a fantastic presentation, got a lot of great feedback in the chat here. If you would like to answer questions you can answer them on Twitter, and hashtag them GGXElevate, and people will retweet them, and people can get your answers. We have to move on now to our next speaker, so thank you so much for coming and joining us for this fantastic presentation.

Sophia Perl: Yeah, thank you. Thank you for having me.

Angie Chang: All right.

Sophia Perl: Super.

You can find Sophia Perl’s Girl Geek X Elevate presentation slides here

“The Customer Is Not Always Right”: Cindy Alvarez with Lean Customer Development (Video + Transcript)

Cindy Alvarez / Director, UX / Microsoft


Cindy Alvarez: I’m Cindy Alvarez, and right now I’m on a flight heading back from Johannesburg, so you get a pre-recorded talk from me. I’m going to talk today about why the customer is not always right. First of all, I want to start off by saying where did this thing even come from? Where did we start with the phrase, “The customer’s always right?” What does that mean? Why is that important to us?

It primarily comes down to the fact that we want our customers to come back and buy more things from us. We want them to like us, and that makes me realize that customers are not just external people who buy our products, they’re also people that we work with every day. There’s a lot of things you can do to make those relationships better, whether they’re talking to customers who are external to you, or the people who are next to you every day. Let’s dive right in.

First of all, let’s think about what’s our desired outcome. I think when we say things like this, we tend to think of things like units sold, or increasing usage, but fundamentally, we want to understand the underlying problems that customers have — whether that’s the one buying our product, or our coworkers because understanding is the only way we can hope to solve their problems.

We really, let’s be honest, want our customers to like us, we want our coworkers to like us, and we want to find the best possible solution for the problems that we’re facing.

That best possible solution isn’t always obvious. What do we do with that?

Most of us have been through the scenario where a customer came to us, they asked for something, we built it, we delivered it, and then it didn’t actually solve their problem. We’ve wasted time on something, and we have to support something that didn’t really meet their needs.

When people ask for solutions, they’re asking for their assumption of what the solution to their problem is. A lot of times, they haven’t really thought about the problem they’re really trying to solve, and honestly that’s not their job.

It’s our job as product people to think about how we’re going to come up with solutions.

For example, let’s say we had a customer who came to us and said, “I need to rent a car.” Now, on the face of it the best possible customer service would be to rush right out, and get that person into a car rental agency, and put them in a car as quickly as possible.

If we’re bound by things like SLA metrics and we have to respond to customers within a certain number of hours, or we have to respond to every single user voice, or every single email query, then we tend to game-ify ourselves into these non-optimal solutions.

Let’s think about why that person asked for a car. It could be that they’re about to go shopping, they don’t own a car, they’re going to buy a lot of groceries, and they don’t want to take them home on the bus. It could be that they’re having a vacation, and they want to drive along PCH and take in the scenery. It could be that they have a lot of relatives in town, and they won’t all fit into their tiny Prius.

For each of those scenarios, there are different solutions that may make more sense.

In one case, it may make more sense for someone to grab a Lyft, in some cases maybe you need to actually rent a van, and in some cases maybe you can borrow a car from a friend. If you’re actually out on a vacation and you want to take that drive along the coast, then sure, you do need to rent a car… but in that situation, you probably want to rent a fun to drive car. You don’t want to rent a beater or an SUV.

If we just rush someone straight to the car rental agency, we’d end up with that subpar solution.

As customer-oriented product people, we have to take a step back and ask “why?”

This is something that we also need to do internally, and I find this happens even less often internally because we assume that we understand the why’s.

As soon as we’re working in an office with someone, in a team with someone, we assume a shared context that doesn’t usually exist. There are people that I have literally sat across from for weeks on end, and yet we’ll still have underlying assumptions that are different from each other.

The “why” is always more interesting, it’s more useful, it’s more actionable, and it’s more trust building than the “what.”

That last one’s a little bit interesting because people think that asking “why?” sounds almost a little accusatory. If you have a small child, you know it can actually get pretty annoying when people keep asking why.

We need to add a little padding around it, but fundamentally when people ask why, what they’re actually saying is, “I want to know more about this. I am interested in you, I care about what you have to say.” As opposed to what, which has this whiff of, “how quickly can I get you out of my hair?” That’s not how we want to build these relationships.

Let’s think about it: someone comes to you, they have a request. It could be the customer who says, “I need to rent a car,” or, “You need to build this feature,” “You need to support this use case.” It could be your boss who has given you a task, “You need to do this thing. You need to manually sort through this data. You need to write this spec.”

The first question we really have is: “What’s the problem you’re trying to solve?” That can be pretty tricky to ask because if your boss says, “Do this,” and you ask, “Well, what’s the problem you’re trying to solve?” your boss might just say, you know, “Get on it. Let’s do it.”

Again, we need some padding, and so we want to say, “Okay, just to make sure I understand it seems like the outcome you’re looking for is X, is that correct?”

If your boss says, “Manually sort this data,” what they probably want is clean data. If someone says, “Get me a drill, “ they probably want quarter inch holes, but you need to validate that.

The best way to do it is give that, “Just to be sure I’m clear, this is the outcome you’re looking for, is that correct? Am I missing anything?”

This gives people the opportunity to step in and say, “Actually, this is the thing I needed,” or, “Actually, here’s some more information that I assumed that you knew, but you probably didn’t.” Or, “I’m sure I’ve told you this a billion times.”

Having been someone who’s managed teams, I have always had things that I’m pretty sure I said a billion times, and yet either I didn’t, or people didn’t hear me. It doesn’t really matter because the outcome was the same, and they weren’t privy to that information, and that meant they weren’t going to do as good a job as if they had the information they needed.

We want to ask why. Why do you need that done? What’s the outcome you’re hoping for?

A lot of us, when we’re interacting with customers, what we hear is basically a demand for features, and it’s hard to ask why because what they really want to get to is when. When are you going to build this thing?

It’s useful to take that step back. I like to announce it as such, and say, “You know what? Let’s talk about delivery deadlines sometime in the future, in a few minutes, right? But just a second. I want to be sure I understand something. It sounds like you’re asking for this feature. Just to be sure I understand, if we had already built it, what would it allow you to do? Essentially, how would it make your life better if you had this thing?”

The thing that I found surprising is that when you ask people some polite version of “how would it make your life better?” a lot of times you get a non-answer.

You’ll get an answer like, “Well, it would just be nice to have.”

We don’t have time for building things that are nice to have.

How would it make your life better? What would it allow you to do? When someone really needs something, they’ll have a story for you.

“Uh, you know, it would take me half the time to sort my data. Oh, I wouldn’t have to waste head count on this position. We could start coding tomorrow.” When people have a story, that’s something worth doing.

When a customer comes to you and you say, “What would it allow you to,” sometimes you get the non-answer of, “But your competitor has it.” That’s actually just pushing the can down the road a bit, and what you say to that is to say, “Okay, I understand. You’re right, our competitor does have that feature. I’m curious if you were using that feature with Google, Facebook, et cetera, what would it allow you to do?”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve had customers who say, “Well, it would just be nice to have.”

If the reason that you’re going to lose a feature sale is because of a checkbox feature that someone’s not even going to use if they go to your competitor, that’s not something we should be trying to win on.

You may lose a sale in the short-term, but you’re going to have someone who isn’t really having their needs met, and they’re ripe to be plucked back in a year or two.

We ask, “How would it make your life better?” Maybe we hear that it really wouldn’t, and then we proceed.

Sometimes you’ll hear a variation like, “It might be useful in the future,” and, again, kicking the can down the road a little bit, and you got to ask one more question which is, “Okay, I’m curious how do you see your organization changing in the future?”


“Well, you said it might be useful in the future. I’m curious how are things going to change such that this might be useful in the future?”

You want to be very polite and smiley, you’re very nice about this, but the point is if you don’t know how the future’s going to change, and I don’t mean the next five years because no one knows that. I mean the next six months.

If someone can’t give you an answer, then it’s not a real need.

It’s a wish, or maybe it’s leverage to try and get a deal. Or maybe it’s just someone who’s trying to look smart in a meeting, and I think we all know the people who are in meetings trying to look smart, being loud, man-splaining you, et cetera. “How will it make your life better? What do you anticipate changing in the future?”

The other thing is that when we jump in trying to understand problems, or provide solutions, a lot of times it’s useful to know what people are already doing, and how they feel about it. That sounds so incredibly simple as to be obvious and dumb, and yet I have been surprised by the number of times I’m in meetings where we really don’t know. Sometimes it’s, “Hey, could you take a step back? I’m just curious, could you walk me through what you’re doing today? I mean, I know high level, but I’d love to see the details.”

When someone walks through a process for something, you might see exactly where their pain point is. Maybe they asked for this feature that’s a widget, but you can see that actually they’re having a hard time with this other area, and the widget might be one solution, but as a product person you can see it’s actually a poor solution. Or it’s something that will be applicable to this customer and no others.

In a meeting, a lot of times, where there’s a debate between people who think that one side’s doing it right, and the other side’s doing it wrong, a lot of times that comes down to an assumption about what each side is actually trying to do.

“Could you walk me through what you’re trying to do,” is a good way to defuse that, and let people say, “Look, this is just what I want,” because that’s, at the end of the day, what we’re trying to do.

We’re trying to help people get what they want done.

If we do that, we will seem amazingly smart, and helpful, and kind, and everything else. It’s a really good hack.

“Could you walk me through what we’re doing today?”

This is also really great advice when you get put into a new role. Let’s say you got promoted to manager. Congratulations! You can’t just step in, of course, and say, “This is how we do things now.” You can try, but you’re going to get a mutiny.

If you join a new company, a new role, people have established practices. Some of them are good, some of them are bad, and if you don’t know the history of why people are doing one of them, you don’t have a lot of position to say, “Let’s do things differently.”

If you can go into a new organization, or a new customer, and say, “You know, walk me through what you’re doing today. Okay, that’s interesting. Okay, you know, how did that happen in the past? Do you have a sense for how that decision was made ? How’s that going? You know, if you could change anything about it what would it be?” This kind of conversational approach gets people to trust you, and it gets you a lot more insights than you would ordinarily have.

Now, I’ll note one thing here, is that taking that step back and asking supposedly “dumb” questions can be particularly tough if you’re a woman, and if you’re in a meeting where you think people are just a little too quick to think that you are asking dumb questions. This is where it’s useful to borrow a new person. This might genuinely be someone who’s new on your team, or you could literally just grab one of your coworkers and ask them to come into a meeting, this doesn’t work internally but it works well with customers, “Come into this meeting pretend to be the new guy, new gal.”

The new person has a lot more freedom to say, “Hey, I bet everyone in the room already knows this,” — hint: they don’t — “But could you walk me through what you’re doing today?”

You will get a ton of insight out of that, and the customer won’t actually mind getting to repeat history, and probably halfway through their diatribe they’ll be like, “You know what? We didn’t even tell you that our entire back end system changed in the last year, did we? (haha).” Yeah, that’s probably something that you should’ve known.

“What are you doing today? How is that going?”

Once they’ve finished talking about that, then you’re going to reiterate. This is active listening. This is the thing that makes you feel a little bit like a kindergarten teacher, but trust me, it works. I wouldn’t tell you this if it didn’t.

“It sounds like you need to do X, and Y, and Z. It sounds to me, like you’d be happier if magically these things were fixed. Is that accurate? Am I missing something?”

Give them that option to correct you, or to add things.

Now, there’s a magic thing that happens once you’ve reiterated back, which is that you have absorbed like 80% to 90% of people’s anger at this point, even if you don’t actually solve their problem. They’re amazingly happier that you took the time to understand it in the first place. There are studies to back this up. Stanford has been doing some research with doctors and malpractice, and they found with a control and experiment group, that surgeons who made a mistake, and apologized were much more likely to not have suits brought against them, or if there were, they settled for much less money. Essentially, if someone sewed a sponge in you by mistake… you really want to hear that person say sorry. If they don’t, you’re going to take them to court for all they’re worth, so we can do that.

That leads to my next point, which is — apologies are free.

Any woman who’s ever worked for me knows that I always tell them, don’t apologize. For your ideas, don’t apologize. Don’t say I’m sorry about this idea, or I’m sorry that I want to do something a new way.

But when it comes to a customer who is feeling wronged, who is feeling like, I’m already upset, go ahead and apologize because that de-fangs even the angriest customer.

If someone comes in and they’re furious, “I can’t believe that you’ve lost my data. I’m going to quit your account right now, this is ridiculous,” and you say, “I’m really sorry. We did that, we lost your data. That’s really awful, and I don’t want that to ever happen again. Let’s see what we can do about it.” Those are magic words.

It’s very hard for someone to hear something that is humble and accepting of responsibility, and keep yelling at you. They trail off, “Well, you better see what you can do.”

Give them out, apologies are free.

It doesn’t matter if it’s not your fault, if someone lost their data through something that was user error, it doesn’t matter. You’re not going to talk them into that. Telling people that’s the way the feature was designed has never made anyone happy ever, so apologize. You can do that.

Apologies are free. They’re also rare, especially good ones.

Follow-ups are also rare.

Even if you didn’t provide the answer someone wants, just the fact that you reach back out to a customer, or a coworker a couple weeks later to give them an update, “Hey, I looked into that solution. It turns out we’re not going to be able to address it. I’m really sorry, I just wanted to let you know,” people are amazingly happy about that because they never hear it.

The traditional vendor/buyer relationship is, “We’ll put it on the roadmap,” and then it’s on the roadmap, and it’s on the roadmap, and they never actually get the feature.

Internally, when people have suggestions, “Oh, we’ll consider it. Oh, put it in the suggestion box,” and there’s never any closure.

That’s the final thing I have to talk about: people like closure.

As humans, closure makes us feel satisfied. We like to know that something is going to happen even if it’s not the thing that we expect.

Customers and teammates don’t have to agree with your decisions, but they need to know why you made them. They don’t even need to understand why. It’s just that they need to know that you didn’t have malicious, or stupid reasons for making your choice.

“Based on these reasons, I am making the decision to do X.”

Someone may disagree, but they’ll grumble, “Well, I guess I understand why you’re doing it. I still don’t agree with you, though.”

That’s okay, customers in that scenario are going to be a lot happier.

In this case, someone’s come to us, they’ve demanded a feature, we basically talked them out of it, we’ve explained why, and yet they’re still not furious at the end. In fact, a lot of these customers end up being incredibly loyal because even though they’re not getting what they want, they know that you understand what they need. This works both internally and externally, and it’s been tremendously useful in my career.

The bar is really low for honest communication, and for digging in to find out what the underlying problem is.

We can do better, and it’s an amazing hack that most of the people around us don’t know about, so we should take advantage.

The customer is not always right, to be honest, no one is always right, but you can, and should control your own narrative. That means taking in what you’re hearing, and reflecting on it, and asking questions, and redirecting it to something that is more positive, and something that you can control.

I’m sorry am not able to take questions live, but I really do answer them.

I’m @cindyalvarez on Twitter or cindy@cindyalvarez.com. If you have questions, feel free to shoot them over to me. And that’s my last piece of advice: when people say it’s okay to ask questions, they mean it — take advantage. Enjoy the rest of your conference everyone!

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the bad:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some examples of poor interview feedback:

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

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

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

As you can see, there’s quite a bit of imposter syndrome. In fact, we found that imposter syndrome plagues a disproportionate number of our users. So, what is imposter syndrome? It means that you think you did poorly when you did well. Now, here is the crazy part. If a candidate did well and they think they did poorly and you don’t give them immediate actionable feedback and let’s say you let them sit on it for days, they’re going to get into this whole self-flagellation gauntlet.

They’re going to leave that interview and then they’re going to start thinking one of two things: either they’re going to think, “Man, that company didn’t interview me well. I’m good at what I do, and I don’t think that company knew how to get it out of me, so they suck.” Even worse, what’s going to happen is you’re going to think, “Oh, I’m a piece of shit. Now, they know I’m a piece of shit, and I totally didn’t want to work there anyway.”

What ends up happening is unless you tell people they did well, immediately after they did well, you end up losing a lot of good candidates because, by the time you get back to them, they’ve completely talked themselves out of working for you.

So, don’t let this happen. Don’t let them gaze into the abyss, and give people actionable feedback as soon as possible.

Actually, I saw one of the comments. I want to leave a few moments for questions, but one of the comments on the side was “imposter syndrome is a women’s curse.” We ran some data on our platform to see if imposter syndrome is more prevalent in women or whether it’s distributed across both genders. As it turns out, both men and women are equally plagued by imposter syndrome.

The other interesting thing that we learned, and we haven’t written about this yet but we will, is that the better you are at interviewing, the more prone to imposter syndrome you are, and the worse you are, there’s the opposite called the Dunning–Kruger effect where you think you did well when you, in fact, did poorly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aline Lerner: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gretchen DeKnikker: Thank you.

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

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


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

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

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

Angie Chang: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cathy Polinsky: Good morning, everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rija Javed: Nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other thing is I try to encourage them. I take a philosophy of communication that is kind, direct, and prompt. Because I think, particularly in the open source world, you have a place where people can be kind of jerks, right? They’ll say, “Oh, my god, this code is terrible.” And sometimes you need to communicate that, but you don’t need to communicate it in that way. Also, you can go too far and be nice and not say anything, and that’s not helpful. What you have to do is be kind by telling them, by sharing that with them. Be direct. Say what you mean. And be prompt. Don’t think something and not get around to telling someone until it’s too late for them to do anything about it. That’s my philosophy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rija Javed: Yeah, exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura Thomson: Yep.

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

Laura Thomson: That’s a good one.

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

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

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

Vidya Setlur: Yes.

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

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

Rija Javed: Yeah.

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

Laura Thomson: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura Thomson: That’s amazing.

Rija Javed: Thank you.

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

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

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

Rija Javed: Nice.

Laura Thomson: It was fun.

Rija Javed: Yeah.

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

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

Laura Thomson: Yeah, go on.

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

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

Laura Thomson: Yep. Great.

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

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

Laura Thomson: That’s great.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rija Javed: Yeah.

Laura Thomson: The next two-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vidya Setlur: I actually actively code.

Laura Thomson: Yeah, that’s fine.

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

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

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

Rija Javed: I didn’t find it useful.

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

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

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

Laura Thomson: They were great questions, yeah.

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

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

Miriam Aguirre: Thank you.

Rija Javed: Yeah. Bye.