Joan Freed used to have one definition of impact: shipping code.
The more software she wrote, and the more technical problems she solved, the greater her contribution to her team was.
But then Joan, who is currently the Director of Engineering at Aurora Solar, was asked to go from a developer role to a management role.
“Like most engineering leaders, I was thrust into it. It was, ‘Hey, you’re a good engineer; now we want you to lead this team of people you’ve been working with,’” she says of the transition.
And in excelling in that leadership role, and others to follow, Joan realized that she’d found a way to make even more impact: through mentoring others.
“I could actually have a greater impact and gain the same amount of enjoyment from building a team that is building great software, as I could from building great software myself,” she says.
We sat down with Joan to hear more about the transition, including how mentorship smoothed her path into leadership, and about how she pays it forward by being a good mentor to others.
Pushing Buttons, With Others
Joan’s path into computer science was set as soon as she got her hands on an early PC. “What drew me to engineering was a love of pushing buttons,” she says, referencing calculators and adding machines. Once she first started developing games in her spare time for a Commodore 64, she knew she’d found her career path.
She entered the field by way of tech support, but it was an early mentor who helped her learn how to build great software. She’s still in touch with that mentor to this day.
As she solidified her development expertise, Joan expanded her pool of mentors by looking at her peers. “If we had enough of a similarity in the way that we perceived things or viewed software development, it sort of clicked—we became friends, then expanded our knowledge together,” she explains.
It was that group of peer-mentors that Joan leaned on when she made her first move into engineering leadership.
“I got great enjoyment out of helping people find their path. I was doing some of the things that folks before me had done, in terms of helping people navigate technical issues or challenges or growing new leaders,” she says.
Finding a Culture of Growth
When Joan was ready to move onto a new challenge, she knew she cared most about finding a company whose culture aligned with her values. Her main focus in her previous role was creating a positive, collaborative engineering culture, and she wanted to build on that.
“We’d really fostered an environment where people enjoyed coming to work every day because they worked with good people they actually wanted to spend time with,” she says.
In her first interview with the team at energy startup Aurora Solar, Joan immediately recognized a similar environment.
“I could see the commitment to the values—empowering customers and looking for outcomes over egos—in the way people talk and act,” she says. “There’s the assumption of positive intent, it’s very respectful. It’s really the culture at Aurora that drew me in and has kept me engaged and motivated.”
And now, as Director of Engineering there, Joan is tasked with supporting that culture and creating opportunities for her teams to experience career paths like her own.
To do that, Joan is applying everything she’s learned as a mentor and a mentee. She’s developed her own approach to what successful mentorship looks like: an even blend of comfort and empowerment.
“It’s having someone in your corner that you can talk to, where they have enough context to know you and to know the type of work or challenges you’re facing, but they also have that ability to not be in the weeds with you,” she says. “They can provide some level of objectivity to help you tease out the biases you may have or to ask probing questions you didn't think to ask yourself.”
Good mentorship, not unlike good management, says Joan, is “a way of expanding your own thinking.”
3 Tips for Finding a Great Mentor
Whether early career or not, Joan encourages everyone to build their stable of mentors. “A lot of career opportunities, it’s not always what you know, but who you know,” she says. “Make sure you have a good network of people because you never know when your paths may cross again.”
To do that, Joan suggests:
- Think of friends and peers as mentors. You don’t have to go up into the C-suite to find someone who can provide support and advice. “Start looking at people around you, what they’re doing and how they’re interacting,” she says.
- Be aspirational. “Identify someone you’re aspiring to be like, and reach out,” says Joan. “It can be hard to make that initial contact, but it’s very worthwhile.” She’s still in touch with a mentee who reached out blindly, for instance.
- Embrace communities. From LinkedIn groups to MeetUp events to ERGs, Joan suggests expanding your network via built-in gatherings of people like you.
3 Tips for Being a Great Mentor
Over the years, Joan has been a mentor to dozens of developers and aspiring leaders, and plans on continuing the tradition. When she finds herself in that role, she channels the following pieces of advice:
- Remember that you’re helping people find the path that’s best for them. “If that’s a path at Aurora, which I hope it is, then that’s great. But I’ve helped coach people out of my organization if it wasn’t a fit for them. They were struggling, they weren't happy, and I helped them find some other opportunity where they could shine,” explains Joan.
- Listen actively. “Make sure that you understand what it is they're saying and that you're engaged in that conversation with them,” says Joan.
- Be a positive force. “Be their cheerleader when things are going well, or when they’ve done something that put them outside their comfort zone,” says Joan. “Even if they’ve failed at something, help them understand what they can learn from that failure and how they can bounce back from it.”
A Conversation with Neena Naidu, Director of Software Engineering at Autodesk
Neena Naidu's favorite metaphor for understanding the importance of different perspectives comes from medicine.
"If a doctor recommends a big surgery to you, you go and look at different surgeons and get different feedback, right?" she says. "You don't just take the one thing that somebody said. You're investing time and money. In a similar way, [with your career], find a couple of people to run your situation by and ask for different opinions, because those are different options, and you'll see which fits best with the way you want to go."
Neena is currently a Director of Software Engineering at Autodesk, and she credits her long and successful career in software in part to the many mentors that have guided her along the way.
We sat down with her to hear about how she sought out those relationships, what they've taught her, and how she seeks to pay them forward now—as well as what tips she has for other underrepresented talent in tech looking to make the most out of mentorship.
Finding Her Ambition and Embracing Growth
When she was growing up, Neena wasn't obsessed with a particular subject or career. She didn't even really like school all that much, though her parents would have loved it if she did.
"I had this happy-go-lucky time," she explains of her high school years. When it came to college majors, she knew she wanted hers to be in some kind of engineering, but by the time she got around to signing up, she had missed some of the selection tests for several engineering majors.
"Computer science was still open, so that's why I studied that!" says Neena, smiling.
But while she chose her major by default, she soon grew to love it—and to recognize how powerful it could be to be inspired by peers and mentors along the way.
"There was a pivotal point between finishing 12th grade and my first bachelor's where my mindset shifted to learning more," Neena explains. "I wasn't focused, and then I met people who were going to the U.S. to study." Her peers inspired her to take the GRE and apply to do a master's in the U.S.
She wasn't shocked when she got in, but she thinks some people back home probably were. "I was a very social kid growing up, and I think it comes as a surprise to a lot of the folks that I've known through my childhood that I'm doing what I'm doing," Neena says. "But things can change in life, and it's never too late to do what you want to do."
Embracing Mentorship as a Tool to Build a Career
Studying in the U.S. was one thing. Figuring out how to work here long-term was another. Neena knew that she would need to rely on building relationships in order to secure her career path. She started by reaching out to her U.S. counterparts at the company she'd worked at in India before moving to the States for her master's and by talking to the counselors at her university.
"I started asking, 'Are there any opportunities for me?'" remembers Neena. "And through that process, I was able to find an internship."
That wasn't a new muscle for Neena, who had talked to her manager in India about wanting to leave the company even when others wouldn't have breathed a word to their supervisor for fear of being fired. "He had created an environment as a leader where it was clear that people have choices, people have passions, and it's okay if they want to pursue those passions," she says. "We'd formed a relationship and it felt natural to open up and talk to him about what I wanted to be and what I wanted to do."
Neena now considers that manager to be her first work mentor, and she learned a couple key lessons from him:
- Pressure can be managed. "Looking at a mentor and seeing how they behave under pressure, it's almost like a parent, right? You watch people, you learn something from them," says Neena, who says she benefited from watching her manager never really lose his cool, even in very tense moments.
- Always ask for the next connection. Neena isn't naturally shy, and her first helpful mentorship relationship inspired her to pursue the next ones. "I'd question my supervisor and managers saying, 'Hey, who would you recommend? I'm looking at doing X, Y, and Z,' and they'd think through their network and say, 'Okay, this person has done something similar, maybe you should connect with him or her.'"
Finding Her Next Challenge at Autodesk
The lessons that had helped Neena land her first internship in the States also helped her turn it into her first full time role. And what she learned at that job—both about work itself as well as about what she wanted to pursue more of—helped her find her next few roles. She's been a technical program manager, a senior software engineer, a business analyst, and a consultant working with big clients like Cisco and Disney, among other things, always looking for opportunities to work directly with technologists, to deliver projects that meet user needs, and to keep learning.
During COVID, Neena got to thinking about what she wanted next in her career, and she realized she wanted a chance to be more strategic and to manage a bigger book of business. She reached out to her mentors and coaches and started fielding opportunities—including one from Autodesk.
"Learning about the role, it was an opportunity to create my own team, to set a precedent for that process, and to take in the existing culture and influence it," she says. "It really was very exciting for me. I like to do things a bit out of the box, to work with different people and find the best solution. Especially at a people-paced organization where I can be who I am and still learn and grow in my new role."
Passing It On: 6 Tips on Mentorship
Even when she was pursuing it, Neena didn't always recognize mentorship as such a powerful force in her life. "I probably didn't have a name for it early on," she says. "I was just finding myself in situations where I needed some feedback, and I'd find a colleague or a friend. Soon enough, that became a necessary part of my own voice."
Neena remembers working for a woman—her manager's manager at the time—who shared with Neena that mentors had been pivotal to her own career journey. "From then, I knew it was a constant thing that I had to put time and energy into," says Neena.
But formalizing how she sought out advice didn't really change the mechanics of doing it. There's no one right way to be a mentee, says Neena, who adds that sometimes she'll check in with mentors every six months and other times every two weeks.
"I do think it's the mentee's responsibility to reach out to the mentor. I always take it as an active responsibility on my part," she says.
If you're ready to make the most of mentorship in your career, Neena recommends the following:
- Get clear on the rules of engagement. Are conversations confidential? What topics are off-limits, if any?
- Define the agenda ahead of time. There are different types of mentors: ones from whom you want to extract information and ones who are just there to listen. Ones who are ready to help problem solve and ones who are there to set a strategy with you. What kind of relationship is this? If it changes often, what's on the agenda for this specific meeting?
- Don't bite off more than you can chew. Now that she's a mentor herself, Neena doesn't take on more than 3-5 regular mentees at a given time, though she's always open for one-off conversations on specific subjects. On the mentee side, looking for multiple mentors is a good idea, but don't over-commit to more relationships than you can successfully manage. Do keep in mind that some relationships will come to a natural end. "It's okay to circulate through mentors," says Neena.
- Be strategic. When looking for a mentor, Neena suggests an exercise. Start by writing down your goals, then identify the gaps you have that would keep you from getting there. With those gaps, look for people with influence in your organization who could help coach you on filling them.
- Don't feel guilty. Making an ask of a busy person can feel stressful. But leaders want to help, says Neena. "If you reach out to five people, four of them will probably say, 'Sure, of course, I can find 15 minutes to talk to you,'" says Neena, who adds that making the request personal, like by highlighting shared backgrounds, goes a long way.
- Embrace its impact. "We all have the tendency to get stuck in our own mindsets," says Neena. "A mentor can be a great change agent for you. And mentorship isn't always just for career building—it's for your own personal growth as well."