June 8, 2023 | Diversity & Access

Empowerment. Agency. Belonging. Seat @ the Table 2023.

Martina Lauchengco

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Martina Lauchengco

There was something magical about this year’s panel. It wasn’t just the spark of being in-person and feeling human energy. So many people told me it was how real and honest the conversation felt, and how unusual that is on panels. Credit where credit’s due: Jessica, Margaret, Ritika, and Rukmini are not just exceptional product and engineering leaders, they’re also exceptional, authentic human beings, even in front of 150 people. We saw a master class in how magical authentic leaders can feel. Yet another thing to learn from the night.

Anyway, they shared so much goodness. Here’s the gist.

On being a person in product…without a technical background

  • Jessica came from a consumer background, selling products. There is no better place to understand what customers need or to learn how to communicate a product’s value. After getting her MBA, she made the leap to product management and hasn’t looked back.
  • Margaret has a BA and MFA in art and photography. With a background where creativity is considered table stakes, she shared it’s equally essential to apply creativity to everything in R&D. Especially technical products. You have to be creative in how you solve problems and the solutions you explore. It is a skill that should be used daily in building products.
  • But also needs to be applied appropriately. Sometimes you “just want people to do their jobs and not wander off into some cul-de-sac” You have to be realistic about what real people can handle in their daily lives–like Google sometimes turning down the bandwidth on Tuesdays so people remember that not everyone has bomber internet or a fast phone.

On being an engineer, finding what you like to work on and going from individual contributor to manager

  • Ritika described her pivot from hardware to software, and more recently to AI, as “a series of small pivots.” Iterating and learning felt more rewarding than the discomfort or fear of the unknown she felt at every pivot. But the reward of the first pivot helped her make every one after. And what she’s worked on has only gotten more interesting and rewarding, including her current job at the bleeding edge of generative AI.
  • Rukmini’s path to manager came from her CTO boss, who recognized that “you’re actually really good with people” and encouraged her to try management. After all the stages of denial, she tried it and realized she finds people more fascinating than programs. Programming is predictable. People aren’t. 
  • Ritika realized that engineering management was unexpectedly rewarding and fun, letting her accomplish through others way more than she could herself. She was in awe watching someone she coached passing a lesson on to someone new. 
  • Both women continue to lead by example: they stay curious, show excitement for what they’re working on, and still build cool stuff.

On how to stand out in your career?

  • Show openness to learning new things. Tech changes so quickly, and you have to show your ability to learn, adapt and maintain a flexible mindset about your job.
  • Get comfortable being uncomfortable. That’s when growth happens. Sometimes you just need to close a gap or beg that person who is willing to grind on something no one else wants to do. But that willingness to just do it makes you stand out. You don’t always have to work on the ‘cool, sexy’ tech.
  • There’s a route by doing excellent work or showing excellent ownership, and both work. But if your situation has impediments that can’t be overcome, go shopping for a new job.
  • Don’t expect the connection between solutions and problems to be easy. Making non-obvious connections makes you stand out.
  • Sometimes your dream job is something really niche in an environment that’s not ideal. You have to decide if what you’re gaining from staying is worth the cost. Is this what you want and does it serve where you want to go? If the environment is continually bringing you down vs. helping you grow, consider exiting.
  • Margaret focuses more on impact, less on titles. Impact can make you stand out, all titles aside.
  • Jessica was one of four Black women in her role globally at Google, so her position and titles have much bigger implications for others. Sticking it out and confronting those obstacles through candid feedback and discussion had enormous benefits for her – and for those she hopes to inspire.
  • You need sponsors to help you overcome the inevitable obstacles.

On feedback, which everyone needs to get better

  • Two kinds: feedback that helps you grow and feedback that “puts me in my f*ing place.” Ignore the second kind. 
  • How do you know which is which? By having a trusted group of people around you who can help you find any truth in it. Margaret shared one of her performance reviews with her kids, and asked them if any of it was right. They told her “You’re really scary, but you don’t know it.” 
  • Just because it’s negative doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Dig into it. Separate situational feedback from something caused by your environment.  

On Imposter Syndrome, something everyone on the panel felt at times

  • No one is perfect all the time, Margaret reminded us. If you have deficiencies, partner with people who are better than you at it to develop your skills. That’s a much more productive response than just believing you’re not worthy.
  • Rukmini keeps “a Post-it on my desk that says ‘I don’t owe anyone anything. I’m here because I belong here, and I’m good at what I do.” She constantly looks at it to remind herself constantly and actively works on it. “I don’t let this take me down anymore.”
  • Jessica often reminds herself, “I’ve been in tech for 10 years, so yes, I have a technical background.” A friend reminded her “How dare you have imposter syndrome. It doesn’t matter if you have a non-technical degree. It doesn’t matter if they do. If you have done the work to know where you need to be, and if you’ve prepared, how dare you limit yourself.”
  • Ritika manages it by “being kind and increasing the funnel of information. I should be allowed to fail and learn and not be perfect all the time.”

On compensation: women need to talk about it! 

  • Look at your total compensation package, especially equity. Salary is important, but it isn’t everything.
  • To understand what you’re truly worth, share compensation data with your peers and friends – especially if you’re a member of an underrepresented group.
  • It makes everyone feel uncomfortable, but we all need to understand what ‘reasonable’ is.

Words they hate? 

Maybe. 

Be patient.

Apathy. 

Be like _____ [insert comparison]

Words they love? 

Empowerment. 

Agency. 

Belonging.

The response to this year’s Seat @ the Table was so overwhelmingly positive that we’re doing a second one on October 11th. “Seat @ the Table: Founder Curious” is for those thinking about making the leap into startup land either as an employee or founder, as well as those in the middle of it all looking for inspiration. We’ll feature builder panelists who will candidly share their journeys. Click here to be notified when RSVPs go live.

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