Sukrutha Bhadouria: We will move on to our next talk. Our next talk is going to be given by Ashley. Ashley leads OpenAI’s developer ecosystem and creative application strategy, where she helps accelerate developers and startups build new applications with positive impact. She has also helped lead the launches of OpenAI’s research and commercial products, including Usenet, Jukebox, Rubik’s Cube, Multi-Agent, Image GBT, GPTC API, CLIP and so, oh my goodness. That was a lot. Welcome, Ashley.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: Excellent. Thank you so much for having me. Let me go ahead and share my screen. All right. Excellent. Let me bump this over here.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: Okay, great. Well, thank you everybody for joining this session. I am very excited to walk you through prompt design and engineering with GPT-3. As mentioned, my name’s Ashley and I’m the technical director at OpenAI. So, just a quick introduction here. If you haven’t heard of OpenAI before. So, we are an AI research and deployment company with the mission to ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all of humanity.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: And what’s unique about us, is we’re actually made up of three distinct pillars focused on engineering startup, research lab, and safety and policy group. And so, a little bit of background here in the lead up to GPT-3. So, nine months ago, we launched our very first commercial product, which was the OpenAI API.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: And this has really become our core platform for accessing our latest AI models. And unlike most AI systems that maybe you’ve interacted with before that are typically designed for one use case, our API actually provides a general purpose text in, text out interface, which I’ll walk you through in a live demo in just a bit.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: And so, this enables our users to try it on virtually any English language task. Since launching, we’ve already seen 200 production-ready applications built using the variety of capabilities that GPT-3 offers. And so, what we’ve seen is actually this incredibly new ecosystem of applications. Spanning things from legal to HR, game development, customer support, productivity, science and education, and both new companies being developed and startups as well as other companies integrating the API. So, a little bit about GPT-3. So, this model doesn’t have a goal or objective other than predicting the next word.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: And so, the key thing to take away here, and this is going to be key as we begin to dive into this prompt design, is it is not programmed to do any specific task. So, this single API can perform as a chat bot. It can perform as a classifier. It could do summarization because at its root level, it’s able to understand what those tasks look like purely from a text perspective. So, really the best way to really… If there’s one thing to take away about GPT-3, it is really just trying to predict the very next word based on all of the previous text it’s seen beforehand.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So, prompt design and engineering. What do you need to take away here? So, if you have ever played the game charades, this is actually a really great exercise for figuring out how to program with GPT-3. Because what essentially you’re trying to do, again, if it’s just trying to predict the kind of task that you’d like it to perform, you basically want to provide enough context, but not have to give all the information at once. And so, you want to be able to just provide some guidelines about what you’d like GPT-3 to do.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So, for example, if you want to do classification, want to be able to provide some information about what you’d like done and then maybe a couple of examples. And then try to even provide some counterexamples as well. And so, I’ll show that in just a second. Before we dive in, I just want to highlight some of the settings that are going to come up. There are things called Temperature and Top P. These again, back to thinking about prediction. So, these are not necessarily creativity dials, but they’ll control randomness.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: Another thing we offer is “Best of.” And so, again, GPT-3 in the API is trying to think, “Okay, what is the best response here?” And so, what is the highest average value of the tokens being generated. Frequency, we also… Basically it’s saying, “Okay, we don’t want to repeat what’s already being generated.” And then the Presence setting is also trying to figure out, “Okay, do we want to change topics here and being able to move forward from that?”
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So, we can come back to that, but I’m going to go ahead and move over into… This is the OpenAI beta site. And so, let’s just move this down here. So, this is the Playground setting. So, here on the right hand side, you’re going to see all of these settings that I was just talking about. So, for example, you can determine what the response links will be and to generate with. As I mentioned, this is the Temperature setting. So, we have it currently set to 0.7. So, that’s a pretty standard setting. We also have the Frequency Penalty, the Presence Penalty, and Best of, which I had mentioned. We won’t dive into these just quite yet.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So, what we have here is what’s known as a prompt library. And what we’ve done is, actually with our developer community, figured out what are some of the best prompts that people are able to get really good results on and what are those settings?
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So, for example, let’s say we want to summarize for a second grader. If you’ve ever received an NDA or any type of legal documents. Actually I, myself, am not a lawyer. And so, many times if I’m reading a legal document, I really don’t know what the essence of that document is really saying. So, actually this prompt, Summarize for a 2nd grader, is really helpful because essentially it is transforming more dense text and simplifying that into maybe how you would explain that to a second grader.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So, the prompt here. This is actually talking about Jupiter. So, it’s saying that it’s the fifth planet from the sun, the Roman God it’s named after, et cetera. So, again, as I was talking about before, you’re providing the example, so you’re already telling GPT-3 here, “My second grader asked me what this passage means.” You’re already putting that context of putting it into something that a second grader understand, then you’re separating it here. And then you’re actually putting a content that you would like summarized. And then you’re telling GPT-3, okay, you’d like it to be rephrased in plain language a second grader can understand. Here, it will also tell you, “What are some of the ideal settings for a prompt like this.” So, let’s go to Playground.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: And just a second, there we go. So, then all the settings, everything pops up in my Playground setting. And so, here the prompt is, and let me bump this up and let me hit submit. So, “Jupiter is a big ball of gas. It’s the fifth planet from the sun. It’s bright. You can see it in the sky at night. It’s named after the Roman God, Jupiter.” That’s pretty good. It pulled out kind of all the main pieces that we’d want from the prompt and the original text.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: Now, the cool thing here is, too, let’s say you don’t want to use Jupiter… Or figure out more about the solar system, but let’s say you did want a section of a legal document. What you could do is you can just edit these prompts right in your Playground. So, you could delete this and go ahead and delete this as well. And then you could go ahead and copy and paste your own text in there as well, because you’re still retaining those key guidelines. Again, imagine if this is a game of charades or even if you’re working with a coworker and you’re trying to give a set of instructions. So, the key instructions here are asking the second grader–saying, “My second grader asked me what the passage means,” and you want it rephrased. But you can always insert different types of content here.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So, let’s do another example. So let’s go back to the prompt library. So, a very cool thing we also understand. Remember how I said GPT-3 is focused on text. However, it is able to transform text into emojis. Which actually, thanks to one of our developers who discovered this, we were actually not aware of this capability beforehand. So, if you want to convert a movie title into emoji, you could give some examples. So, Back to the Future might be, you know, boy, man, a car, and a clock. Batman might be a man and a bat. Game of Thrones will be some arrows and some swords. And again, you’ll have the settings on here to get you started.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So, we can open this up again in Playground. And so, let’s see what we’ll come back for Spider-Man. So, it’s got some spiders, some webs, and that’s pretty good. Let’s see if… What it might come back with if we try it again. All right. So, it looks like it’ll repeat itself on that one. But also, you can begin to combine some of these as well.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So, you can imagine using chat. So, obviously chat bots are a really popular application. And as I mentioned before, you can think about in customer support scenarios, you can think of in all different types of applications.
Ashley Pilipiszyn:Many of us have already interacted with chat bots before. So, let’s say you want to customize your chat bot. So, the base prompt here is, “This is a following conversation with an AI assistant. The assistant is very helpful, creative, clever, and very friendly.” And so, we’ll begin this dialogue. So saying, “Hello, who are you? I’m an AI created by OpenAI. How can I help you today?” Let’s say, “What movie do you recommend I watch this week?” And we’ll set AI. And submit, oops. My apologies.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: Looking at works of Christopher Nolan. Interstellar, Inception, The Prestige. That is actually a little bit freaky. Christopher Nolan is one of my favorite directors and I love, actually, all three of those movies. So, very spot on actually. But you can begin to actually customize these even more. So for example, let’s say, “The assistant is very creative, clever, very friendly, and an expert on sci-fi.” So, let’s say, “Which books should I add to my reading list?” The Left Hand of Darkness. The Gate to Women’s Country, The Ship Who Sang. Interesting.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So anyways, you can begin to play around and begin to add that additional context. So, for example, we’ve seen people say, “Okay, this AI chat bot is a science teacher or a bookstore clerk,” and you can begin to actually create these various personas to kind of probe GPT-3, or nudge GPT-3 into the direction, or have that context that you would like it to have. So, let’s do one more.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So, I mentioned earlier before, Classification. So, you can imagine this being a really useful example. Whether you think of product classification, here is an example of a list of companies and the various categories that they’ll fall into. So, if we open this up in Playground.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So, again, we’re telling GPT-3, “Okay, Facebook. You want the tags, social media, technology.” LinkedIn will also have that, but maybe enterprise and careers. McDonald’s, you’ve got food, fast food, logistics. And so, this is an opportunity also to create different types of tags. So, let’s see. Logistics transportation. Let’s add… What’s another one. See what comes back for TikTok, social media entertainment. So, that’s pretty good.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: But you can imagine again, applying this to a variety of different products. So, let’s say you’re building a different kind of app for different types of clothing or different types of foods. These kinds of things. And so, you can begin to actually add all of these different capabilities together. So, let’s say for example, the chat bot from the previous example also was able to then help you classify the different products you had in your application.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: And so, as I had shown before for the different startups we’ve seen, et cetera, all the different applications you’re seeing with GPT-3, all boil down to these prompts. And so, your ability to actually help GPT-3 understand, “Okay, what is the end result that you’re trying to get GPT-3 to do,” is really where a lot of interesting things can happen. And so, some of the best applications we’ve seen have been ones where you actually combine these capabilities. So, not just doing a single classification or a single chat bot, but actually being able to integrate those because that’s where GPT strengths lie. As I said before, GPT-3 can do a lot of different things. It’s not programmed to do one or the other, but it actually is very good at, essentially, multitasking.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So, with that, I wanted to… I’m not sure if any questions have come through, but I wanted to leave a time for just a few questions. But I know this was a very, very rapid fire, deep dive into prompt design and engineering. If A), you have any questions, please feel free to email me. If you are interested in getting access to GPT-3 or building an app or product with GPT-3, again, please email me. I’d be delighted to discuss and very excited to have more people join our developer ecosystem and build with GPT-3. So, thank you so much. And I’d be happy to take any questions with the remaining time.
Angie Chang: There’s some questions in the chat. Most of them were like, “How do we get access to GPT-3?”
Ashley Pilipiszyn: Okay.
Angie Chang: You just answered that question, but if you would like to look in the chat, there’s a question about how OpenAI overcame bias about, for example, food suggestions, American versus Western food, or summarizing New York Times, Wall Street Journal, short article or headline. Let’s see if you can answer in three minutes.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: Okay, awesome. So, and I can not see the exact question, but I think… So, on the question of bias. So, excellent question. It is a, first of all, a very big industry-wide issue at OpenAI, especially we’re really focused on addressing this. Especially with our safety and policy work.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: Actually, I highly recommend checking out if you haven’t last week, we released a new research release about multimodal neurons in our latest clip model, which is our most powerful vision model.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: And the reason I bring this up is because, this is kind of demystifying what’s happening underneath the hood with these AI models. Because obviously, these models are trained on all of the internet. And so, they’re basically integrating what they’re learning from us on the internet. And so, what this multimodal analysis allows us to do, is actually peek under the hood and understand, “Okay, so how are these associations being made?”
Ashley Pilipiszyn: And this allows us to figure out, “Okay, then how can we begin to address these,” by identifying where these associations are happening. And so, this is really borrowing a lot from neuroscience. So, but to address bias in the case of prompt design and engineering.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: There is an opportunity actually to address some of this in text form as well. And so, whether it’s modifying your prompts. So, I think the example was for like foods or recipes, being able to provide a little bit more context to be able to help nudge where you’d like GPT-3 to go. And this actually will help with giving examples as well.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: So, actually one quick example that might help address this is… Question/answer. So quickly, what you can do in a situation like this is you also can provide, for example, a question that’s rooted in truth. I would get the answer. If you ask me a question that’s nonsense, or it doesn’t have a clear answer, I’ll respond with unknown. And so, you can also provide facts or essentially give those examples of how you’d like GPT-3 to respond. So, that’s another way again, is through that prompt as well.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: And then the second question… Angie, I forget what was the second question on?
Angie Chang: It was on headlines, for summarizing media company headlines.
Ashley Pilipiszyn: Oh yes, yes. So, summarization, I guess more broadly. So, GPT-3 is excellent at summarizing. Actually, it can do data parsing and summarization. And so, if I’m understanding the question correctly, could you take a variety of headlines and then summarize a bunch of different headlines and what’s the TLDR main takeaway from that? GPT-3 would be very good at that. Pretty much summarizing, again any text, it will be quite strong at.
Angie Chang: Great. Thank you so much, Ashley. That’s all the time we have today. I know people will be definitely signing up to join the GPT-3 beta and trying it out. And thank you for leaving your contact information on the slide..
Ashley Pilipiszyn: Yes.
Angie Chang: Where you can get in touch with Ashley directly.
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Sukrutha Bhadouria: And we will move on to our afternoon keynote, which I’m super excited about.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Our afternoon keynote is with none other than Ashley Dudgeon. Ashley Dudgeon is VP of Software Engineering at Salesforce, where she has worked for over a decade. She began her career as a software developer after graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in computer science. She believes cultivating engaged, innovative, and transparent organizations is a prerequisite to building amazing software, and I have had a courtside view of that. Welcome, Ashley.
Ashley Dudgeon: Thank you, Sukrutha. Thanks so much for having me.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: So we’re going to get it right in! As they say, every good story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, not necessarily in that specific order, with so much of what defines a person is really based on how their story actually began. So I’d like to rewind a little bit, if you don’t mind, and I’d like to hear about your early years.
Ashley Dudgeon: Sure. So since we’re talking about resilience today, I’m glad that we are starting from the beginning. So while I certainly didn’t know it then, it was during my childhood and upbringing that taught me that resilience is not only critical to surviving, but it is the key ingredient to thriving. So my family and I immigrated to the United States as refugees. We had escaped Vietnam after the war, when I was only an infant. We’re now what history calls the boat people, fleeing to the wide open seas, packed in small ill-equipped fishing boats, willing to risk death for a better chance at life.
Ashley Dudgeon: I have no memories of this, of course, but it was the most influential event that has shaped who I am today. And while I never knew it or felt it, growing up, we were quite poor. My parents would move from orchard to orchard, harvesting tomatoes, cucumbers, or whatever was in season, from sunrise to sunset, to provide for their six children. When my father saved enough to start his own business, my mom would mow lawns and rake leaves beside him in these pristine neighborhoods that felt so foreign to our own. And despite our hardships, my parents provided a privileged and happy upbringing for my siblings and me. We had everything we needed. We had food, shelter, safety, and a loving environment.
Ashley Dudgeon: We played like normal children and focused on school and not because we were forced to, but because we figured early on that access to education would be the greatest gift that my parents could ever give us. So for us children to excel academically would mean that all of their sacrifices would have been worth it, and would also mean that we contribute back to a country that had given so much to us. And I’d say my high school years were also pretty transformative. I went to school in East San Jose. The student body was made of the surrounding lower and middle-class families. There were gangs and teenage pregnancies and drugs, but I also found myself amongst some of the smartest and brightest peers, many of whom I still have contact with today and have built their own successful careers.
Ashley Dudgeon: And I think we were really fortunate to have a set of AP teachers that believed in us and successfully prepared us to get into top universities. They had the audacity to coach East Side kids mock trial and send us in to compete against schools whose teams were coached by their attorney parents. We actually ended up making it to the semi-finals, which I thought was pretty remarkable. And I was also on the tennis team, with a coach that insisted that we compete in the top league, even though we were consistently coming out near the bottom. We would drive to these richer districts and get clobbered by girls who belonged to private tennis clubs and have their own private coaches.
Ashley Dudgeon: It was brutal, but sometimes we would come out on top. I didn’t see the brilliance then, but our teachers and coaches were preparing us to show up, to compete, and pushed us to succeed in a world that was beyond the East Side. They gave us confidence to believe in our abilities so much that we began to believe in them as well. One teacher, in particular, so inspired us that we gathered annually for the past two decades, hoping that he continued to see the impact that he made in our lives.
Ashley Dudgeon: And when he passed away a few years ago, we got the opportunity to reunite with all of our high school teachers, and that was just such an amazing and touching event. And so, as an adult, I realize now that much of my determination and unwillingness to accept defeat was seeded very early on by simply observing my parents throughout my life, and then it was also reinforced by the most dedicated and amazing teachers. So those are my early years, and they definitely had an impact and who I am today.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: That’s just amazing to learn more about how it all started and how it has played a part in where you are today. But along the way, you’ve obviously made some bets and you made some decisions, and we all have to continue to make decisions where we continue to question which direction to go in, whether that’s the right one for us and for everyone around us. And I, myself, have struggled with making the right decision, and it’s really hard to say, but hindsight is 20/20. So what’s the bet that you think you took that had a substantial impact on where you are today?
Ashley Dudgeon: Yeah. Oh boy. So I’ve certainly made my fair share of bets. And I have to say a few turned out pretty awful, but in hindsight, I can’t say they were truly losses, because collectively, they’ve led me to where I am today. But there is one big bet that stands out. Because I can still remember how it feels, or how it felt, to carry that immense weight of the decision around for two years to see how it would play out. And I’m referring to my years at UC Berkeley and the huge bet I made when I decided to pursue computer science. I’m totally dating myself here, but let me take you back to 1997. Google didn’t exist yet. About a third of US households owned a computer, and accessing the internet sounded like you were trying to make contact with ET through your telephone.
Ashley Dudgeon: That’s something our children will never know. I was a freshman and I thought I wanted to pursue a degree in business after ruling out medicine. And as one of the pre-reqs, I happened to take a course, Intro to Programming, which I believe was taught in Lisp. And from the start I was hooked. My mind was blown by the fact that you can use the keys on your keyboard to make your computer do things. It felt like magic, but the only problem was the only way to get admitted into the computer science major was to take two years of the curriculum, apply, and then pray that your technical GPA was in the top 50 of all applicants.
Ashley Dudgeon: It was the simplest acceptance algorithm, but it was also pretty cutthroat. I mean, I couldn’t even use the English or Asian-American studies to prop up my GPA. Those didn’t even count. So all I could do was think about what kind of degree I’d end up with if I didn’t get in and what would happen to my life as a consequence. It sounds a bit dramatic now, but remember, I was 18 and I felt like I might’ve already ruined my future by not choosing medicine. Anyhow, it felt like a pretty big gamble. I remember sitting in lecture halls of two to 300 computer science students, and all I could see was this auditorium full of males. I swore that many of them knew how to program before they probably learned how to talk, and come to think of it, I don’t think I had a single female computer science professor my entire time there.
Ashley Dudgeon: So it was no wonder I was constantly fighting this inner voice that told me that I was out of my league, but fortunately, there were also louder counter voices that gave me the confidence and determination to succeed. When things feel impossible, I find courage in all the stories my parents would share with us growing up. I remember the war stories of my mom running, heavily pregnant, from the bombings with three kids in tow, while the fate of my soldier father was unknown. Or, how we shared a two-bedroom apartment with two other families when we first arrived in the United States.
Ashley Dudgeon: And while they were mostly met with kindness, there was also the occasional encounters that reminded them that to some, they were just cheap laborers in someone else’s land, but yet they persevered. So did I believe that I was capable of studying hard and earning a place in computer science? You bet. It seemed like the easiest thing I could possibly do when I compare it to the challenges that my parents faced. And I vividly remember the morning that I made the long trek up to Soda Hall, praying that I would see my name above the dreaded cutline of those who got into the major.
Ashley Dudgeon: It all seems really cruel now how they would so publicly post the names and GPAs of the victorious and the defeated. I remember seeing my name above the line and finally releasing the weight that I had been carrying around for two years. At graduation, as one of the few females in the program, I was asked and accepted the honor of speaking at the commencement ceremony. So in that moment, with my parents in the crowd, I felt invincible. The bet that I had made on myself had paid off. So I guess, in summary, those years in college laid a solid foundation on which I would build my career in technology.
Ashley Dudgeon: And it has nothing to do with the data structures we learned or the compiler we had to build, or the many mathematical theorems I had to apply. In all honesty, I don’t think I retained much of it at all. I hope I never have to ever take a test on that again. But what I did gain was a sense of resilience, defiance, and confidence that has helped me get to where I am today. And while I still find myself amongst the sea of males in this field, though, it is getting better, I actually don’t really see or feel it. So I come to every meeting, and I lead every project without a consciousness of gender. And I find that really empowering. So how’s that for a bet?
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Oh, I mean, the comments that we’ve been getting in, everybody is getting very emotional, listening to you talk through your journey. But you’ve given me great advice, because I had the honor of working with you while we spun up this amazing big project of Work.com. So what advice do you have on negotiating for impactful projects that one can do in order to secure career growth? Because people often feel like opportunities aren’t presented to them, and most people, opportunities aren’t presented to them. And if they feel like there isn’t interesting work, then they need to make it for themselves. So what’s your advice?
Ashley Dudgeon: Yeah. I think the best advice that one can give comes from your own personal experience. So when I think about a time when I had to negotiate for a path to promotion, my mind goes immediately to how I earned my current role as Vice President of Engineering. If you guys don’t mind another story, I’ve got one for you. And I think this story is particularly relevant to tell today on International Women’s Day, because it’s centered around the unique challenges that women face when they choose to have children in the corporate world. I think it also emphasizes the importance of negotiation, which I believe many people, especially women, don’t do often enough when they hit roadblocks in their careers.
Ashley Dudgeon: So to tell this story, I have to take you back about four years. Thanks to the amazing parental benefits that I got from Salesforce, I was about to go on maternity leave with my second child for a long seven months. And I had never stepped away from my career for that long, but I felt completely confident in doing so. At that point, I had had multiple career conversations, with my then boss, about what it would take for me to grow into a VP role. And while I was not quite there yet, I did feel that I was at the pinnacle of my career. I had just successfully led the delivery of a multi-release project, solving a complex search problem that had been left unsolved for the past 17 years.
Ashley Dudgeon: And on my last day of work, heavily, heavily pregnant, I remember I was handing off a high-priority project plan that was solving a critical and deal-blocking gap for a premier customer. So in short, I felt confident in my place in the organization and the value that I brought to the company. I was leaving, or at least I felt like I was leaving on a high note. So when I returned seven months later, I went from feeling confident and secure to being lost and searching for a purpose to anchor me. The team that I had led directly was no longer intact because victory had been declared. My other teams were executing well under their manager. Of course, business had continued while I was out.
Ashley Dudgeon: My responsibilities had been delegated across multiple leaders and there really wasn’t that much to return to. And in some regards, I succeeded in what I was supposed to do, right? I put in place a transition plan that worked, and I built a team that could operate without me. My boss, who had always been a straight talker, told me that funding for our group didn’t quite play out the way that he had hoped, and he no longer saw a path for me to grow in his organization. He had suggested that perhaps the timing was perfect to switch groups and try something new.
Ashley Dudgeon: And if I hadn’t just spent the last six months nurturing a newborn around the clock, I was an emotional wreck because my nanny had unexpectedly quit two weeks after I came back to work. And my infant son was now living with my mom an hour away, Monday through Friday, until we figured out childcare. And if I wasn’t pumping every three to four hours to try to keep up my milk supply through all of this, I might’ve been in a better position to rationalize my work situation. Instead, I felt utterly crushed and defeated. I was struggling to find stable ground at home and at work. I wondered if it was time for me to step back from my career and just bring my son home. It just all felt too hard.
Ashley Dudgeon: And what was punching me straight in the gut was the reality that so many women go through when they choose to have children. It’s an impossible choice between bonding with your child and being present in your career to hold onto your relevance. It’s a part of the maternal experience that I think even the most supportive and progressive companies have yet to fully solve for. Having had two children, I believe the transition back from maternity leave is one of the most vulnerable times in a female’s personal and professional life. And it typically occurs during mid-career. So if we really want more females in senior leadership roles, reentry into the workplace has to be formally addressed.
Ashley Dudgeon: And I’m not saying that every woman encounters this challenge, and I hope that I’m not discouraging anyone from taking maternity leave, because you absolutely should, and you absolutely deserve to. But if you do find yourself in a similar situation, hopefully sharing my personal story can help you be better prepared. So what did I do? Well, I was far too stubborn, or dare I say resilient, to put my ambitions on the back burner. I sought support and encouragement from my most trusted circle, but for the most part, I was unflinching at work, because I believe that’s what strong leaders were supposed to do. I started tapping into my network and reached out to every technical executive that I knew, simply stating that I was seeking new opportunities.
Ashley Dudgeon: And they were actually all really helpful, and it led to a few interviews, but I really didn’t find anything that excited me. And I felt like I had worked far too hard in my career to compromise now. So about after two months, my boss then told me that a new project was on the horizon, and he asked if I would stay to lead it since he knew that I was already talking to other groups. And I won’t lie, it felt really validating when he said that he believed that I was the only one that could deliver it. And that was when I knew I had to negotiate. I was no longer willing to put in the work and hope that it would be good enough to get me promoted.
Ashley Dudgeon: I clearly told him if I committed to the project and help make it a success, he would commit to putting me up for promotion in exchange. The project actually turned out to be one of the most exhilarating projects in my career. It took about a year and a half to build and release, and the reception from our customers was phenomenal. And to my boss’s credit, he followed through with his end of the deal, and I was promoted to vice president in 2019. And in fact, he would later play a pivotal role in pitching me for my current position, which has been the biggest stage and opportunity of my career thus far.
Ashley Dudgeon: So if faced with a similar situation, only you can really make the decision on what path to take and what’s right for you. But I think that the advice that I can give that can be universally applied, is to be resilient. Be clear with yourself about what you want, be committed to putting in the work, and don’t let setbacks discourage you from obtaining your goals. And if you’re passionate about what you do, you’re far more likely to succeed. And in terms of negotiating career growth, I honestly hope that you don’t need to. If you don’t already have one, co-create a plan, a career plan, with your manager. You should be clear about what you want to achieve, work with your manager to align expectations for reaching those milestones, as well as identify the current gaps in skills and impact.
Ashley Dudgeon: And if you find yourself struggling to make progress, be honest in assessing whether or not you have the right skills, the right goals, or the right boss. And if required, don’t be afraid to negotiate. It may be obvious, but negotiations only work if the other party needs what you have to give. Thus knowing when to negotiate is also key to being effective. And if you’re not entirely sure, I say go for it. The worst that can happen is you lose one of the many bets you’re going to make throughout your career. And if you’re resilient and if you’re courageous, then you’ll end up finding a path that’s right for you. So that was a really long story, but I guess that’s my response.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Well, it didn’t feel long. I was hooked, and I was also monitoring the questions and the comments and people are just really resonating, saying that they’re so thankful that you’re sharing your stories. And when you spoke about how you were put up for promotion at that moment, there were a lot of people cheering you on, because it was like almost like they were watching a movie where it has a happy ending. But this is just the middle, I’m sure. The biggest takeaway is to be absolutely intentional in your career growth and focused on what you think you can do and keep at it, don’t give up. So Ashley, on that note, do you have any final thoughts or advice for our amazing listeners who are just hooked and totally queued into your story?
Ashley Dudgeon: Yeah. Well, first I want to thank you, before my time is up, for having me here today, and for you and Angie’s inspirational work in elevating females in tech and for creating a forum to encourage women to learn from each other’s experiences and to uplift one another. And I do hope that I’ve been able to make a small contribution to that today by sharing my story. And while I’ve taken everyone through a really personal journey, behind my narrative is a basic framework that can be helpful to anyone setting out to achieve a goal.
Ashley Dudgeon: First, you should understand what drives you, because that will be your motivation when things get difficult. Next, define what success means to you and be honest about how much work you’re willing to put into it, to achieve your goals. Don’t forget or neglect to revisit and refine your goals as needed. Don’t be afraid to change them, up the ante, or dial them down, because just like in poker, how you choose to play your hand changes with each card that’s dealt on the table.
Ashley Dudgeon: And I encourage you to not be afraid in making the big bets, because those are the ones that will most likely change the course of your life. And finally, be resilient and be courageous. The path to reaching your goal will rarely ever be a straight line. When the road takes an unexpected turn, remember that it is within your power to forge a new one. And finally, it occurs to me that, as I give this advice to all the attendees today, it’s really not my advice to give at all. I’m merely giving voice to the framework that my parents taught me, starting from that fateful night when they set out to sea. So that’s what I have to share today.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you, Ashley. That was just phenomenal. If you do get the chance to check out the chats and all the cheers that you got in the comments. We’re so honored to have you as our afternoon keynote Thank you so much.
Ashley Dudgeon: Thank you for having me.
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Sukrutha Bhadouria: We’re going to move on to our next segment which is our amazing USDS panel. USDS is United States Digital Service. It is a tech startup at the White House with a diverse group working across the federal government to build better tools and services for the American people. Julie will be moderating the panel with Amy, Elizabeth, and Gina. We’re so excited to hear from them. Welcome, ladies.
Julie Meloni: Hello, this is awesome. I haven’t seen you all for a couple years but it’s good to be back in my favorite, most favorite, conference ever. So we’ll just gonna jump right on in so we can get to the good stuff. I’m Julie, I’m an engineer with US Digital Service. I was with USDS from 2016 to 2018, took a little [inaudible], came back in October, it’s pretty awesome. And I’ve got some of my most awesome compatriots here who are much more interesting than I am and I will allow them, and by allow, I mean beg them nicely, to introduce themselves. So we’ll do that in just a second. I should probably tell you what USDS is. I am really out of practice, something about a pandemic.
Julie Meloni: All right, USDS. US Digital Service is a tiny little startup, we say, except that we’ve been around for seven years now so I think that the startup shine is off. We’re just small so, we’re just small. But we’re scrappy and we sit inside the Executive Office of the President in the Office of Management and Budget in the US Federal Government. None of that is important. All you need to know is that we’re a bunch of folks who go out and try to make shit better for everybody. We say citizen-facing services but it’s citizens and people who want to become citizens, because this government owes lots of people lots of things and the technology is really bad. So we try to fix it with a small group of UX researchers, designers, product managers, and engineers of all flavors. We are the flavors. And each of these folks will tell you about that and what they do and some of the gnarly problems that we disentangle. President Obama created our group in 2014, we lasted through the rest of his administration into the next one and we are still here because the work is hard and whoever’s in charge in the White House just makes it hard or harder. Right now, it’s just hard so we’re all glad to be here and we hope that lots of you will come and join us. All right. Amy, we’re gonna go alphabetically. Tell us about yourself.
Amy Quispe: What’s up, everyone. My name is Amy Quispe. I’m an engineer like everyone else here at the US Digital Service. I started last May, so we were already in the thick of it. I’ve been working from home this whole time. And prior to USDS, I worked in a pretty typical tech career I think. So we’ll be hearing more but I’ll hand it off to the next person.
Julie Meloni: E. Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Schweinsberg: Excellent. Hi, I’m Elizabeth Schweinsberg and I am an engineer here at USDS also. My particular specialty is security engineering so I’ve spent most of my career doing threat detection, incident response, and digital forensics. But I’m actually kind of a generalist, it turns out, so I’ve worked at a couple of brand name companies before this, but have been enjoying my time at USDS since August. And to Gina.
Julie Meloni: G for Gina.
Gina Maini: Hey, I’m Gina, I’m an engineer as well and I’ve been at USDS for two and a half years, maybe more than that now. And in the beginning, in my USDS tenure, I worked on asylum adjudication at DHS for a brief bit, and then I worked on Medicare for a few years and then moved off of Medicare modernization to now working on organ transplant, so I’ve done a lot of different stuff at USDS, a lot of fun times, a lot of hackathons, civic hackathons, which I really enjoy. And yeah, that’s me in my USDS tenure. Before USDS, I have no idea why I got this job, I often say that to myself because I’m technically a functional programmer by trade so I had really focused highly on really niche stuff that most people in government don’t even care about. They’re still on COBOL mainframes. And then I got here and had to work with what I had, so I guess more on that later but yeah I’m a SRE library engineer and I guess all around back end developer.
Julie Meloni: I need to learn how to use the chat because I’ve just been chatting away with my panelists and not all of you. So my job in here is to learn to switch that to everyone and try to answer questions as they roll along. But we’re going to hear some really gnarly stories, gnarly for those who don’t know the word, think of the most gross to sing intertwined, intertwingled pieces of crap and that’s the technology that runs the US government and from a state and local and federal position, probably also all governments, let’s just be honest.
Julie Meloni: And our job is to go in and disentangle that and try to make it work. And making it work can be things like taking paper forms and putting them on the internet. I know it’s crazy. It could also mean taking 45-year-old or sometimes 50-year-old mainframes, things that are actually older than me, and making them not mainframes.
Julie Meloni: Or make them some sort of nice hybrid model because there’s not actually anything really wrong with mainframes except that they might fall over and that’s bad, but that’s why we have Gina and Amy and Elizabeth, we have all the… Oh my God, it’s a good thing we’re not on a plane together because if the plane went down all mainframe folks in the government wouldn’t… Yeah, it’d be terrible.
Julie Meloni: All right, so we’re going to talk about gnarly problems and I’ll just give you guys a little heads up, not all of the gnarly problems in the government or in your jobs, really, are technical problems, they’re people problems. So we’re going to talk a little bit about people but also a lot about technology, but also a little bit about people, and how people skills, not just tech skills are what we need. Also, big plug, USDS.gov/apply, come join us.
Julie Meloni: All right. Gnarly problems. Who wants to go first? We can do the star technique situation: task, action, and result or you can just talk.
Amy Quispe: I’m happy to go first. So like I said, I started last May and if you remember anything about last March, April, May, lots of people were unemployed, a lot of people were filing for unemployment, a lot of people it was for the first time. State systems, which have been built to serve unemployment were overwhelmed. I remember just trying to help my family and friends follow yet they [inaudible] the sites back up in various states.
Amy Quispe: So when I joined USDS, my first project was actually something a little unusual, we were working with states. Because unemployment is kind of a weird hybrid of federal and state work and so these state systems were falling over, had to go and fix them make, sure people could get their money, make sure people could live right now, and I think that I saw some really crusty old systems. I gotta say, before USDS, the companies I’d worked for, the oldest was maybe like 15 years, 17 years old. And then I’m working on these systems that are way older than that.
Amy Quispe: I remember my first time running into like seeing a Y2K fix and just kind of being floored because I was like, “Oh, 20 years ago, someone wrote this kind of hacky fix, 20 years into the lifetime of the system thinking that, oh someone’s gonna fix this and make this good down the line.” I’m telling all you right now, never underestimate the longevity of your worst code. Never underestimate the longevity of your to-do’s. And so we started investigating one state system trying to figure out where the core of the problem was. Eventually, we figured out there was one point of the system that was like the point of failure. Everything needed to be written to this one place and one at a time. There was no parallelization, that was the bottleneck.
Amy Quispe: And when we discovered this bottleneck, we realized that we wanted to make different fixes. The people that were in charge of that part of the system did not want us to touch their shit, which was… And so here we’re in the middle of a few different things, we’re in the middle of a technical problem. We’re in the middle of a people problem, we’re also in the middle of a bureaucratic problem, systems that are in place already that have been built over time, both at a process level. And so what we ended up doing was we actually ended up building another system on top of that to do some queuing to slow that down to make sure that things didn’t fall over before hitting the mainframe.
Amy Quispe: And so a lot of times I kind of wish we’d fix things the right way but sometimes you have to figure out how to work around that and I think that that was that project has really informed a lot of how I think about what’s going on and fixing these systems, and also I think it’s gonna make me write better code in the future and be a little less precious about what’s mine.
Julie Meloni: That is a really good point and I’m trying really hard not to ask all of the questions I have on my little list because I want to get through like, the what are you going to take away from USDS when you eventually go back into the private sector or do you stay in the public sector, I don’t know, I don’t know your plans. That’s going to be a super interesting question.
Julie Meloni: I should probably say, US on a tour of duty of model which means we’re not here forever. And one of the reasons that we do that, come in for three or six months stay up to two years, renew again for up to two more years, it’s so that we don’t become entrenched in the technology that we are fundamentally trying to fix or make slightly better. The fresh perspective is incredibly important. It’s really easy to slide into complacency in a large complex organization, be it the government or anywhere, and taking a step back, refreshing and doing something new is super duper important.
Julie Meloni: Also, shit changes really fast. When I was in USDS the first time, Kubernetes wasn’t a thing, really, and now it’s everyone wants to keep kuberentify everything like, “Whoa, where’d that all come from?” And I remember that Gina’s has been here the whole time and now it made a lot more sense. Sorry, Gina, you can tell me that you don’t actually like Kubernetes later, but I needed a prop. So hey, tour of duty, what are you gonna do afterwards? We’ll get to that next, but, Elizabeth, I want to hear about your gnarly stuff and I hope that you guys have different gnarly things because I didn’t pregame that.
Elizabeth Schweinsberg: Yeah, good thing I got to go before Gina because my gnarly thing is a project that I picked up from her and have taken off with. So I also work at Center for Medicare and Medicaid Systems. I turns out because this program is very old, they still use mainframes to, say, pay doctors money. And one of the main projects I’ve worked on is building in security monitoring for it, which has several challenges. The first being, getting the logs off the mainframes into a system that is modern for log processing. Fortunately, that had already been done when I got there. And then it’s making sense of it, mainframes are a different paradigm from the server model that we use today. In a server application, you have the users who run the servers and those are separate from the users who use the application, and there are two different types of accounts.
Elizabeth Schweinsberg: Mainframes, that’s not true. Everybody who can use an application is just a user on the mainframe. So understanding that took a little bit. My most favorite part is mainframes were invented before TCP/IP. TCP/IP was bolted on afterwards. So the thing you do in threat detection is you want to know what IP address people are attempting to log in from. That has been my most gnarly problem because in this instance, people are typically on a internal network so everything’s a 10 dot something IP address to start. But then they don’t write it, they don’t really record it because that was not a main concern. So yeah, learning about the security of mainframes and figuring out what the actual threat models are going to be and how to really fix them while trying to deal with little things like, I don’t know what IP address people are coming from, so it’s been super fun. And there was question in the chat, CMS uses IBM Z/OS as their mainframe. So how about you, Gina? What gnarly stuff have you seen?
Gina Maini: I’m just laughing because don’t you love when the person before you starts a crazy project and then you just completely leave the new person to rock it out? But no, I’m so glad that you took over that project because it’s so important, it’s so, so important. And yeah, you were one of the few people who saw through my insanity and wanted to support me because we’re really… I mean, it’s really radical stuff in the government to teach people that security and compliance are separate topics. In the government, it’s very easy…
Julie Meloni: Wait, wait, wait, Gina, let’s be honest, it’s not just the government.
Gina Maini: Yeah, that’s true. I mean you see it in healthcare, you see it in finance, you see a general laziness in STEM, in certain areas in STEM too, there’s a general laziness about it. But in the government, especially with systems that deal with such sensitive data, teaching our stakeholders the differences between security and compliance have been challenging. So even just getting a security review at Medicare to get the appropriate stakeholders in a room looking at the same view of data and being able to talk about the same semantics was such a huge leap, that was like a light year’s leap. Because now the agency is prepared at least in some positioning to address serious security issues in production, which really before USDS, before our poking and prodding and trying to get data in the cloud, no one had really… There had been attempts but they were not successful so the agency had gone through a few different phases of modernization but it really took a huge amount of people to succeed. And so anyway, that’s that’s a shared victory and you are making the magic continue so thank you.
Gina Maini: But yeah the gnarly problems, I feel like I’ve just had gnarly problems after gnarly… I feel like I don’t have any problems that are not gnarly at USDS. I’ve never seen it, I mean I’ve never seen a government system that was better than I expected it to be. It’s never happened to me yet in the two and a half something years. And I actually forgot I even worked on unemployment, I had forgotten that in my intro, but that’s how I would work.
Julie Meloni: Oh, we’ll get there, We’ll get there.
Gina Maini: Yeah [inaudible]. But there’s so many gnarly problems. The thing that that sticks out in mind is the time that, during an onboarding process at Medicare, I had discovered a massive production vulnerability and it was really just a vulnerability because no one had thought through the process from an end to end life cycle of managing accounts. And so just because I’d had experience thinking about enterprise security, just kind of naturally followed some conclusions and then had to basically vary immediately to my engagement with Medicare, make a decision, do I take a massive bug disclosure to the CIO who doesn’t know me yet and has never worked with me. It’s like, “Hi, you don’t know me, here’s a massive issue that you need to address immediately.” And it was really gnarly too because I was meeting a lot of the security people for the first time so that was their first way of getting to know me and that was really challenging, I think, from a stakeholder management perspective.
Gina Maini: But I think the way that I disclosed it, I ended up building relationships with those people that lasted throughout my engagement with Medicare. So we ended up getting it fixed and it was kind of because I had gone to them as more of an ally than kind of come in from more of a hammer perspective. But anyway, that was one glimmer of the many bizarre situations.
Julie Meloni: I wrote down like five things that popped up in the chat so I’m going to try to like right through them real fast and then we’ll and then I’ll tee up the question for you all so you can be thinking about it. Resiliency. That’s all I’m going to tell you. All right, so a couple things that came up in the chat. Is the current administration throwing large sums of money at us to fix this? Fun fact. The last three administrations have thrown amounts of money to us to fix it. Fixing technology problems, believe it or not, is a bipartisan problem and Congress likes to throw money at bipartisan problems when there is continued success and we have been able to spend money successfully over the last seven years. But we are about 200 or so people, there’s hundreds and hundreds of thousands of federal employees and 400 agencies and a metric shit ton of technology problems that us 200 people can’t solve.
Julie Meloni: We are intentionally small so as a forcing function to spend the government’s money wisely. We get appropriated funds which means we do not have to pay them back. We get a certain amount of money each year, 99% of that money is spent on the salaries for the people that work at USDS. And so as many people as can literally be hired within that budget we will hire them and we are the empowered and entrusted, like Gina said, to go out to the highest levels of government and tell them that their shit’s broken.
Julie Meloni: USDSers have stood in front of Secretaries of Defense and said, “You have a security problem right here.” And that’s fine, that’s who we need to be yelling at so that we continue to have the risk ability and the ability to get in there and fix it, like Gina said. Hello, I got a big vulnerability I’d like to disclose right now, CIO I don’t know, don’t even really know what a CIO does because what the hell does a CIO do. But I’m gonna tell you your shit’s broken and you need to fix it now or it’s gonna be really, really bad. So that is the sort of empowerment and emboldenment, enbiggenment, if you will, that we all get when we join USDS. It’s why there’s a relatively rigorous application or interview process. We really only hire people who’ve got some really gnarly experience and that get any type of organization.
Julie Meloni: Generally we don’t care what school you went to, where you worked, where you’ve done your work, or what you’ve worked in. If you have consistently solved gnarly problems in and around technology as an engineer or product manager or UX researcher and designer, you’re someone that we want to talk to because something is going to need that type of help. But we can’t fix everything. We are also not responsible for anything and we do not have the power to purchase anything. So you know those interview questions where you learn a lot about how does your candidate manage without authority? We ask a lot of these questions because we have absolutely no authority but all the responsibility to make sure shit doesn’t fall over. It’s super fun.
Julie Meloni: And so our budget is not being cut, our budget is attempting to be expanded but each of the last three administrations, Obama, Trump, and Biden, we have been here, we have worked hard for the American people and people who want to become the American people and there’s no sign of slowing down, so we are grateful for that. Applications. Yes, we do have a lot of people applying. Inauguration week was a big week for us, we had about 5,000 applications that week. And we’ve gotten through all of them, we’ve adjudicated them, we are a band of people who want nothing more than more colleagues. So please, yes we do have a lot but like if any of the things that we talked about describes you, apply. If you apply and do not make it through the process, that’s fine. There’s about eleventy billion other places for you to help.
Julie Meloni: Go to codeforamerica.org. Look at 18f.gsa.gov. USDS. Code for America will hook you up with local and state civic tech groups, volunteers. Civic tech is a growing area of interest and there are always ways to help wherever you are, be it your local state or federal area. And talked about empowerment blah blah blah blah, I think I got all my things. All right, how do you build resiliency into systems when people are the problem, Elizabeth?
Elizabeth Schweinsberg: So my traditional approach does not currently work. Normally I start with cookies or some other baked good but I actually haven’t met any of my co-workers in real life and the contractors that I’m working with are also all over the country so the the typical endearing yourself to them through baked goods isn’t working. So I have been trying to build my social capital by answering the problems that they have. So the people who actually run the mainframes are contractors. And these people know mainframes, they’ve spent their entire three, four decade long careers in mainframes with a few exceptions and that is what they know. And having some other person come in and be like I’m going to tell you how your mainframe should function differently, well not function, but how you need to look at your mainframes differently.
Elizabeth Schweinsberg: It can be a little unsettling so in addition to having them give me what I want, I have also been trying to make sure that they get what they want. And in specific, we are doing a hybrid cloud mainframe so some of the things that the mainframe vendors have been in charge of the data is moving to the cloud and that makes them a little concerned because the data that they were responsible for is going to be outside their control. So I’m helping them get more of that information starting with very basic things like we have APIs. The APIs come through a gateway in our cloud. Why don’t we check and let the mainframe managers know if somebody’s trying to use the APIs from an unusual IP address. And they seem really receptive to that sort of thing so there’s a bit of a give and a take and making sure that they get some of what they want has made them more willing to give me what I want.
Julie Meloni: Amy, go. Resiliency. People.
Amy Quispe:Resiliency. People. I think that one way to build resiliency is actually to build process. And another way to build resiliency is to remove process. I think that thinking very intentionally about how you work is really important and how you work with the other people that you’re working with is going to be really important to figuring out what your cadence is, what people can take on, not making assumptions or writing down your assumptions especially since we’re all working remotely. I think that this is also part of building a resilient software system so not just building a resilient team and a resilient way to work but actually thinking about how to intentionally build something. If you can define well what everyone is doing, if you can define how you’re working, then if someone has to leave the team, if someone has to join the team, you have a way to make that work smoothly. And that’s going to make your systems continue to work smoothly no matter what the team is, if you’re building actual teamwork.
Julie Meloni: Awesome. Gina, bring it home.
Gina Maini: Yeah, I echo what Amy just said. I think that’s how you get resiliency, for sure, is some level of process. And the old engineering teams I worked on, right, we called it lore or the playbooks or some document that would be wisened and if you get blamed it it’d be like a tragedy the commons and everybody had contributed. That was kind of what I was used to working like. But then you arrive in government, there are no engineers. You’re it. There’s nobody else coming. That’s kind of what it felt like for us to get started, especially at a new engagement, in the case of Medicare and unemployment with the Department of Labor, you’re kind of coming in and there’s nobody there doing your job which is why it’s so exciting to be there and why we’re so valuable in these spaces. But when you’re thinking about building a product, you’re not actually building a product, you might be working with the policy arm of the agency to craft some kind of pilot, right? And that pilot may be procured by someone who isn’t you. You might be setting up a contract play for the agency to hire the right thing which isn’t very exciting and I think if someone had told me that years ago I would have been like that doesn’t sound like anything I would ever want to do or be a part of.
Gina Maini: But it is the most value add I think any of us really give at USDS is the dollar value that we save American people by pointing out, you don’t need to buy Ferraris if you just want cup holders. Because these systems evolved to buy battleships, these systems did not come about to buy software, so they’re going to look for different signals that are just noise and so we kind of come in there and we tell them what to focus on in the procurement and actually that sets them up and a good procurement and a good contract, these contracts last for 10 to 12 years, maybe more. And so setting up a contract to be really flexible to have the right kind of outcomes is actually, that’s kind of resiliency across decades in government. Because a lot of these systems they span many administrations, many decades of policy and that’s why there’s such amalgamations. There is no such thing as product, there is just policy and then a bunch of contractors scrambling to implement it, right? That’s the reality of the United States Tech.
Julie Meloni: Awesome, we have eight minutes left and I want to address just a few questions real quick but also plug everything that Amy and Elizabeth and Gina have said today. Yeah, we’re talking about working in the government, in the federal government in this case, but everything… Please listen to everything that they said and take those… Elizabeth would you just like to read your mug that would be…
Elizabeth Schweinsberg: No.
Julie Meloni: Okay. Yeah, go for it, read it.
Elizabeth Schweinsberg: Okay. I picked a special mug for today. “Women belong in all the places where decisions are being made.” [inaudible] illustrious RGB.
Julie Meloni: RBG. Yes, that’s much more interesting than what I was going to say, which was all of these lessons you can apply in your gnarly complex hierarchical organizations as well. However, being at the table where the decisions are made, being in the room where it happens, if you wish, that is one of the reasons that USDS was created: just to get technologists at the table. They didn’t tell us that when we applied and we’re going to be an engineer, we’re going to fix it shit. I’m like, why am I reading this bill before it becomes a law? School House Rock did not prepare me for this, hence the title of this little chat.
Julie Meloni: We all know about how bill becomes law, but we don’t know that sometimes bills get sent around in Google docs and your friendly neighborhood USDSers and a whole bunch of other people just randomly comment on them about that’s dumb, that’s dumb, please don’t write API specs into law, just stop at, you should have an API. That’s great, big fan, don’t write specs into law.
Julie Meloni: And so we’re all in the rooms where it happens now and we keep things from that happening but we keep things like, you should share data at the forefront. Don’t make dumb decisions, don’t enable 53 distinct territories and states from creating their own unemployment systems, maybe just have one, maybe share. [inaudible 00:33:54]. And that is a really, really, really important part of what we do. And probably if that had been part of the pitch, none of us would have joined because policy is really boring. Except it’s not really boring when you get to write a law in a bar that enables technology to be put in place and you can see my 2018 Girl Geek talk. But anyway, last question for everybody, most important question. What do you want the takeaway for all of these fine folks who have listened to us, what do you want the takeaway to be and what are you taking away from USDS when you eventually leave us and go somewhere else? You can all fight over who goes first. We don’t fight at USDS, Gina, you can go first. Or Amy.
Gina Maini: Yeah, can Amy go first?
Julie Meloni: No one’s ready to think it through.
Gina Maini: Sorry, Amy.
Amy Quispe: No, I’m fine to go first, I’m was just trying to get the vibe here, vibing over Zoom is so hard and so important. I want to say that one thing that comes up when you’re in the room where it happens is that as technologists, we all have kind of a fresh perspective on what’s going on. But also, we all have just our own personal perspective on what’s going on. One of the values of USDS is find the truth, tell truth. And I think that’s one place where I’ve been really able to be valuable in USDS. I was in the meeting earlier today where I had to just stop and say, “So we’re talking about a technical solution to a non-technical problem and there are also non-technical solutions, non-technical problems, but ultimately we’re talking about non-technical problem.” And just sitting down and laying that out in plain language changed the conversation and I think that that’s one thing that I see USDSers do all the time is bring clarity to the conversation and change the conversation, whether it’s about technology or not.
Amy Quispe: And I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in the future but I hope that you all realize that you can also bring the truth to these conversations. If you are in a place that does not allow you to speak the truth or does not hear the truth, please find a way to get your voice heard and understand how powerful you are, understand that this power is so important in the US Government but in all sorts of systems, including the technology that all of you are creating everywhere, because technology is something that is scalable, it is something that is big, it is something that is powerful and it’s something we are building right now and you have the ability to change the way that the future works.
Julie Meloni: Man, that was such a good quote, we’re putting that on a sticker. We do stickers a lot. Amy: you have the way you change… Okay, change the way the future works, please change the way the future works. I’m old, I need a better future in my retirement years. Elizabeth, you know that means we’re going to wind up with you again at the end, just be prepared. Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Schweinsberg: Okay, so I know we said that we got 5,000 applications the week of inauguration, mostly due to news organizations picking up some comments in the html. Now this is not official. I helped review a lot of those resumes and looked at pretty much all the names that came into the engineering. Just based on names, it was not the most diverse set of applicants. There were a lot of traditionally white male names in there. So apply. Because we really value diversity because everybody has something different and interesting to bring to the table.
Elizabeth Schweinsberg: And yeah, I mean it sounds like a really, a whole lot of people and we’re going to hire some. We have to replace probably a few dozen people this year. And maybe it’s not right now but it will be in the future and there’s also a slew of technology-oriented non-profits that are coming up. We’ve had a couple talks through USDS with them on building tools to help people file for bankruptcy more easily, improve access to voting machines, so there’s some really great stuff out there if you keep your eyes open. The gnarly problems aren’t just in the government or at your large tech firms. 100% the thing I’m going to take away that I was actually hoping to get out of this is all of my jobs have been very operations focused and I am terrible at getting my project work done.
Elizabeth Schweinsberg: But here, I’m working with product managers and designers who really think through how we are designing the programs, talking about how we’re going to build them, and seeing that cross-disciplinary work towards project management, hopefully absorbing some of it, I think will be really useful whatever I do next.
Julie Meloni: Awesome. Gina, you get the last word before Angie kicks us out like she did to me in 2018, because I just can’t shut up about gnarly problems and how everybody can fix them because you have the power. Go.
Gina Maini: So last word. What I’m going to be taking away from this job? Definitely not one thing. This job is really… I don’t think I really understood how government worked before I got this job. So I think I know how the sausage is made now and it frightens me deeply. So I think that’s half of what I will take away from this job. The other thing though is I think I never really understood myself very well in my career in the sense that I worked for a bunch of e-commerce companies and the biggest moral dilemma was if I was gonna disappoint somebody buying a TV on Black Friday. And the thing is getting a TV on Black Friday is a really important problem and I don’t mean to diminish any value that e-commerce has. E-commerce has amazing value it’s so important to our everyday lives.
Gina Maini: But I didn’t feel super satisfied, it didn’t drive me, personally. I didn’t come into work wanting to optimize a pricing algorithm or optimize… It didn’t make my heart sing. Every day on this job I feel that. I feel that spark that I never had and it’s interesting how I used to think I was the slowest engineer or the worst engineer on the team. I think I just was unhappy in a lot of my work and now that I’m here and working on stuff that really motivates me, producing is weirdly not an issue anymore, it’s more about… Oh, I see, a wild cat has appeared. It’s more about actually managing my time well here because there’s so many fires and so many great people to work with. So it’s been more of a time management issue these days anyway.
Julie Meloni: Awesome. All right. Thank you all for hanging in. LinkedIn, it’s a thing that works. I actually use it. I will answer all your questions. I just said that out loud in front of everyone. Okay, don’t forget to love each other, wear a mask, be safe, wash your hands, do a good job. Bye, everyone.
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Angie Chang: We are going to turn it over to Anu. She is the VP of Product at Atlassian. She leads the enterprise business at Atlassian across product lines and also runs a cloud platform team and she’s an accomplished executive with a track record of growing $500 million businesses, building great teams, and shipping blockbuster products. Anu joined Atlassian as a Head of Product for Jira and held a variety of roles at Atlassian and currently serves as the Director of Atlassian Foundation. Welcome, Anu.
Anu Bharadwaj: Thank you so much, Angie. Can everyone hear me?
Angie Chang: Yes.
Anu Bharadwaj: Awesome. Hi, everybody. My name is Anu. Like Angie said, I’m VP of Product at Atlassian. Atlassian is an Australian company. We make collaboration software for teams. I have been at Atlassian for the past seven years and before that I was at Microsoft for 10 years, building developer tools for software teams and Visual Studio for all of your document plans out there.
Anu Bharadwaj: In addition to my day job, I also serve as the Chairperson for Atlassian Foundation, a nonprofit that funds education projects for underprivileged kids worldwide. Today I’m super glad to kick off a Girl Geek X annual event, Elevate, with all of you, wonderful people. I’ve been seeing the chat window. It’s incredible to see what you all done to survive the last year and many of you thrive through it. We’ve had over 3000 registrations for this event today. That’s pretty massive. It’s exciting to be in your company. Our theme at Elevate this year is resilience. And what better theme to choose since the whopper of the year that we’ve had in 2020.
Anu Bharadwaj: Women have always had to be resilient to stay the course in their careers. Resilient to overcome challenges that are unique to us and threaten the thwarters as we rise up. Resulting in far fewer women executives compared to the number of women that start out in entry level roles. Over the last year, that resilience has been further tested as we’ve dealt with the crisis of the pandemic battling to keep work and home running. Today, we come together to celebrate our resilience and hopefully come away inspired to build more reserves of it. So, buckle in as we kick off the day with a big warm welcome to all of you, strong amazing women from all over the world.
Anu Bharadwaj: Let’s start with paying a little bit of attention to the word resilience. Take a moment to reflect on what resilience means to you. People and systems both need a strong dose of resilience to stay healthy. A few months ago, someone came to me and said they were shooting a movie about Silicon Valley technology leaders and how they work and collaborate and build software and teams. They did an interview with me about my work, which was great, and said they’d also like to film what tech leaders do in their spare time to relax and unwind.
Anu Bharadwaj: Angie talked about how she likes to meditate. They asked me, “Do you like to do yoga or play music or meditate just to calm your mind? What do you like to do? And we would like to film you doing that.” And I said, “I kickbox.” It wasn’t quite what the movie director expected, but the camera crew did come to my gym to shoot a video of me while I was fighting.
Anu Bharadwaj: I’ve learned martial arts for many years since I was a kid. And to me, this is indeed a way that I relax and unwind. I’m bringing this up though, because as a kid, when I started learning martial arts, I wasn’t very good at it. When I wanted to give up, my mom said, “Anu, when someone tells you that you’re beautiful or smart, how do you feel?”
Anu Bharadwaj: Beauty and intelligence are lucky qualities that you inherited, but they aren’t anything to be proud of. But when someone says you’re kind or resilient, how do you feel? When you’re kind, you made a choice to care for another person, a choice to be proud of and when you’re resilient, you accomplish something in the face of difficulties. You won your kickboxing match despite losing before. That is something to be proud of.” Now more than ever I appreciate the wisdom of her words.
Anu Bharadwaj: Resilience is the capacity to deal with setbacks yet continue to grow. It is also the cornerstone of mental health. Good mental health does not mean never being sad. It means having the ability to cope with the vagaries of life without being paralyzed by them. But why do we have to talk about resilience as a group of women? As a young woman, starting out in technology, I saw women’s groups around me and I didn’t understand it. I didn’t get it. I thought, why do they need a group? I was raised with the idealistic and naive notion that men and women are born equal and are treated as such.
Anu Bharadwaj: Now 17 years later, I acknowledge the privilege of the sheltered childhood and I’m grateful for it. I graduated with a computer science degree, like Sukrutha talked about. When Microsoft hired me from school for my first job, I was an engineer. I was ready for it and they said, my first job was to write code for video games [inaudible]. When I heard the job description, I was like, you pay me for this shit? I’ll do this job for free.
Anu Bharadwaj: When I started out, it felt strange to see fewer women engineers at work than men, but the thrill of checking in core to a system that millions of people use day in and day out, felt incredible enough to forget any discomfort. People asked me about my job and what I do at work. I get the occasional remark that I learned to ignore. Like, “Oh, a girl developer, or you might want to comb your hair so your office workers take you seriously.” Or speaker feedback like, “The talk was very technical, but having an attractive speaker deliver it was a good idea.”
Anu Bharadwaj: I cried at that speaker feedback. I’ve worked so hard on creating the content for my talk, but the feedback had reduced me to a mouthpiece. I wish I could say these were exceptions, but unfortunately, as I’m sure you’ve all experienced, they’re not. Through seventeen years of my career, I’ve faced a slew of them. “You’re a woman yet you’re good at Math.” “But you’re a female manager, I expect you to be more caring and warm.” “Can you smile more in meetings? You need to be better light.”
Anu Bharadwaj: Like any average person, I have strengths and weaknesses that I try to improve on. As I diligently worked on the feedback I received, I grew increasingly frustrated with how unfair it was. I was intimidating, but a man exhibiting the same behavior was an assertive leader. Turns out I was not alone. Nearly all my women coworkers were going through a similar obstacle race of double standards.
Anu Bharadwaj: What’s worse, unconscious bias did not spare women either. There were many instances of women judging other women unfairly. That’s when inspiration struck. One of my favorite childhood PC games is Wolfenstien 3D. I’m not sure if any of you played this before, but I loved playing this on my PC Pentium 486. It had four interestingly named difficulty levels, the image at the bottom. So the gamer in me decided that being a woman is like playing a video game at the highest level of difficulty. AKA Beast Mode. Sure. Others may have it easier, but I’m going to blaze a trail of glory, defeating 3X the monsters that mere mortals do. Yeah! Bring them on.
Anu Bharadwaj: I confess that this kind of thinking also helped with my guilt. Having worked with nonprofits for over a decade. I understand how severe gender inequity is. Women lose wealth, health, and even in their lives due to this. It gets worse for women of color.
Anu Bharadwaj: Compared to that, surely the inconvenience I faced in my cushy little tech job as an engineer was too insignificant to matter. But there is no hierarchy of suffering. Injustice, no matter big or small, should not be normalized. So while playing in Beast Mode can be gratifying for all of you gamers out there, I’m sure you will agree. It should be a choice, not a default expectation.
Anu Bharadwaj: To win in Beast Mode, we need allies. In the recent hackathon, we rounded up as many allies at Atlassian as we could. We called it our Atlassian allies Trello board. This is a virtual gathering of men and women that are willing to help sponsor, mentor, and champion women. As we power through various levels of career, no matter which function we are, allies also help identify and reinforce sources of resilience while sharing their own sources. Like I spoke before, I will share three of my sources of resilience today and hope that this sparks some inspiration for you to think about how to fortify your own sources of resilience.
Anu Bharadwaj: Starting with lead with your strengths. In 2016, when travel was still a thing…Wow, do you actually remember those times, when we could get on a plane and fly? I took one year off. I took all of 2016 off as a sabbatical to go work on wildlife conservation projects around the world. I’m a bit of an animal nerd. I love working with animals. I worked with penguins in Antarctica, rehabilitated lions in Africa, set up traps to capture cheetahs in Namibia so we could put GPS collars on them and protect them from poaching.
Anu Bharadwaj: And through this time I was introduced to an organization called IAPF, Africa’s first all women, anti-poaching unit. When the founder of IAPF, an army veteran started setting up anti-poaching units, he noticed that the units with women performed way better protecting wildlife than men. Despite the job traditionally being held only by men. He noticed that the women were better at convincing the community to protect wildlife for their own economy. They were more creative in coming up with solutions that didn’t need force and more courageous in ferociously protecting the animals entrusted to their care.
Anu Bharadwaj: He turned around and created an all women anti-poaching unit. They’re called Akashinga, which means Brave Ones. These are women who have had to be deeply resilient in overcoming abuse, poverty, and trauma. When you notice how they build this resilience, the first thing they do is lead with their strengths, courage, creativity, and collaboration. Often on the quest for growth, we focus on our weaknesses and work hard to round them off. While this is important, it is also important to remember that your strengths are your greatest asset.
Anu Bharadwaj: The reason they’re your strengths is because you are happiest, most productive and engaged while using them. Focusing on using your strengths, allows you to operate from a place where you have the resilience to successfully overcome your weaknesses and further build out your skills. Over the past few years, I’ve been leading a big change at Atlassian. We shifted our company from an entirely on-premise product line to cloud native SaaS offerings.
Anu Bharadwaj: This might be not just a technical rewrite of our cloud platform, but a fundamental shift in the DNA of our company. How we build our products, run our products, sell our product, support our products. What we measure in financial and operational metrics. For a company at nearly $2 billion run rate, 7,500 employees, and millions of active users. This meant an all encompassing change. As I pondered the responsibility for leading this technological and business shift, it was scary to think about the enormity of this change.
Anu Bharadwaj: When you think of crucial issues, there is often a range called the Overton window. Typically, the view held by the public tends to be on some range of either left or right of current status score. This is where normalcy is. Take, for example, climate change, racial inequality. Most people acknowledge it’s a problem. Some believe we should take strong measures, some advocate leniency. But overall, there are reasonable policies in a spectrum that most people subscribe to.
Anu Bharadwaj: When you start a movement like civil rights or anti-racism, you have a chance to pull that window in one direction or another. As a leader, you have to shift the frame of reference that the general public starts to realize that the radical option, the unthinkable option is not really as unthinkable as we imagined, shifting the frame of reference of an entire population. That is the stuff that social movements are made of. For a smaller moment like a cloud shift at Atlassian, the same principle applies where you shift thinking from let’s hedge our bets across server on-premise and cloud to let’s go all in on cloud.
Anu Bharadwaj: As a leader, my personal style is to be the activist. The person that shifts the Overton window. Doing that energizes me and drives me to work even harder at making ambitious results possible. A few years ago, it was unthinkable to have majority of customers on cloud.
Anu Bharadwaj: Today over 95% of our customers choose our cloud products. Dozens of our largest enterprise customers start on cloud right away instead of waiting to migrate. Leading the cloud shift at Atlassian has allowed me to exercise my skills. Where I didn’t just lead with courage, but also lead with love as entire teams inside and outside Atlassian had to fundamentally change their business model and way of working. Such change can be scary, but when met with empathy and integrity, people realize that this change is possible.
Anu Bharadwaj: Change can be messy and chaotic, but it can also be real there towards progress. Ultimately, when you start a movement as a leader, people follow you when you deploy your strengths to help others. I have found that choosing work that will challenge you by letting you lead with your strengths is a good way of maintaining energy and growth. It keeps you resilient enough to learn from setbacks and to remain pressing on progress. Even when you find the work to be difficult. If you consistently find yourself spending most of your time doing work that you hate at work, that doesn’t utilize any of your net strengths, that is a red flag for burnout.
Anu Bharadwaj: The second source of resilience I fall back on is self-care. Self-care is never selfish. It is merely good stewardship of the sole resource that you have to serve others and do good in the world. Paying attention to how you feel helps notice sparks of burnout before it turns into a raging fire.
Anu Bharadwaj: Women are typically very good at caring for others, but often ignore themselves. In the name of multitasking, we find it hard to make time for ourselves, but productivity is about managing our energy more than our time. Find the simple acts that restore your energy and replenish you. For me, that is going on a daily run, Telegram chats with my best friend in Sydney, even just my morning coffee and croissant.
Anu Bharadwaj: Making time for yourself among the demands of work and home can especially be hard now in these pandemic-ravaged times, but goes along when building your energy stores, like we talked about at the beginning of a kickoff. The physical isolation of COVID exacerbates feelings of loneliness in all of us. Restoring energy is one thing, but in a world where we cannot be with people we love and feel connected to, paying attention to connectedness is helpful.
Anu Bharadwaj: Personally, I longed for a feeling of connectedness with the universe. For me, it is nature and science that quench the thirst, the mere act of hugging a tree or looking up at the stars, suits me. I marvel at how small we are, yet tightly connected to the fabric of the cosmos. Whether nature, science, religion, or spirituality, find whatever nourishes your inner life and makes you feel connected to a larger whole.
Anu Bharadwaj: My silver lining of working from home, or like Sukrutha said, living at work during the pandemic has been the ability to do silly and fun home projects like this 3D printed picnic bench for squirrels to have a rooftop party. I could literally see them just beyond my monitor, enjoying the sun and seeds outside my window. Made time for your silly source of joy and connectedness.
Anu Bharadwaj: And last but not the least, one big source of resilience for me has been the ability to pay it forward. This is one of my favorite photos with my mother. I lost her to cancer when I was a teenager. When my mother died, she made me promise I wouldn’t quit school, that I would finish my education, get a job and be financially independent. As a teenager, I didn’t understand why she was saying that. I thought, what’s the big deal with education. My dad was the sole breadwinner for a large family, three kids to raise, but thanks to his perseverance I did finish school and landed at a tech job, which ensure and remain financially independent for the rest of my life.
Anu Bharadwaj: What I did not realize as a teenager, I understood fully well as an adult. Education is a slow multi-generational change, but the most sustainable one that we have found yet. Educating girls, in particular, leads to fewer children, healthier families, and overall rising prosperity.
Anu Bharadwaj: The best way we have of making the world a better place is through funding education for girls. Over the past few years, I’ve been doing my small part in that through the Atlassian Foundation. Atlassian Foundation is a nonprofit that funds education projects for underprivileged kids around the world. I started out on the Board of Directors of the foundation five years ago, and now serve as the Chairperson for the board.
Anu Bharadwaj: The work that I do in this role is deeply meaningful to me with the impact on kids’ lives through the grants we fund being immediately obvious. In the past year with COVID, this work has become more important than ever. As girls and women in low income countries have been disproportionately devastated by the pandemic. Giving back and paying it forward helps me retain perspective in distressing times and building resilience to keep going and help others as much as I can.
Anu Bharadwaj: Those were my three sources of resilience: leading with strengths, self-care, and paying it forward. I hope this sparks some inspiration for you to think about your own sources of resilience. I would love to hear what those are. Drop me a line. As we all gather here virtually, here’s an interesting study related to resilience. Typically, we believe that when people experience stress, our instinct is to either stand and fight or flee as fast as possible.
Anu Bharadwaj: Researchers now suspect that women have a larger behavioral repertoire than just fight or flight. It seems that the female stress response has a buffer instead that encourages us to tend and befriend instead. When women become stressed, the response can be to nurture those around them and reach out to others, to build community. How do we go from fight or flight to tend and befriend? That is an interesting question to consider, as we think about how to combat stress and increase resilience.
Anu Bharadwaj: Wrapping up, if there was one thought that I could leave all of you with, here it is. All through the last year we’ve all had difficulties, personal loss and deprivation. When we encounter people day-to-day we have no idea what they have had to deal with. When someone appears distracted, tired, or even angry, respond with love and forgiveness. Remember you got here because someone did this for you and tomorrow someone else will get to where they want to be because of you.
Anu Bharadwaj: With your resilience, help others build resilience around you. I wanted to close this talk with one of my favorite poems that I think about often when I look up at the sky, please pardon my amateur drawing skills. I took out my iPad and pencil and drew this up the woman with a crazy head on the bench is me and the cat beside me is my companion Timtam who’s sleeping there in that little cathouse. We like watching stars with me. The poem goes like this.
Anu Bharadwaj: How should we like it were stars to burn, with a passion for us we could not return? If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me!
Anu Bharadwaj: With that, thank you so much. Love you all. Stay resilient, healthy, and happy, and enjoy the rest of your day at Elevate.
Angie Chang: Thank you so much Anu, that was amazing.
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Angie Chang: Now, it’s time for our next session. Thank you, Ashley. We’re going to have Iliana Montauk join us. She is the CEO of Manara and she will be speaking today in a Fireside Chat. I’ll let her introduce herself.
Iliana Montauk: Hi, everyone. My name is Iliana and I’m the founder of Manara. I’m going to be sharing with you guys what it’s like to be a woman engineer in places like Gaza and how important it is to receive mentorship during that journey from Gaza to Google. I am joined by Dimah. Dimah, would you like to introduce yourself?
Dimah Zaidalkilani: Hi everyone. My name is Dimah Zaidalkilani. I’m a Director of Product Management at GitHub. I’m excited to be joining Iliana to talk about my experience and how we started my career and throughout and how I’ve been a mentor and a mentee and how it’s impacted my career.
Iliana Montauk: Do you want to go first maybe Dimah, by sharing your own personal experience as a mentee?
Dimah Zaidalkilani: Sure. I started as a Product Manager at Microsoft and it was straight out of college or university in my home country, in Palestine. The first stage I got to be a mentee was at the time it was my boyfriend then, my husband now, who helped mentor me through the experience of getting the right resources, to knowing how to navigate, how to train for interviews and what resources I needed. He was studying Computer Science at University of Washington.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: I was studying at a local university in Palestine. So, I did not have as many resources. I did not have access to career fairs that he got access to. So, when I passed the initial interview with Microsoft, he shared all the links with me and guided me through what it’s going to be like for interviewing. Spoiler alert. I got accepted at Microsoft and have been working as a PM at Microsoft and now GitHub. So, that was the first step.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: The second step of being a mentee was when I joined, it was just like a shell shock. Everything was different. It was a new culture, new acronyms and corporate related concepts and all. I was fortunate to have a peer mentor who was on the same team assigned to me. He helped me throughout understanding all of the difficulties. I felt like I always had an ally in the room, talking about what we were going through.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: Of course, the imposter syndrome was kicking in hard in the first few months and it never goes away, but it was really aggressive in the first few months, like what am I doing here? Am I equal to the other people in the room? But, he was always there as an ally, keeping me grounded, rooted, to understand I do belong there. I have a lot to offer.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: It was just the lingo that I needed to get the agile practices that we needed to understand. So, from both those experiences, I felt like… I made a promise to myself. Whatever experience I had six months into the job, doesn’t matter, I’m going to give back to either people around me, newcomers to the company, interns or even cross borders in different parts.
Iliana Montauk: How often did you need mentorship at that beginning stage when Imposter Syndrome was especially strong, when you had just arrived from Palestine to Microsoft?
Dimah Zaidalkilani: Always. Every day. I used to write a list of the questions. My manager at the time was great also at mentoring where between him and my mentor, I would have many, many questions and I would go… It’s only 30 minutes from a mentee’s perspective, from a mentor’s perspective. But, those 30 minutes, be the fact that they were there, they answered my questions, made me excited to bring more. I didn’t take that for granted. I appreciated their time. I wanted to make sure that I’ve used it, but it helped a lot because you feel like once we’re on the same level, we understand the lingo and now your creativity gets to kick in as a mentee. Then you feel like, Oh, I have a lot to offer to the table just like everyone else. It was just great in helping with that.
Iliana Montauk: I know we’re going to talk later. I would like to talk later about your experience now that you’re a leader in the product team, mentoring people. But, just before we go to that, what you were saying resonated with me so much. I went to Harvard and became a PM later and of all people, with that background, I feel like I should have been confident. I grew up in Silicon Valley and still I felt Imposter Syndrome the whole first year or two that I was a PM. I needed someone to almost daily tell me how much they believed in me.
Iliana Montauk: One of the reasons that I started Manara is because Palestine is just full of people like you, who are so, so talented, but there’s that last little gap sometimes of getting that first job or then being confident during your first six months in that job.
Iliana Montauk: Just a little bit of background in Manara and how we engage mentors with Manara. Manara is a program that helps the top engineers in the Arab region, starting with Palestine, get their dream jobs at global tech companies. It came out of an experience where I was running a startup accelerator in Gaza, which was funded by Google.
Iliana Montauk: Google had done a developer outreach event in Tel Aviv and then they got invited to do one in the West Bank and then in Gaza. When they were there, they were just overwhelmed with the amount of talent, how smart people were, how much they were interested in tech, studying technology, spoke fluent English, but just not connected to jobs and unemployment, it’s like 70% for recent college grads in Gaza, right? It’s crazy.
Iliana Montauk: They launched this program in Gaza, which then I started to run and I had that same experience of meeting tons of people like Dimah, people like my co-founder now, Layla, who were super sharp, but didn’t necessarily have jobs locally. So, at Manara, we’ve been helping both women and men, but with a really strong focus on women, first, just even dream of getting a job at a place like Google because that part is a really important step.
Iliana Montauk: People don’t realize that they could get a job at a company like Google. They think that that’s only for people who are brilliant and they don’t realize that they are.
Iliana Montauk: The way that we tackle that imposter syndrome, which at the time, I didn’t even know the term imposter syndrome and I didn’t even realize that’s what we were tackling, is by bringing people like Dimah or like my co-founder Layla who became a senior software engineer at Nvidia, to them just doing even calls like this over Zoom or even better, people who are not even from the Arab world, working at these companies and just meeting with them one-on-one or in groups. They realize coming out of those, whether it’s a training session or a mentorship session or whatever, they go, “Oh, this person is actually not that different from me. I guess I could work here.”
Iliana Montauk: And from there, Manara involves volunteers from tech companies around the world to teach these participants how to interview, because interviewing is a specific skill. Dimah, I don’t know how you did it, but I know that for our participants, they have all the talent and tech background that they need for the job. They’re graduating with computer science degrees. They’re already engaged in competitive programming competitions globally. But, what they don’t have is how to interview and especially at companies like Google, Facebook.
Iliana Montauk: There’s that very specific data structures and algorithms interview, which they’re totally unprepared for and so we teach them how to do that. We engage people from the tech sector globally to do mock interviews with them. It’s by doing these mock interviews that they then are ready and by the time they end up at Google, we recently had actually a 71% referral to hire rate at Google thanks to that.
Iliana Montauk: One of our participants, Dahlia, she’s a 19 year old from Gaza. She now has an internship at Google lined up for the summer. We were just talking to her last week and she was like, “Look, there’s no way I could have done this without these mentors,” because not only were the mentors doing mock interviews with her, I think the women mentors took a special interest in her because she’s a woman and gave her extra consistency of meeting with the same person every week and getting tips. Often, what I’ve noticed is that the women mentors in our network have a different approach than the men. They think more like our women participants. So, they’ll be like, “Oh, this is how I do it.”, “Oh, yes, don’t worry. It’s normal to feel nervous talking out loud in an interview. So, just write on a piece of paper for one minute first and then start talking.”
Iliana Montauk: Those kinds of tips end up really helping our participants be successful. So, that’s what we’re up to and why it’s important for us to have a network of mentors. I’m curious, Dimah, now that you’ve had a chance of being on the other side, what is that experience like?
Dimah Zaidalkilani: Yeah, it’s been great. Thank you so much for sharing such an inspiring story about how you and Layla have been working on Manara and it’s been great watching the journey. For me, I’ve been trying to, as I said, seeing how much it impacted me, starting with mentoring me through the interview, getting the job, to actually being in the company and then seeing how mentorship really impacted me and my confidence in the first six months. I wanted to give back, not just in the company and or locally, but also in different countries. So, I signed up to be a mentor with TechWomen and funny enough, I learned about TechWomen when I was still senior student in the university. I saw how it actually, Oh, let me tell you what TechWomen is. TechWomen is a program that brings women from different countries like in the middle East and Africa, Southeast Asia, sorry, South Asia to go and experience being in tech companies in the Bay area for five to six weeks.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: They get a chance to have an internship in some of the companies in the Silicon Valley. I saw as a participant that went there and came back were creating programs to engage more girls to get into coding and back in Palestine, also other opportunities to give back to local community. So, what TechWomen focuses on is to empower women to be leaders in STEM opportunities in their communities. So, I wanted to be a part of it, but at the time it required industry experience.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: And then fast forward, I was a PM at Microsoft and I really wanted to give back and mentor in TechWomen. I’ve been doing that for three years and it’s been such an amazing experience to learn from these amazing women who are sometimes Product Managers in companies in Palestine, Lebanon or different countries. But, also you learn a lot how common the challenges we’re facing at work. It’s been really great, the opportunity to mentor these women and knowing that they will go back to their home countries and give back to the communities and then they can inspire more women to be in tech and start the cycle all over again. I’ve been mentoring there for three years now and it’s been a great, great opportunity to meet women from different countries I haven’t gotten a chance to learn about.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: But, locally within the industry, I’ve also been trying as much as I can to ensure I’m spending at least an hour or 30 minutes, even, every week to mentor other Product Managers, other interns within the industry and if anybody is on the fence about mentorship, I feel like there are a few things I wanted to mention. I understand that if the experience is different for different folks. Time for maybe women in the industry could be different. Having different… We already know that this is already a challenge, but this is my own experience. I encourage people or the audience to kind of tailor it to how it suits them depending on the time they have and depending on the opportunities they have.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: Ffirst of all, as I’ve been working in tech for a while, I’ve been thinking of what is the sense of purpose there. We get too stuck in the different releases, different sprints, having this to build this feature or this product. Just, at the end of the day, I feel sometimes I did not have the sense of purpose of what am I doing and at some point at the beginning, I actually debated leaving tech into some other industry because I wasn’t feeling that fulfillment, until I started mentoring.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: It just makes me happier that whatever goes wrong, whatever happened that week, I know at least within this 30 minutes, I was able to do something and impact someone’s day, even just that for an hour, feel listened and trying to coach them. So, definitely I feel like mentorship is giving the sense of purpose that a lot of us in tech lack. The other one is, it helped me pave my path to management.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: The more I was mentoring, the more it becomes natural to you to be a leader, to be a coach, rather than an instructor. It comes when you were mentoring, you can not just tell people like, Oh, this is the situation you’re going into. Here’s how I would fix it. It’s more of let’s talk through it. Let’s understand the challenges. Here’s how I would think about it and get to the resolution at the same time. So, it’s helped a lot in growing this muscle of coaching and leadership that helped me get to management, probably sooner than it would have if I were not a mentor.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: Finally, self-confidence. We talked a lot about Imposter Syndrome, but it gives you that sense of validation that when your mentee or the person you’re chatting with, talking about a problem, in that it comes natural to you. Like, “Oh, I know how to fix this.”, “Oh, look. This is how far I’ve become. Two years ago, this was like the dilemma of my week.” So, just chatting with them about it gives you a sense that I’ve come so far and it can ease down the Imposter Syndrome that because it reminds you of the things you’ve accomplished. The fact that maybe in the first six months or one year getting interrupted at a meeting was the worst thing that could have happened, that shook your confidence and now when you hear it, it’s like, “Oh, I understand. I empathize. Here’s how I think about it and here’s what we could do about it.”
Dimah Zaidalkilani: So, all through all this, just have been rewarding and makes you just whatever goes wrong that week or that month you know, at least, you got a chance to impact someone and help them, regardless at what level in the career it is. Whether it’s an intern, whether it’s a new industry hire or a new college, this 30 minutes for you, it could seem like I have to squeeze it in between this executive briefing and this conversation with our CTO or whatever, but it’s really important because it has impact. Like you said, Iliana, it has impact not just for the person it’s like that person will one day want to give back and then could trickle down to a lot of great things that we can have in the community.
Iliana Montauk: Yeah. It’s definitely creating a flywheel effect. We already see that the Manara candidates who have gone to Google are coming back and mentoring the next candidates on how to get in and how to be successful there. I know we only have a few minutes left. I don’t see anything in the Q & A, so I did just want to respond to some comments in the chat. One is, “So glad to hear you guys are helping people around the world,” and I just want to be clear like, yes, this is helping them and that’s so, so important.
Iliana Montauk: And it’s also helping these tech companies, right? When you’re making the case at your company to make time for this, don’t just position it as a social impact initiative. Tell them, we need the best talent at our company and the Manara volunteers who are interviewing or mentoring women from Gaza or other parts of the Middle East are spotting the best talent early and then they’re recruiting them into their companies and companies are more successful when they’re diverse and women have the most powerful soft skills that are going to rule the world and the tech skills, as well, right?
Iliana Montauk: That’s one important thing and then also mentorship doesn’t have to take a long time. So like, yes, if you’re in a company 30 minutes a week, or 30 minutes a day, is really valuable if you can do that. But, you can find other opportunities. In Manara, you can show up and just do one mock interview per month and that already is making a difference and you’ll find out later if that person got into the company or not.
Iliana Montauk: I do see a few quick questions. So, I’ll go ahead and start answering them. Some of the top tech universities in Gaza, there’s Islamic University, there’s UCAS, there’s University of Palestine. There’s at least six universities in Gaza and the West Bank, which is also, Palestinian is two pieces. There’s Birzeit, there’s An-Naja, et cetera.
Iliana Montauk: Then how do you go about mentorship relationships? Is it formal or informal? I’ll let Dimah speak to TechWomen, but I think it’s basically formal in both cases.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: Yeah, I think it’s-
Iliana Montauk: Go ahead.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: It depends definitely on where it is. I would say if it was within the same team, I would try to make it a bit formal, talk to the manager, if you share the same manager, to make sure that whatever guidance you’re giving is aligned with the management. So, it can be informal, of course. It could be over coffee or Zoom or tea every once in a while. It depends how it is. Is it a long-term? You’ve been mentoring someone or you want to mentor someone over two years or short-term over a project.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: Definitely, my advice is if you want it to be formal or you’re closer to them working on the same project, definitely discuss it with the manager, just so that we make sure that it’s kind of like you’re giving the same direction. If it’s informal, there’s no need to discuss it, but making sure that you have conversation about career goals or challenges.
Iliana Montauk: I saw you were responding to the question on the chat about how to get involved as a mentor, if you’re brand new in a company organization. One thing to do is to join external organizations that need your mentorship. Mentor someone from a different country that might really benefit from your perspective of recently getting in. Mentor people who were recently at your college, university, about how to make the leap that you just made. Those are just a few ideas.
Iliana Montauk: I know we’re at time, but maybe Dimah has one more thought to add.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: I just type my answer, so hopefully.
Iliana Montauk: Okay.
Dimah Zaidalkilani: But, definitely interns is the biggest source and it’s reaching out sometimes to HR to know if there’s any internal ERGs that you can join within the company to know what connections you could have. But, it’s amazing that you’re already new at the company and reaching out to nail this, so kudos to you, for sure.
Iliana Montauk: Yeah. How are we on time, Angie? I have to run. Sukrutha, go ahead.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you so much, Iliana and Dimah. This was amazing. We saw some great comments in the chat, appreciating all the information they learned from you.
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Sukrutha Bhadouria: Faylene is Director of digital marketing platform operations at NVIDIA. She provides global leadership on web technology, e-commerce, personalization, and new digital experiences. Faylene worked with the leading corporations, such as AT&T, Digitas, American Express, American Cancer Society, and much, much more.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Welcome, Faylene.
Faylene Bell: I am trying to tee this up, so hopefully you all can hear me okay and see me.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yes.
Faylene Bell: Alrighty. So that was awesome. I enjoyed Anu’s motivational speak. It was about self-care, strengths, paying it forward. I was like, “Yeah! That’s awesome.”
Faylene Bell: I’m going to actually do a little pivot and talk a little bit about marketing and some digital marketing best practices.
Faylene Bell: So a little bit about me and who I am and why I’m here. I’m actually Faylene Bell. And I work for a company called NVIDIA. We are known very much in the PC gaming space. We also do quite a bit when it comes to high powered computers, and I am a director of digital marketing platform operations. And you’re like, “What is that?”
Faylene Bell: So when you think about nvidia.com, our digital marketing footprint from a website perspective, I’m responsible for the operations behind that, keeping our site up and running, efficient, smooth sailing, 24-7. So that’s my role here at NVIDIA.
Faylene Bell: I have many years of experience in marketing, working across many different brands, really working on digital strategies, marketing technology stacks, providing advice, consulting, running campaigns, running results. You name it, I’ve done it.
Faylene Bell: And I have a whole lot of experience to share about lessons learned in the corporate workspace, being an African-American woman in a male-dominated world. But that’s another talk. Today, I’m going to kind of focus on the marketing aspect and some tips and suggestions that I’ve picked up along the way.
Faylene Bell: I got my credentials in marketing way back when, and as I’ve mentioned, I’ve worked at some large brands. I’ve had really the benefit of living in multiple cities across the US. I’ve spent some time in New York. I worked at American Express. I started my career off in Chicago. I was in Atlanta, most recently. Worked at AT&T, American Cancer Society, a digital agency, and now I’m here at NVIDIA, and I’ve been here in the San Francisco Bay Area for two years now. Been married almost 19 years, and I have two teenagers. So that’s a little bit about me and my background.
Faylene Bell: So I’m going to kind of talk about the topics that I’m going to share today. One, I want to just share more about what is the optimal digital journey from a customer perspective and some best practices and tips and suggestions to align your strategies and then also sprinkle in some industry examples.
Faylene Bell: So McKinsey & Company did this study and released this. And this is probably not new news to many of you because we’re still in a pandemic, even though the vaccinations are out there, and I’m ready to raise my hand and get mine. Really, a lot of companies are still trying to accelerate how fast they should go as part of this digital transformation. How can they take their brick and mortar approach and strategy, make sure it’s online and just be there for customers across all different types of platforms and channels.
Faylene Bell: The one thing I can say is some of the companies who haven’t really focused on this as a strategy for the last couple of years, they’re scrambling. And so they’re also having to figure out how to prioritize all of this work and make this shift. So it was really important to have a strategy in place because you are up against time. You probably have limited resources. So if you’re not necessarily in the digital space, you probably are feeling a lot more constraints than other industries that have always been focusing on a digital platform strategy.
Faylene Bell: Fortunately, I’ve always been in the digital marketing space, so I was probably ahead of my time way back when, and I’ve enjoyed the reaped benefits of us being in this virtual environment because I’ve been busy as ever and being able to push a lot more.
Faylene Bell: So what is the optimal digital customer experience? It’s really about five key pillars that I’ll talk about.
Faylene Bell: One, I think you need to make sure you have a scalable and a fluid web platform. You also need to make sure customer navigation is seamless. No friction. Have a very easy purchasing journey, dynamic and digestible content, and top notch customer service.
Faylene Bell: Getting background noise from somebody on the panel. Hopefully, they mute it. It’s hard with digital, and I can’t see you all.
Faylene Bell: So those are five pillars that I feel really encompass the optimal digital customer journey.
Faylene Bell: So first, I want to talk about web development. Prioritizing your website design and development is key, and it’s really the foundation of anything when you think about digital marketing, digital strategies, having a digital presence. Mobile-first design, no brainer, but you’d be surprised how many brands still build templates, websites, experiences with a desktop mentality first.
Faylene Bell: You need to think about how customers are looking at your experiences on their mobile device. And that’s where you start. Then you supplement with desktop, but mobile-first is critical. Responsive web is how many companies are doing that from a web platform perspective.
Faylene Bell: The second thing, chatbots. So you might get these little irritating pop-up chat. You’re like, “What is this?” It’s actually a service. It’s managed by rules behind the scenes, and there’s logic behind that. And companies use strategies to inject the chat at places where it makes the most sense within the customer journey.
Faylene Bell: If you’re on the billing page, that might be a great place to inject a chatbot because customers may have questions about their bills, or they might need help with troubleshooting. Well, it may make more sense to inject that dialogue there to help customers overcome their task, whatever it is they’re trying to achieve versus just having a generic chat on the home page.
Faylene Bell: I’m not really trying to do much on the homepage other than look around and try to figure out the navigation. So there’s strategies behind when the chatbot should appear. All the logic behind the scenes or rules in place, it’s very critical to make sure that’s included in your strategy on both mobile and desktop.
Faylene Bell: The third thing is when you think about the web, your design is really key. Of course, you need to have bold colors. You need to also make sure all of your design elements from a UX perspective are accessibility approved.
Faylene Bell: Think about… there are millions of people that are visually impaired or hearing impaired. They actually use devices such as screen readers to help read out loud all the content on your site. So you actually have to design and develop tools so that accessibility is not an obstacle for customers to engage with you on your site.
Faylene Bell: Push notifications. We get a lot of these sometimes when you’re shopping. It’s a strategy behind that as well just like chatbots. When does it make sense? When is it too much? What kind of material, what kind of information should be pushed to customers? Opting in is absolutely critical and to that entire strategy behind push notifications.
Faylene Bell: And the last thing I’ll just mention, GDPR, and you may be like, “What is that?” So this is really something that was driven out of the European environment. When you think about data protection, making sure me, as a consumer, I can opt in, and I can say, “Hey, I want you to share all my data with me that you have on me. And guess what? I want you to delete that.”
Faylene Bell: That’s, at a high level, what GDPR is all about, and companies have to adhere to that. You’ll see those banners showing up on the sides. Do you want us to track you? Can you accept the cookies? Delete the cookies? All that’s connected. You need to make sure you’ve got the infrastructure in place to support that.
Faylene Bell: In Europe, there’s laws. There’s hefty fines. Here in the States, we are adopting it more and more and eventually, it will be global. Everyone will be doing it.
Faylene Bell: Just some industry examples. I’m not going to go too deep. I do have a limited window here on timing, but Disney really does a great job when you think about responsive web design and their experiences across multiple platforms and what they’ve been able to actually put out there to date.
Faylene Bell: The next thing I’m going to talk about is seamless experiences. Creating a seamless digital experience, again, more so of an emphasis now because it’s less about brick and mortar. It’s more about the online presence and what you’re doing.
Faylene Bell: So companies have to build a cohesive presence and make sure that you’re able to pick up the customer journey regardless of what channel they’re tapping into. Many people… I’ll start off on my mobile device, looking at Neiman Marcus, shopping, which I shouldn’t be doing, but I do a lot of that because it’s COVID. I then log into my laptop, join a bunch of Webex calls for work. During lunch break, I might go to the Neiman Marcus site, get busy, distracted, back to working. In the evening. I’m picking up my iPad, back on Neiman Marcus. I’m one customer, and I’ve just hit up Neiman Marcus on three different platforms.
Faylene Bell: It’s important to understand where I am in my journey and all the different touch points that I might be using on a regular basis. So that’s important when you think about the seamless experience across those.
Faylene Bell: Some players in the market that are killing it when it comes to seamless experience, to me, Apple. Just look at the experience offline, online, integration, definitely things to think about.
Faylene Bell: Purchasing journey. So I’ve had the pleasure of working for many brands that e-commerce was a very big initiative. It was about how we can generate online sales and make conversions from visitors, prospects, and even customers. So there’s four key things, I think, when you’re thinking about the digital experience, the journey, and things that companies need to make sure they’ve incorporated.
Faylene Bell: When you’re shopping online, you want to have trust, reliability, those basic things like assurance that where I’m trying to purchase is legitimately your company. Don’t take me off to some wacky little domain that has nothing with your URL on it. You need to be consistent with those experiences.
Faylene Bell: Clear action items in the checkout cart, adding a cart, simple UI thing that so many brands miss the mark. Make it very, very easy for people to know, “This is what I need to do. This is how many items I have.”
Faylene Bell: And connecting with customers, and I’ll say this over and over again. Do not hide customer contact information. Make it very easy for customers to call you, email you, chat with you, something, but a lot of brands hide it. And there’s cost reasons behind that. It’s expensive to have call centers up and running and providing all the support, even now. So that’s been the strategy behind why you don’t find it as available on a lot of sites.
Faylene Bell: Progress bar. When you’re going through that purchasing journey, it’s helpful to know where you are. It’s also helpful to have a lot of auto-completion logic built in. Why am I having to enter the same information or my shipping when I already told you and clicked the box that said, “It’s the same as my billing.” Auto-populate all that information.
Faylene Bell: And then, offering a guest checkout. Not everyone wants to sign up and register as a customer, so give customers and prospects that opportunity to do that on the end after they’ve made the purchase.
Faylene Bell: Examples of players that are really doing this really well online, Amazon.
Faylene Bell: Let me talk about dynamic content. So it’s important to have content that’s digestible. People do not want to read a bunch of stuff. They want to watch videos. They want to get bite-sized information from brands. Think about even TikTok. 15 seconds is enough. You don’t need necessarily a lot, a lot of content. So this is the trend. It’s going to continue to grow and definitely be more prominent.
Faylene Bell: Metrics from… I’m a marketer, core to my heart, been doing it for many years, and you’ve got to have metrics and marketing logic and numbers behind what it is you’re doing and why and how you’re tracking it, and use that information to help make decisions about content that’s working, content that’s not working, more content that’s needed
Faylene Bell: Examples. Think about Netflix. You have Recommended for You. There’s content, there’s logic behind that. Why is it recommended for you? What did you watch last? What are those bite-sized pieces of information and content that you see, and you are just so accustomed to it, you don’t realize all the logic behind that. That’s great marketing.
Faylene Bell: Customer support. Last but not least, you’ve got to provide top notch customer service. Those that are best in class when it comes to customer service, they respond back to any inquiry within 3 hours or even sooner. Some, 12 hours, 24 hours. But even if you can’t respond back with a yes, no, what the option is, invest in automated, generated types of tools that can automatically send a message to anybody who responds or sends you an inquiry within a minute, “Got your information. We’ll be following up. Something, something, something.” Very simple things. You’d be amazed at how many brands and companies skip right over this.
Faylene Bell: I have been also fortunate to work with a lot of brands that have a lot of metrics behind tracking customer feedback, customer satisfaction scores, net promoter scores. You get those little surveys at the end. It’s like, “Hey, how are we today? Did we accomplish what we said we were going to do?” You scale it from 1 to 10. Half of you might have never realized there’s a lot of logic behind that. And a lot of that is feedback on how we adjust our customer service needs based upon the results from those surveys and the information that’s tracked. That’s important. It aligns to great customer service, based upon what you’re saying is not helpful or is helpful.
Faylene Bell: And the last point, don’t hide information. Make it available to customers. Ritz Carlton does some great customer service efforts online and offline.
Faylene Bell: So in summary, some key takeaway points. I think it’s important that you make sure you are profiling your points of differentiation across digital channels in a way where customers expect things from your brand. Enable customers to self-serve and solve common challenges. It will drive satisfaction and loyalty.
Faylene Bell: And then having a long-term mindset, building a framework for continually improving, adapting, and excelling in a changing world. And this is also a personal career tip I share with people that I mentor.
Faylene Bell: You need a flexible mindset as well when you’re working in these changing times and environments. So don’t start a job having that mental mindset where it has to be 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Two weeks from now, I might need you to do 7, 8, 9, 10, and then I’ll give you a little bit more in another month. So you got to be able to adjust fluidly to change.
Faylene Bell: That’s all I have for you today. Thank you so much for your time and allowing me to come on your platform and share more. And I do have a website, faylenebell.com, if you guys want to reach out to me.
Angie Chang: Thank you, Faylene. I love your podcast as well.
Faylene Bell: Thank you.
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Angie Chang: So we have Suzanna joining us — she is a Senior Manager for the Product Security Foundations team and at Slack. She’s built a brand new team within Product Security that’s focused more on proactive security measures by delivering secure by default libraries and services for Slack. So, welcome Suzanna.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: Thank you, Angie. Thank you for nice intro. Hi everyone. Nice to meet you virtually. I’m so excited to be here. Before I start talking about Proactive Security at Slack, I want to also join all the other ladies who spoke before to congratulate you with International Women’s Day. I’m so happy to see that it’s becoming a bigger and bigger event in United States. When I moved to US 25 years ago from Armenia, it was a big event there and it is still there big event, but now I see it getting more and more recognized internationally in this special United States. It’s really special to me, so, Happy International Women’s day to all of you. So as Angie said, I am the Manager for Product Security Foundations Team at Slack, and here, I’m going to talk the next 20 minutes, what we do at Slack in terms of a proactive security measurements especially around product security.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: Quick introduction and background, just in case, we… By the way, I heard lots of great love and feedback in our chat talking about how much you love using Slack, the tool. That’s great. Thank you so much. So, in case of some of you never heard about Slack, quick intro. Slack is basically a collaboration tool that makes your work life much simple, much pleasant and much productive… And more work life, meaning not just your corporate work, it can be anything to do with nonprofit organization, your fun activities, you are planning to do something with your friends and the use cases go forever. So basically, it’s an amazing collaboration tool to make your work done, right? And what we do here in the Slack security team, we want to make sure that we keep that tool for you to be safe, secure, and make sure that your data is safe with you. So basically, we are providing the collaboration platform to make sure that everything, what you do, it is Slack secure and pleasant.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: And what’s our strategy? We provide lots of best spoken reviews, we do lots of automation, ongoing education and production ready components. Basically, anytime we release something for our engineers to start using it and I have a use cases to go through one by one how we do that. Before that also quick history. Today… This year, we are celebrating Slack’s seventh anniversary and as we celebrate Slack’s seventh anniversary, we also have a great history of the security, right? So first actually security, the way it launched our first security engineer was our CTO, Cal Henderson. In 2014, he basically aligned the Bug Bounty program for Slack via HackerOne and he was the first person who was actually triaging the security issues. And then in 2015, as the Slack was growing, they hired the first Engineering Manager who basically started putting plan together and charter for the product security.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: He started hiring more engineers and doing some basically other automations around security development life cycle. As Slack start growing and team growing, in 2018, the current Director of Product Security, Larkin Ryder, took the ownership of the Product Security pillar and she realized that as we’re exponentially growing, we need to make sure we put more measurements in our proactive security, so it’s important to have our traditional product security components in place, such as reviewing, providing consultations, providing some scanning and automations, but we need to make sure that we also look for classes of vulnerabilities and come up with proactive measurements. With that, they hired me in the late of 2019. They hired me as a founding manager for Product Security Foundations team.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: So, what is Foundations team? Just a quick thing is, as I mentioned, we are basically building secure by default libraries and services. We’re providing future proof for Slack, the product, and how we do it, we basically write the code as any other development organization, and we work with other engineers to make sure the code is utilized and used safely by our engineers.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: And how we decide to what kind of work we want to work, what classes of vulnerabilities we want to address. So that’s pretty straight forward. In the beginning, obviously we wanted to make sure that we look at our code base, we understand our potential big classes of vulnerabilities and figure out the best approach, how to build new libraries and services.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: As the team became bigger, as our services became more mature, we also done lots of data analysis, gathering lots of interesting information so to make better data-driven decisions such as our incidents that our back boundary reports, our data that comes from our tooling automations to better understand the classes of vulnerabilities and come up with ways how to solve it and we also marrying that with OWASP top 10. So OWASP top 10, which is The Open Web Application Security Project, those are the known vulnerabilities and we wanted to make sure that we have the right services and libraries to address those issues. And obviously, sometimes also customer demands come our way too, but we’re not feature-facing team, we are more backend team basically working on a future proof and that’s why we are not doing lots of… We don’t have product management working with us, basically we act as a product manager for our team.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: But with that, we also use Slack’s design principles. The most important things, which is very… To make sure that we align with our organization, same way as other engineering teams do, we want to make sure all the libraries and services we’ve write, they don’t make… They are very simple and engineers don’t have to think how they code the service or the library. It has to have great serviceability components in terms of, for us, making sure that our reliability is always up and we don’t want to boil an ocean, we want to make sure we have small, rapid development, prototype the way, do the experiments, learn from it and then move on.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: And most importantly, especially in the security team, we don’t want to reinvent the wheel. If there are all these tools and services there that we can reuse, we definitely going to do it instead of writing from scratch on our own. And the biggest one I want to highlight is the take bigger and bolder steps and that’s basically figuring out like, what can we do? Maybe something that we can invent, we can put lots of efforts to, but if in return we’ll get lots of great benefits securing our product.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: Okay. So as I mentioned, I’m going to talk about the top OWASP top 10 vulnerabilities that we’re trying to prevent with our new secure by default libraries and services. The first one I want to talk about, Broken Authentication and Broken Access Control. That’s a big one. Authentication is very important. It’s also scary. We need to make sure the right people are authenticated to our platform and we make sure that people don’t automatically get these and get reset their passwords or get their password to get stolen or hacked. So what we do, so, first thing about our Crypto library, that was actually the first library that we released for the foundations team. And the… Basically the purpose of this, we know cryptography is very complex, it’s very challenging and we don’t want our engineers, backend engineers, to think about like what type of hashing algorithm to use or what type of encryption algorithm to use.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: We want to provide a library with the right help or functions to do all the job for them. So they don’t have to think about it. They don’t have to unintentionally introduce some potential problems and bugs, and that’s how we introduced our Crypto Library. This is a also great example as an impact for our Slack’s Better Engineering Initiative. So basically, what is a Slack’s Better Engineering Initiative? Whenever you go, you touch a code, you leave that code much better and you don’t try to fix it like small thing, you want to fix it up a very bigger way so it can be used for other engineers, much better and much safer and secure way. So that’s the great impact of Crypto Library. We also made sure we have linters so all the new engineers who come, who trying to use the old libraries that have a linter in place, or they know they have to use the new one.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: The next one is about Magic Logins. So what is Magic Logins? Magic Logins is a very… It’s a unique thing for Slack, but also for some other web applications. But for Slack, basically, if you don’t want to use your password and you can use this Magic Login to authenticate yourself. Obviously, it’s a powerful tool, but potentially also can have a security problem. So when we were looking at our code base, we realized that it has some [inaudible] and legacy code patterns that we wanted to fix it and make it better. And that’s what team actually done. So basically first step was reviewing the code, understanding what’s happening and then providing better documentation, providing better test case coverage, and also framework, which will be much simpler and easier for our engineers to use. This was also amazing core foundation for other future authentication hardening efforts.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: Let’s talk about Injection and Cross Site Scripting. The first example, which is like basically a very important project that our team worked on is Magical Images. So what this does basically, anytime you go to Slack, you upload a video, you upload any type of image, right? A PDF file, your Excel documents, et cetera. It going, it is going to thumbnail that image or that document and basically it goes through Image Magic Library, which used to be called directly in our webapp. So what our team has done, basically, isolated that call to a separate service. That was the brand new service that the team put together last year, beginning of last year. And that was right before we ended… Like we were entering the COVID era. Basically everyone started using Slack, so the usage of slack was exponentially increasing.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: And that was even more scarier to make sure that our brand new service scales and doesn’t produce any serviceability issues and definitely, we didn’t want to make sure we produce any type of outages. So, amazingly, as we launch this service last February and March, it was already in full protection, especially whenever you are uploading files and thumbnailing and we had zero incidents. And the reason why, because the team really put lots of efforts, making sure we had extra test case coverages, making sure we have feature flags and making sure we are going to the production on gradual steps. So right now the biggest impact is basically, we’re processing approximately 300 requests at the peak and image thumbnailing, or any other forms, and which is equivalent to 15 million requests per day. What it does, it dramatically reduces security risk when you are thumbnailing images.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: So what HTML Sanitizer does, basically, whenever you go and post a link in your Slack channel or somewhere, it unfurls the information. So that unfurling basically it has HTML tag. So our service basically makes sure that all these tags are properly sanitized to prevent any potential Cross Site Scripting or Injection Security vulnerabilities. The good thing about this library was that it actually got open source. So other people can come now to Slack HQ repository and use that library if, especially if they are using Hacklang … And I know it’s not many companies use Hacklang, it’s probably Facebook and Slack, but anyways, so it’s there, you can use it and you can contribute it. And this was our first virtual internship project to basically this done by our interns and if you search, use blog on virtual internship at Slack and security, you’ll find all the details about this project and how this project was impactful and meaningful for our interns who are coming back as full-timers to Slack and work for our team this summer.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: Sensitive Data Exposure, that’s another very important security type of vulnerability that, especially with GDPR that came in two years, couple of years ago, and the California data privacy act, European data privacy acts. We know we need to make sure that our customer data stays with them and secure and logs obviously are very powerful tool for our engineers to understand if something goes wrong, but we want to make sure we don’t unintentionally log something that we didn’t want to log. So sensitive information can be channel names, file names. All these information, we don’t want to make sure they are not in our logs. So basically, we wrote a tool to do that, to detect automatically we unintentionally log this type of data and we make sure that it is out of our serach, we get an alert and we take care of it immediately. And there was an amazing talk about just this project by Ryan Slama, who is the engineer in my team.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: So if you are interested in, he did this talk in the Loco Moco Security Conference, so feel free to go and search and look the details about this project. Security Misconfiguration, that’s another important thing. Like you can unintentionally do lots of mistakes and we want to make sure we detect that. For these type of vulnerabilities, we have tons of tools that we actually purchased, or we use as an open source. So, but I’m using just one example, which is a tool the team wrote. Obviously, Slack is on AWS infrastructure and provisioning process can be very complex. So people can unintentionally, basically, bring their own points without proper authentication.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: Obviously, all our sensitive services are behind authentication services, point authentication, but sometimes for some testing purposes, this and that, developers can make mistakes. So basically a range is built to prevent that kind of mistakes because this type of defects we we’re getting from our bug bounty reports all the time, the reports coming… So the bug bounty researchers, this was the easy way, very easy way to detect and find the open end points without proper authentication and we were giving lots of bounties to the researcher, so this was… We knew if we put the tool together, we can easily fix this problem.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: Okay. So the last one I want to quickly talk about, Using Components with Known Vulnerabilities. Again, this is… I’ll talk a little bit about Twistlock. So Twistlock is a tool we purchase from Palo Alto Networks, which basically scans for vulnerabilities in our Kubernetes infrastructure and we didn’t want to invent, we knew, we actually spent lots of time putting pros and cons of all the existing tools there in the even open source, free tools that we can use and we came out with the Twistlock, which provides amazing infrastructure. It provides good reporting that we could easily integrate to our CI pipeline and make sure that we have our infrastructure, Kubernetes infrastructure, without a third party vulnerability. So as we launched this product, we already found dozens of vulnerabilities that we prevented, right? Which could bring buffer overflows or Denial of Service attacks.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: Ossify is another tool. This is another internship project was done on vulnerabilities, but this was the vulnerabilities in our code libraries, not the infrastructure. So this was internship project done by our interns, two summers ago. Another great conference talk about that, 10,000 Dependencies Under the Sea. So I will highly encourage you to go look at it. This was taught, presented at DevCon last summer and with that, I know I only have one more minute. So I just want to say, okay, what’s next? What we are planning to do. There are still… We’ve, all the tools that I talked about or services libraries. It’s like probably 50%. We’ve done more than that. But I wanted just to highlight a few key of them and the most important thing we want to continue our working on the project that produce big impact.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: So we want to harden our authentication, authorization, code base, or we are working on the 2FA hardening close right now and client hardening. We’ve been… The first few years, we’re focusing on [inaudible] backend. Now, we want to start to put some focus on the client side from the security perspective and also look for more types proactive security, such as Early Cross Site warning systems and do… Continue our education and evangelism both internally to our engineers in the backend, as well as to the external community and put lots of focus on efforts on Better Engineering, because all the projects for Foundations team is all around Better Engineering, making the code much better, safer, and proficient to use.
Suzanna Khatchatrian: With that, I want to thank you all for your great time and I’ll go and look, if you have any questions, I’ll answer them. Thank you so much and we are hiring.
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Angie Chang: Our next speaker is Vrushali, who is a VP of product at Carta. She’s building the operating system for venture capitalists. She previously led product at Rocket Lawyer, and she’s passionate about making the world more equitable.
Vrushali Paunikar: Thanks, Angie. All right, Girl Geeks, to start off I have some questions for all of you. How do you find and nurture the best product managers? How do you stand out when you feel like you’re being overlooked or undervalued? How do you thrive in a political environment without losing your sense of self? Fellow leaders, I imagine these are all questions you’ve grappled with. I know I certainly did, and that’s what I want to talk to you about today.
Vrushali Paunikar: All right, so I’m Vrushali Pauniker and I lead the investor services product team here at Carta. My answer to these questions is simple. Focus on solving problems. I will share with you three stories of how this approach has helped me navigate a career into product management and scale to vice president. I will also talk to you about how these experiences have shaped how I think about building teams today.
Vrushali Paunikar: All right, the first story is about how I got into product management. When I graduated from college, I did what a lot of business majors do who don’t know what to do with their lives. I became a strategy consultant. I joined a boutique practice that was developing its own software. As a consultant, I worked on complex analyses to help drive insights for our clients. As a power user of the software, I had a lot of opinions about the improvements that could make my life better. I signed up to be a part-time product analyst, helping our engineering team scope and build features.
Vrushali Paunikar: Many of the features I was assigned were problems I had been solving for our customers. I would spend an hour of every morning working with our engineering team, where I would share my SQL queries and the outputs that we presented to customers. We would talk through user flows, brainstorm the user experience. We would talk about the math and the validation strategies.
Vrushali Paunikar: And then after that hour, I would switch back to my consulting work. This quickly became my favorite hour of the day. It also changed how I thought about my day job. Every predictable and deterministic task was one that could be automated through software. Every complex analytics flow, I started imagining the software workflow that would streamline it.
Vrushali Paunikar: I became obsessed about solving more problems for more customers through software. I was becoming what Jeff Lawson from his 2013 unSEXY Conference talk would call a software person, someone who solves problems with magnetic particles.
Vrushali Paunikar: Two years later, when the firm decided to start its own full-time product management team, I was asked to be one of its seed members. It was this obsession of connecting customer problems to software, and the ability to execute, that made me a clear choice for this team.
Vrushali Paunikar: I had found my calling. So think about the Vrushalis lurking in your org. How might you spot them? How might you create opportunities for them? I’m a big believer in creating internal mobility into product management. Create the opportunity that was created for me. Not only is it my way of paying it forward, it’s also good for business.
Vrushali Paunikar: If you’ve been a hiring manager for product roles, you know that the competition for the best talent is steep. With a little investment, you can nurture the best PMs of tomorrow. By hiring product managers from within your company, you get the advantage of asymmetric information. You can look for the people who demonstrate the skills that lend themselves to a future in product management, the systems thinkers, the structured communicators, the resourceful, and the creative problem solvers.
Vrushali Paunikar: You can also hire from areas of the business where domain knowledge is especially valuable to a particular role in product. Over 50% of my team today came into product management from another role at Carta. Many of them came from services teams and have a deep knowledge of our customer and the venture industry.
Vrushali Paunikar: All right, my second story is one about Rocket Lawyer. So I joined Rocket Lawyer to help democratize the access to justice. About a year into the job, our leadership gathered all the product managers in a room to do our quarterly planning. They had listed all of the R&D priorities, in order, on the whiteboard. And they started assigning each priority to a product manager.
Vrushali Paunikar: Number one, Stan. Number two, Stephanie, Vanessa, Jeff. I held my breath as each name got called out that wasn’t mine. Sure enough, my name got called out last. It was a project to redesign our logged in dashboard. What made matters worse was that it was a project that had had a lot of starts and stops. PMs before me had attempted to tackle this project unsuccessfully. Many of them were no longer at the company.
Vrushali Paunikar: After some private sulking, I decided to embrace the problem. I focused on delivering value to the user, the person who needs legal help. I had a small team, as a function of being the lowest priority project, of just one engineer and one designer. With this team, we decided to take a different approach than our predecessors. We skipped the months of research and planning. Instead, we took a rapid prototyping approach to validate our hypotheses and build towards a minimum lovable product.
Vrushali Paunikar: We learned to do a lot with a little. More importantly, I learned how to get people excited about solving problems with me. My small squad felt a little rebellious, a little bad, but we were the good guys fighting for the user. Slowly, we were drumming up excitement at the company. Our experience was sexy. We were able to show progress instead of just talking about it.
Vrushali Paunikar: Within two months, we launched. We measured the impact and engagement. It was up. After resolving some early performance issues, our experience also improved trial conversion rate. That was unexpected. That project put me on the map. It was a win that no one was counting on. I became known as the product manager who could solve any problem you threw at her.
Vrushali Paunikar: It also won me the right to ask for the projects that I wanted. This credibility and growing track record of solving problems helped me go from an IC to a director of product management at Rocket Lawyer. You don’t have to be put on the most important projects at work. Be a steward to the problem and the user. It will not go unnoticed. Vrushali Paunikar: Today, as a manager of several PM teams, I invest in the teams that show a track record of solving problems. Carta’s CEO, Henry Ward, talks a lot about progress, not activity. “Don’t fall into the activity trap,” he says, “Where people take on a lot, but make little progress on any front.”
Vrushali Paunikar: Oftentimes a team or a manager will collect a bunch of problems and then ask for resources to go solve all of these problems. That’s counterproductive. The signal for investment are the teams that have already shown a high return on investment. For product managers, success is not just about shipping. It is about driving an impact. A person’s problem solving track record is also a big part of how we do performance reviews, promotions, and staffing conversations at Carta. We’re in the process of actually rolling out internal resumes, problem resumes, on an application called Confirm HR.
Vrushali Paunikar: All right, so the third story is of how I withstood the turmoil of a rapidly growing startup and flourished. In 2017, I started talking to a company called eShares. They were set out to fix the income inequality gap by creating more owners. Henry Ward, the CEO, spoke and wrote about building a special type of company driven by first principles.
Vrushali Paunikar: They were deliberate about the way they wanted to run their business. Their manifesto, called eShares 101, laid out the guiding principles for the company. They ranged from inspirational to kooky. I was in. By the time I joined the company, they rebranded to Carta, and our series C had closed. Never had I met a group of people who were so passionate about the problems they were solving. The company’s core principle of, “Always be helpful” was so prevalent. Everyone went out of their way to help me onboard. We would also recall other company principles like do the right thing, data models first, cage match everything, when we ran into day-to-day challenges.
Vrushali Paunikar: Nine months into the job, we closed our series D at an $800 million valuation. This is when things started getting chaotic. We were on the map, on the verge of unicorn status. We started hiring outside execs that told us and Henry to reform our kooky ways. At one point, we removed the eShares principles from the doors of our office conference rooms. Politics started seeping through the various cracks of our rocket ship.
Vrushali Paunikar: At times, it felt like perception mattered more than reality. I felt overwhelmed. I felt overlooked and undervalued. But there was one thing that no one could take away from me. It was the one thing I would hold on to tighter when I felt confused, lost, or sad. It was the ability to wake up every day and solve problems for our customers. I was at Carta to build a platform for venture capital. It would help me shape the future of the industry and its players. It would also help us create more owners.
Vrushali Paunikar: Luckily, this period at Carta did not last long. After a troubling year of execution, Henry took us back to the first principles approach that made us the special company that we were. He published a new version of the eShares 101, this time calling it the Carta identity traits and operating principles. “We are helpful, relentless, unconventional, and kind,” he told us. The atomic unit of Carta, the company, is a problem.
Vrushali Paunikar: He did an audit of the company’s best problem solvers and elevated them. Carta promoted me twice in a matter of months. I now get to play a big part in shaping the company, our culture, and our practices. You too can establish a problem oriented culture at your company. Safi Bahcall in his book, Moonshots, talks about how as an organization grows, employees are put in a position where they are deciding how to best use the units of time.
Vrushali Paunikar: Given an hour, is that hour best spent on one, solving problems, or two, networking and getting ahead? You always want the answer to be number one. That is the higher value activity for your company. Establishing problem oriented culture starts with attracting the right people.
Vrushali Paunikar: To that end, we found that traditional job descriptions just weren’t cutting it. They don’t tell people what problems they’d be solving. They don’t give people a sense of what it’s like to be at the company or work with a particular team. Data also shows that traditional job descriptions often filter out women and underrepresented minorities when they feel like they don’t meet all the criteria.
Vrushali Paunikar: So last year, along with our Chief People Officer and the person who is now our Chief Marketing Officer, worked together to roll out problem descriptions. Problem descriptions focus on problems, not qualifications. They represent the team and the company in an authentic way. And they also remove all language we know that filters out underrepresented minorities and women. For example, years of experience. Now we tend to hire candidates who are more focused on what problems they’d have the opportunity to solve at Carta versus what their title would be.
Vrushali Paunikar: All right, you also need to make success problem-oriented. When new hires join Carta, and I tell them about what it takes to succeed here, I tell them three simple things. Find the right problem to solve, solve that problem, and tell people you solved that problem. On step one, the emphasis is on, right. The right problem is important, urgent, and one that the company’s willing to trust you with.
Vrushali Paunikar: Too often, I see people run towards shiny objects. Instead, find the problems that need solving, but aren’t getting attention. Remember my experience at Rocket Lawyer where I wasn’t solving the sexiest problem, but still was able to make the most of it. If you’re new to the organization, it’s important to establish trust. You don’t want the first problem you take on to be large and ambiguous. If you fail, the company won’t know if your failure was due to bad execution or because the problem is hard. Plus, you’ll know very little about what it takes to get things done at the company.
Vrushali Paunikar: So start with small and well-defined and work your way up to hard and ambiguous, and the rate at which you make that climb will depend on your seniority. Sometimes you’re going to fail at solving problems. That’s okay. It’s part of the game. But if you’ve dug deep, formed a solid hypothesis, and executed well, a failure is going to be full of learning and it will help you improve your next hypothesis.
Vrushali Paunikar: Which takes me to step number two, execution matters. Always lead with the problem. Make sure that your solution hypothesis matches the problem. On the product team, we write starts with why briefs to explain the problem, the solution hypothesis, and what success might look like. Bring your stakeholders along on this journey with you. This is also the step where you master the craft. The better you get at solving these problems, the higher quality outputs you’re going to produce.
Vrushali Paunikar: Step three, share that you’ve solved the problem or what you learned by trying. This is important. I often see women shy away from this step, but you won’t win the right to solve bigger problems without it. At Carta, we have weekly show and tells where anyone at the company can share what they’ve been working on. It’s one of the best ways to get visibility at the company.
Vrushali Paunikar: If you’re a leader at your company, create forums where people can share their problem solving journeys. In addition to show and tell in my business unit, we have weekly one hour sessions called investor services, IS, got talent, where people across the business shared their problem solving journeys at critical stages, problem, definition, hypothesis, demo, and report back. This time, for me, is sacred.
Vrushali Paunikar: And this is the success flywheel at Carta. If you do one, two and three, you win the right to solve bigger and more complex problems. That is growth. I know there’s someone out there right now who’s saying, “Hey, I do all of these things and I’m not being recognized.” Have patience. It will pay off. And I’ll let you in on a little secret. When you reach the higher levels of your organization through problem solving, you’re better equipped to handle all of the curve balls thrown at you versus someone who got there by other means.
Vrushali Paunikar: So steadfast, problem solvers, go forth and change the world.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: I see a question from Christine. How do you balance the possibility that organization will change and people will move around?
Vrushali Paunikar: Okay, I’m going to answer that question the way I interpret it, which, one is, how do you balance the possibility that organizations do change? And especially at a rapidly growing startup, that’s going to happen. I actually just like to embrace that change and lean into it because it’s an opportunity to learn.
Vrushali Paunikar: And then people will move around. That is especially if you’re creating internal mobility, that’s a function of that. And I think it’s … I like to encourage people to move around and go forth and like follow their passions. And within my own team, I’ve had someone who was like in product and then decided they actually wanted to pursue a career in design. And I try to be supportive of people’s passions because one of the things about building problem-oriented teams, and again, going back to the Safi Bahcall sort of problem where if with a unit of time, is that time best spent on networking or problem solving?
Vrushali Paunikar: One of the things that’s really important about that is person, problem, fit. So you want the person’s skills to fit sort of what the value they’re able to produce on a particular type of problem. So I think you need to let people sort of explore their passions and where their skill sets are best suited.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. Well, with that, let’s wrap. Thank you so much, Vrushali. That was really insightful. When you do get the chance to look at the chat, people have really been resonating with your talk.
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Angie Chang: So, our next speaker is Amrisha, who is the Infrastructure Engineering Team Lead at MaestroQA or Maestro. She works on all aspects of the application for infrastructure and security, along with deployment pipeline. And before Maestro, she was a senior network DevOps engineer. She’s based in New York City and has been for 15 years. Welcome.
Amrisha Sinha: Thank you. Let me just share my screen here. Hi, thank you so much for having me. That story before me was so inspiring. Thank you, Ashley. It was great for me to hear as someone halfway through my career and someone who’s just had a baby. It was a lot of advice that I will definitely action.
Amrisha Sinha: So, I’m here to talk about DevOps and how it’s a product as well within the organization that the DevOps engineers work with. As Angie said, I’m the Infrastructure Engineering Team Lead at MaestroQA, but I’m also a DevOps engineer. I just happen to do both at our company. And what I’m going to cover today is really five insights to help you empower your development team, your product team, and DevOps all at once, if this is a team that you have at your company.
Amrisha Sinha: A little bit about me. I’m a diplobrat. And for those who don’t know what that means, my father is a diplomat, and I’m Indian, but I was raised all over the world. We moved every three or four years. And the main thing that I learned from that is how to figure out a new school, a new environment, and where I fit into that, and really making the best of it. And that’s what led me to Cooper Union and Cornell, where I got my degrees, and have been in New York ever since.
Amrisha Sinha: I focused on various types of systems engineering, and really looking at the whole system and how to make it work better, what are the things that go into making all the little pieces, all the little cogs work together. And what I’ve learned about myself is that I’m just a problem solver. I do logic puzzles for fun. I have a puzzle a day calendar at my desk that I do to get the juices flowing, and I really enjoy them.
Amrisha Sinha: And over the course of my career, I’ve developed a real passion for engineering automated solutions for the teams that I work in and help everyone else get so much more out of the work that they do, because they don’t have to worry about fitting pieces together.
Amrisha Sinha: A little bit about MaestroQA. MaestroQA makes an omnichannel quality assurance software for modern support teams. And some of our largest customers are Etsy, MailChimp, Peloton. And one of our partners is Zendesk.
Amrisha Sinha: All of these companies, all of our partners, use our software to improve agent performance, optimize their customer experience processes, and we give them a platform where they can unlock business level insights, look at analytics about how their support teams are performing and improve metrics like retention, revenue, CSAT. And yeah, I have the privilege of working here for the last year.
Amrisha Sinha: Let’s dive into this. What’s DevOps? It’s one of those terms that a lot of people hear about, but not everyone really understands how to define it, and something that I’ve been sort of working on as well. DevOps is development operations. It’s the practice of getting your code commits from the repository into production, like everything that has to happen in the process. Which, if you lead a product team, you know there’s so many little pieces that all have to work together seamlessly in order to make sure that the deployments happen.
Amrisha Sinha: DevOps can be broken into three main functional areas: continuous delivery, which is how do I get every commit, every margin to master into production, continuously without a break, without waiting for something else to happen. Infrastructure automation. Frequently, the changes that you make will require some changes in the infrastructure, in the stack, in the server, in the load balancer. Something has to happen in order to facilitate this new feature you’re rolling out.
Amrisha Sinha: So, how do we automate that and make it part of the testing and the development? And monitoring and orchestration. Once your changes get into production, collecting feedback on how it’s performing, metrics on how the CPU is working or how customers are, what the end user experience is. Collecting all of that and feeding it back to your product team so that they can action on it and then deploy new changes. At the end, DevOps really makes your deployment process look like this infinity sign that we’ve got here. It’s making all of these pieces work together in ad infinitum.
Amrisha Sinha: As I mentioned, deploying software requires a lot of coordination. I’ve seen many different versions of this kind of flow in various organizations that I’ve worked in, and you need a development team, you need an infrastructure team. If you get large enough, a release or a change management team, a QA team to do testing, and product management to kind of make sure that there’s new stuff going on and all the things that product managers do.
Amrisha Sinha: And it requires a lot of coordination across all of these teams, which introduces delays, opportunities for misunderstanding, or having to spend time educating each other, translating what you need. And that takes up a lot of time, and it takes time and efficiency and interest away from your existing teams. Having to understand how to communicate your needs to an infrastructure engineer when you don’t have that knowledge, takes time away from development ,time from change management, time from testing.
Amrisha Sinha: So, it really is a cost to your teams in order to have to figure out how to get your changes across, right? DevOps kind of brings the cost of how much time your team spend communicating with each other down because the DevOps engineer’s job is to simplify this pipeline and make it happen more efficiently and more smoothly and consistently.
Amrisha Sinha: Where does a DevOps team fit? If you look at your team and you realize that it’s time to introduce DevOps, not something that a small company necessarily needs, but if your company’s growing, your product’s growing, and you find that you need DevOps, where would a DevOps engineer typically fit?
Amrisha Sinha: DevOps engineers aren’t developers and they aren’t infrastructure engineers, but they do require enough proficiency in both to be able to communicate with both teams. And so, they fit between these two teams, and are typically as an extension of release management teams or change management teams, and are kind of a missing piece between tying everything together.
Amrisha Sinha: We have the skills to build you a custom delivery pipeline, which is essentially software. And this pipeline is operated by your existing release team, and it interacts with their infrastructure. DevOps engineers, our goal is to build you a custom solution that fits, and stay there to continue to maintain it as your needs evolve, as your product evolves, and as your organization evolves. A DevOps team is really there to build you this product and continue maintaining it.
Amrisha Sinha: Let’s get into five insights on what will help you best work with DevOps engineers and empower them, if you’re managing a team with a DevOps function, and how to really make the best out of this really special skillset that DevOps engineers bring.
Amrisha Sinha: The first insight is that the team that’s responsible for doing your deployments, you have some sort of function there, you’ll either have a change management team or a senior developer that’s very knowledgeable about the deployment process, they should be involved in the pipeline design process. They’re giving you the user feedback, the initial discovery of what does the team actually need in terms of a pipeline. They should be heavily involved. They should be encouraged to interact with DevOps thoroughly, be demanding, and talk about what their pain points are.
Amrisha Sinha: This pipeline that you see here. Some version of it exists in every organization. A DevOps engineer needs to come in and figure out what this looks like and how to start automating it and how to solve the pain points so that everyone can go back to doing what they actually love doing.
Amrisha Sinha: So, make sure that your release team is talking to your DevOps team, providing feedback and looking at designs and fixing what needs to be fixed and making sure that the problem is well understood.
Amrisha Sinha: The second insight is, once a pipeline is done, this can take weeks depending on how automated you already are, to months to years. Once a pipeline is done, the DevOps engineer isn’t going to sit there and run it. DevOps engineers don’t replace a release management functionality or an infrastructure functionality. They add to it. It’s like you’re buying software, except you are hiring the person to make the software for you.
Amrisha Sinha: You wouldn’t expect to make software and then use it yourself. You would expect to make software, have an end user use it, and then keep deploying patches. DevOps engineers do the same thing. Once you’ve built a pipeline, hand it off to the team that’s actually going to run the releases.
Amrisha Sinha: And then look at new technology, look at what direction tools are going, and see if the problem’s changing… the problem that they’re solving for, the deployment pipeline is changing, and make up bits to it and make adjustments to the pipeline. Bring in new technology. It helps DevOps engineers also feel empowered to stay on the cutting edge of technology and make sure that you’re keeping your end users happy and not having them go two steps back when the entire process changes. DevOps engineers make sure that the pipeline updates along with it.
Amrisha Sinha: The third insight is to use the best tools for the job. Emphasis here is on plural. You’ll be able to find a lot of DevOps tools that kind of do everything for you, “Plug me in and I’ll do everything.” And that’s great, but not every organization has a canned deployment system. And if you have a DevOps engineer, you have the person there that will integrate five different tools into one seamless pipeline for you. There’s no need to compromise on the experience for your developers or for your end users or for anyone else involved by using a singular tool. You have a person on hand who has the skills to figure out how to fit in the right tool for the right job in the pipeline and write the scripts or the programs necessary to make sure that it’s a seamless integration. You have a person to do the integration for you, and don’t discount the impact that that can have on the end user experience.
Amrisha Sinha: Fourth insight is to use an iterative approach. Integrate automation deployment workflows into the pipeline early, and then provide feedback on how it’s going. I’m sure everyone here has had some sort of experience where you’ve worked on a feature or deployed some software that didn’t quite land. And it’s discouraging to go through a long design process and a long implementation process, and have them not land. The way we’ve all figured out solving that is by using an agile approach. Iterating early, providing a minimum viable product, and then seeing how that goes, collecting feedback and improving the end user experience.
Amrisha Sinha: It’s the same for DevOps. We can spend months building your pipeline, and if it doesn’t land, it’s discouraging for everyone involved. So, automate one part early, as you can see the infrastructure deployment, see how it works. If it works, go ahead, automate a different part, then string them all together. It’s very useful to provide feedback early, to figure out if the problem being solved is correct, if the pain points that have been identified are actually pain points or not. Same thing as you’re building a product. If you get feedback early, you do better, you have better end results, right?
Amrisha Sinha: The last insight is that we’re problem solvers, as I said at the beginning. We want to solve your pain points. We want to build a solution that works for this particular team. We want to fill any gaps, and not really sell a previously sold solution or come back and just reimplement the same pipeline over and over again. We’re engineers with unique skills that live in this gray area between all of these teams.
Amrisha Sinha: So, if the puzzle piece doesn’t quite fit correctly, let us know. We’ll find a better solution. We’ll make whatever changes are needed. That’s how I see my role. It’s really coming into a functioning team, pieces that fit together, and tying it all together into a picture that works, that’s efficient.
Amrisha Sinha: Bringing in DevOps means allowing your release team to focus on actually releasing software and not coordinating with changes, with infrastructure, and making sure development changes are done, making sure developers are working on code and building the next great feature, not worrying about whether their changes are actually going to get into production properly. That’s why you bring in DevOps. Yeah. Tell us if something’s not working. Tell us. We’ll find a better solution. Until you give us that feedback, how would we know, right?
Amrisha Sinha: For anyone who’s watching and taking screenshots, I summarized everything into this slide for you. These are your five main takeaways on how to empower your team when you bring in a DevOps engineer, how to take some of that load off your team, and how to make your DevOps engineer happy. These are things that I’ve learned over the course of my career, and I think are good to know for managers, for leaders within the company.
Amrisha Sinha: We’re unique. We’re unicorns. We have skills that go across many different functional areas. So, letting us solve your problems and let everyone else do the work is kind of fun for us. And staying on top of technology, also fun for us. Hopefully these insights will help you get the most out of your DevOps engineers. It’s really exciting to see what DevOps is doing in the last five years. It was a very nascent field when I entered it about six years ago, and now it’s really blowing up and it’s very exciting for me to see.
Amrisha Sinha: Lastly, we’re hiring. We’ve been awarded best place to work by BuiltIn NYC in both small companies and in New York City. As Angie mentioned, we’re located in NYC, but remote first. We’ve been making a lot of out of state hires lately, some incredible team members. These are the roles we’re currently hiring for, but find me on LinkedIn or send me an email. It’s just amrisha.sinha@maestroqa.
Amrisha Sinha: Send me an email for referrals. We’d be happy to have a conversation to see about where you fit.
Amrisha Sinha: We’re growing very rapidly. If I had to count, I’d say we’ve probably added about five people this year alone so far. And we serve the biggest brands, and we’re just looking for people to come join us and help us make excellent software.
Amrisha Sinha: And just on a personal note, I had a child in July, 2019, and I came to Maestro about six months after that, and I’ve found that it’s an amazing place to work. I feel very supported as a woman, as a working mother. And we are trying very hard to be a great place to work, which includes having conversations around race, gender discrimination, and we do this on a weekly basis.
Amrisha Sinha: So, please connect with me on LinkedIn. Happy to talk further about my experience, and I can talk about DevOps for hours. Happy to do that as well. Thank you. Any questions?
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Hi, Amrisha. Thank you so much for that amazing talk. I think it’s been really insightful for all of us to hear about MaestroQA, and of course the DevOps journey as well. But with that, we are going to just call out that people can post questions in the Q&A section, and post comments in the chat. Amrisha, if you can get the chance, you’ll see some questions and comments that you can respond to. We will now switch over to the next session, which is the panel. So, thank you so much, Amrisha.
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Sukrutha Bhadouria: We’re going to now go into our next session. Like I said, it’s an amazing panel. The topic is “building high performance teams in a pandemic. I’m going to be joined by Rachana Kumar, who is the VP of Engineering [at Etsy], Elaine who’s the CTO at Change.org, Tina who is CTO and Founder at Transposit.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Welcome ladies, I’m really excited to get us started. So first, because you’re such accomplished women, I don’t want to do you the injustice of trying to introduce you all. You will do a much better job yourselves. So please do go ahead and introduce yourselves and explain the different size of engineering teams that you’ll need. We’ll start with you, Elaine.
Elaine Zhao: Thank you. Thanks and happy International Women’s Day and I’m really glad that I have the chance to talk to you all and then share my ideas here. My name is Elaine Zhao and I am the CTO of Change.org, so my entire career is probably very similar to many of you, the start off as engineers and move up to the manager rank so I’m super excited to be here and share some of the ideas with you all, thanks.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Tina?
Tina Huang: Hi. As Sukrutha mentioned, I am Tina Huang, I am the Founder and CTO of Transposit and we are a company that works on DevOps process orchestration so it’s great to hear a little bit of that last presentation on DevOps and this sort of up-and-coming nature. As a company, we were founded in 2016 and we are currently a Series B startup and around 50 or so employees total, about 20 something in engineering.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Rachana?
Rachana Kumar: Hi all. First of all, happy International Women’s Day. I’m Rachana Kumar, I’m currently VP of Engineering and Managing Director for Etsy Mexico. So I have been at Etsy for about seven years so I’ve kind of seen now the whole growth from a smaller startup to a larger company now. Currently we have about 600 engineers and my org has about 150, 200 engineers and yeah, I also have a five-year-old son.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: That’s awesome. I mean, we should get right started. I kept getting questions like, “How does everyone define high performing teams?” Because that being the topic of this panel, let’s level set to begin with. How do each of you define high performing teams and how does this end up influencing the kind of engineers you hire for? Tina?
Tina Huang: Yeah, so Transposit has a few different core values but the one that is sort of nearest and dearest to my heart is we are a culture of pragmatism. And this really came about because at a number of different tech companies I worked for before, I worked at Apple, Google, Twitter, some of these kind of companies that really led the way for how we think about kind of engineering cultures, I found a lot of their tech ladders and the way they thought about what high performance meant is really like I could write a really, really strong and fast algorithm.
Tina Huang: That affected not only hiring and tech ladder and promotion but just the entire culture. I thought that was really interesting because what I saw was a lot of engineers who would hyper optimize a piece that was just not actually important to the holistic picture. So I wanted to build something different at Transposit and so we grounded this on this culture of pragmatism.
Tina Huang: What that means is that I really value everyone on my team to be able to really understand and empathize with the customer and the business value first and foremost, and then decide what is the appropriate amount of engineering to actually build for a particular piece of technology. Some people take that as when I say we are a culture of pragmatism, that you know we want hacky engineers.
Tina Huang: I think that there’s this perfect sweet spot with pragmatism and it’s really being able to understand is this piece of code something that is core to our system and is going to be run a hundred thousand times and we’re pretty certain it’s going to be part of our final product or is this piece of code for a prototype and it’ll be better to get something out to the customer sooner and get feedback and iterate more progressively.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, and going from a startup like yours, I’d be interested to hear your point of view, Elaine. How do you define high performing teams and how do you do it at your company when you’re trying to build a high performing team? How does that influence your hiring process?
Elaine Zhao: I think probably no surprise that every engineering leader at all levels want to be a high performance team. That’s the ultimate goal. So I think the definition is really based on the why, why we’re doing that? And I think that have to take into account for the company strategy, the team strategy and goals and visions. At Change.org, the biggest social change platform in the world and under this umbrella, our goal and the vision is to become the undeniable leader in digital activism, right?
Elaine Zhao: We want people come, engineers come, to become the great engineers. And while they’re doing good for the world. So that really focused on couple areas and tied it up to our mission and vision then also tied up the two area that we want to bring and it’s one is higher experience engineers and continue to learn and improve the existing team that they both have to happen, right?
Elaine Zhao: We want to put a real emphasis on our user first because it doesn’t matter what we want to do, what we say we are good or not good, if our users not being served, then we cannot call ourselves a high performance team, so we really want to switch the emphasis to ours and focus on the user’s impact first, then come back and we drive the velocity, focus on learning and candor, that’s another thing that’s quite unique to Change or I would imagine many social mission focus engineering team as well that would tend to have a very strong culture already and how do we cultivate that we’re very caring.
Elaine Zhao: But when we so care about each other, then we sometimes forget about the best caring that we can have is actually make sure everyone continue to improve, right, we challenge each other to learn new skills and go up to the next level and that’s, whether or not you use the the words radical candor or be trusted, helping each other to succeed and that’s what we focus on and slightly different than many other companies in the world do, yeah.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: And then how’s your experience, Rachana, through seeing Etsy grow and then now expanding in Mexico?
Rachana Kumar: Yeah, I think both Tina and Elaine covered great points from customer focus to pragmatism to radical candor. So I’ll focus more on, as we’ve been scaling, how we are kind of thinking of scaling high performing teams. So in the past, we predominantly have had engineering teams in New York, San Francisco, and remote within the US. And over the last year or so, we have been expanding in Dublin and Mexico a lot.
Rachana Kumar: And for me, as we are ramping up hiring, they are starting to hire in these locations, one thing we are looking at is how do we take the aspects of starting from sourcing to hiring to onboarding to then forming your team, how do you then select projects in these new locations and countries for them to work independently? What kind of projects and what framework do we come up with?
Rachana Kumar: I’m looking with people at Etsy across the board. For me, we have not perfected it, we’re certainly just started figuring it out, how to scale. And there are a lot of other global teams that do that but I think Tina covered a little bit of this, right, what is our values that matters the most? Etsy is a pretty… other than specific skillsets like iOS and Android or DSML and things like that we are a pretty language agnostic company.
Rachana Kumar: We look at predominantly full stack and as long as you are interested and you’re a good engineer and the quality is great, other qualities like are you empathetic, are you kind of good at communicating when things don’t go well, all these basic things that are important for us here will be important irrespective of whatever the location is to build a high performing team, but also to bring all these people together.
Rachana Kumar:One thing I’m really trying to be mindful of is… because a culture has worked for us really well for over a decade, how do we be mindful of new cultures as we enter new countries and what is the best way to merge both of them and build teams together is what I’m trying to be more mindful about, talk more actively, yeah.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Those are all great perspectives and it’s interesting how there is a lot of overlap no matter the size of the company and no matter where the company is expanding. But another aspect of building a high-performing team is getting the right leaders in place, whether it’s from a management standpoint or from IC leadership or technical leadership, right?
Sukrutha Bhadouria: There are times that you reach a crossroad where you’re like, “Should I invest in growing somebody to that leadership role, whether it’s a manager or a an IC, or should I be like hiring externally?” And different choices are made at different stages because building a team is literally like building a dynamic puzzle. You add something, it fits and then it changes the whole puzzle all over again, right?
Sukrutha Bhadouria: So, Elaine, what has been your experience in that whole aspect of choosing to hire versus grow when it comes to IC technical leadership roles? And when you when have you made the choice to do one versus another?
Elaine Zhao: All right, that’s always a a tough question to answer and leaders have to make that choice and decisions that are sometimes it’s external constraints. But what I also want to focus on, we have to look into, I like to focus on at that current stage of the my team and the company, what can we do and cannot do, right? At the current stage, I’m putting all the emphasis in hiring from outside. Part of that is when a huge growth phase, we need more people to the team and every time we need more people and it’s a perfect opportunity to bring in the right skill set into cultural add to the existing team.
Elaine Zhao: And also the other things that I want to highlight is a lot of time I participate a lot of conversations is about a building team and growing internally, we forget to think about whether or not the team itself, the company itself have the bandwidth, have the right mentorships and mentors in place to provide those mentorship to the ICs and all levels.
Elaine Zhao: I also want to focus on from hire outside there’s multiple things. However, of course, most the time we talk about hiring is hiring full time, but you can hire in fixed terms or short-term contractors, bringing the specific skill set to pair with your existing team to help them to fast-track the learning as well. You can also bring in specific skills in that way. Consultants is also a great way to do that.
Elaine Zhao: I cannot have emphasis enough about bringing in the external help to bring in those mentors only that is fair because a lot of time it’s not fair for the for the ICs and they want to learn but there’s no one for them to learn from. It becomes such a frustrating experience in my experience.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah and a parallel story is yours, Tina, where you were at the start of building your company, you have spoken about how you didn’t have management experience and then you had managers who didn’t necessarily have management experience as well. So how did you end up growing them in order to build the leaders that you needed?
Tina Huang: Yeah. I mean, I feel like Elaine is speaking exactly my language. I think that my experience is really for all of you who are out there building early stage startups, but I feel like one of the superpowers that women have is self-awareness and the willingness to kind of put your ego aside. So I was founder and CTO of the company but I knew very well that I had never been a manager, and as much as I’d like to think that I am an empathic person and I could learn that job, that’s very, very different than saying that I have had that experience and I place a high value on just domain experience that you can only really learn from doing that job.
Tina Huang: I saw early on, even though I really wanted the culture to sort of be grown internally and all that value from growing ICs into those leadership roles, well, I’ve seen just from observation a lot of my friends’ startups is they will grow their ICs internally, ignore the management problem, it’s always high risk to bring in your first VP of engineering, it could have a really, really catastrophic effect on your engineering culture, but the way they handle it is to just ignore that problem, right? So they are just growing their startup engineers into kind of quasi leadership, and then they hit a cliff, and all of a sudden there’s an emergency and a fire where you realize, we have a bunch of fairly… We just lacked that leadership experience, we needed it yesterday, and so then the company just gets external leadership and suddenly there’s this really, really strong culture shock to the startup culture.
Tina Huang: So we did exactly what Elaine’s talking about at a much larger org early, early on at Transposit. We hired an external contractor, this team, Bill and Amanda at this consultancy called Thrive Consultancy, and they worked with us and some of our ICs that were trying to grow into eng managers to sort of help understand our culture and build out that leadership internally.
Tina Huang: And I was very honest with the team, I said, “Look, if we grow at a fast enough rate, we will likely need to bring in outside leadership, but having consultants come in and help you all grow at least gives you all the opportunity. And that’s no guarantee that we won’t need that leadership, but at least you stand a chance. If we don’t bring in the consultants early on, we will inevitably have to bring in outside leadership and you will not have even had a chance to grow.”
Tina Huang: We were very fortunate that the internal eng managers, they had that hankering for mentorship, exactly what Elaine’s talking about. So they were really wanting that mentorship that I couldn’t provide for them, and at the same time, Bill over at Thrive that we’re consulting for, he likes to say, he got a little bit too close to the pond and just sort of slipped in. He fell so in love with our team and our culture that he agreed to come on as our VP of Engineering and really get deep into our team and our company.
Tina Huang: And that was really the best case scenario for us because we had the seniority of someone who honestly was too good for our company. He had previously been the VP of Engineering at Venmo and then was retired and we pulled him out of retirement to come work with us. So there was no culture shock there and we got a ton of great, great expertise added to our leadership team.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: That’s great. It’s always a win when you’re pulling someone out of retirement. Rachana, I’m curious to know your thoughts because IC leadership track versus the people manager track is something that people talk about in parallel but not enough of an emphasis on one versus another. So what are your thoughts on whether or not we should hire versus growth for leadership in general?
Rachana Kumar: Yeah I’ve not yet pulled anyone out of retirement so I don’t have Tina’s super powers, but yeah, I think it’s a balance, right? But to reach that balance, you need to reach a certain scale. After we reached a certain scale at Etsy, actually I can speak for my personal belief is if people want to get into management, that’s great, but that shouldn’t be the only way engineers can grow, right? And they’re very deliberate about having a very clear individual contributor growth track and a management growth track.
Rachana Kumar: And even within management, having said that, if someone is interested in becoming a manager, we have kind of process around that, they can try it for three months or they can interview for a role internally then it’s kind of like getting a new job within the company but there’s so much mentorship and support at this scale to make that happen for them.
Rachana Kumar: But also one way I kind of evaluate the question whether, let people grow internally or hire externally is… So at least with me and my directs or the whole manager… There are about 20 managers in my group, the cohort I think of as, say, between me and my directs what are the skill sets that we have significant gaps in right now, right?
Rachana Kumar: It might be technical. It might be industry experience. Or it might be just leadership experience. Like last year as a specific example, I hired a director of engineering for a initiative or a group within my larger group and there were already about four engineering managers and two of them were senior engineering managers and they both had absolute tremendous potential to grow into a director but between what my responsibility was and what they were doing, we could see there was a clear gap in terms of someone with significant management experience coming from the outside and being able to mentor both experienced managers and manage also more junior managers.
Rachana Kumar: And it was a hard conversation because the team had really talented managers within the group and so what was helpful was kind of laying out what are the gaps and can any of us fill that right now in talking about it actively.
Rachana Kumar: I feel like the conversation doesn’t happen enough similarly in the IC track until it’s very obvious that it’s a specialized skill set that we don’t have right now. And because our managers are also hiring managers in that sense, they understand when you sit down with them and I feel like because of that, at least most companies have seen, in the IC track, if they have a robust IC track, they end up promoting internally much more than hiring externally because we’re talking about technical skills here.
Rachana Kumar: In management, it’s easy to say someone at a director we need eight years for these reasons, so I feel like most companies, even if they have a clear IC track, end up promoting more internally.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, that makes sense. And I mean all of your stories do resonate. I’ve worked in larger companies for most of my career. So now that we’ve talked about hiring and building, let’s talk about the dreaded f-word, firing. That is a really, really hard decision to make and it’s something everyone hates doing. It’s not enjoyable by any means, but it’s also not something to be afraid of. So, Tina, I’d love your perspective, let’s start with you on why it is an important skill for managers to learn?
Tina Huang: Yeah, this is something that came up recently, I think actually, as we were meeting up to talk about this panel here where, especially during the pandemic when we know that everyone’s struggling, it’s like how do you have hard conversations and then the most extreme of those is the conversation to terminate employment. And I was thinking about having to have those conversations as well as the follow-on, which is explaining to your team the necessity for these.
Tina Huang: I had previously always thought of the need for firing as part of–I think if you all have read the book, Netflix: No Rules Rules, the need to preserve talent density. And that always had a lot of resonance to me because, as an engineer, I really appreciated working on teams with very, very high talent density.
Tina Huang: But from the leadership perspective, it always struck me as almost a bit of arrogance, and so I sort of went on to a little bit of a philosophical journey to sort of reflect and think, why do I think that it’s so important or what’s another way of thinking about why it’s important to fire?
Tina Huang: One of the things that I realized is, for a lot of companies out there that I’ve seen, there’s a huge difficulty in firing and a huge sort of aversion to doing so. And so you put people on performance plans, you go through a whole rigamarole, oftentimes just transition them to another team. But what this actually ends up happening is this corollary on the hiring side.
Tina Huang: Because we’re so afraid of letting people go and oftentimes just because they aren’t a good fit for the role, not because they aren’t a smart, talented, wonderful person, that leads us to set these ideas on the hiring side which is, when in doubt, don’t hire. And this is something that was very, very common when I was working at Google, which at any hiring panel, if you weren’t 100% sure, you were told vote no on the hire. And so what does that mean?
Tina Huang: Well, if you have this notion that says when there’s any sort of doubt don’t hire, you’re going to look for high pedigree, people who are from known goods, go with your previous pattern matching, go for elite universities, for brand name tech companies, because it reduces doubt. And this is a way that you actually end up with a lot more bias in your hiring process because you’re unwilling to take a risk on anyone who adds a diversity to your company.
Tina Huang: So I started having this framework of thinking about what I told my engineers for how to think about hiring, which is this risk versus reward framework. Rather than thinking of just purely doubt, it’s like, we try to think about what is the risk of this hire but what is the upside that you can have by doing this hire and diversity of experience, diversity of thought, is a huge upside, in our perspective and so we’re willing to take risks if we see a potential hire has high upside but sometimes that risk comes at a cost.
Tina Huang: And so as an organization, I’ve been trying to coach my engineers to feel more okay about giving negative performance reviews when necessary because that’s the only way that we can continue a culture that allows us to take high risks and have a very, very diverse team.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, these are really important thoughts and you see, when you get the chance, that people are resonating with what you’re saying and they’re adding their thoughts as well in the chat. I do want to take a little bit of a tangent because, Elaine, your stories are not so much about firing but when you have this mutual agreement that the path or the partnership that you had with somebody may not be the right one anymore, so not so much a firing but a polite handshake, let’s meet again, maybe.
Elaine Zhao: Yeah. No, absolutely right. Instead of just talking about firing and I prefer to use the word “part ways” with the staff that the core of the any of these issues is that working relationship no longer works, no longer right, but whether or not it’s performance related, it is skill set related, it’s the drive, the desire, the company wants to go to one direction, the employees career path go a different direction, whatever it is, we need to face that both sides need to face it and then treat it as fully grown adults.
Elaine Zhao: You don’t force a relationship nowadays if we all know it doesn’t work, right? People know and employees know it too. For us to so afraid to talk about performance-related firing or whatever reason that are no longer the right fit and just work around it, we don’t treat each other with the respect in a basic, we don’t believe that employees can understand that we try to treat them as a kids. And that is something that I fundamentally disagree with, we need to treat each other with respect that we’re fully grown adults. Let’s talk about it, right?
Elaine Zhao: What is the best way out? I have heard stories these days and the pandemic people challenge question about we shouldn’t fire people because due to performance because it’s pandemic or shouldn’t be a performance plans, whatever it is. And I think that is really not doing those employees the justice. Instead, we need to open the conversation. If the concerns about because the pandemic, financial related issues, there’s so many way that we can do it right with empathy see and I will take care of that.
Elaine Zhao: Let’s face, it what is the best way to help forward or not that’s a layoff situation, firing situation, a transition. And one last thing sort of talk about not talking about these topics objectively is when we’re avoid doing, make the tough decisions, we actually treated the best performers, our high performance, the worst. Those who deserve the most from the leaders, they end up received at least, right?
Elaine Zhao: When we’re kind of letting the low performance hanging around when there’s no longer the right relationship, right fit there, we actually treat our best performance worse. And guess what, we’re going to lose those top performers or we turn the top performance to mediocre performance, and I think that’s exactly the opposite that we wanted to see, right?
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, and I mean oftentimes letting go of someone feels like a difficult decision not just because of how they’re doing but because of how that can cause an impact on the project deliverable. And, Tina, you spoke about encouraging your employees to not be afraid to give negative feedback so I want to go to you now, Rachana, because you were that person who wasn’t afraid to give that feedback and then you saw a difficult decision being made based on that. So do you want to go into that?
Rachana Kumar: Yeah sure. I think both Elaine and Tina made great points. At any given point in time, letting go of anyone is a hard decision. But for me, this was very early on in my career, I was a tech lead and we were working on a project that had like crazy tight deadlines and my manager said, “Can you peer program with another engineer and what if you try to finish something we were struggling with as soon as possible?”
Rachana Kumar: And I went and sat next to him and we were peer programming and I made a suggestion on how we both can best… A technical suggestion for whatever we were working on and he turned towards me and he basically said, “I don’t want a woman telling me how to code. I know how to do my job well.”
Rachana Kumar: And it of course it made it very challenging for me to continue peer programming at this given point in time. I just got up and I realized I had to tell this to my manager because this expectation was we are peer programming and we are going to finish it and after a comment like that, continuing peer programming and I was also new to the US and I said person new to a country and understand still understanding the culture and all those things I was very afraid to say anything. But I felt like I had to tell my manager what he said even because I had no idea what the outcomes were and I was certainly very nervous. I just went and told my manager. “I don’t think we can continue to peer program because this is what he told me.” And my manager actually let him go immediately.
Rachana Kumar: And for me, I have been manager for over a decade but the learning from that incident was… That put the project at risk and the team’s execution at risk but he chose not creating a toxic work environment, especially for minorities, over the project outcomes, which for me was a really good learning experience as a leader and that’s something I always keep in mind because it’s not just about what business and customer outcomes you’re driving, it’s about the culture you’re driving, and it’s like, even if someone sometimes a high performer, if they’re toxic to the culture, it’s a really hard decision to make but it’s an important one.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, that’s a very brave story and I’m glad it ended up in a positive outcome and not just for you but the lesson and the message that was being sent that a toxic environment is absolutely not okay by any means. So now we’ve talked about hiring externally versus growing people versus identifying when it’s time to part ways. We all are very aware that the traditional tech promotion systems, we haven’t figured it out. So let’s talk about the problems with it, right? So what are some of the challenges we see with how it is today? Elaine, let’s start with you.
Elaine Zhao: Talking about getting the opportunity for us, I think couple of things here is, first thing first, you have to, my experience, that have to focus on the opportunity in front of me, which is my current job, right, and actually do a good job in it and I know there’s a lot to talk these days about people not getting noticed but I can tell you if you’re not doing a good job you absolutely would not get noticed. All right. So focus on that one first.
Elaine Zhao: And the other area is really I learned my lesson that I really set the expectations with my manager, I also recognized a very fortunate that I have earlier my career I have one leader, manager hired me four times at four different companies so he become my mentor. The key thing is to really understand the manager’s perspective, and in my case, what he sees I should focus on and go from there. Now there are situations which I also experience my career, especially later in my career, when I get in the more upper management level. It’s just a misalignment.
Elaine Zhao: At that time though, I got bigger responsibility that my focus is actually to talk to peers and talk to different folks within the company to understand a higher level, not just engineering, not just my team, but the overall challenges are other leaders facing and then see what I can help whether or not a [inaudible] standpoint or just technology strategy standpoint that I can meet my team and collaborate with them and that is actually really for me have been served me really well, because the ultimate goal is not just whether or not me getting noticed or do a good job is whether or not we solve a problem, solve our customer’s problem, and I think that’s the most important thing that we need to focus on, yeah.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. And for you, Tina, what do you think are the challenges with the current situation, in terms of how we have the traditional promotion expectations that we have in the tech industry?
Tina Huang: Yeah, so one of the things I noticed from my experience, primarily at Twitter, was I realized that a lot of times one of the challenges is we think a lot of aspects of technical, what was on the tech ladder, is highly quantitative when it really is fairly subjective. And the example that I often give is around code quality.
Tina Huang: Code quality and even the fact that we use it as a metric makes it sound like it is a quantifiably measurable thing that you can look at someone’s code. When in practice, if you think about it, code quality is highly subjective depending on what was that purpose for the code. If the code was to try to get a prototype out or meet a very, very aggressive customer deadline, the best quality code is the code that will actually ship on time. Whereas, if it’s part of a long-term project, the right quality of code might be higher performance or higher reliability, if those are aspects of the system that you really care about. Similarly, when you talk about something like code quality, there’s also, I almost say a historical lens that people try to put towards it, where they evaluate the code without any sort of thinking around what was the context that the code was written in?
Tina Huang: So I was at Twitter in the very, very early days and so there would be questions around, “Why was this code not written on top of this other library?” And no one bothered to look at it and say, “Oh, that library didn’t even exist when we actually wrote that code.” And so one of the things that I try to do very differently at Transposit is I try to think about, set very good high level value metrics that the company should be driving for, especially on the customer and product side and rooted in that aspect of pragmatism that I talked about earlier, and then use that to sort of drive the metrics. What are the product deliverables, the guidelines, et cetera, and then have that sort of cascade into what is the appropriate quality of code to evaluate on?
Sukrutha Bhadouria: That’s awesome. Yeah. I mean, I don’t think people are really realizing how difficult it is when it’s subjective or not, right, in terms of evaluation. So I’m curious now next, I mean, Tina, you’ve had an amazing career, all of you have, and not everybody has had opportunities handed to them. Sometimes we’ve had to make it for that for ourselves. So how have you done that for yourself, Tina?
Tina Huang: Yeah, one of the things that I hear a lot from various engineers is they come to me and they say, “Hey, it’s not my fault, I’m not given the right projects in order to hit that next technical milestone, to get the leadership or the technical kind of benchmarks necessary for that promotion.” I often talk about how when given a project, you can take it very, very literally and just execute on that project or you can try to think bigger picture around what are the actual goals and the necessities there?
Tina Huang: I think people often look at my experience and they could say, “Hey, Tina, you became a CTO by creating your own company that feels highly, highly unapproachable to me.” I often like to talk about some of my experiences navigating larger companies at Google or Twitter to sort of better ground that into real world examples or examples that feel a little bit more approachable.
Tina Huang: One example was at Google, we were asked to do a front-end redesign. And so we were given some mocks and the obvious solution would be, let me just write a new front-end for Google News that executes against these mocks. Instead, I looked at the actual architecture and what it would take to build that. And at Google, believe it or not, back in the day, for all of their search infrastructure, including Google News, the front-ends were written in C++.
Tina Huang: And so I was a fairly junior to mid-level engineer at the time but I championed this to a bunch of the senior technical team members and pushed forward to actually re-architect the system. And that’s how you take a project that is, on face value, not technically sophisticated and actually turn it into something that is worthy of a promotion.
Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, it’s really inspiring to hear how one shouldn’t just stop at what’s not in front of them. All right, so on that note, do you, any of you have any closing thoughts you’d like to share, Rachana, let’s start with you. What are your thoughts you’d like to close with in a pandemic situation for everyone?
Rachana Kumar: Yeah, I would just add to what Tina said because I think that’s so interesting about making opportunities for yourself and even for me, throughout my career, it’s been like kind of looking for things that no one is in my peer group, there are obvious problems, but either it’s not glamorous or it’s too risky and no one wants to own and kind of seeing…
Rachana Kumar: Because I know it’s an important problem but no one thinks it’s glamorous enough or exciting enough, owning those and working on them it’s been how I’ve created opportunity and that ties to also the promotion conversation. A lot of my promotions have come because I found a pattern and a problem, either small or big, depending on the stage of my career, and kind of paid attention to it.
Rachana Kumar: During the pandemic, with everything from child care to everyone going remote suddenly, how do you make mind space for that has been really challenging for me and the Mexico job was an interesting one. When they offered me that, it’s again a risky one, we had to move there so in the next few months and things like that. But I’m trying to still keep an open mind to what has made my career successful even during the pandemic, even though it’s hard.
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