A Conversation with Viasat's Melinda Kimbro
Melinda Kimbro is no longer colorblind and now celebrates diversity through a new lens.
As the Chief People Officer and SVP of People & Culture at global communications and satellite internet company Viasat, a company she's been at for nearly 20 years, Kimbro is responsible for shaping, with the rest of the leadership team, Viasat's approach to diversity and inclusion at work.
That approach used to follow a common refrain in corporate America: "We don't see color."
If Thursday's "Pathways to Technology: A Virtual Panel with Women in Tech at Relativity" is any indication of how our new Zoom-based world is going to work, we're going to be just fine.
The virtual event went off without a hitch, with six Relativity panelists and 80 participants tuning in for a discussion about career trajectories, imposter syndrome, and the future of women in tech.
Moderator Colleen Costello, head of social impact at Relativity, did a deft job of switching between topics and panelists—participants got to hear from each woman equally and were able to submit audience questions ahead of time.
The panelists represented a variety of roles within Relativity, and countries as well. Funmi Atandare is a senior compliance analyst who hails from Nigeria. Megan Stetz is a senior software engineer and recently completed a yearlong expat at Relativity's offices in Krakow, Poland. Julianna Peebles is a software engineer on the review development team. Laura Adkins is a performance product manager, and Mani Mangan is the application manager for Salesforce on the IT business systems and applications team.
The 45-minute panel celebrated the differences among the women, but also made clear some similarities that exist among all women in tech.
There Is No Typical Tech Experience
One takeaway was obvious from the start: There is no one path to a technology career.
Funmi started her career as an air traffic controller before coming to the United States to earn her master's in aviation. She transitioned into IT and technology when, as part of her job at a university, she trained a consulting firm to become an IT auditor. Laura worked in education and nonprofits for 12 years before she switched over to tech. Megan also began her career in education, as part of Teach for America, and became the "designated tech person" at her school. Mani has a fine arts degree in photography and digital media and is a professional photographer and fine artist in addition to her work in tech.
Julianna says she's been interested in technology since she was a little kid.
"I taught myself HTML and CSS to make my Neopets store the coolest," she said. After a computer science class early in her college career ended up being not a great fit, she pursued a biology degree with the intention of going to medical school. Another computer science class her senior year reignited her excitement, and she landed an IT job after college where she could get more training.
One thread that connected all their experiences? An early interest in technology. Sometimes it was chance that brought them to the tech sector, and sometimes it was a conscious choice that led them down that path, but all say that the skills and experience they picked up in other careers has helped them succeed in tech.
Imposter Syndrome Is Real
Colleen had a question about imposter syndrome ready for our panelists—but it came up organically before she had a chance to ask it.
Many of the panelists said they felt imposter syndrome at some point in their careers. Laura recalls not knowing common terminology like "SaaS" when she first started in this space.
"Starting and getting in there with people who had years of experience working with these different systems was really overwhelming, and I got to the point where I was just afraid to ask questions sometimes," she said. "Thankfully, Relativity is just such a supportive and nurturing environment."
Julianna admitted to feeling a bit of imposter syndrome just being on the panel.
"I think the thing that makes the biggest difference for me is really taking a moment to reflect on everything I've learned and all the wins that I've had," she said. "It's very easy to focus on all the things you don't know and all the things you can't do, but I think it's important to take that time to be like, 'Oh look, I didn't use to be able to work with this technology or build this feature that I just made.'"
Megan said she's experienced imposter syndrome as well, not as something that comes up once and then disappears, but as a recurring feeling she has to work through.
"I know I work with some really smart people, and I can learn and grow from them, but they didn't come in just having all this knowledge. They took the time to learn," Megan said. "So they can teach me, and I can learn from them—and they can also learn from my experiences as well."
Allies Can Help … To a Point
When asked about their future in tech, the panelists said they pictured themselves in the industry long term. But that doesn't mean everything is perfect.
"One thing that I've sort of been realizing over the last year is no matter how awesome my male colleagues are, it wears on you being the only woman in the room," Julianna said.
There are ways that male colleagues can make things easier for female colleagues until more women are hired in these roles. Laura said she pulls male colleagues aside when she sees them treating her differently because she's a woman, and Mani said male coworkers can help amplify the voices of their female peers.
"A common thing that I hear from other women around me is that they're told to be more aggressive, to speak up, and that's not necessarily always very intuitive or easy," Mani said. "So as an ally, it would be great to make sure that everyone in the room has an opportunity to speak and contribute and add, because oftentimes you'll find that those diverse voices are what will lead you to innovation."
As the panel wrapped up, Funmi made a point to mention the community resource groups (CRGs) at Relativity, such as Relativity Women in the Workplace (RelWoW) and Black at Relativity. Julianna echoed the importance of the CRGs in building a culture of inclusion, diversity, and belonging.
"As far as representation at Relativity goes, I'm really excited we've been building a more inclusive culture," Julianna said. "And I know that, over time, that inclusive culture will enable us to move the needle on diversity."
How did the unique life experiences of four different women lead them to create opportunities for students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds? Sun C., a supply chain manager at the Facebook company, was the first in her family to get an education beyond primary school, and nothing stopped her from achieving her dream. Ruth B. started life in an orphanage during the Lebanese Civil War. She was later adopted by an American couple who helped her find her true life passion—giving back to her community. These women would eventually meet Elisabeth M. and Jocelyn C. at Facebook, where they would harness their collective passions to create programs that help underrepresented students.
The Women of AR/VR Steering Committee empowers and enables women on the Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR/VR) team at the Facebook company by building and developing an inclusive community through professional development, peer support, and community outreach. Its Education Committee, led by Sun C., Ruth B., Elisabeth M., and Jocelyn C., focuses on curriculum and educational programs for girls, under-represented groups, and under-resourced students who are interested in careers in tech and gaming.
The Education Committee collaborates closely with community organizations, schools, and nonprofits. Committee members also volunteer outside of their regular work hours and host students on campus for workshops, hackathons, career panels, and tech talks. Working cross-functionally with teams from hardware, software, operations, and creative, the committee aims to share not only career achievements, but also obstacles and hardships.
"We want students to understand that there are many different paths towards a career, which can be as unique as a person's personality. Sometimes, the road to success isn't always easy, linear, or straight-forward. There can be many obstacles and unexpected turns and twists, but with hard work, dedication, perseverance, and resilience, they can achieve anything they set their minds to," says Sun C.
In February, the Education Committee hosted its seventh career day event. They brought together students from a Bay Area middle school with Facebook software engineers, program managers, electrical engineers, designers, and product researchers for a day of workshops and presentations on a variety of topics. Students learned how to identify and combat cyberbullying, talked about different career journeys, heard how products and games are designed, and experienced an Oculus Go demo first hand.
Local students learning about employee perspectives at our career outreach day
Students participate in VR demos, panel discussions and lunch and learn sessions during our career outreach day
Level Designer Oneil H. speaks about game design to high school students from the 100 Black Men of Silicon Valley organization.
Each of the founding members has a unique background that has shaped their identities and paths. Read on to learn more about their journeys.
Sun C.: Empowered by her own education
Sun immigrated to the United States with her parents from Cambodia in 1979 with only the clothes on their backs and big hopes of achieving the American dream. Although Sun's parents were only able to attend primary school before the war and genocide broke out in Cambodia, they understood the importance of education as a mechanism for opening doors to opportunities that were not available to them. Sun became the first person in her family to attend college—earning both bachelor's and master's degrees from UCLA in 2000 and UCSD 2004, respectively. Prior to joining Facebook, Sun worked at several other major tech companies. Today, she has more than 13 years of experience managing overseas factories in China and launching new consumer electronics products in the global marketplace. She joined the Oculus team in 2016 and is a supply chain manager.
Sun with her parents after recently immigrating to the US as refugees from the "Killing Fields" of Cambodia in 1979.
Ruth B.: Sharing her gift of music and mentorship
Shortly after she was born during the Lebanese Civil War, Ruth was placed in an orphanage and was adopted by an American couple who helped her realize her musical gifts and pursue her extracurricular passions—giving back to those who need mentorship, support, and motivation to get through school. Ruth took her songs and guitar on the road and visited K-12 classrooms for four years, encouraging students to stay in school. She also developed a program that was promoted within the Miss America Organization, giving her a larger voice to help more students in need.
While completing her bachelor's and master's degrees at Stanford University, Ruth joined Oculus in 2014. She is a game and entertainment producer working to build the future of AR/VR content and has worked on a variety of successful games at Oculus, including notable titles like Dance Central, Marvel Powers United VR, as well as The People's House, which won an Emmy in the category for 360 VR film.
Ruth presents her music program in a Texas elementary school.
Elisabeth M.: Experienced the power of education first-hand
From a young age, Elisabeth loved spending time volunteering and tutoring at schools. She saw the power of education first-hand while working as an English as a Second Language (ESL) tutor in high school and college.
In 2018, Elisabeth joined Oculus to lead Sales Strategy & Operations. In her role, she focuses on building strategic plans and processes to drive Oculus and Portal sales growth for the AR/VR Global Sales organization. Elisabeth regularly dedicates time outside of the office to an organization called YearUp, where she empowers young adults from non-traditional backgrounds to build careers in tech.
Elisabeth (left) and Sun (right) with students during a Facebook campus visit.
Jocelyn C.: An appreciation for art and creativity
A few trips to California and a growing fascination with the diversity of Silicon Valley inspired Jocelyn to move from Asia to the San Francisco Bay Area. Born and raised in Taiwan, she founded a small company that developed database software in 2014—but she saw more promising business development and fundraising opportunities in the United States.
Jocelyn joined Oculus in 2017 as a strategic sourcing manager. Today, she develops and maintains relationships with contract manufacturers that build Oculus' AR/VR hardware, ensuring products are built with superior quality at a competitive cost. Coming from a country where the education system focuses on exams and homework, Jocelyn appreciates programs that promote art and creativity. She's happy to have the privilege to give back to the community. Most recently, she helped organize a Game Design and Leadership Day, an Education Committee partnership with the Girl Scout of West Washington, where girls ages 11 to 13 learned how to program.
Jocelyn (right) at a start-up workshop in 2015.
Diversity and inclusion are incredibly important values at Facebook. As a company, we spend a lot of time discussing, building, and creating opportunities for diverse perspectives both here and in the tech industry overall. There are many different ways to approach and address this issue. The Education Committee's approach is to start early, by reaching out to students in diverse socioeconomic areas and giving them a glimpse at how hard work, dedication, perseverance, and resilience in education can take them far in life.
"Making an Impact as a Senior Software Engineer and a Member of MongoDB’s Women and Trans Coders Group"
Maria van Keulen is a Senior Software Engineer on the Server Team at MongoDB. When she isn't working on challenging technical projects, she's developing initiatives for MongoDB's Women and Trans Coders employee resource group.
I sat down with Maria to learn more about her experiences and the impact she's had on the company over the last three years.
Jess Katz: Can you tell us a bit about why you joined MongoDB back in 2016, and what you love most about working here?
Maria van Keulen: I joined MongoDB full time after interning twice at the company during college. When I was an intern, I saw that MongoDB had a welcoming, collaborative, and talented community of engineers, and I knew that this was the kind of community I wanted to pursue after college. Additionally, the projects we got to work on as interns were technically challenging and addressed real company needs. I was very excited for the opportunity to do such high priority work.
As a full-time employee, I continue to see the same great qualities in MongoDB as I saw as an intern. In addition, my time since interning has given me an appreciation for MongoDB as a leading innovator in the world of database technology. I recall our "startup-y" nature from 2014, and it's amazing to see where we are today. Presently, we are not only becoming the new paradigm of database technology, but also occupy a valuable position in the database market and are expanding into new areas of data management. I am so excited to see where we will go next and be a part of shaping the company's future.
JK: Beyond your experiences as a Senior Software Engineer, what are some of your other passion projects at MongoDB?
MVK: I am involved in a few groups at MongoDB, one of which being our Women and Trans Coders group. MongoDB's Women and Trans Coders group is a group of technical individuals who identify as women and trans who provide a network and resources for one another to grow professionally and personally. The group meets regularly for various business and social events, including periodic dinners, which I assumed responsibility for organizing in 2017. These dinners foster team building and provide networking opportunities for the individuals in the WTC group. Most recently, I have been organizing themed discussions to take place during the dinners.
I have been reading several leadership books on my own time in the interest of growing myself as a leader, including Dare to Lead by Brené Brown, Leading Matters: Lessons From My Journey by John L. Hennessy, and Mindset: The New Psychology For Success by Dr. Carol S. Dweck. I have been taking key ideas I learned in these books and organizing discussions to brainstorm how we can grow our skills and further foster a nurturing company culture. For example, we had a discussion regarding how to promote an environment in which employees have the courage to be vulnerable, as Brené Brown describes in her well-known TED talk on vulnerability.
One exciting result of this discussion was the idea to introduce team social guidelines in order to promote productive collaboration and interactions, and these guidelines have since been rolled out by the Replication team (kudos to Pavi Vetriselvan and Tess Avitabile for spearheading those efforts). We are also in the process of having these guidelines adopted by our overarching team.
The MongoDB Women and Trans Coders Group is a valuable forum for fostering the growth of our members and enacting changes to make MongoDB an even more welcoming, collaborative place to work.
JK: How have you grown both professionally and personally as an engineer here?
MVK: I joined MongoDB fresh out of Columbia University three years ago. Over these past three years, I've spoken at MongoDB World, mentored two interns, and became a Senior Engineer. Each of these journeys has taught me valuable lessons and allowed me to better my technical abilities and communication skills.
My MongoDB World talk was my first professional experience presenting to a large group of people. The presentation discussed how our New Grad team rotation program teaches New Grads to embody MongoDB's core values. It entailed an interesting combination of technical and non-technical subject matter. I drew technical examples from the projects I worked on with each team I visited, and connected the big-picture lessons I learned to the company's core values, like "Make it Matter" and "Build Together."
My experience mentoring interns taught me valuable collaborative skills. Something interesting that I learned as a mentor was to be proactive in checking whether the interns have any questions. We were taught in our mentor training that new generations of interns have become much more autonomous in general than their predecessors, and are less likely to ask questions unless prompted. I learned to take a more hands-on approach when mentoring.
My promotion to Senior Software Engineer was the culmination of my efforts both as an engineer and as a leader on my various projects. Most importantly, it involved leading a complex, multi-stakeholder project called Replica Set Flow Control to completion. This project was my most challenging experience in task management; I had to adapt the project work and react swiftly to changes in project direction and shifting engineering resources as other higher priority tasks flowed in. My experience leading this project allowed me to demonstrate my autonomy in managing large tasks, and earn my position as Senior Engineer.
JK: Can you tell us a bit more about the Replica Set Flow Control project? What did it entail and what were some of the technical challenges you faced?
MVK: I am very proud of the work that my coworkers and I did to push this project to completion. The project tackles the ever-pervasive engineering problem of alleviating a system under heavy load by limiting the number of operations permitted to execute. As a result, the system is allowed more chances to process the existing load rather than continuing to attempt new operations and forcing itself into an unrecoverable state. The project took approximately nine months of engineering effort to be successfully finalized, and I think we should be very proud of the result.
We overcame a few engineering challenges while working on this project. Firstly, Flow Control itself is a complex engineering problem. It took us three separate implementations of proof of concept algorithms to find a viable solution. Additionally, since this was a groundbreaking project, the implementations necessitated a fair amount of new infrastructure. Furthermore, this project was a very performance-centric project. The manner in which the software performs both during periods of high load and periods of reprieve was important to document and evaluate. We not only needed to develop the testing necessary to measure these scenarios, but we also needed to come to conclusions regarding what constituted "acceptable" performance in each scenario.
The second class of challenges we tackled while working on this project was the challenge of collaborating with a large number of people. I worked directly with one other engineer during the project, but there were also many external stakeholders to the project with whom I regularly communicated. Through these experiences, I was able to manage the opinions of many people (sometimes 15 or more) during meetings, find solutions that satisfied a lot of diverse opinions, and still make sure my own voice was heard. I am proud that I was able to run and be part of such a complex project while coordinating the efforts of so many team members.
Lastly, this project was a great learning experience for me because it was the longest-running project I had ever managed. It really made me appreciate the "it's a marathon, not a sprint" mentality. Although it was a bit disappointing that our first two attempts at implementing this algorithm were not viable solutions, I knew it was important to take a step back and consider that we still laid valuable groundwork for the solution we eventually did choose. We gathered a set of test cases that we would eventually use to measure the success of our final solution, and we obtained key data points on what implementation paths we needed to eliminate for this particular algorithm.
JK: Based on your experiences, what is it like to work at MongoDB?
MVK: MongoDB allows me to develop exciting technologies, make a meaningful impact both during and outside of my daily work tasks, and grow as a person, an engineer, and a leader. I'm grateful for what I've learned thus far and am excited to continue my adventure here.
Interested in pursuing a career in engineering at MongoDB? We have several open roles on our teams across the globe, and would love for you to build your career with us!