“AWS, GraphQL, with Apollo, Vue.JS: Delivering Enterprise-Grade Applications”: Maria Lucena and Divya Mahajan, Directors of Architecture at Fidelity (Video + Transcript)

Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

Angie Chang: Next up, we have two architects from Fidelity Investments with the tech talk on simple technologies that can help deliver enterprise grade applications. So please join me in welcoming Divya Mahajan and Maria Lucena from Fidelity.

Maria Lucena: Thank you for having us.

Divya Mahajan: Thank you, Angie. We’re really excited to be here. I have to say, all of the talks today have been awesome. The last one was certainly a very fun and relatable conversation. So, thank you, Reeny and Susanna. Hello, everyone. And a happy International Women’s Day!

Divya Mahajan: I’m Divya Mahajan, working as a Director of Architecture at Fidelity Investments, responsible for setting architectural direction and strategy for some of Fidelity’s high net customer products in the alternative investment space among other things.

Divya Mahajan: Previously, I worked as a Director of Architecture in the cognitive computing space, building out Fidelity’s virtual assistant platform to create conversational experiences for our customers. A developer at heart, I love to see how my work makes a customer’s lives better.

Divya Mahajan: I graduated from WPI with a Masters in Information Systems. I live with my husband in Southern New Hampshire and when not building software, I’m an avid hiker and can be found on the mountain of New Hampshire to Africa, to South America. I also taught myself to play the guitar during the pandemic and love drumming away in my free time. Take it away. Maria,

Maria Lucena: Thank you, Divya. My name is Maria Lucena. Thank you for having me and happy International Women’s Day. I’m a Director of Architecture at Fidelity Investments. I’ve been doing software development for 13 years.

Maria Lucena: I have two beautiful boys. I have been blessed with an 18 year marriage, a beautiful puppy who just turned one this weekend and I enjoy traveling and trying new food. I am originally from Venezuela. I have a big family, nine sibling, so that means tons of nieces and nephews.

Maria Lucena: And, I’ve had a pretty an orthodox professional development because I chose to be a mom first and take care of my children before going to work. It wasn’t until 2007 that I actually got a Diploma in Web Development.

Maria Lucena: And then I went back to work and it was in 2018 when I completed my Associates in Information Technology. And then, this past year, I completed my Bachelor’s in Computer Science for which I received, [inaudible], in my Cum Laude Honors.

Maria Lucena: And that brings us to today, the capstone project for my bachelor’s degree. Now, when I was asked to solve for a community pro problem for that project, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

Maria Lucena: Given my background as a working mother and because I have done my professional development in a gradual manner, I wanted to do something to help women improve their lives. I also have always had an interest for women in the workplace and the issues they faced and the fact that women earn 82 cents for every dollar a man earns.

Maria Lucena: So, my way of giving back was by building a portal to help women who needed to work and develop professionally, remotely. So, this is the main goal of Remote Brilliance – it is to help women help themselves find a better quality of life by finding online jobs and creating a community where they could learn and sharing their knowledge with others.

Maria Lucena: As I was getting ready to start developing the project, there were a few things I needed to keep in mind. I needed to follow the software development life cycle, which for designing, planning and executing the project. It also needed to be appealing, secure, and resilient.

Maria Lucena: When I went online, though, I found a ton of available tools and some of them at a cost, some of them for free and all of them promising to do what I needed. It was then, I realized I needed to draw from my experience at Fidelity to help me find the right tech stack.

Maria Lucena: Now, given my experience with GraphQL at the firm, and recently having used AppSync in a project. I chose to center my strategy around defining the entities and using a tool that would help me get a backend up and running. Defining the server structure can be complex and time consuming.

Maria Lucena: So, I knew if I solved this first, I could spend more time in the UI, which for me was more challenging. Let’s understand some fundamentals of GraphQL. At its simplest, GraphQL is a language for your API, because GraphQL has been designed with a focus on client applications. It makes the connection of the backend and the frontend more coherent.

Maria Lucena: Now, at the core of GraphQL, we have Schema, the Schema defines the capabilities of your APIs through the type system. And if we think of types as objects in object oriented programming, we can think of the properties of an object as the fields defined in the Schema and the behaviors as the resolvers implementing the business rules and the GraphQL server.

Maria Lucena: Now, going back to that point of understanding the type system, I had to observe my business model and define its entity so that I could start building my API. I was recently involved in a project using GraphQL with apps, AWS AppSync, in which I learned that AppSync and the AppSync console, there is a co-generator tool, which is scaffolds all the operations for an entity to a Schema.

Maria Lucena: So, I could get my backend scaffold pretty quickly if I use that tool. Once I saw for what I wanted to deploy, for how I wanted to deploy the backend, I moved my attention to the client and how to wrap the traffic. A few years back, Divya and I worked on a, [inaudible], site for a nonprofit organization through Fidelity, change is simple.

Maria Lucena: What I learned about the pattern of using S3 for host static sites, at Fidelity, we use AWS and I know and trusted well enough to use its services on any project so you can see the entire application is hosted and run by AWS services.

Maria Lucena: Fronting the app, we have Cloud Front, which is a CDN and then there is some S3 in the middle and with AppSync at the back. So, here you have a high level look of what the end to end architecture is. I will dive a little bit into what the frontend is made off and then Divya will cover the backend.

Maria Lucena: As I mentioned earlier, there are many tools available for creating web and mobile applications. There is much promise of one size fits all for applying styles, but the reality is flexible designs are difficult to achieve.

Maria Lucena: So, using the right libraries can help you get closer to what you need.

Maria Lucena: I was part of a larger platform CCP with Divya, a Cognitive Computer Platform, where the client solutions team was using, [inaudible], a team made off of UI experts for building the platform’s portal. So, this led me to settle on using that framework for my UI.

Maria Lucena: Now, Vuetify compliments Vue. With a UI Library that uses material components, these are not only beautiful or design components, but also meet accessibility guidelines and other UX concerns. So, you get some professionalism within that library. Now, Cognito provides to [inaudible] layer for users and also for the APIs.

Maria Lucena: As I was implementing this, it became really time consuming to create all of the resources needed manually and that is when I came across AWS Amplify. And this is a set out of tools and features created by AWS to help developers build full stack applications. It’s a CLI and an SDK, so you can use it to build things and then at run time. With this in place, I was ready to connect to the backend. I needed a library to talk to GraphQL and Apollo was the obvious choice.

Maria Lucena: It doesn’t need an orchestration to talk to the GraphQL server and have some added configurable feature for caching out of the box. Finally, I needed to route the traffic to a secure endpoint. And I found a tutorial using Cloud Front, Route 53 with S3, which was created by a Daniel Galati, the author of, Be a Better Dev series. Let’s take a look at that one time.

Maria Lucena: So, this is what it looked like. It looks like when that request comes in, when the user, Remote Brilliance, that link Route 53, a DNS service, checks it, that there is a valid certificate and then routes the traffic to Cloud Front, a CDN, which then points to the public bucket. And that eventually routes to the private S3 bucket, where the static assets of the application are hosted.

Maria Lucena: With that, we’re going to look at a quick demo and I’m going to start from the authorization component, which is done by Amplify. And one thing I want to show here is that none of this is really done by me. All I had to do was copy a template and drop it in my application and all of the actions that are needed resetting a password, creating a, [inaudible], account.

Maria Lucena: All of those things are managed by AWS Amplify SDK. So, there is very little that you have to do if you use that SDK. And now, I’m going to move on to showing this, if is done with, as I said, Vuetify JS. If you go to their documentation and choose any UI component you want to use, you can quickly add your styles and your customized, the colors.

Maria Lucena: And one neat thing that I really enjoy about this, it’s that if you set a palette, a color palette for dark and light modes on that plugin, you can just expose a flag to your UI and you can quickly get through your application, this dark and light, which is, I think I find it pretty amusing.

Maria Lucena: Now I’m going to point to the network console here. And we want to show at this point how with a single endpoint calling GraphQL, you can get all of your operations. So, this is the job, [inaudible], listing a single job. I’m going to do and add here, and then I’m just going to save it. And I want to demonstrate how… This is done by Apollo, the Apollo client.

Maria Lucena: And if you pay close attention here to the headers, you’ll notice is the same end point. But as I look, as I show through the payload, you’ll see the operation changes. So that’s get a list, get a job and list the jobs and so on. So that’s really, that’s one of the benefits of GraphQL. And with that, I’m going to pass it off to Divya. Thank you.

Divya Mahajan: Thanks Maria. So, we just saw how the web client so seamlessly communicated with the backing system GraphQL in this case, over a single end point to interact with various different entities and resources to display all of the data, to render that beautiful website.

Divya Mahajan: The backend in this app is predominantly made up of GraphQL APIs, implemented using a managed AWS solution called AppSync. But before we talk a bit more about these technologies, I just quickly wanted to point out that given that we have less than 10 minutes together at this point, this is definitely not an in-depth GraphQL class.

Divya Mahajan: We will probably need a couple days if not more to do that. But Maria and I have extensively implemented GraphQL APIs using various different platforms, such as AWS AppSync, Apollo, among others at Fidelity, in building enterprise grade applications. So, today is more of an opportunity for us to give you enough information to get you excited in building solutions of your own using these technologies.

Divya Mahajan: All right. So, what exactly is GraphQL? Well, it’s basically a syntax that allows you to define what data you exactly need. No more, no less. It’s a query language like Maria pointed out in a run time for executing those queries to retrieve existing data.

Divya Mahajan: A GraphQL service is created by defining types and fields on those types, not end points. And I want to make this point abundantly clear as that’s one of the major differences between using a REST specification versus using a GraphQL specification.

Divya Mahajan: Also, GraphQL also uses types to ensure apps only ask for what’s possible from a particular GraphQL runtime, and provides clear and helpful errors in the event that the apps ask for more than what’s in scope for a particular GraphQL instance. Now HDDB, as we all know, is the most common choice for client server protocol because of its tube equity.

Divya Mahajan: And that’s exactly what GraphQL APIs also use to communicate between a client and a server. GraphQL strongly type system uses SDL short for Schema Definition Language to define an API Schema, basically its types and its fields. SDL is a shorthand notation for succinctly expressing the shape of a data graph that a client expects to see. Next slide, please Maria. Thank you.

Divya Mahajan: Here’s a quick example of what a sample Schema looks like now. Maria also mentioned how Schema is at the core of GraphQL. Here, we can see a sample query as well, based on SDL and a sample response to execution of that, [inaudible], mentioned query.

Divya Mahajan: As you can see the job entity here supports many fields, but the client query in this example only, [inaudible], to resolve specific fields like category, company description, company name, et cetera, which is only made possible by GraphQL and would not have been possible by using REST.

Divya Mahajan: All right, now that we understand a little bit about GraphQL, let’s talk about why we should consider using GraphQL and what its advantages are over REST, which currently happens to be one of the most commonly used API specifications. Next slide, please. Thank you.

Divya Mahajan: Now I love this quote from Edsger Dijkstra and personally for me, GraphQL sort of embodies the notion of brevity without jargon, quite wonderfully. It’s a clear language, that’s simple and a fruitless.

Divya Mahajan: A client can just ask for what they need without having to provide too much unnecessary syntax, [inaudible]. So, GraphQL sort of really sums it up. As far as this quote is concerned, some of the other advantages of using GraphQL and if you go to the next slide, Maria, thank you.

Divya Mahajan: So, why typical REST APIs require, [inaudible ], from multiple APIs and multiple different URLs? GraphQL APIs get all of the data and app needs from a single endpoint. This obviously helps avoid making multiple API calls for a particular operation. Also, there’s no over fetching or under fetching of data.

Divya Mahajan: Now, one of the major issues with REST is that, it can contain too much data or sometimes not enough data at all. Which creates the need for additional requests, while GraphQL solves this problem by fetching only the exact and specified data in a single endpoint and a single request from all of the resources that need to be queried by a particular client. Lastly, it can evolve without versioning.

Divya Mahajan: Now, why do most APS version anyway? One might ask. Well, when there’s limited control over the data, that’s returned from an API endpoint, any change can be considered a breaking change and breaking changes require new versions.

Divya Mahajan: In contrast, GraphQL only returns to the data that’s explicitly requested. So, new capabilities can be added via types, via fields and operations without creating a breaking change by using single evolving versions or version, GraphQL APIs, give apps continuous access to new features and encourage a more cleaner and a more maintainable backend code.

Divya Mahajan: Now hold on, Maria and I are talking about replacing all of the, or proposing replacing all of the systems that REST today with using GraphQL. And like we all know, nothing in software is one size fits all, and there will always be used cases where REST is more preferable over GraphQL. But what we’re pointing out is that these are just some of the reasons we chose GraphQL over REST in building scalable apps in no time at Fidelity.

Divya Mahajan: And so, are merely pointing out that if you are looking for an alternative to some of the pitfalls of REST, then look no further. Next slide please. But how does it all work?

Divya Mahajan: GraphQL has three major components. I think we’ve already touched upon them first being the Schema, which is basically a definition of all operations, including the types, fields and the functions that are defined on those types. Data sources, this is where the data comes from and the data goes in various different operations that can be done on the data. And lastly, resolvers, which act as connecting blocks between the Schema operations and the data sources, basically the business logic that executes the requested operation in a particular client query.

Divya Mahajan: Now an app designed to use GraphQL in the realm of a serverless technology makes it a very powerful combination. Why? You ask. It’s because in building cloud native applications, the infrastructure is already managed by a cloud service provider and the app teams only need to worry about business logic. And this is where AWS’s AppSync shines.

Divya Mahajan: To get an API app and running in no time, AppSync provides automatic code generation like Maria alluded to, aided by its Schema first design approach. The end result is, and automatically generated API with all the client side operations already present and ready for us to use. This truly, as you can imagine, is a, [inaudible] for developers that want faster code development and a more structured approach to building data driven applications. Now in the interest of time, next slide please, Maria.

Divya Mahajan: I quickly want to about just a couple ways in which any AWS resources can be deployed to create and deploy scalable cloud apps, Infrastructure as a Code, as you can imagine is an absolute must.

Divya Mahajan: And the two ways that we want to talk about today is the ubiquitous Cloudformation template introduced back in 2011 is probably the most universally used technique to deploy an infrastructure stack within AWS.

Divya Mahajan: The second, a more newer kit on the block called CDK or Cloud Development Kit has been catching steam. And I think we’re on time, but, you get the idea.

Divya Mahajan: Now, Maria and I understand that this is a lot of information in a very short amount of time, but we really hope you enjoy the conversation, took away some excitement and shared some excitement like we have, in creating cognitive applications using GraphQL, [inaudible], AppSync.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you so much, [crosstalk]. Thank you so much both Divya and Maria for all the insights and information, as well as the slide linked with all the resources. Quick note to everybody, all of this is going to be recorded and accessibility to you all later. Look out for your emails. So, don’t fret if you missed a few details or you want to catch up on it, even the slides you’ll have access to. All right over to our next bit, which is our coffee break. 

Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

“Become the Role Model You Wish You Had”: Reeny Sondhi, Chief Security Officer at Autodesk, and Susanna Holt, VP of Strategic Technologies at Autodesk (Video + Transcript)

Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Next we are hosting execs from Autodesk for an inspiring chat about becoming the role models you wish you had. Please join me in welcoming Reeny Sondhi the Chief Security Officer at Autodesk with over 25 years of experience in technology, she is joined by Susanna Holt, VP of Strategic Technologies at Autodesk with over 20 years of experience. We’re so happy to have you both here. Welcome Reeny and Susanna!

Reeny Sondhi: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here with all of you.

Susanna Holt: Thank you for me too. So let’s get started first of all, happy international women’s day, everyone. So Reeny and I have been preparing for this for while and we had a great time. The trouble was, we couldn’t really select what is it we’re going to talk about? There was so much we wanted to share.

Susanna Holt: We will talk about becoming role models and our struggles along the way, finding our voices. And we’ll talk about allies and I’m not sure we’re going to have enough time to answer questions that come up in the chat, but at the end we’ll tell you where to find us if you’d like to follow up on anything.

Susanna Holt: So with that, let me reintroduce Reeny. So we already know she’s the Chief Security Officer at Autodesk where we both work. She’s been here for over five years before that, she was leading a security engineering team at EMC, now part of Dell.

Susanna Holt: She’s also on the board of a cybersecurity company called Rapid7. And in distant past, she did product management, but what Reeny is passionate about, and what I see when I interact with her is building teams that solve complicated and complex problems, but that do so in a pragmatic way. And that’s what we need from security. Isn’t it?

Reeny Sondhi: Thank you so much, Susanna. And again, let me also wish everyone a super awesome international women’s day. Great to be here. It’s a tough act to follow, Susanna, from the last talk to this. So we better bring our game on here, but it was very inspiring to hear Mina and Claire talk.

Reeny Sondhi: And before we begin, I would love to introduce Susanna to all of you. She is, as we heard, she’s the Vice President of Strategic Technologies at Autodesk. She’s been with Autodesk for, I think over 10 years now, has led multiple engineering and product teams in different roles, working in Europe in the past and now in the United States.

Reeny Sondhi: One interesting fact about Susanna is she has a background in mathematics and even more interesting fact, I’m sorry, I’m picking this one over the background in mathematics, Susanna is the fact that she was an international rowing champion, which means that she’s not only competitive, but knows how to win and sometimes uses awesome sports analogies at work, which I completely totally love, I appreciate.

Reeny Sondhi: So Susanna, let’s get the ball rolling. And I’m going to throw the first question over to you. So this is a chat, so this is going to be back and forth between us. There’s no moderator. So it’s you and I here, but I’m going to start with your experience of meeting me for the first time, as I think there is a story in there which will help people understand our working relationship a little bit better. Why does it matter in the context of today’s conversation? So I would love to hear from you first.

Susanna Holt: Thank you Reeny, and you’re right. There is a story. Then it’s a story that formed me as a person, as a leader and our relationship, I’m going to say it.

Susanna Holt: So here’s what happened. I joined a new team, new role, new responsibility, all very exciting, a little bit intimidating too.

Susanna Holt: And Reeny was on that team and we had a staff meeting and we were talking about my first all hands and my boss.

Susanna: Well, our boss, both of our boss said, how about if I go along to support Susanna, that will show Susanna that I’m behind her, that I believe in her and all of that stuff. And I was thinking that might be nice because I was a little bit scared. It was a new thing for me, but I didn’t say anything.

Susanna Holt: And before I got to say anything, Reeny came in a way, and this is a style she has, she’ll say, “well, let’s think about this. Let me challenge this. Does Susan really need your support? Don’t we all know that she can talk don’t we know that she can run this. And by going there, wouldn’t you be saying, I don’t believe she can do it herself?”

Susanna: Holt: And she was right. And we changed our minds. I did it on my own. It was all fine. But I was just amazed. Who was this woman who I barely met, who had absolutely no reason to look out for me or to care for what happened to me to speak up on my behalf, to have that belief in me?

Susanna: Holt: So that was awesome and I’ve admired and aspired to be like Reeny in that respect ever since. But there’s more, it also told me this is the kind of team I want to be on.

Susanna: Holt: It’s the team where everyone works together and looks out for one another as opposed to thinking, well, the only thing that matters here is me and my work and the people who report to me.

Susanna: Holt: Thank you, Reeny it was awesome that you did that and I’ll forever be grateful to you for that.

Reeny Sondhi: You don’t have to be grateful. I’ll tell you that I was in those shoes myself, I think a couple of years before you joined the staff. And I had an ally on that team who welcomed me, enabled me to find my voice and the same staff I learned from her, what it meant to be an ally, to be perfectly honest.

Reeny Sondhi: I mean, she was my ally. She was a little bit of a role model for me. And it just felt natural to carry that forward to when you joined the team. And in fact, I think since then there have been a few reorgs in the company where we have together gone on to join completely new staff together. And I think we felt that our allyship can continue to push us forward together, at least that’s how I feel about where we are today.

Susanna Holt: And not just us together we then have the confidence to maybe challenge things rather than accept, okay, on this team, it’s different. We would say, well, I liked what we did on the other team. What do you think Reeny? And then make proposals based on that. So it’s been great.

Reeny Sondhi: Awesome.

Susanna Holt: And the whole thing has continued as Reeny and I have been lucky enough to continue to work together. We’ve continued to look out for one another and to push. Back to you Reeny.

Reeny Sondhi: Absolutely. We have, we’ve continued to do that. I think I have a very, I call it a trusted relationship with you. We call each other out when we are not at our best.

Reeny Sondhi: So for me that definitely comes in into being an ally. You have for everyone here who’s attending today, the last couple of years has been all about, attending meetings over zoom.

Reeny Sondhi: And Susanna has this thing about looking at me over zoom and understanding very clearly if I’m paying attention, am I checked out of a conversation and she will send me a little slack, little paying, zoom chat and ask me for my point of view, if she sees that I’m missing in action. And that definitely drives accountability in me. And I really appreciate that about you Susan.

Susanna Holt: But it goes further than that Reeny. And you must all know this. Sometimes you get asked for feedback on someone, maybe part of the annual review or coaching opportunities, and that feedback gets escalated and then anonymized, and then fed back to the person. And at some point I’d had enough of that. I

Susanna Holt: It felt to me, if I was going to make the trouble to think about what’s awesome about Reeny and where I would love to see her develop, why bother with someone else and going through someone else’s going to anonymize it.

Susanna Holt: So I tried to first, I tiptoed into it very carefully and gave Reeny a little bit of feedback and she embraced it. And now that’s become part of our relationship that we look out for one another and the growth that I get out of that it really exceeds other forms of growth because it has this trusted relationship and the honest, and I know, and I knew from day one, Reeny is looking out for me, she has my best interests at heart.

Reeny Sondhi: And I totally, truly completely appreciate you providing feedback to me. So let’s package this up. I think we have given examples of our working relationship, examples of how we look at each other as an ally. And so let’s package it up on what does being an ally really mean. And I can start, you can definitely add your own understanding your definition of what an ally is.

Reeny Sondhi: So to me personally, an ally gives me space and a voice. I look at an ally, someone who can help create conditions that give me the courage to go and take on the unknown sometimes. Someone who is an advocate for me, doesn’t support me blindly. And that’s why I keep bringing back the examples I’ve given earlier about when you see me being checked out, you’ll push me, you’ll nudge me, you’ll drive some accountability for me.

Reeny Sondhi: And really an ally for me personally, is someone who brings out the best version of me. And if I’m talking about this, I also want to contrast that a little bit with what does not being an ally look like. Because we are focusing a lot on what does being an ally look like.

Reeny Sondhi: So let’s do that little contrast in compare and I’ll drive home this point with another example. And you’ll realize the audience is going to realize we’ll come up with examples of meetings, we attend way too many meetings. And this was yet another meeting where I remember being part of a heated debate. And I was on the receiving end of the heated debate.

Reeny Sondhi And I think somewhere along the line, there was a moment there where I stopped myself from participating and was collecting my thoughts, trying to figure out, Hey, how best to respond.

Reeny Sondhi And I remember one of my colleagues decided that he needed to step in and protect me. And he actually said that, “Hey, I’m here to defend Reeny.” And I had to politely ask him not to do it because all I was doing was taking some time to reflect on what I wanted to say, and I really didn’t need protection or didn’t need anyone to come and defend me. So that’s the other contrast that I’m going to bring up and would love to hear how you think of what’s an ally.

Susanna Holt: Yeah. That’s such a good point. And I’m going to pick up on this. What is not an ally thing first, before I go to what isn’t an ally because I had a similar but different experience that’s coming that’s on my mind here. Also a staff meeting, heated debate, lots of people talking, nobody really listening.

Susanna Holt: And I wasn’t doing any talking either. And then someone stood up and said, we haven’t heard anything from the women yet. Well, woman, there was only me in the room and I was so angry. I was angry for the same reasons as Reeny, I wasn’t looking for a night in shining armor. I was not talking because there was no point no one was listening. At least that was my take on the whole situation.

Susanna Holt: And the sad thing about it, he was really trying, he was trying to do something good and right by me, but that wasn’t the right thing for me at that time. And it has led me to understand that I’m not looking for an ally to rescue me.

Susanna Holt: In an ally, I’m looking for someone to partner with me, whom I can reach out to, and that doesn’t have to be someone at work. Allies can be anywhere. It’s not like a mentor that it’s a fixed relationship. So an ally is someone who I can reach out to when I need, and then we go on our way again.

Reeny Sondhi: Awesome.

Susanna Holt: Now I want to talk about role models. And I want to talk about role models because I realize you and I, Reeny, we at a stage in our career where we could and should, and maybe are role models to other people.

Susanna Holt: And I struggle to think of myself as a role model and that I haven’t quite come to terms with this yet. What about you Reeny, are you struggling? Are you doing this with ease?

Reeny Sondhi I think I’ve shared with you Susanna about my hesitation. It’s been a journey for me. It hasn’t come naturally or easily for myself as well. And I think I’ve had some hesitation of being a role model and personally, it has been shaped by some of my experiences. And I’ll talk about some of those.

Reeny Sondhi So several years ago I got invited to again another meeting. And this was when I was the director of product management for my past company. And I remember this was with, I think the CEO staff at that point.

Reeny Sondhi I remember someone telling me right before I was going in for the meeting, that one of the reasons I was invited to the meeting was because I was a woman. I want to call this piece out here, one of the reasons, okay. But I immediately gravitated to her the fact that was the reason I was invited in meeting. And I remember being extremely upset about it, and I’ll be honest with you. I just was in the best version of myself at that meeting. I just did not bring my best out. And after that, I’ve had several years of lots of introspection about it.

Reeny Sondhi And I realized that I could have used that platform to prove that I actually deserved a seat at that table, but I decided not to use that opportunity, like my loss.

Reeny Sondhi Now let’s contrast that with just a couple of years back, I was approached by a security company to become part of their board of directors. They came to me because I’m a security practitioner, I’m an expert in my field. I have a product management experience that they could have leveraged at the board level.

Reeny Sondhi And yes, I would help them with adding diversity to the board. Now it’s a pretty diverse board in general, but I would just help them with adding diversity. And I’ll be honest with you. I’ve looked at that as getting an opportunity and making the most of it.

Reeny Sondhi So I think I have with the two contrasts I’m bringing up, I have embraced the role of being a role model much better now than I did several years back. But I hear your stuff. So let’s talk a little bit about that and about your feelings on this topics Susanna.

Susanna Holt: Yeah. Thanks Reeny and I will say I’m probably forever scarred by the times when I was told, you’ve only got this opportunity, because you’re a woman you’ve only got this promotion because you’re a woman.

Susanna Holt: And like you Reeny, for me, it’s an only, regardless of what people say, what lands in my head is the only, and it leads to a form of imposter syndrome, makes me feel I didn’t deserve it. But if I just sit on this imposter syndrome, I’m being lazy and I don’t want to be lazy.

Susanna Holt: And like you, Reeny, for me, it’s an only, I want to manage this activity actively, like you do Reeny, and I’m on the path to it. And I want to do it because we’re kind of out of appreciation for the women who came before us, because they had much more difficult things to deal with than we do.

usanna Holt:And out of a sense of responsibility and care for the women who come after us for whom it will be a little bit easier. And, I have a responsibility to deal with this and to work through it. And I want to and I’m proud of trying and I’ll get there.

Reeny Sondhi: You will. It’s a journey for all of us. My experience and my contrast doesn’t mean that I don’t get self-doubts. So, okay. So we have talked about allyship, we have talked about our experiences and I would love for us to give a couple of messages that we can leave this audience with and I’ll start and you will absolutely, I know, build on top of that.

Reeny Sondhi: So, my two messages, I’ll be honest about, I don’t have one, I have two, but number one for me, is don’t get in your own way. Like I did. Don’t get in your own way, in the past. I’m a woman, I shouldn’t get a, [inaudible], because of my gender, my race, et cetera. All of these are meaningless. Instead, think about the platform that you’re getting and use that to amplify your voice.

Reeny Sondhi: And… it’s a journey, it doesn’t come easy. It doesn’t come, naturally the very first time you try to do this. And the second piece that I would leave the audience with, is embrace your role model-ship.

Reeny Sondhi: Don’t be reluctant, hesitant, when you have self-doubt, I’ll link it back to having allies, go to them, walk through yourself doubts with them. Those all allies, as you mentioned, very clearly, don’t have to be at work, having an allied at home with your partner, spouse, friend, recognize and use those allies to become the best version of yourself. So, that would be the two messages and let’s hear from you, Susannna.

Susanna Holt: The good news is I don’t actually have an additional message. I’m just going to build on what you said, Reeny. And for me, I articulate it differently, like I just said, I’m always going to live with that voice on my shoulder, wondering whether I really should be here or whether I’m only here for reasons that I don’t like, but I’m going to embrace that. That’s part of my growth, it’s part of who I am and I’m going to own it.

Susanna Holt: And one of the ways in which I own it is, I know what situations are going to be difficult for me. I know what gets me down and what makes that voice on my shoulder start shouting at me, but I can preempt that. I can go and find out ally, if I know this is going to be a difficult situation, maybe I line up a one to one with Reeny immediately afterwards and she can talk me off the ledge or my husband, whoever is available to that.

Reeny Sondhi: Awesome. I’m always here for you, Susanna. So when you need, [crosstalk]. I know we’ve come to the end of our conversation. I really sincerely hope that the audience has enjoyed our talk, a little fireside chat, and it was thought provoking for you.

Reeny Sondhi: We have thoroughly enjoyed being here with you. And I know we have not been able to get to questions today, but Susanna, let’s talk about how people can connect with us.

Susanna Holt: Yes. So first of all, thank you for [inaudible], for your interest. Thank you, Reeny for doing this with me. We are both on LinkedIn, reach out to us if you would like to engage and we hope that you will, and then we can start a conversation there.

Reeny Sondhi: Thank you. Have a wonderful rest of your day and rest of the conference.

Angie Chang: Thank you, Reeny and Susanna for joining us, that was so transparent and inspiring to hear you candidly share authentically about overcoming some of your thoughts and being a role model. 

Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

“Tech is a Team Sport: When Women Lead, Everything is Possible”: Claire Martorana, Federal Chief Information Officer, and Mina Hsiang, Administrator at United States Digital Service (Video + Transcript)

Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

Angie Chang: We are having our next panel now. We want to welcome Claire Martorana the Federal Chief Information Officer for the Office of Management and Budget in the Executive Office of the President hailing from Washington, DC.

Angie Chang: And previously, she served on the USDS team at the US Department of Veterans Affairs, working on digital monitorization for veterans and prior to her tour of duty in government tech or gov tech with the USDS she was president at Everyday Health and Senior Vice President at Web MD.

Angie Chang: Also, we want to welcome Mina Hsiang. She is a third Administrator named at the United States Digital Service. She is the first woman and first Asian American to lead the USDS and she brings her experience and expertise to the government. Notably, she was previously a VP at Devoted Health.

Angie Chang: Hi Claire. So get things started. Why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself and what is the biggest digital initiatives that you’ve been working on and some of the challenges that your teams have been taking on.

Claire Martorana: Thanks Angie. Hey, Mina. Nice to join you all today.

Claire Martorana: I think probably the thing I’m focused on the most these days is cyber security. Cyber security is top of mind for this administration and kind of top of mind at this moment in time, as you can all imagine. And we are working across the federal enterprise.

Claire Martorana: So my job as federal CIO is, I help coordinate across all of the federal agencies, there’s 24 CFO act agencies, which are really big agencies then about 140 small agencies, including the Marine Mammal Council, so gigantic and then very tiny, making sure that our entire federal enterprise is safe and secure.

Claire Martorana: Recently in this administration, we launched a cybersecurity executive order, and then we just published out a zero trust strategy to try and help bring all our agencies up to a different level.

Claire Martorana: So that’s what I’ve been focused on and I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to work with Mina quite a bit on our customer experience executive order. So maybe I’ll turn it over to you Mina.

Mina Hsiang: Awesome. And thank you so much for having us, this is super exciting great to see you Claire. Tons is going on across government, we’ve been very focused on things that improve services for the public, things that make key needs of the public more accessible.

Mina Hsiang: So things that you have seen, launching vaccine [inaudible] and adding testing sites, adding appointment availability, launching COVID test [inaudible] and helping everyone get access to new testing, standing up tools and a site and an engagement model to enable folks to more easily get access to the child tax credit, understand what entitled to at a simple reading level…

Mina Hsiang: Which is not easy for taxes and then to support people in applying for the child tax credit and in filing their taxes which is necessary to get all the credits they deserve working on tools that help us do analysis and evaluation in the interest of climate and economic justice investments and making sure that we can ensure that Federal Dollars are going to things that support those goals.

Mina Hsiang: Working on modernizing WIC, which is Women, Infants and Children, and making sure that this program which is run by the states but has a lot of technology and operations behind it has the tool that make it accessible for people at critical time.

Mina Hsiang: So we’ve been really deeply engaged on a number of programs across government as Claire said, many of them are customer experience focused as well as some things that are a little bit more security or processing focused but really helping improve government services across many areas that touch everyday people.

Angie Chang: That’s really great to hear. Thank you for sharing all those examples of the fine work that you’re doing. So can you tell me about what is the CXEO and why we should care about and how you are working to deliver better services?

Mina Hsiang: Absolutely. And Claire jump in. So the CXEO… Government is like organized in this very bureaucratic way, where we have different agencies that all touch the same stakeholders.

Mina Hsiang: We run different programs that have come out in different laws, but the public doesn’t care about any of that. Like you’re a person, you have a moment in your life. You need services, you deserve access to things that you’re entitled to at that point in your life, for one reason or another, you need to register, you need to retire and register for an array of different things that you’re entitled to at that point.

Mina Hsiang: And so this is really the nexus of a lot of our work and our observations and our understanding of how people really need to interact with services. The best companies think much more about the customer at the center. And so this was us saying let’s orient government in this way.

Mina Hsiang: Let’s not make it an exercise for every individual to go learn about every program and have to navigate the same thing over and over again.

Mina Hsiang: How do we start orienting with a mindset that says, how do we serve the individuals who are entitled to and dependent on and use government programs everyday, some of them are about support, but some of them are just about registering and becoming part of the system.

Mina Hsiang: And so putting that all together has been the nexus and that has required as Clara says. And we talk about a lot, it’s really a team sport, right?

Mina Hsiang: That all of a sudden requires all these parts of government to have a similar customer focus orientation, to hold hands and say, okay, so how are we going to serve people?

Mina Hsiang: And it’s been awesome to work with Claire. We have deployed… USDS deploys, a bunch of teams across agencies to help implement that. And then Claire’s team. And I’ll let you talk about it provides the connective tissue and the super structure that makes sure that this all hangs together. So it’s been great to partner and work really closely together in this, but Claire.

Claire Martorana: Yeah. And I think to build on what Mina said – a person, and I think this was really prevalent during the pandemic, a person’s just trying to get something done, they don’t know the org chart of some federal agency. Half the time you don’t even know the name of the agency that you’re trying to get services from.

Claire Martorana: So what we are trying to do with the customer experience executive order is do what we have done in the private sector, right? Which is try to care for your customer. A, know who your customer is, make sure you’re designing your products and services with your customers, not for them.

Claire Martorana: And recognizing that in many instances, you’re possibly going to have to intersect with multiple agencies to get one thing done. And then maybe an office is closed. So the only way a person knew how to approach the government was to go to this place and talk to a person. And then during the pandemic that wasn’t available.

Claire Martorana: And so we’ve spent a lot of time working with all of the work that the US Digital Service has done. And then with other folks across government saying, how do we not only improve the digital experience for people who can use digital channels, right?

Claire Martorana: Not everybody can, some people still want to get somebody on the phone at a call center or walk into a building and have a person to person interaction. We have to think omnichannel. We have to meet people where they are also based on their skills and abilities, because not everybody speaks English.

Claire Martorana: Not everybody understands the legalese on these forms that sometimes they’re asked to fill out, to even get access, to speak to a person about something.

Claire Martorana: So we tried to step back be the customer and really think about how we can make navigating agencies more efficient and effective based on the tools we all know how to use right. In the private sector, all of our phones and the channels that we know how to use.

Claire Martorana: And I think the pandemic was really interesting because it broke down a lot of bureaucratic silos. People previously were like, we can’t do that statute, A, B, C, G, E, F, won’t allow us and during the pandemic, a lot of those barriers were broken down.

Claire Martorana: So we were able to take advantage of that and really accelerate some of this work that was started in government, but we’ve really had the great opportunity to take it several steps further.

Mina Hsiang: Absolutely.

Angie Chang: So what does this mean in terms of execution when it comes to hiring?

Mina Hsiang: So much hiring! OK. I mean, we talked about this customer experience EO. But even just the EO enumerates 36 life experiences that are specifically going to get improved across 17 agencies, in addition to many programs that are not specifically enumerated, all of the things that I listed that we’re working on, none of those are listed in the customer experience EO, because those are additional things that we’re committing to, all of the cybersecurity work that Claire has laid out, needs to be built into all of this.

Mina Hsiang: And so you all know from where you sit, how much expertise, how much skill and focus it takes to accomplish things in this arena.

Mina Hsiang: And we need to bring in a mix of people who come from experiences like the audience here, private sector, public sector, people who have done this at state and local levels, we’re working to bring all of those people together and actually build these integrated implementation teams to work shoulder to shoulder with the staff at the agents who have been supporting the services and understand the customers to build and enable all of this.

Mina Hsiang: Change requires a lot of work and a lot of new thinking and collaboration. And so Claire and I have been deeply focused on working across the government to say, now is an amazing time, there is so much to do, there’s so much support. Jump in Claire.

Claire Martorana: Yeah. And I would say, if you’ve ever interacted with the government and you went to a website and went, wow, this looks old or, wow, I wish I could do this other thing. It’s because you’re right. And we need to be a to do that. But the only way we’re able to do that is if people like you all come along with us on this journey.

Claire Martorana: We need to hire people that look like the American public, that interact across the nation.

Claire Martorana: We want people from different places. It can’t just be New York, DC, Atlanta, Chicago, and whatever.

Claire Martorana: We need people that come from all different walks of life because we all bring such different perspectives. When I talk to somebody who is coming from Kansas and they’re talking about having to drive an hour and a half to a local hospital, that’s different from where I live.

Claire Martorana: And that’s really important for me to have that understanding and perspective when we’re thinking about developing products and services. So the people we want to come and join us on this journey are all of you. I never thought I would join government.

Claire Martorana: I read a WIRED article about president Obama’s tech team. And it had a little thing at the bottom that says, USDS join. And I clicked on, I went online, I clicked on it and I filled out this application.

Claire Martorana: I never thought anyone would call me, a lot of us have imposter syndrome and parts of our careers. And we go, oh, all those people are really smart. And they know how to do all the things.

Claire Martorana: You are all those people, everybody listening right now, you are the people that actually can come into government, do a tour of duty and have an outsized impact.

Claire Martorana: Millions and millions of people can benefit from the skills you have. And that’s a really sobering thing to think about, but it is really true.

Claire Martorana: I mean, I work with people every single day that thought they’d be here for a year and three years later, they’re still doing outstanding work, because they can have such a gigantic impact and build all of those things that Mina talked about earlier. These COVID websites, getting tests out to the American public through the postal service that was all done because people like you showed up to help us do this work.

Mina Hsiang: Could not agree more. And I think just to get more detailed and specific or Angie, if you have a different question, but just to stay on this for a second, I mean the skills that we are looking for.

Mina Hsiang: We are looking for technologists, experts in design, people who are user researchers, data scientists, data engineers, product managers, all of these are the skills.

Mina Hsiang: And now as a moment to bring those into government, it’s a skillset that is rare in government and experience that we want diverse backgrounds and diverse ages and diverse locations, as Claire said.

Mina Hsiang: And in terms of the amount of work to do and the amount of leadership support that you will have to do that, it’s just the teammates. It’s an incredible moment to do that. If I may, I wanted to read a quote, just a woman at USDS said this to me last week.

Mina Hsiang: And it really, to me is like, why we’re here. My partner told me the other day that I’ve seemed extra of happy to him lately, despite the sometimes long hours and a lot of challenges.

Mina Hsiang: This is a unique job. And I don’t think I could have imagined what it was like ahead of time, but it’s definitely the coolest, most meaningful job that I’ve ever had. And I think to me at this moment where people we’re all looking for meaning and to do something important and to be able to use our skills in the most high impact way I have come back.

Mina Hsiang: This is my fourth time in government. I keep coming back. There is no other place that you can so meaningfully use your skills to impact the lives of others. So if it’s at all appealing, now I will plug. We have a website, the one where Claire went and clicked and we pulled her in, which is usds.gov/apply and really hope to see more of be there.

Claire Martorana: Yeah. And Angie, I’ll just add one more thing to pile on. The thing that is really fascinating about the government is if you care about food safety, if you care about healthcare, if you care about helping children, all of those opportunities are available to you. Y

Claire Martorana: ou can basically think of any constituent group and there is work that needs to happen. Technical work that needs to happen to empower the experience that those people have with the federal government.

Claire Martorana: So it is really an incredibly important time to join because we have so much momentum and candidly, we have money to support the momentum because of the American Rescue Plan and the Infrastructure. IIJA infrastructure bill. There’s actually a lot of work going on and what we need are the people to come and help us do that work.

Claire Martorana: And I would just add one thing in closing is, don’t self select out.

Claire Martorana: I was really close to self-selecting out. I don’t know, I’ve just done management and product and they probably need SREs and frontend engineers, not me.

Claire Martorana: Don’t self elect out, please go to usds.gov, apply and start on the journey. And if it’s not the channel through USDS, there’s lots of other places, USA jobs, the technology transformation services. There’s lots of other ways that you can get involved.

Angie Chang: Sounds like that’s the last question I have, which is, advice you would give to a person looking to make a change, or make a difference. It sounds like in this great resignation, great reshuffling, a place that people can go to reinvigorate themselves with something that has important, impactful, meaning to many millions of Americans is go have a tour of duty at the USDS.

Angie Chang: So do you have a final piece of advice or someone who wants to make an impact beyond applying for the USDS or many of these other organizations that you mentioned?

Claire Martorana: Yeah. There’s the US digital core for folks early career at the general service administration. There’s a technology transformation service. There’s 18F, there’s a really interesting group called the presidential innovation fellows that do outstanding work.

Claire Martorana: So there are lots of different ways into the government in addition to USDS but it is absolutely, I’d say raise your hand, go on these websites, take a look around and really interrogate that.

Claire Martorana: The one thing I said I was going to add in closing before, but I’m closing again is I had this amazing woman I worked with at the VA and we launched a product that helped veterans get access to healthcare. And when we launched, literally she started crying and she said, I just spent three years kicking ass and optimizing a shopping cart.

Claire Martorana: And today what I did is helping people and I’ve never had the opportunity to do that. And it was that impactful for her and I’ve never forgotten it. So we see that through our colleagues all the time, as you get to really help people that are in need and you get to use your awesome technology skills to drive that impact.

Claire Martorana: And it’s really, it’s something that we mean has been here in government. Numerous times I had thought, I’d be here a year I’m on my sixth year. You get commitment escalation because the work you get to do is so impactful.

Mina Hsiang: A thousand percent agree. I think we hear all those stories. The other thing I would add is this isn’t something that derails your career, this is a high impact job. First of all, there are also state digital services.

Mina Hsiang: There are state government offices of technology that have other names, but they are opportunities to work in your local community if that’s what matters to you. But all of these, every business that I have worked for every other company that I’ve helped start are deeply intertwined and affected by government programs, by regulations.

Mina Hsiang: This is the other piece of the economy and it’s in the extent to which I am competitive because I understand how things work on the other side as well. And that I understand the interplay and how both the table is set and how the game gets played.

Mina Hsiang: It’s really unusual to have people who have both of those skill sets. So this is also just really valuable for your perspective on the world and your career.

Mina Hsiang: So I would say, it’s both not a limitation and not a step back or a pause in your career. It’s a big leap forward.

Mina Hsiang: It has been really helpful to me in understanding how the world overall works and in my professional development.

Mina Hsiang: And then I would also say, there’s so much to do and there is no one else who is coming to do it. And no one else who is better qualified to do it so come.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you so much, ladies, this was just amazing. There’s so many comments on here where people are talking about how greatly inspired they are by you, Claire and you Mina. This has just been wonderful and we really, really are grateful for the time you spent in not just educating us, but in influencing and inspiring us today.

Mina Hsiang: Thank you so much.

Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

“Unique Paths to Machine Learning Careers”: Julie Choi, Chief Growth Officer at MosaicML, and Laura Florescu, Machine Learning Researcher at MosaicML (Video + Transcript)

Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

Angie Chang: Next up, we have women from MosaicML sharing their unique journeys to machine learning careers. I want to welcome Julie Choi, MosaicML Chief Growth Officer and Laura Florescu, MosaicML, Machine Learning Researcher.

Angie Chang: And they’ll share about how they worked at several tech companies, eight total, including a few unicorns and blue chips, and their reason for joining forces at a new startup focused on making machine learning training better for everyone and please do ask questions of these ladies in the Q&A section of Zoom. They welcome your questions and welcome, Julie and Laura!

Julie Choi: Hi everyone. Let me just pull up this, great hello, Happy International Women’s Day, Laura!

Laura Florescu: Happy International Women’s Day!

Julie Choi: I’m so happy to be here with you in our San Diego offices together in real life. So really, really happy to be here with everyone. Thank you so much. The Girl Geek X organization and Angie and everybody, I know it takes so much work to put this event together and we’re just thrilled to be here today to share from our own career stories, as well as from our current intersection where we’re working at MosaicML to train machine learning models faster.

Julie Choi: So let’s get started with Laura and we’re going to take Q&A at the end. We’ll reserve some time. So Laura, you are a machine learning researcher at MosaicML, and it’s just been a joy and delight to get to know you. Can you tell us more about your path that got you to this point?

Laura Florescu: Yes. Thank you, Julie, would love to. So my journey starts in Bucharest, Romania, where I grew up and went to school. I went to a math and computer science high school, and I guess I just kind of loved math. My father had a deep appreciation for it. And so that wore off a little bit to me.

Laura Florescu: And afterwards I went to Reed College in Oregon when I moved to the United States to study mathematics. And so that’s where my academic roots began. And afterwards for a year I worked at Los Alamos National Lab, where pretty much I learned programming and that’s how I got kind of interested more in engineering and technology.

Laura Florescu: And afterwards I wanted to do my PhD. So I started at New York University and I had the honor and pleasure to write a book with my PhD advisor. And so I got my degree in math, computer science, and afterwards I moved to Silicon Valley where I got interested in AI in startups, entrepreneurship, and I made the decision to join right after a small, at the time, startup called Grok. So they are working on custom hardware for inference in machine learning.

Laura Florescu: So I worked on compilers on machine learning there. I learned a ton and afterwards I went to SambaNova Systems also kind of following my passion of accelerating neural networks training. So SambaNova is also building custom hardware for training neural networks. So I worked on many different areas there as well.

Laura Florescu: And now for about a year, I joined forces with you at MosaicML, again, with the same kind of goal of accelerating AI now through more algorithmic side and system optimizations.

Julie Choi: Amazing. I have one question. I mean, this is a brilliant journey and so many amazing points along the way. How did you decide to go into industry versus academia after your PhD?

Laura Florescu: Yeah. So I think a lot of people finishing their PhDs have that exact dilemma. I definitely did and I think I realized I wanted to have more impact in the world, kind of work on work on something that basically the whole world can benefit from. And I felt Silicon Valley and startups in particular would give me that opportunity to do so.

Julie Choi: So it was about impact?

Laura Florescu: Right. Yeah.

Julie Choi: Great.

Laura Florescu: Yeah. Thank you, Julie.

Julie Choi: Sure.

Laura Florescu: So you are Chief Growth Officer at MosaicML. Can you tell us a little bit about your path and where you have been to get to here?

Julie Choi: I’d love to thank you so much. Yeah. When I was a kid growing up in LA, I didn’t imagine that at this age I would be a Chief Growth Officer. Those jobs didn’t exist back then.

Julie Choi: But I think when I look back on the journey, it kind of makes sense that I’m doing what I’m doing because my job right now is to connect us, right? To build relationships with engineers in the research community, as well as at large or medium or small companies who are looking to build AI. And so I am a connector and I’m a people person, but I am…

Julie Choi: I identify as a nerd. So I started my journey in LA. I grew up as an immigrant. Actually I immigrated to LA from South Korea. My parents moved us here when I was the age of three, and my sister was 0.2, literally just born. And we moved here with kind of everything we had and settled in first El Segundo and then North Torrance, if anyone knows Southern California geography.

Julie Choi: And my parents worked very, very hard. They owned a 7-11 store in Lawndale, close to Inglewood. And so they were very, very, very busy and they basically left my sister and I to kind of figure out what we wanted to do with our spare time. And as many kids during the 80s did, I watched a lot of TV on my own.

Julie Choi: I played video games and I just gravitated towards robots and transformers and robo tech, Voltron, anything mechanical as well as these stories of good versus evil. And I identified with the few female heroes that were in these cartoons. And I guess that kind of just spurred me on towards my path in education.

Julie Choi: I went to MIT, continued to find my people and find my groove. But when I graduated, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. So I went into consulting. And I started, I spent five years working with fortune 1000 types of enterprise companies, helping them solve problems, primarily in the security domain.

Julie Choi: So I was a hacker, I was hired to penetrate systems. And that was probably the first time I realized what it felt to be the only woman in the room, especially at RSA Conference. Wow. I was the only woman in the room usually and I was just like, wow, okay. But actually even then my team was extremely supportive and I had allies around me and it was like, do whatever it took to make that customer successful.

Julie Choi: And so I moved to Silicon Valley and here we are at MosaicML. I mean the Silicon Valley chapter also intersects with personally a lot of things, right? I met my husband, had my children, settled in where I live now. And at the same time growing in an understanding of what I wanted to do. And most recently, before deciding to go to MosaicML, I was at Intel and at Intel, I spent four very impactful years helping establish the AI business and brand for Intel.

Julie Choi: And actually the last time I gave a talk was Intel at a Girl Geek X conference. So it’s kind of amazing to do this again, about two years later.

Julie Choi: So here we are at MosaicML and we are here and so excited on this journey to accelerate AI development. And we’re doing this kind of differently than anyone else because we’re applying algorithmic research as well as system level optimizations to speed the way neural networks are trained.

Julie Choi: And so what I would love is given your research and engineering expertise, Laura, is if you could talk us through why neural network training is so important.

Laura Florescu: Yeah. Thank you, Julie, of course. So just a very briefly, a little bit about neural networks and why they’re so important and basically why we’re focusing on them. So there’s simply a series of algorithms mimicking the human brain to recognize patterns and relationships in vast amounts of data.

Laura Florescu: And so very briefly in the image below, you can see we have been given a number of images containing the number five and a bunch of neurons that are trained then through providing this kind of data in order to recognize features and textures and patterns in the images in order to correctly identify what the image is.

Laura Florescu: So through such iterations, we learn to classify numbers in this specific example.

Julie Choi: Oh, so this is unstructured data going in kind of like images and speech?

Laura Florescu: Yeah, exactly. So it can be applied to many different fields, basically anything that you humans would, would create, right? So a bunch of images, a lot of language. So you can imagine the whole Wikipedia, the whole internet, right? Speech data.

Laura Florescu: So many, many different fields affecting all of us. And I guess the issue is the training costs for building such powerful large models have spiraled. So they can actually get into the million dollars range for a single run. And in order to build a powerful model, you need several iterations of such training. And so you can imagine quickly getting to tens of millions of dollars.

Julie Choi: Wow. That seems extremely difficult and limiting in terms of who has the capability to train neural networks today. So in general, what are the types of companies that have this capability in house?

Laura Florescu: Right, so those companies would be, Google, Meta, Microsoft who have access to such resources.

Julie Choi: I see. But it feels like for AI to really reach its potential, we need these capabilities to be in the hands of far more than these things.

Laura Florescu: Exactly.

Julie Choi: Enter MosaicML. So Laura, can you tell us about how Mosaic is accelerating the training of these neural nets?

Laura Florescu: Yeah. So that’s exactly where we come in and it’s my passion to work on such problems, especially as they apply to, as we have here, a couple of different tasks, different domains in which we have done research and shown significant progress.

Laura Florescu: So in the area of natural language processing, which encompasses everything from machine translation, everybody speaks different languages. So it’s huge question answering, information retrieval, sentiment analysis for Amazon reviews, for example.

Laura Florescu: So in this kind of area, through the research we have done by combining multiple algorithms, we have shown speedups of up to 3.7x on these GPT type models, which is the state of the art in language models.

Laura Florescu: And in computer vision, so such as classification, what I showed earlier here, you can see a couple of examples in detection and image segmentation, which are crucial for autonomous driving. So similarly through our research, by combining multiple algorithms, we can train such models up to 4.5x faster.

Julie Choi: So if I’m interpreting the speed or the impact of speed, does training 4.5 times faster mean that you can potentially train a model that would’ve taken four weeks in maybe one?

Laura Florescu: Exactly. Yeah. So you can iterate faster and your costs go down significantly.

Julie Choi: Awesome.

Laura Florescu: What’s really good about it in my opinion, another thing that we’re doing at Mosaic is we have open source our library of such algorithms. So you can visit it on GitHub, it’s called Composer. So it’s a flexible system to combine efficiently such different algorithms.

Laura Florescu: There are about 20 of them right now, and we’re actively researching and implementing more. And yeah, so we opensource that. We welcome community interaction, community feedback, as well as contributions to our open source library.

Julie Choi: And so is this available today for developer use?

Laura Florescu: Right. And that’s exactly how we got the kind of results that I just described.

Julie Choi: The 4x speed up on vision and four and a half… Okay, perfect.

Laura Florescu: Yeah. So my question to you, Julie, then is we have seen obviously how ML is so important and it’s affecting our lives, but why work in it? What’s in it for us?

Julie Choi: Yeah. So why work in ML? I’ve been working in ML for the past seven years. So I started working in machine learning at HPE, and then I went to Intel and I continued to choose to work in this domain because whether we’re ready to embrace it or not, the era of AI is happening now. I mean, it is not a future thing.

Julie Choi: There is so much data that we’re generating every day on our mobile devices and through our computers that now any company in it, not only the things, but there’s thousands of enterprise companies with legacy data and new data being generated, any organization can create AI systems.

Julie Choi: And so the era of AI is upon us because of the convergence of data, as well as tools that extract meaning from the data. And so I feel like it’s very imperative for me to be a part of developing tools that accelerate this adoption, because at the end of the day, AI systems are acting on my behalf.

Julie Choi: They are identifying who I am, right? And they are trying to make decisions on my behalf. And so I would like to be part of setting up the requirements for AIs, both from the ground up at the tooling level, which is where we’re involved as MosaicML and help educate builders of a AI applications so that we can consider basically people like me, right?

Julie Choi: And today is International Women’s Day. And basically almost 50% of the world identifies as female and that’s about 4 billion people. However, only 15% of the ML space in terms of research and science and development identifies as females. And so this is part of why I choose to work in this domain.

Julie Choi: And so actually, if that resonates and if what Laura, you and I discussed resonates with people that are attending the conference today, I really encourage you to join us here at Mosaic.

Julie Choi: It is an incredibly exciting time to be working on machine learning infrastructure and algorithmic software and to be shaping the space and the opportunity that AI presents. So I would like to just, maybe now we can move into question and answer, we’ll stop sharing, and then let’s go into Q and A. So there are a few.

Laura Florescu: Julie, I have a question for you.

Julie Choi: Yes.

Laura Florescu: Do you have any recommendation to someone who might not have any AI or ML background in order to get into the field?

Julie Choi: Yeah. I mean, I think education, there are so many materials out there, on Coursera, as well as there’s many organizations like Women in ML, Women in Data Science, these types of organizations.

Julie Choi: I would definitely go and look for the coursework, if you’re looking for a technical background and then just talk to people, right? Whether it’s over Zoom or now over coffee, learn from the practitioners who are out there.

Julie Choi: Again, I’ve been in this for seven years and so we’ve kind of come to a state where there are lots of sources of information. Yeah. It looks like, oh, I’m so sorry. There’s a lot of, I think we have a couple more minutes here.

Angie Chang: We’re actually out of time, but if you’ll hop into the chat, we can have you answer questions.

Julie Choi: Okay.

Angie Chang: Thank you Julie And Laura for sharing about machine learning careers and how MosaicML is making machine learning training better for everybody. 

Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

“Riding the Highs and Lows: Navigating Bad Mental Health Days in the Workspace”: Ashu Ravichander, Principal Product Manager at Workday (Video + Transcript)

Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

Angie Chang: So it’s time for our next session. Up next is Ashu Ravichander. She is an engineer and product manager, currently Principal Product Manager at Workday. And outside of her day job, she leads product for the Human Health Project, which is a nonprofit, connecting patients with mental health and other chronic diseases [inaudible] advocates that help them navigate the healthcare system. So welcome, Ashu.

Ashu Ravichander: Thank you, Angie. Let me start screen share. Okay. Hi, everyone. And thank you so much for joining this talk, writing the highs and lows where I’ll go over some of my techniques to navigating bad mental health days in the workplace. But first introductions.

Ashu Ravichander: Hi, I’m Ashu Ravichander and I’m currently a Principal Product Manager at Workday. I started out my career as an engineer in the healthcare space almost a decade ago now, and since then have built consumer and enterprise products for a wide variety of personas.

Ashu Ravichander: On a personal note, I have two beautiful dogs and Boo, my cat, with my husband. Outside of work, I live in California now, so I love to kayak in the summers and ride bikes through the year.

Ashu Ravichander: And I also have bipolar disorder, type two to be specific. Most of my friends and coworkers know the first seven things about me but not the last, because that is not something I ever speak about since it’s not really well understood and is unfortunately so often conflated with your character and capabilities.

Ashu Ravichander: Now I have attended conferences and other events for past decade now, and I have heard some amazing speakers, but I wish 23-year-old me could have heard more people talking about mental health in a tech or professional setting so that it felt more normalized, and that I understood that it was just a difference and should never have been a reason to hold back.

Ashu Ravichander: That’s why I’m here today to kind of do this for 23-year-old me and for anyone else that may need to hear it because statistically, I know I’m not alone and you may not have a diagnosed mental health condition, but honestly, it’s a spectrum and we all have mental health. And some days, it just does not fare as well, whether it’s due to biochemical reactions, external stressors, thanks pandemic, or just being human.

Ashu Ravichander: So I think this is important for everyone to hear and learn, to build resiliency. Now earlier, I used to compartmentalize my professional and personal self and never let it seep into the other, but this wasn’t sustainable.

Ashu Ravichander: And if I wanted to bring my full self to work, I had to positively integrate my condition in because I also have ambitious career goals. And I knew I’m going to build amazing teams working on amazing products.

Ashu Ravichander: So I started taking on a more mindful approach to work and making sure I had defenses up against any bad days. And that’s what I want to talk to you all about today.

Ashu Ravichander: I’m going to walk through my personal experience about how I build resiliency around bad mental health days at work.

Ashu Ravichander: I go through five of the most basic and important things I have in my tool kit that help me be consistent and bring my best whenever I need to. And how I, and hopefully you, can use this to bring your whole self to work.

Ashu Ravichander: I do want to also call out what the talk is not. None of these techniques are substitute for care, whether it’s self-care, meditation, medication, therapies. There are a lot of great resources out there and I do recommend you seek this out.

Ashu Ravichander: I have put years of work for myself into therapy and medication that has let me come to this point, to be here and talk you all. And I’d be more than happy to connect on this offline.

Ashu Ravichander: Along with seeking out care, I want to stress that you need to treat your physical and mental health the same and take the time off, take the mental health days off if you really need to.

Ashu Ravichander: And finally, it is not a formula. I’ve had to develop what works for me over years of trial and error and I’m sharing what has stuck. This could look very different for you. And I hope you take this as a starting point to build the tools that will work for you. With that, let’s jump into five simple tools I use to bring my best work.

Ashu Ravichander: Now, my first technique is to build a playbook of templates, frameworks to help give me a leg up on really low energy days.

Ashu Ravichander: I’m a Product Manager and we are the go to people about our products, right? So quite often I find that I have to turn around and create something like white papers or business cases for really different audiences in a very short timeframe.

Ashu Ravichander: But what do I do if this falls on a really low day for me, where my energy is not where it would normally be? I don’t want to do a bad job just because the timing wasn’t right. I knew I had to do something different to accommodate for this.

Ashu Ravichander: So I looked at the most common things I might need on a daily or weekly basis and figure that if I had a template or a framework for these things, then I would always have create starting points for my most common deliverables.

Ashu Ravichander: Think about it kind of like meal prep on a weekday after you’ve had this hard time at work, you finished all your chores, you know you need to have a nutritious balanced meal, but you just don’t have the mental of physical energy to cook up anything elaborate.

Ashu Ravichander: Well, if you do meal prep on the weekend and have some pre-prepared proteins and chopped and season vegetables, then all you really have to do is heat it up, maybe add a really simple salad to it, and wow, you’ve got a great nutritious meal ready.

Ashu Ravichander: Well, the templates that I collect are kind of the same thing. So if I get asked to put a business case template together, I already have a starting point with my business case template and you and I know that formatting is 50% of the work. So I already have a leg up.

Ashu Ravichander: I also have notes, prompts and question of these to make filling it out easier, almost Mad Libs style. For example, in my business case deck, I have a section on the success metrics and I have a little prompt there that reminds me to detail out the product metrics and how that could tie into the organization’s metrics or OKRs that they’re tracking.

Ashu Ravichander: So now when I need to fill it out, even if I’m having an off day, I’m making sure I cover the right points and details.

Ashu Ravichander: Over the years, I have collected and continue to add what I need in my day to day work to my playbook. So far, I have a roadmap deck, feature requirement templates, business case decks, prioritization frameworks, and a few more things that I can lean on.

Ashu Ravichander: I also have the privilege of working with some amazing coworkers and teams in various organizations. So every time I see an impactful presentation or document, including some that we saw in the conference earlier today, I constantly think about my playbook and either ask for a copy or adapt a template from it.

Ashu Ravichander: I have a folder for my work computer, with these samples and templates labeled with all the organization teams and branding, but I also make a generic and non-branded templates for myself to use with links to publicly available themes and icon collections, and have it on my private Google Drive so I know I can port this playbook with me.

Ashu Ravichander: Next, I have what I like to call, spacers. One thing I have learned from cycling through highs and lows is that everything passes. So it really helps me to buy some time or create spaces between me and the critical event or task till I can get back in that right state and have appropriate and reliable responses.

Ashu Ravichander: So a few weeks ago, my dog Arby, he had surgery and I think it was on a Wednesday. And I remember I was like a complete wreck that day, but I was still in a few meetings where I needed to make sure I had a handle on the project we’re working on.

Ashu Ravichander: I tried to be as present at the meetings, but since I knew it was going to be a high stress day, I asked for all meetings that day to be recorded.

Ashu Ravichander: For meetings that I couldn’t record, I had my transcription app open, so I had the whole meeting transcribed and had notes for myself. I spent the rest of the day doing less intense tasks, like I think I just sorted through some old detail that I needed and replied to older emails.

Ashu Ravichander: Then at around 6:00 PM, the vet calls me and he tells me, “Arby has made it through surgery. Just fine. It was awake.” I finally felt like I could breathe and got back into that right state of mind.

Ashu Ravichander:Now I know there was some questions asked of me in the meetings and some follow-ups. So to make sure I didn’t miss anything, I just replayed my meetings from the day at 2X speed, of course, and looked at the transcription so that I could catch up.

Ashu Ravichander: Now, recording and transcriptions are a good way to build spacers, but there are other ways I do this too depending on the situation, like shuffling around some of my tasks, so working on more routine or repetitive tasks when I’m stressed and then the more important tasks later, or responding to infuriating emails only after I spent some time out watering my garden and having to think about it, either way a very well-watered garden in case you were wondering.

Ashu Ravichander:But it is a slippery slope between building a spacer and procrastination. I have seen this and experienced it. So I have had to make a sacred rule about maintaining a to-do list in a single spot, which I have to regularly review before starting another task.

Ashu Ravichander:The bottom line here is find out what works for you. Pause, prioritize, and come back to situations or tasks when you are ready.

Ashu Ravichander: Now, the third technique I use is to ask for feedback early and often to almost have a reality check. I’m not going to lie to you. It’s hard to ask for feedback and I am still putting this into practice, but I know it has a big payout.

Ashu Ravichander: So almost all the time when I’m in a depressive phase, I find that I’m putting myself down almost relentlessly. For example, recently I forgot an edge case while writing product requirements and someone pointed that out during the review.

Ashu Ravichander: Now my inner voice starts telling me that I’m a terrible product manager because I couldn’t think of that edge case scenario upfront, and that I’m probably not qualified for this job. Even though rationally, I know it’s not possible to think of all edge cases that could possibly occur.

Ashu Ravichander: And in fact, product requirements are a collaborative effort that grows and improves with feedback and maybe my multiple engineering degrees and a decade of releasing successful enterprise scale products may say otherwise.

Ashu Ravichander: However, this constant cycle of thoughts really magnifies the imposter syndrome. And what I’ve found breaks the cycle is having factual evidence or conversations to overcome it.

Ashu Ravichander: For me, especially at the start of new jobs on new projects when I am still working on getting up to speed or where in storming phase of the project, I find that I’m a lot harder on myself about not being further along and the imposter syndrome is on high gear, and almost always.

Ashu Ravichander: The people around me recognize that the reality is that we are in the storming phase of the project and that it’s normal and we’ll get better with collaboration or that it’s only been two months since I joined, so it’s actually okay to not know as much.

Ashu Ravichander: So I ask for feedback early in these cases so that I’m being grounded and have a better pulse on reality versus what the imposter syndrome’s telling me.

Ashu Ravichander: Now it is important to get feedback from the right people. Just because someone is on the same project as you, doesn’t automatically make them a great person to get feedback from.

Ashu Ravichander: For me, these have to be people have a great professional relationship with. I know that they know me and I feel comfortable asking and really discussing their opinions.

Ashu Ravichander: I also prepare what I want to get feedback on because it is important to know why you want feedback and what you’re going to do with it. Is it a specific action on a project or your working style with a team or something else?

Ashu Ravichander: Vague questions give you vague answers. So take the time to prepare the questions to make this meaningful. I also know I need to wait for the right time when I know I’m in a good place mentally to accept the feedback and not be defensive about it.

Ashu Ravichander: And the last thing I’ll leave you with on this topic is a reminder to accept positive feedback. Earlier, I used to spend most of my time reviewing my feedback and focusing only on the negative, because these are areas I could take action on to improve.

Ashu Ravichander: And I would completely gloss over anything positive since my reviewer probably didn’t mean it or they were just saying it to be nice that there was really nothing actionable for me there.

Ashu Ravichander: But now I know it is so important to focus on the positive so that you know what’s working and what strengths you have that you can lean into more. So seek and accept positive feedback.

Ashu Ravichander: Now this next technique is a more recent discovery for me. And I can tell you, it has absolutely been redeeming already. You may have heard this before.

Ashu Ravichander: Assume positive intent. Practicing this a few times has already helped me so much that I know this one will stick in my tool kit for a long time. So uncertain days with interpersonal interactions, I’m sensitive and sometimes read too much into things, like why does my coworker hate me?

Ashu Ravichander: Just because they said something contradictory or spoke over me in a meeting. There was a time this would have upset me so much that I’d be crying in a bathroom stall over it.

Ashu Ravichander: Now as a bottom line, I just assume everyone I interact with at work has positive intent. It helps me not be angry or annoyed over it, but look at it situationally.

Ashu Ravichander: So in the case where someone interrupts me in a meeting, I’m now thinking that you just interrupted me to say something, not because you wanted to cut me off, but because you had something to say that felt unheard.

Ashu Ravichander: Okay. With this context in my mind, I’m going to repeat what he said so you know that I hear you and then go on to the point I was making. In an organization, especially one with great culture, you very rarely meet actual bad players. Instead, if in a conversation or project, if we have that common goal understood, it’s easier to assume that everyone has positive intentions to work that’s that common goal, albeit in different ways.

Ashu Ravichander: It’s usually not personal or malicious attacks. So remember your common goals and assume everyone works towards it with positive intentions.

Ashu Ravichander: Now I saved this one for the last, because for me, one of the bigger challenges I’ve faced in the workplace with my disorder is the disproportionate reaction to certain situations on certain days. It could be as simple as someone pointing out a mistake I made or getting some not so positive feedback.

Ashu Ravichander: Either of these simple reactions or interactions could have resulted with breaking down into tears when I got home or sinking into depression. This kind of extreme reaction is hard to deal with when you now have to get on with the rest of your day and go into a three-hour grooming session with your engineering team.

Ashu Ravichander: What has really helped me here is finding a few key people who are my anchors and help ground me and rationalize my thought process. A simple conversation or text with my anchors, where I describe a certain situation, helps me understand what a rational response would look like from their perspective versus how my brain might be exaggerating it, and this really helps center me.

Ashu Ravichander: One thing I must caution you about here is the fact that this can be extremely exhausting for the people you reach out to. Be mindful of that and make sure you have a few different trusted people that you can talk to, so you can load balance it without bringing any one single person, but don’t hold back on reaching out to people.

Ashu Ravichander: And if you don’t get a response, move on to someone else if it’s important for you to talk to someone at that time for that scenario. For me, if all else fails, I still text my mom and she replies back, so that’s a great thing. Put in effort into these relationships, and I always look to find ways to give back to the wonderful anchors that hold me steady.

Ashu Ravichander: Well, that’s my tool kit. To quickly recap what I have: Firstly, playbooks that I have built over time to give me great starting points. Second, spacers that help me pause and come back to a task when I’m ready. Third is feedback, to cut the imposter syndrome in the bud and help me reinforce what I’m good at and what I can work on. Fourth is assuming positive intent that can help move us all towards a common goal. And finally, fifth, my trusted circle of anchors that I can rely on.

Ashu Ravichander: Those were five of the more important tools I have in my tool kit. And even though I use these tools almost daily, I knew it still needs very intentional practice for it to be useful. And please know that you are not alone.

Ashu Ravichander: Ever since I posted that I was going to talk about this, I was worried whether being this open and vulnerable would impact my career, but it’s had the opposite effect. I’ve had so many people reach out to share their stories.

Ashu Ravichander: These are women who’ve founding companies, and someone else I met who’s had a really hard time with her mental health but is still so very successfully leading a large channel from one of the biggest companies in the world.

Ashu Ravichander: There are many people with these invisible struggles who are flourishing and building beautiful products. We just need to work differently. I’d love to hear your thoughts more about your tools, or maybe just connect on LinkedIn.

Ashu Ravichander: Thank you. And happy Women’s Day.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Wow. Ashu, that was amazing. I felt like you were talking about me. Thank you so much for your amazing talk on managing mental health at work. I know from the comments, a lot of people really resonated with your tips and tricks specifically, because you gave so much context into what the actual problem was that you were looking to solve.

Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

“Transitioning From IC to Manager, and How To Lead If Management is Not For You”: Slack Engineering Panel

Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

Angie Chang: Our next session is a slate of technical women from Slack, from engineering managers, to leadership beyond the management track. I’m so excited to hand it over now to our Slack panel moderator to get things started. Welcome, Brooke.

Brook Shelley: Thanks Angie. Yeah, as Angie said, we’re from Slack. My name’s Brook, my pronouns are she/her, and I am a manager in the infrastructure group at Slack. I manage two different teams, one for asynchronous jobs, and one for data management. I’d like to start us off by just going around the group. And if you want to name, pronoun, and then what got you into engineering or development in the first place? So Leena, you’re first on my screen, why don’t you go ahead?

Leena Mansour: Sure. Yeah. Hi, my name is Leena Mansour, my pronouns are she/her. I’m an engineering manager at Slack. I run a team of mobile developers.

Leena Mansour: What got me into this is I was 16 and I did not want to follow my parents’ footsteps. So I didn’t take any biology because they were all in the medical field. And where I grew up, your options were you were a doctor or your engineer.

Leena Mansour: So I went into engineering. I thought computers were cool. It worked out for me. They are cool, so here I am.

Brook Shelley: They’re still cool, right? Otherwise, I got to find a new job.

Leena Mansour: Yeah. Yeah.

Brook Shelley: Mina, how about you?

Mina Markham: Hi. So my name is Mina Markham, my pronouns are she/her, and I’m a staff engineer here, and I got in engineering by accident. I used to be a graphic designer professionally, and so I taught myself the basic HTML and CSS so I could build a graphic design portfolio website so I could get a job. But as I learned how to do that, I found it interesting, so I kept learning how to do more and more web development things. And eventually I realized, “Hey, I could actually get paid to do this instead of the design stuff.” So I shifted my attention to learning more about that and eventually got a job as a front developer and kept learning and growing in that. So it was organic, but by accident.

Brook Shelley: And I heard you start working at Slack because you thought that’s your best way to meet Beyonce, right?

Mina Markham: I mean, yeah, obviously I’m still waiting. I’m crossing my fingers, but yes.

Brook Shelley: I mean, we know a few people who are pretty cool use Slack, but maybe she doesn’t yet. We got to let [crosstalk].

Mina Markham: Maybe not yet, but if anyone out there has a connection, just hook me up.

Brook Shelley: That’s right.

Mina Markham: I’m waiting for it. I’m waiting for it.

Brook Shelley: Yeah. Mina’s information is in the things, and she’s serious. Find Beyonce for her.

Mina Markham: I am dead serious. Yes.

Brook Shelley: Hi, Rukmini. How about you?

Rukmini Reddy: Hi everyone. I’m Rukmini, my pronouns are she/her. SVP of Engineering at Slack. I run Slacks platform. I wanted to be an engineer since I was eight years old. This has been my dream. I’m a total geek. I love building things, and yeah, I’m happy that I was able to realize an early childhood dream.

Brook Shelley: Heck yeah. Tracy?

Tracy Stampfli: Hey, I’m Tracy, my pronoun are she/her, and I’m a Principal Engineer at Slack. I also got into tech by accident. I started off studying mathematics, and originally thought I was going to get a PhD and become a professor of mathematics. I know that’s a very glamorous career choice, but then midway through grad school, figured out that wasn’t actually what I wanted to do, and ended up leaving. And by accident, getting into tech, starting off in QE and then working my way over to development. But now I’ve been in tech for very long time, and have found it really, really great and fulfilling.

Brook Shelley: Start with you, but can you say what’s your title at Slack? Because I think people don’t quite [crosstalk]

Tracy Stampfli: I said my title, Brook.

Brook Shelley: Oh, you did. I’m sorry.

Tracy Stampfli: I’ll say it. I’m a Principal Engineer, and I’ve never… I’ve stayed [crosstalk]

Brook Shelley: That’s the highest level here, right?

Tracy Stampfli: It is the highest level at Slack, and I’ve stayed on the IC side of things. I’ve never switched over to management. And I’ve really found that for me, at least, I’m interested in having impact on the direction of product, and planning, and all those things, technology decisions. But I want to do it from the standpoint of being more of a tech lead, and not from moving into management.

Brook Shelley: Yeah, that makes sense. And myself, I guess I should say I started off in literature. I wanted to be a writer. I still am a writer, but I needed to make money, and it turned out fixing computers was a better way to make money. So I started off in IT, moved into Ops and SRE work. And now eventually back into management and I wrote promo packet as Rukmini says. We have a thing at work called Manager Olympics, where we have a series of events that take place over a few months, and we just finished. So now I’m just celebrating.

Brook Shelley: But yeah, I like working with people better than computers these days. They’re harder to troubleshoot, but they’re more rewarding when you do. Computers, just say 200, okay. People might cry, or say thank you. It’s nicer. Let’s say the opposite side of Tracy, Rukmini, what made you want to get into management?

Rukmini Reddy: That’s a great question. So I started my journey being an individual contributor. It was a very tiny company. So me being a principal engineers nowhere equal to Tracy’s Principal Engineer at Slack. Woohoo. But I was a principal engineer in a tiny company, and my CTO then came to me and it was like, “You are really good with people. I always feel like you can give hard feedback. You’re able to drive for clarity. You’re hyper-organized and you’re bringing everyone together. Have you considered moving into management?”

Rukmini Reddy: And like most of you, I went through all the stages of grief I see go through when someone else says you should be a manager. And I was a like, “No, I won’t do it to, maybe I should explore it.” And the assurance I had from him at that time, which was very, very advanced for the time it was in, was if you hate it, you can go back to being in IT. So I was like, “Okay, I’m going to try.”

Rukmini Reddy: And I tried, and you know to Brook’s earlier point, people don’t come with debug statements. They don’t come with here’s how you are supposed to deal with me. And I just found it just so much more complex than programming, and also so much more rewarding.

Rukmini Reddy: I think that’s the part I want to underscore, because I realized that my purpose in life was to enable others finding their purpose, and their journey. And I just wanted to be that bystander and cheer them along, and brought me lot of joy in ways like coding did not. So I never look back. I say, I’m one of those people who just absolutely loves being a people manager because no two days are the same for me.

Brook Shelley: Now I’ve heard when you’re a manager, you never get to code again. Right? You could never do a personal project. You can never even open a computer other than for a meeting. Is that right Leena? Have you had that experience?

Leena Mansour: I believe it’s illegal, and the police will show up at your door if you launch any kind of code editor. Yes. That is true.

Brook Shelley: The stack overflow [inaudible]

Leena Mansour: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you definitely can. And I know I try every now and then, but you get so rusty and then you go try to touch it and you’re like, “Wow, I’m really bad at this.” But it is so still really fun to build little things just for yourself.

Brook Shelley: But I always try to over-engineer my stuff. My website’s built on Netlify, with docker containers and all sorts of stuff. Because I’m like, “Oh, if I can’t program at work, I’m going to do it way too much for my blog.” And Mina, did you have pressure as well? To become manager, become a lead in some way? I imagine so, because people [inaudible] quite a bit.

Mina Markham: So yeah, a little bit. There was a fork in the road in my career at Slack. And for a long time, I thought… Not just at Slack, but my career in general, and for a long time, I thought that to be a leader I had to go into management. Like that was the only way to truly lead anyone.

Mina Markham: And luckily I had a great manager at the time, who let me know, “Yeah, you can be a leader and not manage people.” Which is great, because I didn’t want to manage people. So I went the IC track instead. But yeah, for a long time, people kept trying to tell me, “Hey, you’d make a really good manager. You should look into it.”

Mina Markham: And not to say that I wouldn’t be good at it, but it’s not a skill that I necessarily want to do. I like coding. I want to stay more into coding, and more into doing architecting and strategizing. So the fact that I was able to shift into IC leadership, and be more of a mentor to people, versus actually managing people was great.

Brook Shelley: Yeah. That makes sense. And for me, I’ll say as a manager, I manage two teams. I absolutely depend on my leads. The tech leads I have, I wouldn’t be able to do most of my job if I didn’t have their advice, and their ideas, and even their mentorship with other people on the team. So, it’s pretty key.

Brook Shelley: What keeps you going every day? I know it’s been a hard time. We’ll start with Mina this time. But it’s COVID, there’s a war, there’s all this stuff going on. Whether you’re working with people, working with computers, there’s not a lot of respite sometimes. The Internet’s still there, so how do you stay motivated?

Mina Markham: I can answer that. I’ve actually disconnected just a little bit from social media, just because the onslaughts of information does get very draining. So I’m staying motivated by narrowing the focus of what I let grab my attention. I mean, that’s a little bit of a privilege, because I can turn off certain things and not pay attention to them, which is not what everyone can do.

Mina Markham: But yeah, I’ve decided to shift, to focus on more things, closer to what I can control. The sphere of influence I have, because I get really anxious when I see all these things happening that I can’t do anything about. So I’ve tried to stay motivated to like, “okay, what can I personally do?” And that helps me to find some purpose in getting up and doing the work that I’m doing. So yeah.

Brook Shelley: That makes sense. What about you, Tracy? What keeps you coming back to Slack?

Tracy Stampfli: For one thing, I think that one thing that’s nice about getting to the higher levels of being, and I see is that you really get to design what your role is yourself. No one’s really telling me what to do at this point. No one’s telling me what to do, and so I’m really figuring out what do I want my role to be?

Tracy Stampfli: I actually went through this exercise recently, where I tried to write down, and define, this is what I think my role is. This is what I think I should be doing with my time. And that was actually really interesting exercise to go through, and really useful, because it did make me think about what do I want to spend my time doing? And what do I think is important?

Brook Shelley: Oh, that definitely makes sense. How about you Leena?

Leena Mansour: Sorry. Yeah.

Brook Shelley: No, it’s okay.

Leena Mansour: I mean,

Brook Shelley: There’s a lot going on in the chat too, so.

Leena Mansour: There is, there is. Yeah, I adopt the stick your head in the sand mentality when it comes to most news. I hear about the big things, because you always will, but it’s hard when there are things that you can’t do anything about.

Leena Mansour: It’s also been hard because I’m in Canada, and Canada has been mostly locked down for a really long time. So you find your own ways. So I actually have my knitting right here. I knit through meetings, most meetings, and you just got to focus on the things that…

Leena Mansour: What I keep reminding myself of is like, “What do I truly like about the job?” And like Rukmini, I really, really enjoy helping people figure out what their goals are and get those goals. So if I’m having a hard time, I just focus, and have some of those conversations with my people and feel like I’m leaving some positivity in the world through that. And then we sleep, and we start over again.

Brook Shelley: Totally. And Rukmini, I mean, you’re a boss’s boss’s boss. So all the pain and suffering and emotions go to you, right? You’re sort of where it ends? Is that?

Rukmini Reddy: You know, actually I think it just comes down to, I think whether you’re in IT, whether you’re a manager, use your empathy. Put yourself in other people’s shoes. You are leaders in the company. When global events out of your hands are happening, first process the change for yourself and what it means and how you are going to show up.

Brook Shelley: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Rukmini Reddy: Because one thing that’s really important in a leadership position, whether a manager or not, you are a multiplier. People look up to you in moments of stress, in moments of uncertainty, and they try to understand for themselves how they should react. And this is where it’s okay to be vulnerable.

Brook Shelley: Yeah.

Rukmini Reddy: It’s okay to say you don’t have shit together today, and that’s okay. I didn’t last week, because I led teams in Ukraine for many, many years, and this has been very heavy on my heart. But just knowing to it’s okay to be vulnerable, having empathy, losing…

Rukmini Reddy: And keeping people focused on what matters. What’s your impact on the business? Why are you here? And understanding what motivates people. What do you want to be motivated by? And redirecting them to that, is I think the most helpful thing you can do as a manager or leader.

Brook Shelley: That totally makes sense.

Leena Mansour: Just to build on that, one of the things that I do often, I know I’ve seen some of the people on my team in the chat. I know they’re here. I have no problem telling people, “You know what? I need a mental health day.”

Brook Shelley: Yeah.

Leena Mansour: And I think that’s so important, because we all need mental health days, and it’s a lot easier or for your team when they see you taking mental health days to say the same and not be like, “Oh, I’m vomiting today.” That’s extra energy that they have to expend to make up something.

Leena Mansour: So be honest, you’re a human being, and so is everybody else. If you folks on the pod, the no bones and bones pod, we use it a lot in our channel to indicate our status of how much energy we have that day. But yeah, just be human.

Brook Shelley: I like that. I like that. I always just say my stomach hurts, but then I’m like, well, if my stomach hurts, I can still type. So what can you do there?

Mina Markham: No, I kind of agree with both Rukmini and Leena, that I am very open when I need a break. So I will tell people very clearly, “Hey, I need a mental health thing.” I don’t even try to fudge it with, “Hey, I’m sick.”

Mina Markham: No, I just, I need a break. I am burned out. I need a break. I will see you all in a couple of days. And my manager was very, very open, very receptive to it. So yeah, I try to model that healthy behavior. I’m like, “No, I’m feeling overwhelmed. I need a break. I will come back when I’m a hundred percent.”

Brook Shelley: And we have sabbatical now at Slack too, which I don’t know if any of y’all have taken advantage of it? I have a person on it right now. And you get like a week for every year that you work.

Brook Shelley: I always tell my people, I’m happy to approve up the two or three weeks, no problem. Past that, it gets harder to justify it, but take a sabbatical if you want to take off a month or two. That’s amazing. Tracy, you’ve been here for a while. Have you taken a sabbatical yet?

Tracy Stampfli: I haven’t taken a sabbatical here. I worked at a previous company that had sabbaticals, and I think they’re super, super great, and super wonderful, for avoiding burnout because everyone gets burnt out after a while, and being able to take a longer break is really awesome. So I’m hugely in favor of the benefit and have done it in the past.

Brook Shelley: Yeah. Yeah. It definitely helps to reset a little bit. Because otherwise, I feel like you go on a vacation for a week and by the end of the week, you’re starting to forget that you have a job, but then you have to remember and woof. Then you have to go, “What do I do here?”

Brook Shelley: One thing I wanted ask Tracy, especially, is, how do you find your ability to lead from the front, from being an engineer? In what ways are you able to influence product decisions or strategic decisions? How do you navigate that?

Tracy Stampfli: Well, for one thing, I think you have to find the right place, the right fit for you, the right company fit. I mean, I don’t want to make this all about how great Slack is, but you know. But it is a place where ICs really can be leaders, and where you can have that kind of influence, and not every company is like that.

Tracy Stampfli: So I think that’s one big thing is you just have to find the right fit for you, the right place where you are able to have that impact. And then I think a lot of it is just being willing to step forward and take ownership of things and say like, “Hey, I really have opinions about what the technical direction of this part of the product should be. Let’s talk about them.”

Brook Shelley: It is collaborative too, right?

Tracy Stampfli: Yep.

Brook Shelley: It’s not just like here, “I’m the sage star. I’ll tell you everything.”

Tracy Stampfli: Yeah. It’s definitely also a big part of it is trying to get other people to trying to bring forth the ideas from other folks on your team, or beyond your team, and say, “Hey.”

Tracy Stampfli: Part of it is just calling out. There may be some big issue that we need to address, now let’s try, together, figure out what the best path forward is. And then you, as the leader, can be the messenger for that to executive leadership or whoever.

Brook Shelley: And Mina, how about you? How do you influence all of us manager folks?

Mina Markham: How do I influence the managers? Oh, wow. As I’ve gotten to the staff level, my manager sees me more as a partner, as opposed to a… I don’t want to say, use the word support, because that’s not the right word, but basically we work together to figure out what the next steps for the team are.

Mina Markham: He’ll ask me for my opinions about, “Hey, what do you think we should be working on?” It’s more like what Stacy was talking about, about how defining our own path. Now he counts on me to see all the things that he can’t see, like where are the trouble spots in our code base, or the trouble spots in our processes.

Mina Markham: And so I use my heads down nature into more than the weeds to let him know what’s important, and what our team should be focusing on. And aside from that, I also let him know like, “Hey, I think this person would be good for this project.”

Mina Markham: So I help him to figure out how to best utilize other members of the team as well, and from what I know of, how they want to grow and what they’re capable of, and things of that nature.

Mina Markham: It’s become less of a, “Here’s what you need to do, Mina,” more of like, “Hey, Mina, let’s figure out what the next steps for the next quarters are together.” And I like that. I like it a lot.

Brook Shelley: Yeah. That’s really awesome. I like that. So one question I wanted to ask too, maybe for Leena and Rukmini, is as you got into your career and you started into management or into leadership, did you have someone that mentored you, or someone that you emulated or learned from, or sponsored you a bit? And maybe telling us about that? Leena, go for it.

Leena Mansour: Sure. Yeah. I mean, I had a lot of great role models that I worked with. I had to fight to become a manager. I had to quit jobs, and threaten to quit jobs, and leave and come back and do all kinds of things to get my people management role I really wanted. And I had a lot of people who supported me in helping me figure that out.

Leena Mansour: But I think that honestly, the most important piece and the most important and helpful thing in my journey being a manager is my peer mentors. I always, always, always have a group of managers who are on my level, but also higher. Just varying levels.

Leena Mansour: That is a small, small, small trust group that you can go with, with your problems, and talk out how you would solve it. It’s been the most helpful tool for me for anything, because you don’t just get one person’s perspective, you get a whole group try and solve your problems for you. Highly recommend.

Rukmini Reddy: Yeah. I have a squad. A squad that speaks truth that I don’t want to hear to me. It’s super important. With people who tell me I don’t have it together, and I need to fix things. And it’s really important to have that squad of people who think of your scope larger than you can think for yourself, right? They shouldn’t be like narrow you down, they should actually open things up for you.

Rukmini Reddy: And I rely on them to show me opportunities that I haven’t been considered for myself. And they’re extremely important for you at every stage of your career for you to have a squad.

Brook Shelley: I have my business boys. So my former founders of the company that acqui-hired by Slack. And I ask them a lot of advice about finances, and whatever else. They’ve founded companies, they’ve led stuff, and so I’m always just like, “Hey, tell me the secrets, business boys.”

Brook Shelley: I also highly recommend bicycling during and after work, because the computer’s not there and you can escape. So I think that we are out of time, but any last words of wisdom from anybody? Just take more breaks?

Leena Mansour: Breaks.

Mina Markham: Breaks.

Leena Mansour: Only take whatever path you actually truly want, not the path that you think you’re supposed to have. Find cool people to talk to you about what that role looks like, so you can actually understand.

Brook Shelley: Heck yeah. All right. Well, thanks everybody. Really appreciate your time and I’ll pass it off to Sukrutha.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you so much. Special mention to your amazing cat.

Brook Shelley: Oh yeah. That’s Snorri. He gets sad when I talk to other people besides him. He’s right here right now, hold on. All right, do you want to say hi to everybody?

Rukmini Reddy: Hi, kitty.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you so much to the women at Slack for sharing your amazing insights on leadership, from both the management side of the house, as well as from the IC side, the principal and staff engineer side.

Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

“Let Them Shine: A Different Approach to Hiring”: Camille Tate, Head of Talent at Strava and Elyse Gordon, Senior Director of Engineering at Strava

Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

Sukrutha Bhadouria: So, our next talk is by Elyse Gordon and Camille Tate from Strava. We have Elyse who’s a Senior Director of Engineering and Camille who is the Head of Talent. And they are going to talk to us about how they have evolved their tech hiring at Strava. We all know how challenging it is actually to find us the right people for that role. And we don’t want to ask them questions that are not relevant and interview them for skills that they’re never going to need to exercise. So, this is really important and interesting for us all to learn. Welcome, Elyse and Camille.

Camille Tate: Thank you so much.

Elyse Gordon: Thank you for having us. We’re really excited to be here. So, I’m Elyse. I work at Strava as a Senior Director in Engineering. I’m going to talk a little bit about why I’m here talking about this today and why this is important to me. I have spent many years in [inaudible] as an engineer and engineering leader in tech at this point. And I have felt for a long time that the way we interview folks whether it’s the specifics of questions we ask or just general like philosophy and approach just isn’t really serving the industry as a whole and definitely isn’t serving folks who are underrepresented in the industry across the board.

Elyse Gordon: And so, at Strava, over the last couple of years, we’ve really had the opportunity to rethink this and do things in a different way. And so, I’m excited to be here and talk to you about that today. And Camille is going to talk a bit about her why for being here, too.

Camille Tate: Hi, everyone. Thank you so much to Girl Geek and ELEVATE for having us here. We really appreciate the opportunity. My name is Camille Tate. And I’m with Strava. I’m the Head of Talent here. And I get the privilege and the honor to work with Elyse on a day-to-day basis. I’m very excited that we’re having this discussion about building diverse teams and the work we do at Strava to try to make our environment anti-racist culture and company.

Camille Tate: My why is simple. I live this life every day. It’s something that … I’m a black woman in tech. I’ve been in tech for quite some time. And there, I’ve experienced numerous things when it comes to hiring. I’ve seen numerous things being on the recruiting side in terms of discrimination and equality, people not putting in the effort to reach out to underrepresented groups.

Camille Tate: So, my why is personal to me and I love that Strava is on the path to making a change in our industry of tech, and trying to be a blueprint for what we can do in terms of promoting and hiring people from all walks of life. So, that is my why.

Elyse Gordon: Thanks, Camille. It’s always awesome to hear your talk about that more. So, I’m wondering like you’ve spent many, many years in recruiting both at tech companies and then the wider industry, can you talk about why sourcing is such a key part of hiring diverse teams? And really, what we’ve done to think about sourcing differently?

Camille Tate: Yeah. So, I don’t know how many recruiters we have that’s attending this conference, but it’s a well-known fact that the majority of applicants that apply for roles specifically in tech are majority white. That’s just a fact and it’s something that I’ve seen in the almost 17 years I’ve been doing this. So, sourcing is super important.

Camille Tate: And I think when … I want to redefine what sourcing means. Sourcing is not just going out and cherry-picking different people from all walks of life. Sourcing has changed. And I like to describe it … I don’t know if Elyse has heard me talk about this but I’ve mentioned it in other chats.

Camille Tate: Sourcing, I call it the three Es. So, if you don’t have these three Es a part of your sourcing strategy, then you’re probably doing things a little bit differently than the way we go about doing and promoting and just exposing opportunities to people from all backgrounds.

Camille Tate: So, the three Es are exposure, engagement and effort. And so, when you think about sourcing and it’s not just going out and cherry-picking people from underrepresented groups. And actually an example of sourcing is what Elyse and I are doing today which is speaking with all of you. So, sometimes, sourcing is more so exposure because I talked to a lot of candidates.

Camille Tate: A lot of candidates know who Strava is, but there are a lot of candidates especially from underrepresented groups that don’t know who Strava is. We have over 90 million athletes on the Strava platform. So of course, those athletes in that community know who Strava is, but then what about the groups that they are not necessarily in …

amille Tate: To Strava, an athlete is anyone who sweats. But maybe people have this impression that, “Oh, if I want to work for Strava, I have to have all these qualifications. And in addition to that, I have to be this endurance athlete that does all this cycling and running and things like that.”

Camille Tate: This is an opportunity. This is an example of an opportunity where we’re sourcing and we’re saying, “This is Strava. You don’t have to be an endurance athlete. I’m certainly not. And I’m still here thriving and striving.”

amille Tate: And so, that is just exposure is a key piece of sourcing, making sure that you expose opportunities and your culture to people that wouldn’t normally have heard of your company and the culture and the things that you can bring to the table as an employer.

Camille Tate: And then engagement, engagement is maybe someone that you speak to or something like that, they don’t have the qualifications or they’re not in alignment with roles you may have at the moment but you want to stay engaged with them. So, engagement is very important in terms of sourcing. It’s not necessarily all the time filling a role right then and right there, it’s keeping relationships going, i.e. building relationships with HBCUs or outreach organizations.

Camille Tate: You don’t want to just go to events or just go to a career fair, you’re looking to build long-term relationships. And then just effort, everybody needs to put in the effort to source and step outside of their comfort zone and not stay in their bubble or their network that they’re used to operating in.

Camille Tate: Sourcing is very much an inside job. I know we look at it as something that’s external and you’re reaching out, but it’s very much an inside job because you’re looking to communicate authentically with candidates from all backgrounds. So, I would say sourcing is very important, but it’s not the sourcing that we know of the past.

Camille Tate: This is the new sourcing and is better because you’re building more relationships and you’re creating just an alignment with candidates and building those relationships for now or in the future. So, I would say that that’s why source is important and those are the components of sourcing that we embrace at Strava.

Camille Tate: Also, one more thing before I get back to you, Elyse. But sometimes if you want to source and build relationships with underrepresented groups, you have to invest. Obviously, we are a sponsor here at the ELEVATE Conference and so appreciative of the opportunity, but sometimes you have to invest resources to gain access to people that you want to reach. And so, sometimes I know a lot of companies are like, “Well, let me just pick your brain,” or, “Let me just do this,” and you think everything is for free.

Camille Tate: Well, if you don’t have access, you need to invest resources. Sometimes that means paying money to have access or partner with a company that aligns with your culture and your values to gain access to the candidates you are looking to reach. So, that would be my thing on sourcing. Elyse, did you have anything to add to the sourcing piece?

Elyse Gordon: No, I mean, I think that was amazing. You covered it all. I will add, I am also not an endurance athlete. I love walking and moving, doing a little bit here and there what I can. I’m a mom so like do what you can. But we do not hire people because they can ride their bike 40 miles or run a marathon. We hire you because you’re going to contribute to the team. So, I think that’s just a really important thing to say.

Camille Tate: Right. And I wanted to pass the mic to you, Elyse, because I’ve been with Strava for 14 months and obviously have the privilege of working with you. And you’re very involved in hiring on the engineering side. And I would say that engineering at Strava is some of the most engaged and active hiring managers and teams and hiring processes that I’ve been a part of. So, I like you to speak to just the prep and process from an engineering hiring standpoint and what you and the team do to prepare yourself for hiring at Strava.

Elyse Gordon: Yeah. I mean, this has been a really key area-I mean, this has been a really key area of focus for us, both for a long time, in some ways, one of the hiring values we carried forward with us when we started doing things differently was actually put the candidate experience first, put the candidate first. And I think that was a good thing to bring with us.

Elyse Gordon: We just do it maybe in a different way now, but we’ve invested a ton in both how we talk to candidates, what we talk to candidates about, just basically communicating and authentic to Strava way, being transparent. We do a lot of prep with candidates. We tell them topic areas. We let you know what you’re going to be interviewing about. We don’t give you the whole question verbatim, but we give you enough time and information so you can be ready and confident going in.

Elyse Gordon: We never want anybody to feel like they’re taking a test, or feel like they got surprised. Right? We want you to do your best when you show up here, just like we’re trying to put our best foot forward. So I think that’s been a really key part.

Elyse Gordon: I think on the other side, how we actually have rethought the hiring process, we really look for all of our questions to reflect real work, no algorithm, sort of gotcha kind of questions. We’ve done a ton of work there. We continue to do work. If a question we don’t feel like is helping us evaluate candidates well, then we rethink it.

Elyse Gordon: And that’s a high effort process. It takes time to make new technical questions, and make them good, and make them reflect work. But we’ve really seen that the effort put in there. We’ve gone a lot of return. We can better evaluate candidates. We can evaluate level better.

Elyse Gordon: We get a lot of really great feedback on our process from candidates. So we’re both seeing how do we feel about it? How do candidates feel about it? We’ve invested heavily in rubrics. So I think you can never make a hiring completely objective.

Elyse Gordon: We’re all human beings involved in this process, but we try to take as much of a objective approach as we can get, especially with technical questions where we can have a rubric, the interviewer can fill out a rubric, and it’s the same every time. And that’s been really important.

Elyse Gordon: And the last thing I’ll say on this topic is we’ve really gone to a per role approach. And so last year we hired a bunch of folks coming out of boot camps, which was awesome. It’s a program we’re going to continue this year, really excited about that program. But when we first started interviewing for it, it just wasn’t working.

Elyse Gordon: We were not able to evaluate candidates with our current interview process well, and so we took a step back and we said, how can we let people shine? Which is where the [inaudible] came from. Thank you, Michelle Bousquet, our Head of People.

Elyse Gordon: And so we really took a step back, and rethought it, and we have a totally different interview process for early career now that is really looking at potential, and is not show us what you know, because you’re at the beginning of your career.

Elyse Gordon: We’re going to train you. Right. And so the questions we should be asking about bringing people on board are very different and that’s been really successful. So we’re just looking to continue to iterate, and continue to do more of that going forward.

Camille Tate: Yeah. And one of the things that I know you all do is speed to hire. I know a lot of companies just, “We got to fill all these roles, and we got to go, go, go.” And it doesn’t matter who’s in the pipeline, just pick the candidate who has the qualifications and move on. Elyse, I think that you all have done a really good job and say, “Wait a minute, our pipeline is not diverse enough. It doesn’t have… We haven’t exposed it to enough people. Let’s take a step back, and slow this down before we hire.”

Elyse Gordon: Yeah, I mean, as we were preparing for this, I really spent some time reflecting on the speed thing. And you know, honestly, this was not something we really went in knowing this was going to change so much. And I feel like this is… In Strava, when you talk about anti-racism, we talk about unlearning a lot.

Elyse Gordon: And this is something I felt like we had to unlearn, because everywhere else I have hired, even at Strava before the last couple years, speed was the end-all be-all, right. Speed to get that person in the door. How fast can you be interviewing? How fast can you make a decision? Right? And we have really walked away from that to the point where we’re willing to lose candidates, because their timeline and our timeline is not matching up.

Elyse Gordon: So I think that we have really committed to going in a different direction. And I think that’s good, because I think when you are all about speed, hiring managers tend to feel the pressure to do things like hire the first person they see, instead of seeing a bunch of candidates and say, “Who’s the best person and from this group?”

Elyse Gordon: And because of what Camille was talking about, that the people who apply tend to be in the majority groups, right? You do not serve your team goals of building a more diverse team when you hire that way. And so we have taken an approach where we do batch candidates, and it does take longer, to go from opening a role, get a bunch of candidates through screens, then get to onsite. It takes longer.

Elyse Gordon: However, we’ve been finding that when we do that in batch of candidates, we often find more than one great candidate in the batch. And then we make more than one offer, because we have more than one open role. And so the overall speed isn’t necessarily dramatically slowing down, but it feels slower in the middle, and that’s something we’ve really had to work on and adjust. And as a team, unlearn that, because it’s hard to go away from what you’ve known your whole career, the way you’ve been hired into roles is challenging.

Elyse Gordon: And so I think this is one of the things that we’re going to keep looking at. Like how do we make this continue to be great going forward? And how do we carry this forward, maybe even more intentionally? I think we’ve come to it, now how do we make it even more intentional?

Elyse Gordon: Camille, I have been wondering something. I see a lot on LinkedIn lately about people hiring DEI recruiters, or DEI specialists, sourcers, and we don’t hire like that. The whole team does it. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that?

Camille Tate: Yeah. I mean, that’s a great question. I see it too, on my LinkedIn. I’m obviously connected to a lot of recruiters. But yeah, in my opinion, building a diverse team is everybody’s job. And specifically, not even a recruiter’s job, it’s the whole company’s job. That’s what I say every time I’m talking about hiring to the lovely teammates that we have at Strava. It’s everybody’s job.

Camille Tate: I don’t think that it makes sense, or it’s a benefit to anyone, to have separate diversity recruiters, or diversity sources over here. And then everyone is what, just… I don’t know what they’re doing over here, if everyone over here. So it’s important that the whole team leads with, if we say at Strava, we’re building diverse teams, that means we. That means every single person at Strava.

Camille Tate: That’s our philosophy, it’s not separate. It’s a part of who we are. It’s a part of our culture. We discuss it in interviews. Anti-racism is our number one ABC, which in some companies are their values or foundational principles. So it is important that everybody gets on the train, and is incorporating that into how we interview, how we hire, how we recruit. So that’s our philosophy, and I know we’re wrapping up, so there’s Angie. Thank you so much.

Angie Chang: Thank you so much, Camille and Elyse. There are so many quotable quotes. I’m sure they’ll be on Twitter later. So thank you so much for sharing all of your wisdom and insights about how Strava has evolved hiring.

Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

“How to Get the Promotion You Deserve”: Ali Littman, Director of Engineering at Modern Health (Video + Transcript)  

Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

Angie Chang: We’re going to be having our next speaker join us. Her name is Ali. And she’s a Director of Engineering at Modern Health. She’s passionate about companies with strong social missions and dedicates as much time as possible to DEI efforts. She has led Women’s ERG, served on Belonging Councils, mentored women on achieving their goals and has been a … I’ll let her introduce herself. Welcome, Ali.

Ali Littman: Thank you, Angie. Let me get my slides up. Good morning, everyone. Hope you’re having a great day at ELEVATE already. I’m Ali Littman. I’m a Director of Engineering at Modern Health. And I’m going to be talking to you all today about how to get the promotion that you deserve.

Ali Littman: This topic is very, very, very near and dear to my heart because there are so many hardworking people who might have the tools or might not have the tools in order to ensure the career growth that they deserve. So, I’m very excited to share some of my lessons learned throughout my experience and give you a tour of some things that you can actually try out in your career growth.

Ali Littman: So, brief overview of the agenda. So, I will get a little vulnerable with you all. I encourage you to get vulnerable with me in the chat and share some things that I’ve learned along the way.

Ali Littman: I’ll also give you some really strong tactical advice around how you can take control of your growth. This includes setting expectations around promotion, developing a plan and actually sticking to it, taking control of it and making sure you grow alongside it, and also how to properly self-promote and make your achievements seen.

Ali Littman: And then lastly, just walking through all the different people that might be already in your corner that you can leverage to ensure that they support you on your growth path. All right, so diving into lessons learned. Just to kick things off, I’ll introduce myself a little bit more and tell a bit about my story.

Ali Littman: So, I’m Ali again, Director of Engineering at Modern Health. I just switched over to Modern Health very recently. So previously, I was Director of Engineering at Omada Health. I have a pretty nonstandard background. I started my career doing like a large company, technical project management work. And then, over time, moved into startup technical project management work. And then, from there, grew into engineering leadership. So, very interesting growth path. And I can share some experiences along the way from that journey.

Ali Littman: I think some other things that I identify with that are important to share, I identify as a leader, a mentor and an imposter syndrome coach with a focus on evolving the workplace for women and other underrepresented groups. I’m also a woman and a manager. I have been promoted myself. There’s been times when I haven’t been promoted. And then also, I as a manager have made mistakes. Even as a very growth-oriented manager, I didn’t always get it right either. So, that’s something we’ll focus on a little bit more today.

Ali Littman: So, sharing some of those hard lessons. So, I’m going to share a few personal stories. And in the chat, share some times where you maybe learned the hard lesson as well so other folks can see that you’re not alone and I’m not alone. So, one big lesson, a common fallacy, I thought if I worked hard, I would get rewarded. In this particular case, my manager didn’t have sufficient visibility into my work, I didn’t have sponsors and I didn’t understand the power dynamics in the office, therefore I got less visibility and fewer opportunities.

Ali Littman: Also, I’ve had times where my manager evaluated me on things that had little to do with my output. I was judged based off of frustration shared in one-on-ones rather than the quality of my work. I didn’t know how to intervene and ask for a more fair evaluation. Additionally, I had one moment where I didn’t remind my manager to promote me. They wanted to but they just forgot. I didn’t remind them. And actually, in this case, a male counterpart had to remind my manager that I should probably be promoted and it was squeezed in the last minute.

Ali Littman: So, I’ve definitely learned some hard lessons along the way. This is the shortlist. And as a manager as well, I have made mistakes. This I think is a really important thing to understand. Even a manager who wants to support you and has a great plan around it, they might have a lot on their plate. They might still execute imperfectly. It is so important in all of this that you and your manager are very much on the same page and your team and your growth.

Ali Littman: And then, lastly, I personally have had successes with promotion. I have coached others on how to get success promotions. And even in one case, I was promoted against all odds. I was told that I was unlikely to get the promotion I wanted on the timeline I wanted, but then I met with my manager, made an overt plan with them, executed against it and was actually able to get the promotion that I wanted on the timeline that I wanted.

Ali Littman: So, I’m very excited to share with all of you how you might be able to replicate some of the successes I’ve had from the lessons I’ve learned. Feel free in the chat, too, to share some of your favorite promotion success stories. I’m not the only one who has learned some of these lessons and I think we can all learn from each other on this.

Ali Littman: So, let’s get into those tactics I mentioned. All right, so first thing, setting expectations around promotion. This is one of the most important things that you can do is signal your intentions. So, clearly communicate your growth goals. You see a statement here, “I want to do blank by blank.” So, I think what’s important here is to make sure that you really state your career goals. They shouldn’t be a secret. They shouldn’t be a secret aspiration. They should be something you’re constantly talking with your manager about. Have them be front and center in your one-on-ones.

Ali Littman: I often put them at the very, very, very top. So, they can’t really be ignored. They’re not a secret. They’re always top of mind. So, find that central spot for reference. Make sure it’s clear what you want. And as you’re talking about these things, maybe for the first time with your manager or maybe it’s not the first time, make sure that your conversations are around goals. It should be a very collaborative conversation, understanding how they can support you. I strongly recommend against any setting of any strong expectations or ultimatums. This should be really collaborative and goal-oriented.

Ali Littman: And I think another area to get strong alignment with your manager on, I’ve already do this a few times already, realistic promotion timelines. Setting expectations around the timeline is an important way to put pressure on making sure you get what you want by when you want. And also to show that you’re serious. There might be some standard line that your manager might give you around needing to be performing at a certain level or being with the company for a certain amount of time. These might be real requirements that they need to ensure before they can promote you.

Ali Littman: So, make sure that you have this conversation so you can understand how your manager can pitch this potential promotion to leadership in the future and so you have good expectations around what timing looks like.

Ali Littman: Okay. Next up, this is one of the more important things, aligning with your manager on where you’re at. You and your manager need to agree that you’re operating at the next level. They need to be able to articulate whether you are or whether you’re not. And as they make that pitch for promotion, they need to state the case as to why you already have been doing the job that you want to do.

Ali Littman: In this case, I would strongly recommend doing evaluations against whatever your manager might use to do your performance reviews. So, this might come in the form of a career ladder or leveling framework. We’ll talk a little bit more about that in a few minutes. But I strongly recommend doing a self-evaluation using that tool and sharing the results with your manager. That way, you can have a strong conversation around where you might be aligned in terms of your performance next level or where you’re misaligned.

Ali Littman: There might be cases where you’re saying, “Hey, I’m a fantastic cross-functional collaborator or something like that and here’s why.” Maybe your manager just hasn’t seen those five examples that you have. And maybe they thought you were actually not operating at the next level, but now you can convince them that you actually are. Or maybe there is a legitimate gap that you need to work on. And this is a great point to understand. Here’s exactly what you might need to do in order to demonstrate that you are ready for the next level.

Ali Littman: And then, yeah, so we’re all business superheroes here. We’re all trying to actually solve some important business need in the work that we’re doing. So, I think part of the expectation-setting process includes identifying that business need that you’ll be filling upon promotion. So, this can be a tough one for folks sometimes I think especially in engineering. But if there’s no clear role that needs to be filled or if there are business roadblocks outside of your control but you’re still looking to grow, I would say ask for alternate pathways to growth in the way that you want it.

Ali Littman: Have that documented, this is really important, so you can at least get the right experiences or navigate around the blockers. An example here might be maybe you need to demonstrate that you can manage managers but there’s no new managers in your organization. So maybe you can look into switching teams or mentoring all of the new managers, things like that. You can find alternate pathways to that growth and still make some progress.

Ali Littman: I think on this one, I’ll also say if the company wants to retain you and believes that you’re ready to make an impact at a higher level, they’ll make it work usually. This might not be straightforward but it is possible that the role that you want doesn’t exist, in which case, take stock as to whether this is the right role with the right company. If it’s not, there’s no opportunity for you to actually grow the way that you want.

Ali Littman: And also, things change rapidly. People leave companies. So, just always be on the lookout for the next opportunity you can take advantage of as the business itself is shifting.

Ali Littman: Okay. Now, how to make a growth plan and take control of it? Great. I would say, ask this question early and often, what is getting to the next level entail? What do you need to be doing to make it? This is a really critical question that you need to be able to answer and build a growth plan around with your manager.

Ali Littman: A big piece of this puzzle is understanding if there is a growth ladder or a career ladder, a leveling framework, whatever that might be, some kind of framework where you can evaluate the skills and capabilities that you need to demonstrate at each level so you can understand where you land on that ladder. You need to have a clearer picture of what the roles and responsibilities are and expectations so you can defend the fact that you’re ready for that next challenge.

Ali Littman: I would ensure that you know this ladder inside and out. And ask for evaluations, relative ladder, at least twice a year from your manager. I would recommend doing them right after your performance reviews because often, those do not reference the growth ladders at various organizations. So, it might be a good opportunity to follow up with the feedback you receive to say, “Okay, and what does this mean? How does this translate into the leveling framework?”

Ali Littman: Or after performance reviews, does it make sense? Maybe you got a good sense of where you landed. Doing this in between performance review cycles could be another good call. In a lot of cases especially for folks who work at startups, there might not be a growth ladder.

Ali Littman: So, I would recommend asking for one or making one. This is a tactic I’ve seen use several times and used by myself as well. If a ladder doesn’t exist, go ahead and make one and see if that’s going to be useful to your manager, ask if that’s something you can start. That way, you actually can put input into what goes in there that might be helpful for you. And it can expedite you having something to evaluate your performance relative, too.

Ali Littman: And if you don’t like the ladder, give feedback to management on it. And it might need to change to actually be supportive of folks’ growth of your company. And then, building that growth plan. So, growth plans can take many forms but this is something everyone should have. Maybe you’ll have a very specific growth document. I’d strongly recommend this in the event that you are struggling to get that promotion, you want something more formal. Otherwise, it could be something that’s part of your one-on-one document, Trello boards. I’ve seen it all.

Ali Littman: But in a perfect world, your growth plan should have some of the following elements like, what exactly are those skills that need to be demonstrated in order to show you’re ready for the next level? What actions do you need to take to demonstrate those skills? Maybe it’s a project. But also, how is your manager going to catalyze your ability to demonstrate those skills? It’s not a one-way street here. You need to be connected to some of those opportunities to show off what you got.

Ali Littman: And then lastly, having measurable goals or tactics for assessment and a plan for recurring measurements. So, having these things be as quantifiable as possible is going to be important. But sometimes, you might only get qualitative feedback, in which case, just understanding that the measurement mechanism is that feedback and getting good feedback in certain areas.

Ali Littman: And then lastly, I would refresh this growth plan regularly. Make sure that you take a look at it ideally monthly but refreshing it fully maybe about quarterly would be what I would recommend. And then, I always say the feedback is a gift. And so, be hungry for it. It’s a gift just like cookies. Cookies are my favorite gift. So, yeah, ask for feedback as often as possible. This is a really important part of this growth process. And set expectations with your manager on how often you want that feedback to be reviewed.

Ali Littman: I’d suggest at least monthly. I would also ask your manager to collect feedback from certain people in certain growth areas. So, they might not know or always be talking to all the people that you’re working with very closely, so ask them for more feedback on a recurring basis. And lastly, curate your reviewers. This is a great thing that you have control over. So, who do you want to wow? Who gives you helpful constructive criticism?

Ali Littman: I would say ask for feedback regularly from these people. So, by the time you hit the review cycle, you already have their buy-in and know exactly what they’re going to say. So, this feedback is useful in the reviews but it’s even more useful before the review and long before the promotion cycle comes.

Ali Littman: Now, let’s take a minute to talk about self-promotion. So, one of my favorite other top topics is self-promotion. So, there’s three different levels but I’d recommend really focusing on the core one, no surprise, based off things I’ve been saying, your manager. And then there’s also the department and the company. So, when it comes to your manager, do whatever you can to brag to them. In one-on-ones, proactively share like, “I got this feedback. I achieved this goal. I did this extra thing, I solved this problem.”

Ali Littman: Ask your manager how they want to find out about your achievements and funnel all of them through that pathway. I usually have an FYI section that I have in every single one of my one-on-ones with my manager just to let them know all the great things that I’m doing in case they missed them. I would also say share wins at the department level. This could mean being the one to present a group achievement at an all-hands or sending that launch email.

Ali Littman: I would also suggest being very vocal in public forums. There’s always a set of public forums in an organization where management’s evaluating how people are showing up as leaders and contributing. Understand what those are and be present in those. They might be a guild meeting demos, etcetera. And also, volunteer to lead initiatives that leadership cares about. This will give you some additional departmental visibility.

Ali Littman: With the company, I would suggest to share wins. Find reasons to share your achievements. If they’re impactful, people might legitimately need to know about them. So, see if you can present at a town hall, send an all company email, etcetera. And then lastly, and all this is classic advice but write a killer self-review. This is very important in order to solidify your promotion but it should be what catalyzes it. So, it’s like your self-pitch but you should be self-promoting along the way. And this should be like the summary of all your self-promotion you’ve been doing. All right.

Ali Littman: So, last section here, growth takes a village. So, who do you have in your corner that can amplify your growth and successes? So, here, I strongly recommend finding a sponsor who can promote your work to the right leaders and give you the right opportunities. This can take many forms and often is a matter of sharing your goals with everyone and seeing who gets excited about them.

Ali Littman: Also, understand how your manager maps to executive leadership. This way, you can understand who to wow and what your manager needs to do to get you promoted and identify if there’s any communication breakdowns on how your performance is being evaluated and discussed with the promotion decision-makers. I’d also recommend just telling everyone you work with what you’re aiming for in terms of growth.

Ali Littman: Focus on experiences and feedback and the support you need. And take time to get their feedback, get their support, wow them especially if they’re an executive leadership representative. They’re the ones in the room come promotion time. All right.

Ali Littman: And then lastly, just a reminder, people really want to help you. I think we all forget this sometimes. But studies show asking for help really, really goes a long way and people are very likely to want to help. So, make meaningful connections. Ask for feedback. Ask them to amplify your good work.

Ali Littman: I would say also find a mentor, this is really important, both internally, externally on different topics, whatever you need, get that help, get their perspective. Also consider coaching. I’m a fan of life coaching, this really helped me clarify not necessarily that I wanted to get promoted, but exactly what I wanted out of my time, what I wanted out of work so I could ask for the right experiences that then align with my career growth.

Ali Littman: And lastly, your manager wants you to succeed. So, just my final plug, lean on your manager. They’re in your corner. They might be busy. They might actually not be doing their job or not doing their job well. So, manage them and managing your growth. And they’re going to be there for it. They will.

Ali Littman: So, I know we’re at time. So, we might need to revert to your questions via email so you can reach out to me. Find me on LinkedIn. And I’m happy to answer questions and provide support in your career growth journeys.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you so much, Ali. I was going to say you’ll see some questions on the chat and through the Q&A section, you could even choose to respond there.

Ali Littman: Okay.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: But this was really insightful for me. Even though I’ve been in the industry a long time, I feel like I learned so many new things, as well as got refreshed on all the things I should be doing as well. So, that was really, really helpful even for me. So, thank you so much.

Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!