This past February, PowerToFly was very proud to wrap up the panel portion of our recent Diversity Reboot 2021: The 100 Day Kickoff virtual summit by presenting our very first Diversity & Inclusion Award Show, honoring some true D&I champions across multiple industries
Back in 2020, we launched a submission process to honor select individuals who just don't talk the talk but truly walk the walk when it comes to making their companies and the world a more diverse and inclusive place. From the many submissions that we received, we chose six champions to honor.
You can watch the acceptance speeches for our honorees below or click here to watch the 45-minute awards show which included a roundtable discussion with our six DEI champions.
Want to nominated a friend or colleague for a future D&I Award? Submit their info here.
Jossie - Power to fly acceptance speech www.youtube.com
Calicia - Power to fly acceptance speech youtu.be
Dr Anjali Nigam - Power to fly acceptance speech youtu.be
Anto - Power to fly acceptance speech youtu.be
Morgan - Power to fly acceptance speech youtu.be
Joe Gomez - PowerToFly acceptance speech youtu.be
Tips & Insights on Engineering Management from Elastic's Madhura Chopda
Madhura Chopda is a people person.
She always has been.
Give her a complicated cross-departmental problem to wrangle and she'll jump in with two feet, eager to find a way to bring people together. "I like being with people, working with them, resolving conflicts," she says. "Talking to people is what I like to do the most at work." In her current role as the Director of Engineering for search company Elastic, she does a lot of that on a daily basis.
Madhura took the role at Elastic after 12 years at software company ArcSight, during which she made the transition from being an individual contributor to managing others. She started out as the team lead on a tiny team of two, and as that team grew larger and larger, she raised her hand to lead it and eventually grew into being that company's Engineering Manager.
Throughout her career, she's coached hundreds of engineers on their professional development and career plans, including walking them through the age-old question of whether to lean into their technical background to become an individually-contributing subject matter expert and technology leader, or to grow into leadership and become a manager of others.
She always asks them one question: "What are the kinds of problems you like to solve?"
"Is it, 'Why is my ReactJS code not performing up to the mark?' or is it, 'Why is this cross-team item not getting done?'" she asks. "Over time, when you answer that question and have a consistent answer, you know whether you like to solve the soft-skill problems or the technical ones."
Not that it's ever so black and white, adds Madhura. As a technical manager, the majority of her energy might go into unsticking her engineers and making sure they have what they need to succeed, but her day-to-day isn't divorced from technical matters. We sat down with Madhura to better understand how she maintains her technical skills as a leader, what's been key to her success, and why Elastic was the right next step for her.
Finding people passionate about technology—and one another
Over the course of Madhura's career, she realized that there's a particular kind of engineer she really gets along well with: the one who is deeply passionate about their work. It was one of her criteria for joining a new role, and one that Elastic performed very well on.
"I wanted to see passion in the company I'd be joining. When I was interviewing at Elastic, people weren't afraid of talking about what does and doesn't work. Here, if we want to put a text box on the left or the right, there's a very passionate discussion that happens about it!" she says. "I think that ultimately results in a very good UX product."
Along with that passion, says Madhura, she's also found Elastic to be a place that encourages generosity and belonging. "I'm not afraid to say 'I don't know' here. People are very patient and empathetic," she says. "And I've been amazed at how much attention is paid to social issues."
Defining good management
Madhura sees her role as a manager of others to have three main components.
First, she seeks to unlock each individual and enable them to do what they do best. "I try not to barge into technical issues, actually. Engineers are more than capable of solving technical problems. Even rocket science has been solved," says Madhura, smiling. "I try to cater to the emotional part of things." That includes helping her employees define their professional goals and enabling them to succeed, as well as unblocking issues around communication and resourcing.
Second, she works to make sure her team understands how their work contributes to the company's overall mission. "It's only fair that I give them a connection with the company's strategy and why we are doing what we are doing," she says. "An engineer feels very comfortable if he, she, or they know that what they're doing is actually contributing to the success of the company."
Third, she makes sure that the company's mission and strategy continues to evolve and that its engineering team is doing the best it can to support that strategy. "I'm not just in planning or strategy meetings," she says. "I go to design meetings, UI meetings, UX meetings. It's my responsibility to look at the bigger picture."
Keeping up with tech
Though Madhura loves technology, she knows that her management responsibilities don't require her to be as well-versed in it as she was as a full-time engineer. To keep up to date on what matters, she splits technology into two buckets.
The first bucket is the technology that her team uses on a day-to-day basis. To stay current with that set of programming languages and concepts, she has conversations about what she reads with her technical leads. "It gives them an opportunity to think, 'Oh, here's something my manager doesn't know and is willing to learn from me,'" she says.
The second bucket contains everything else. To stay abreast of other new developments in the world of tech that don't immediately impact her team's work, she watches videos, has dinnertime conversations with her husband, who also works in tech, and shares her findings with her peers.
4 tips for managing an engineering team
Madhura's entire management approach, from setting and executing strategies, to centering the experiences of her engineers, to keeping her technical problem-solving skills sharp, is one worthy of emulation. She's distilled her best advice for managing engineers as follows:
1. Think in terms of expertise, not hierarchy. "I don't look at being a manager as a hierarchically higher role. You are just doing a different job than any other person. I am an expert in XYZ area, and the engineers are experts in PQR. So we both have our own expertise," she explains. "This helps me build a good relationship with them."
2. Own what you don't know. "You have to be unafraid of saying 'I don't know,'" says Madhura. "What's the worst that can happen? If you don't know something, you go and read about it, and it shows your team that it's okay to not know."
3. Be an empathetic listener. "In one-on-ones, you should be listening more than you're talking," she says. "And don't ask 'How are you?' That question isn't going to give you the right answer. It's just going to give you the answer you want to hear." Instead, she suggests that managers "respect the pauses," or learn to listen to the subtext behind what an employee is saying. "Try to read their body language and sense if they're really stressed. You don't [always] need to know the reason behind the stress."
4. Model the behavior you want to see. This point is related to all of the advice above, but it's especially important during the pandemic, says Madhura. She makes a point to block off time on her calendar to spend with her kids and encourages her team to take the time they need for their lives outside of work. "It's okay to say that [you're unavailable because you're with your family]," she says. "Everyone should have the flexibility to say that." She loves that Elastic has two company-wide "shut-it-down days" every month where everyone turns off their laptops. "I think empathetic actions speak more than words," says Madhura.
If you're interested in joining Elastic, check out their open roles here.
Transitioning from Academia to Startups, Learning to Manage Others, and Exploring AI with Primer's Anna Venancio-Marques
She was curious about how the world worked, about how she could have an impact. She was especially curious about molecular biology and microfluidics—the topic of her dissertation.
Several years of study later, her curiosity had waned in the face of the "publish or perish" pressure that academics of many disciplines face. Anna realized that advancing research on one specific problem probably wouldn't lead to the impact she wanted her career to have.
Now, as the Staff Engineering Manager at machine intelligence startup Primer, Anna has been able to make an impact on future applications of natural language processing, initially as an individual contributor and now as a team lead. "I feel that I have a lot of power when I do data science," she reflects. "Through science, I can have an impact."
And it's not so far off from her academic days. "Chemistry is really close to data science," she notes. "In my current role, I have experiments I need to run. I make hypotheses that I need to validate—and that's very much the approach a chemist would take. The transition has meant being open to more data and different questions outside the realm of chemistry. But the exploration is the same."
Big corporations vs. smaller startups: following the opportunity
Anna enrolled in an MBA program after finishing her PhD to help her transition from academia to the corporate world. When she finished that degree and was entertaining job offers, she was deciding between working for a big company or a more niche data science startup.
She went with the latter. "I was looking for that 'anything is possible' kind of experience in a startup," explains Anna. "I wanted to get wide exposure, including in writing production-level code that you ship out to customers."
She moved to San Francisco from Paris—she's originally from Lyon, France, but says her home country's startup ecosystem is still "developing" and she was drawn to the vibrancy of the Bay Area—and began her career as a data scientist.
Her first role at Primer was the deeply technical, fast-paced, opportunity-packed experience she was looking for. As the company grew, so did Anna's responsibilities. "There were always opportunities to raise your hand and say, 'Well, I'm interested in this, I'm willing to try it,'" she says. She was working on natural language processing projects, and as the company won more and more contracts, she took on more and more projects. "It was a much, much faster pace than I would've gotten in any other setting," she says.
Anna loved the problems she was solving. "It's really exciting to look at data and ask questions of the data to go after the answers. It's really fun to think you're just about to crack something and just about to get an answer," she remembers. But as her responsibilities grew, her time spent getting her hands dirty writing code shrunk. She started working with one other engineer, then took on a team of six, which grew to a team of ten.
She had become a manager—which was something she didn't quite know how to be.
"What got you here won't get you there": advice for new managers
Anna knows now that the skills she developed as an individual contributor weren't the ones she needed as a team lead. But she had to figure out what those new needed skills were—and how to acquire them. "I thought I had proved myself. I was very proud of my skills as an IC," she says. "But I needed to expand on them and be humble enough to realize that there was a whole new set of skills I needed to be developing."
Anna entered what she calls "learning mode," which was enabled by Primer's culture and values, particularly their focus on being "always human." To Anna, this means being actively willing to help, teach, and learn together, keeping in mind each team member's different experience and perspective.
Of all the new skills she's picked up, there are a few Anna would highlight for engineers making the transition to management:
- Lean on the side of over-communicating. "Make sure you have a shared vocabulary," Anna says, giving the example of hearing a product manager use the phrase "anomaly detection" and not being sure whether that PM was referencing specific machine learning methods or more abstract concepts. "Over-communicate and ensure that you're on the same page and understanding the same things."
- Assume the best in others. "You've got to assume good intent in other people—that will make them more likely to want to answer your questions and to send questions your way when they feel that they don't understand something."
- Make connections all over the company. This advice serves two purposes, says Anna: first, as a manager, you'll need to be interfacing with people from other departments, and being friendly with them makes it easier. Second, managers need to "understand the value of the work you're doing as a company and transmit that to the people on your team," she says. Knowing intimately how the sales team is doing or what client service's experiences with users are like enables a manager to help transmit that bigger picture.
- Have clear expectations when you make assignments. When handing off work to your team, says Anna, you need to get detailed. "You don't want them to have just a very vague idea of what you want to achieve, but rather something much more concrete that will allow you to flag those cases where something is stalling or not working," she says.
- Know how to spot when people are blocked. "You need to be able to pull people back from going off in one direction, which requires a lot of self-awareness and listening to your team so that you can catch those situations," she says. A good flag that someone's off track and needs managerial intervention? "Listening to an engineer telling you, 'I'm almost there!' for a week straight," she says, smiling.
Though she misses writing code herself, Anna loves that her role allows her to empower others and celebrate their wins with them. "I get so excited when [my team] comes to me and shows me the things they've achieved or the really great ideas they've had. It's really nice to be at that central point," she says.
Driving towards the future
Currently, Anna's team is working on natural language processing—in essence, helping the analysts who use Primer's products make sense of and derive insights from the increasingly high volume of written texts available online.
"We're processing more and more writing, which is a kind of unstructured data. To go after that data, the tools scale very much linearly to the number of analysts you have," she says. "If we allow our computers to do a lot of the heavy lifting, we're allowing analysts to have more time to be curious about the data and to interact with it. We're making sure our software can provide answers for analysts and make sure humans are doing work that humans are good at."
Three years into her career at Primer, Anna still enjoys working with people as interested and curious about the future of data science and machine learning as she is. "It's so nice to see that enthusiasm throughout Primer. People are motivated no matter what their job responsibilities are," she says.
"Even if there are philosophical differences of what's the best way to answer a given problem, people want the best thing to be done for whatever question we're trying to solve for," she says of the collective drive and passion she sees on a daily basis.
Anna says that Primer's focus on being humble and low-ego and investment in continuous learning is what she most enjoys. "You need to be able to say that maybe two years from now, I'll retire code that I wrote because there's a much better solution—and that's perfect," she says.
If Primer's mission and ethos appeal to you, and you're excited by the possibility of continuous learning and teaching, check out their open jobs here or leave a question for Anna in the comments!