Wednesday, October 22, 2014

On growth trajectories for women engineers/developers

I subscribe to a few mailing lists for devs and someone asked a question regarding career path for developers/engineers and keeping up with what I call the "new college grad" syndrome, i.e., early 20's, can do all-nighters easily and armed with the latest/greatest skill set from uni. etc.

So, I shared some of my thoughts in the hopes of helping this person determine what she should do for her career.  She wanted to know what others did/thought and the challenges on keeping up with "young whipper-snappers" - her phrasing, not mine :).


I've been a developer/engineer/IC for over 2 decades in both startups (of various sizes/industry) and multi-nationals.  It has been a very conscious choice on my part which included making decisions based on my needs (skills, happiness, balance, interest etc.).  I have had the good fortune of being a part of many fantastic products and can say that most people around the world use products that execute my code (no, I did not work for Google), when people use their cell phone or tv.  It has been a great way to learn new tech and skills (mostly on the fly) and be dynamic.
In a large company, your choices will probably be limited to either "technical" or "management"/ "pm" track.  And you will probably be asked to choose.  So far, the growth trajectory for most female developers has been to transition to the "management" track or "pm" track.  Very few pursue the "technical" track - there are associated challenges with this particular track which encompass non-technical issues that persist in our industry.

I keep getting pushed by management (especially recently), to move into a management-centric role.  In the past, I have turned down such requests regardless of my skill set simply because I didn't see it as something that I wanted to do.   However, keeping up with the "young whipper-snappers" is very much a conscious thought in making my decision.  If you choose to be on the technical track, this is something you must accept.  You cannot have one without the other. 
Management has it's own set of challenges - I'm sure others can comment on this more than I can.  However, it might be less affected by the "new college grad" syndrome, as I call it :).

A role where you are managing as well as coding/designing, is probably most available in a startup environment.  Balancing the two (sometimes conflicting skill/mindsets) can be a challenge depending on your skills/interests.  You will be creating/building/leading something fantastic and it will be thrilling and fun.  However, the stress that it could create can be quite damaging at times - some trade-offs to think about.

So, it boils down to what really drives you and makes you happy.  Trade-offs come with whichever path you take.

Note that this quandary is common for both men and women.  The difference is that the support system for the two genders is completely different (that is a whole other topic that could take days to discuss).  And the societal/cultural pressures might also push each gender in a particular direction depending on where you live and what role you fill in your personal life.

I hope this helps you get an idea of what's out there and what the trend is.  

Once again, thanks for broaching this great topic and
May the code be with you,
- Rupa

Monday, October 20, 2014

Grace Hopper - 3rd year in a row

A couple of weeks ago, I had the good fortune of attending and speaking at Grace Hopper (USA) about PiDoorbell.  This was the third year in a row that I spoke at GHC.  In 2012, Chiu-ki Chan, Christina Schulman and I did our first major talk about "Letter to my younger self - Things I wish I knew when I started working".  And we talked about Career, Networking and Negotiation to a room of 370+ women (fire code turned away many).  I was in charge of negotiation since I had a lot of stories about this category.  So, we did three skits on Negotiation in that talk.  Which are still talked about since I got pinged by a young woman engineer at Google's GHC meetup a few weeks ago.  Apparently, it was vastly entertaining - especially when I asked for a pony and Christina said "No Ponies !!!".

And in 2013, I talked about the RaspberryPi along with a bunch of women from Cisco and VMware at the Grace Hopper Conference in Bangalore, India.   That was yet another standing-room-only workshop and we had a bunch of Rpi's that people got to ssh into and look at for a short while.  I spent hours in my hotel room (while jet lagging like mad), setting up 4 Rpi's with breadboards, jumper wires, LED's etc. so that each table in the workshop could have their own setup.  And that was great fun - it was fantastic to see super-smart women engineers and try to answer their questions.  Some of them I just couldn't answer - they definitely knew more about hardware that I did.

2014 : Guess who I meet in the elevator - Prof. Alex Wolf - my Algorithms and Data Structures professor from CU !!!  He is now the President of the ACM and was a keynote speaker :).

This year, I presented PiDoorbell at GHC and mentored Sthiti and Sushma for their first GHC presentation on OpenCL.  It was the usual stresses that PiDoorbell presents that kept me tied up until my presentation was over.  This was the first time I did a live demo of Phase 3 of PiDoorbell and it worked quite well.  My good friend Kimberly Spillman was the guinea pig and she was AWESOME!  What a good sport - especially when the first try didn't quite work and she had to come back a second time.  With the slides not advancing temporarily, no table, no network cable etc., I detached a chair from the audience section and placed it next to the lectern to put my hardware on it, connected to the power from the lectern (used by the laptop), created a hotspot from my cell phone, tethered my mac to my cell phone, connected the Rpi to my laptop with dhcp and ran pidoorbell in interactive mode on my laptop to show the audience what was going on.  And the photo being uploaded to Dropbox and then tweeted out.  And showing up on my phone.  

My good friend Christina Schulman was there as were a bunch of women from VMware and many others.  I was happy to finally be able to present to a crowd that was majority women as opposed to the numerous other conferences I have presented at.  It was a special event for me - I spoke about the need for all women engineers to step up, create/build their own projects and talk about it at conferences.  I don't want to be the only one doing hardware/software demos - I want to see my friends, colleagues, relatives - anyone, also, stepping up and being a role model for other women engineers to follow.  I hope I was articulate enough and that some of the audience members will follow in my footsteps.   And inspire others to follow them too.

I was so busy chattering, walking, listening and doing, that I forgot to take photos.  The only other photo I have of GHC this year is of the food at the Systers lunch (the chocolate ganache was really good).  

I know there were some controversial events that occurred at GHC this year and some of it got a lot of media attention.   But, that is less important than the fact that this is one conference that is a huge success and is a great way to meet and reconnect with fantastic women from all walks of life, backgrounds and cultures.

I hope I get to go next year too.

Oh yeah, and I might take some male principal engineers with me next time.  I think it would be interesting for them to be in an environment that is close to what women engineers face everyday.  Might give them some food for though and, perhaps, positive action.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Mentorship... and hurdles

I saw a post today by an EMC exec on mentorship:

There are some good points in it specifically around the fact that very few people are "good/capable" mentors and even fewer are "good/capable" mentees.   It takes an inordinate amount of time/energy for a mentor to "connect" (mentally, emotionally, career-wise, lifestyle, background etc.) with a mentee.  And without a sustained connection, it is difficult to discuss deep issues/thoughts and wants/needs, let alone chart a course for the future.   Which, in turn, can lead to an unfruitful mentor-mentee relationship resulting in no progress.

Lately, I've been bombarded with well-meaning people (both men and women) wanting to "mentor" me because they think I need "guidance" and "advice".  None of them have a clue about me, made any attempt to truly understand me, my life, my background, what I'm about and what makes me tick.  I believe that they really do want to try to "help" me (in so much as trying to mold me into something that resonates with their own "acceptance criteria" so-to-speak), but, it has resulted in me being unresponsive to their offers.

I did run into one person several months ago whom, I think, I would like to have as a mentor, but, she is inordinately busy and has no time/inclination to mentor or even talk to me.    I imagine she gets bombarded with requests by too many people and is probably completely overwhelmed given that she is a VP at a rather large corporation.

And, I wonder, what's in it for the mentor?  The mentee gets someone who is instrumental in their development and progress resulting in, perhaps, something tangible.  The mentor gets a "feel good" ticket which may or may not last very long, resulting in burn out or disinterest.  Putting "Be a mentor" on your annual performance goals at work, sure doesn't seem right (to me).

I have mentored so many women over the last few years and some have done well and some are still struggling.  But, it has also burned me out a bit - the emotional/psychological bolstering, career scoping/focus, and creation of balance for each person requires a lot of deep thought, analysis, framing and gentle (or not) nudging.  And regular feedback.

So, what is the balance?  Have you found it?  If so, do let me know.