This Director of Engineering Thinks the Future is Remote - and Female
Meet Shweta Saraf, Director of Engineering at DigitalOcean
We've all heard the rallying cry, "We need more women in STEM!" And don't get us wrong, we agree!
But when it comes to women's representation in tech, Shweta Saraf, Director of Engineering at DigitalOcean, knows that actions speak louder than words.
Shweta doesn't just talk a good game—she mentors women in STEM, sets the bar high for her recruiters, and takes the time necessary to broaden the pipeline for open engineering roles on her team. (She also serves on the Forbes Tech Council, sharing insights and advice with fellow tech leaders).
But long before Shweta was a tech thought leader and director at DigitalOcean (a high-growth tech company serving a passionate community of developers and businesses around the world), she was an intern at Cisco, trying to decide how to advance her career.
We sat down with her to learn about her own leadership journey, women in STEM, and life at DigitalOcean. Read on to learn more and get inside tips on how you can join her team — she's hiring across multiple teams and roles, and thanks to DigitalOcean's strong remote culture, you can work from just about anywhere! (P.S. If you like swag, be sure to read to the end to learn how you can win a free t-shirt!)
On Leadership & Paying It Forward
You're the Director of Engineering at DigitalOcean… can you walk me through your career path and tell me how you got where you are now?
The defining moment in my career was when I decided to make the switch to an engineering manager role. I was the tech lead on a wireless security project at Cisco. I had four people sort of reporting to me and I realized I was doing all of the IC work, and I was helping run the team and supporting my teammates.
I could tell I was burning out and knew that I needed to pick one thing and stick to it. That led to a lot of self-introspection, which led me to understand that one of my talents is empowering others to do their best work. So I ended up switching to an engineering manager role.
I worked on multiple different teams at Cisco before becoming a senior manager, and then I switched to DigitalOcean. I started with a very small team of three engineers, and then I grew that team to 35 individual contributors, three managers, and two architects.
Not every IC wants to move into a leadership position. How and when did you know that that was the right path for you?
In addition to a lot of self-reflection, one thing that really helped me realize that I wanted to move into a leadership role was starting an Employee Resource Organization for Women in Science and Engineering at Cisco. It was happening in parallel with the work I was doing as a tech lead; I started with six or seven engineers and grew it into a worldwide Employee Resource Organization with almost 5,000 members spread across different countries.
What obstacles did you encounter along the way and how did you overcome them?
I think the biggest obstacle I had to overcome was not to listen to the voices telling me, "You have to wait, this is too early. You can't do this." I had to believe in my self-worth and work hard to defy what I was hearing. I didn't want time to be a factor in how my performance was rewarded.
What advice would you give to women just starting their engineering careers who want to move into leadership roles?
Number one, find an ally/sponsor who really invests in you. This is different from a mentor because when you're transitioning roles, you need someone who's advocating for you behind closed doors.
I had one such sponsor, who happened to be my manager, and he was really invested in providing me with feedback and inspiring me to follow the trajectory of an engineering manager role. Thanks to him, the transition just felt natural, because I was already taking on more and more responsibilities of an Engineer Manager, and then eventually we just made it official. We decided I would really focus on the EMS side of the role, and lowered the priority of my IC responsibilities.
Number two, make it known that you want to obtain a leadership role. That you see yourself as a leader. Start acting like you have the job so that you don't have to wait for a change in title to start learning.
Lastly, invest in your growth. I had to really stretch myself to handle that transition, but if you invest in that, you will grow immensely.
Now that we're in advice mode, let's talk about mentorship. You're a mentor on Plato. Why do you believe mentorship matters and what kinds of mentorship opportunities are offered at DigitalOcean?
I believe it's important to give back to your community; I want to thank all the great mentors that I have had the privilege of working with and who molded my thinking as a person. I've gained a lot from my mentors, and I want to pay it forward. With Plato, I can do just that.
At DigitalOcean, we recently completed the first cohort of our new mentorship program and I was able to participate in that as well. I was paired up with someone very cross-functional to my role, who I would not normally have talked with on a daily basis. It ended up being a very rewarding experience for both of us. I view mentoring as a two-way learning process, not just giving advice to someone all the time.
(Remote) Culture at DigitalOcean
I know DigitalOcean has a strong remote culture. Why do you think this is important, and what do you think is the key to success when managing remote teams?
Basically, in everything we do, we have accounted for the remote employee experience, whether it is onboarding, how we use Slack, or planning the annual company offsite.
I think remote culture is the future. You save on valuable resources, like time and gas, and the time that people save by not commuting really enriches their work and personal lives. I can just go on and on about why remote work is awesome and people should embrace it... but when it comes to managing remote teams, it's really a special skill set.
I focus on providing time zone autonomy to teams. I have teams in Canada, Berlin, India… you get the idea. Once you get the location out of the picture, that's when remote teams really come together and are most productive.
I also believe in investing in people and spending time with them—it's not easy to bond with teammates when you're not seeing them in person, but if you chat with video on, I think it feels a lot more like you have the person next to you.
Very cool. So with so many time zones, how do you manage team check-ins and meetings?
We expect everyone to allocate working hours on their calendars. When we hire someone, we explain that depending on their team, they're expected to have certain overlap in hours to facilitate conversation.
The second aspect is that when they're actually doing the work, we try to coordinate so that engineers always have at least one other person on their team in their time zone so that they can get code from development to production fairly quickly.
Lastly, I do have budget for each of my teams to plan off-sites, in addition to the company-wide offsite, so that teammates can find a central location and meet up to work together during the crucial phase of a project and also build some relationships.
And you also have an office presence, right?
Yes, we have our headquarters in New York, as well as offices in Cambridge, Palo Alto, Berlin, Canada… because we have such a wide office presence, it's really suited to mirror what the individual's and team's needs are. If you feel more motivated working in an office environment, then there is the opportunity to work from one of those offices from time to time, or move to one of those locations.
How do you decide who will be a remote employee and who will work in-office?
It's part of the conversation when we're hiring someone. It's really flexible. In the Bay Area, for example, we have lots of people who prefer to work remotely to avoid traffic, but come into the office from time to time.
We always ask folks what their preference is and make sure that aligns with the team's needs. There are a few cases where in-person interaction is very important, and those teams might have a preference for people being in one location. But for most of the engineering teams, we are spread very widely and we assess as part of the interview process whether working remotely is something that the individual would be comfortable with.
That said, we do encourage interns and entry-level employees to work in one of our offices so they can collaborate with more senior team members and feel a greater sense of support and belonging. Remote is normally an option for more senior people who don't need as much direction with their day-to-day work.
You encourage your engineers to contribute to open source projects. Tell me more about that and how it aligns with Digital Ocean's culture.
I really want companies to think about how open source can play a key role in their businesses, products and the way in which they give back to the community. I strive for engineers to contribute to open source not only as a hobby, but to evaluate options where this aligns with our business strategy and make opportunities for them to spend time on this.
This aligns really well with our culture — we recently had a hackathon where people across the company, technical and non-technical, came together to hack on innovative projects, and some of these were based on open source. Apart from that, a number of our core products use open source as a key technology to make them run. DigitalOcean is also a gold member of Cloud Native Computing Foundation. And we do use a lot of projects from well-known open source communities like Kubernetes, GRPC, Prometheus, Open vSwitch, and Ceph.
Let's talk about another thing that should get prospective engineers excited - what kinds of innovations/projects are your teams working on?
My charter is leading Software-Defined Networking (SDN) at DigitalOcean. My teams are working on really cool things. For example, we're building…
- a scalable load balancer, which will scale up to a very high requests per second. We're building it in multi-tenant Kubernetes based platform solution so that it doesn't serve just one customer, but it's able to scale across thousands of customers.
- a virtual private cloud. That essentially provides security and privacy for all the customers within our data center by encapsulating their traffic.
We are also focused on scaling our network across data centers and focusing on metrics, tooling and security features. We are looking to hire software engineers with distributed systems background as well as generalists who are excited to work across product stack.
You mentioned you're hiring on multiple teams… across those teams, what is something you look for in every applicant?
Once the technical bar is cleared, there's one question I ask myself about every candidate: will this person uplift their team? I want someone who is going to bring others along and elevate the team.
If you had 30 seconds to persuade a woman (or anyone) to join your team, what would you tell them?
I'll tell you what I tell all the candidates I speak to—and most of them do end up joining us: if you want to do the best work of your life in an environment where people respect and care for each other, and you want to work with some of the smartest people in the industry solving hard, creative problems, come join us.
Last but not least, what's something cool about DigitalOcean that most people might not know?
One cool thing that people may not know is that in 2014, DigitalOcean started the largest external hackathon—Hacktoberfest—to encourage people to contribute to and learn about open source and continues to run it every year. As part of this year's Hacktoberfest, there are 584 events organized across the world where people are coming together to do this. Every person who does 4 pull requests during this period gets a t-shirt—but you have to earn it, it can't be bought!
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