Tag Archives: femgineer

It’s OK to Ask for Help

By Poornima Vijayashanker – Get free updates of new posts here 


Too often we get overwhelmed because we think we have to solve every problem alone! Needing to ask for help seems like a sign of weakness, you feel like you’re burdening someone by taking up their time, or worse yet you might have overlooked the importance of building up a support system.

However, one of the hallmark traits of successful people is to be OK with asking for help when they need it. In fact many times hard work isn’t enough, you need help to get to the next level.

While it’s true some folks might be unable or unwilling to help, it all comes back to the bite-sized sales approach I mentioned a few months ago.

Don’t wait till it’s too late

I understand that it’s hard to anticipate when you may need to ask for help, but I’ve notice that too often people reach out the moment after they’re in a dicey situation. This actually makes it harder for someone to help, because the helper has to first get you out of the mess you’re in, before they can propose a solution for the root cause of the situation. It also creates anxiety for the helper, they fear making the situation worse, before they can make it better.

Anticipate needing help if you’re venturing into new territory where you have limited knowledge and prior experience.

Enlist early

I’ve talked about the bite-sized sales approach before when you want to ASK for something: a promotion, project proposal, etc. To sum it for new readers, the bite-sized sales approach means you start by having conversations with people to understand why they might object or push back. Then you proceed to address those objection in a follow up conversation and craft a small ASK, and you’ll repeat this method until you’ve reached your initial goal. Seems like a lengthy process, but it’s got a much higher success rate especially in environments where people will easily reject new ideas or have many constraints.

Before you tackle the problem yourself, you can use the bite-sized sales approach to ask for help. You’ll want to start by identifying someone’s key strengths and interest. You can then proceed to carve out a piece of your problem, by using their key strength to solve it, and show alignment of interests.

For example, I was recently approached by a startup founder to teach a 30 minute course online based off of material I had previously taught. He identified my strength in teaching, provided a clear alignment of interest with my startup Femgineer, and the ASK was small enough that I said yes.

If you do this early i.e. before you tackle the problem yourself, you won’t back yourself up into a corner, and you’ll have made it easier for someone who is more experienced than you to provide an elegant solution.

When was the last time you asked for help? How did you do it? I’m curious to know, so please tell me in the comments below!

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How I Decided to Leave Corporate America to Join an Early Stage Startup

By Frances Advincula 

I subscribed to Inc. Magazine when I was 10. I bought the domain name BuyConvectionOvens.com because I saw an infomercial on internet businesses that said you should start a business that resonate with what you love. At the time, my dad and I spent a lot of time baking on the weekends, so to my 10-year old self, an online business selling ovens made complete total sense. (Please don’t laugh.)

That’s when I first started playing with HTML, which unfortunately didn’t get restarted until I was in undergrad.

So I always knew I wanted to be part of the startup world from a very early age, even before I was aware of the word “startup.” And even though I found myself with an amazing job as a software engineer in Corporate America, I still tried to be involved with startups (contributing to and voraciously reading Femgineer, Women2.com, etc.).

Poornima has always tried to convince me to move to the Bay, but the timing was never right. I was enjoying my job building enterprise software with smart and amazing people. In fact, we were so close that as a young female living alone in the city, I referred to my coworkers as my family.

However, last January, in a surprisingly serendipitous turn of events (like life never turning out how you planned), I decided maybe it was time for a big, risky change, and I asked Poornima to help me find opportunities in Silicon Valley. Amazingly, Poornima introduced me to several startups, and the next week, I already had interviews lined up. Poornima advised me to really take the time to get to know these companies. As an engineer, she said, the odds are in my favor, and I should really be careful about picking one that is well-aligned with my culture and values.

And then the most magical thing happened: nousDECOR — an amazing startup revolutionizing the way we curate, create, and consume interior design and household goods — offered me the opportunity to join their team.

So, like the luckiest damsel in distress, I know had a huge problem. Do I leave a very safe, prestigious job that I loved to pursue my entrepreneurial dreams?

It definitely was not an easy choice. I was definitely my company’s baby — I had started my career there as an intern, and they hired me right out of undergrad. I was on their fast-track; they were molding me be part of the next generation of leaders. And yet, and yet, although a lot of startups have courted me in the past, something with this specific one tugged at my heart strings — I believed in the product’s potential and I wanted to be part of it.

Like Sheryl Sandberg said, ‘If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, get on…”

So just like any career-minded young professional, I decided to talk to my mentors. My mentor at the big company, a celebrated software architect, who of course wanted me to stay, said that I should do what will make me happy, because only happy people perform. The astronaut told me that he has known me for a long time and this position is the very epitome of what I would want. My best friend told me I that I never shut up about startups, and this one is THE ONE.

Poornima encouraged me to think through things. She specifically told me to ponder the following:

1. Why is this a unique opportunity?
2. Do you think the founders are a good leaders?
3. Are there other engineers you can learn from?
4. Is the compensation fair?
5. What do you want to learn and how do you want to grow?

Why is this a unique opportunity?

Like Poornima mentioned, we need to be really careful about how we fit in the company’s culture. Skills can always be learned, but fit cannot. I’ve been at the position of choosing Corporate America + grad school versus a startup plenty of times. About a year ago, I wrote to Jen Dziura who started multiple business as well, (yes, that article is me), and below is her advice:

“There will be a lot of other startups. How hard would it be to get hired as a software engineer at another startup, later? Especially once you’ve finished your degree, and have even more full-time experience? What makes this the startup?”

So if you find yourself in a similar situation, think to yourself, “What makes this the startup?” For me, I’ve always, always loved interior design. I have always been looking for something that is in the intersection of the arts and technology, and anything that had a hint of democratizing something originally thought of as elite. I have tried interior design blogging back in undergrad and even had a short stint as a contributor to the first iPad Fashion Magazine, JSNQ. In fact, my favorite column at Vogue is APT with LSD.

Again, the bottom line is you really have to ask yourself if you believe in the product and if you are a good culture fit.

Do you think the founders are good leaders?

I’ve always subscribed to the idea that you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with, so always, always strive to be surrounded by great people that know more than you! The founders of nousDecor, both Heather and Dorothee, have over 30 years combined of experience in both the startup world and the Fortune 500 world. Heather was the 8th employee at Youtube, where she helped the site scale to what we know it now during its rapid growth, advising startups for the last 15 years. Dorothee, on the other hand, has vast experience with strategy and marketing from prestigious organizations such as PowerBar/Nestle, Visa, The Home Depot.

Most of my professional life has been staring at leadership boards where there are only a couple of women, so now that I am about to join a startup founded by exceptional leaders who happen to be female, I am beyond ecstatic.

Are there engineers you can learn from?

This is a no brainer. Software development is a team sport. To be a superstar engineer, be part of a superstar team. This is best summarized by the article
“Focus on building 10x teams, not on hiring 10x developers” by Avichal Garg.

“Software development, however, is more like rowing. It’s a team sport that requires skill and synchronization. This applies at all scales. On a three-person boat, one person out of sync will stall your boat. As you get bigger, no single developer can impact your team’s performance, so again synchronization is key.

Making your team as efficient as possible is what determines long-term success. ”

Fortunately, for me, this has never been an issue with either company. However, if you are fielding offers, especially now that it is almost graduation season, keep this in mind.

Is the compensation fair?

Obviously, you would want to get paid at least market share, but I want to take this opportunity talk more about equity, which is still a fuzzy concept to me. I will just go ahead and quote Poornima’s excellent advice directly:

“Given that you are a startup you MUST ask for equity and be careful of dilution. Dilution is basically your equity percentage shrinking with subsequent rounds of funding, so your ownership percentage goes down, but the value of it goes up because the value of the company should go up with additional funding rounds. I say should because some companies will have what’s known as a down round where they take money but the valuation goes down. There should also be ways for you to receive additional equity. Typically you receive some at the beginning and it vests over 4 years, but many companies give additional equity to their veteran employees who have been there usually after 2 years. There is of course a new 4-year vesting cycle that goes with that new equity. For someone of your caliber I wouldn’t expect anything less than 2-3% equity, given your level. ”

Bottom line: know your worth and negotiate.

What do you want to learn and how do you want to grow?

I had to really think about how I would want to learn. As you can imagine, Corporate America is very different — there are more formal processes, channels, and even mentorship programs. In fact, I have grown tremendously as an engineer and as a leader because of my company’s formal mentorship program. But a startup won’t have that. You have to get things done that you don’t always know how to do. Fortunately, Poornima said everyone in the Bay is very helpful, and just because your team doesn’t know how to do it, doesn’t mean you can’t ask help from outside community.

Also, I had to think about if I wanted to focus solely on how to build great software. In the end, I knew that I not only wanted to know how to build great software end-to-end, I also wanted to know how great software teams and great software companies are built from the ground up — and that is exactly the opportunity that nousDECOR was offering me.

In Summary

This has been quite a wordy, albeit personal, post. In summary, if you too are at a crossroads, I encourage you to do the hardest thing, but don’t just jump to decisions. Safe is not always better, and be smart about the risks you decide to take. Not every opportunity is a path that should be followed.

Most importantly, if you are a young female engineer like I am, you will be most likely be scared. But that fear is a good thing; it means you are growing not just as an engineer, but as a person. It means you are doing something important and outside of your comfort zone. And as Poornima closed her email, I too encourage you by ending with this thought: “No matter what happens, know you are capable.”

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Driving Forces Behind ESPN Technology Team

By Justin Reyes

In collaboration with ESPN we will be hosting our next Femgineer Forum, in New York City! You’re probably wondering why a sports network was interesting in partnering with Femgineer? ESPN does not solely focus on television, but also digital technologies, which includes mobile apps such as SportsCenter and WatchESPN. Its technical team also focuses on website design, functionality, and user experience.

Swati Vakharia, a member of the technical team sat down to share her experience working at ESPN and particularly her journey as a Femgineer.

Ever since Swati was young she knew she was going to pursue a path of technology and engineering. The inspirational moment for Swati was when her father, an engineer at Bell Labs, brought home a Commodore 64. Her passion for engineering developed further during her freshman engineering orientation class in college, when they had to build a website for a disabled person.

“I remember using FrontPage 98 and going to the HTML view because I had more control in that view,” says Swati. “It was a great feeling to see my code actually build something that I could show off to someone else. Back then, the challenges were tools and resources.”

Right after college, Swati moved to Seattle and was working as a Software Engineer at Cobalt, which provides websites and dealer software for all major car companies across the world. She was later recruited by Walt Disney to work in their Technology Shared Services team in which she naturally transitioned over to ESPN and has been there ever since.

Working at ESPN, Swati and her technical team are always monitoring site traffic, keeping an eye out for the next big event to happen in sports such as the World Cup or the NBA finals to see if they can accommodate the uptick in traffic, and activity around their mobile apps and website. Together they brainstorm digital products that can enhance a sports fan’s experience (coincidentally ESPN prefers the word Fan instead of user).

Swati mentioned that one of the coolest projects that she worked on at ESPN was launching an online streaming video product for fans outside the US.

“It provided an online experience to watching video content that was also localized in three different languages. Definitely on the cutting edge of how our fans consume content and the fact that we were able to localize the experience proved that we can do even more outside the U.S.,” remarked Swati.

Although, ESPN is part of the larger Walt Disney Company, team that Swati works on is approximately 100 people and they contribute to the larger Technology group at ESPN. They operate as a lean team would, nimbly, and they have great pride and a sense of ownership in the digital products that they are working on. The small size has also given many members of the technical team an opportunity to be promoted into management roles, and advance themselves further, which is why they were interested in sponsoring our forum entitled: “How to Prepare Yourself for a Promotion”. Swati and members of their staff plan to share their experience.

Swati has learned that, “It doesn’t hurt to just ask… whether it’s for a promotion or for help or anything. You will always find someone that is willing to give you a chance if you ask for it. This definitely takes confidence and that is why I feel people should look into training on such topics to help them along the way.”

The ESPN technical team believes that you shouldn’t be hindered by corporate process, but free to innovate within the company. At ESPN this mean you won’t just be sitting down working on a small backend product but rather you’ll be immersed in the whole immersive product development process along with other team members.
In an effort to expand this awareness, ESPN has been traveling to conferences such as Grace Hopper and the NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers) to promote ESPN not only as a popular sports brand solely focused on television but on its digital products as well. Besides being lean, ESPN also has another competitive advantage through parent company Disney and its abundance of resources as well as mentorship. Swati shares her experience with a female mentor and role model that she had at Disney.

Swati Vakharia

“I’ve had a mentor at every position I’ve held throughout my career. There was a time at Disney where I had a female technology leader as a mentor and I learned so much from her because she was the only female VP in technology at the time. There was a lot to say for that and the challenges that she faced in her in her own role, let alone being a female. There’s so much we can learn from one another and I encourage everyone to seek a mentor no matter where they are in their careers,” says Swati.

Employees at ESPN are also given the opportunity to explore other career opportunities amongst the Disney brands such as ABC or Disney Interactive. They hope that the upcoming Femgineer Forum will build awareness of what it’s like to work at ESPN and the long term career development opportunities that are available to employees there.

If you’d like to learn more about ESPN, meet Swati, and hear from our founder, Poornima Vijayashanker, then come attend our next Femgineer Forum on Tuesday May 13th in NYC. You’ll learn how you can prepare for your next promotion whether you’re looking to continue down a technical track or take on a management position. Hope to see you there!

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