Monday, October 5, 2009

GHC09: The fight or flight moment: understanding why we leave or stay in industry

This is the last presentation I attended at Grace Hopper 09. Maybe not the best way to end a series of inspirational talks, but it is definitely thought provoking.

The presenter summarized and interpreted the results of 3 prestigious studies about why women in technology has a staggering 52% attrition rate. She also has some recommendations for what companies can do to help combat the attrition.

First, the presenter showed a few reasons why retention is an important issue to address:
- SET growth is 5x other fields
- demand outstripping supply, IT supply shrinking
- fewer visas since 2001
- emerging economies - 75% Chinese students go home vs. 20% in prior years
- baby boom retirements
- highly trained, expensive to replace

Of those leaving (or considering leaving), here are some reasons they cited:
- extreme job pressure - hours, stress, health
- culture not woman-friendly
- compensation
- feel career is stalled
- lack career paths, sponsors, mentors, role models
- feel isolated

Lastly, here are some things she recommended to help with retention:
- 10% female management: culture change from the top, less isolation, more role models
- flexible workday and career track timing
- career paths, mentors, and sponsors
- opportunities for altruism
- on-ramps for women who left for a few years to come back

One interesting thing to note is that when comparing boomers to GenX's to GenY's, we are seeing a decline in whether they feel they have barriers in their career. Now whether that's because the younger folks haven't gotten to a point where they feel they can't advance, or if the environment is actually shifting to promote more young women to stay in SET industry, I don't know. It is encouraging finding nonetheless.

That's the end of my Grace Hopper adventure! You can read about all the sessions I attended and blogged about here.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

GHC09: Is your future in the individual contributor or manager track?

The first session I attended on Friday afternoon is titled "is your future in the individual contributor or manager track?" We had 3 distinguished women on the panel as well as a moderator, although I felt the comments were somewhat biased since all 3 of the panelists are managers, and the moderator has already chosen to change from an individual contributor track to a management position. I felt the panel could have been better balanced if we had at least 1 technical fellow to tout the merit of staying technical, or maybe change the title to something like "what you need to know if you are transitioning from IC to manager."

Anyhoo, the advice they offered are valuable regardless! I don't want to become a manager anytime soon but that is a very possible route for me a few more years down the line. I like technology and I like being technical, but I also like having a lot of interaction with people and helping them succeed. Following are some notes I took in the Q&A session.

Q: How did you decide to become a manager?
A: I have a tendency to gravitate toward that kind of work, and would automatically take on leadership roles. It was kind of decided for me.

Q: How do you measure your accomplishments as a manager?
A: You can possibly measure by how many people you mentored and how much more successful they were, or by how many employees you are able to retain in your organization. It's important to build a cohesive team that supports each other, although that's harder to quantify.

Q: What's the most difficult situation you encountered?
A: Having to let someone go is always difficult. Also dealing with HR and legal issues.

Q: What's the difference between a project manager and line manager? Isn't it better for just have technical managers?
A: Project/technical managers usually manage the resources toward a specific project. In comparison a line manager is responsible to develop the employee. You can be very good technically but do not have good people management skills, conversely you can be a very good people manager without having a technical background.

Q: As a manager, how do you give feedback to someone who's older?
A: Be yourself, be sincere and be direct. Trust your instincts but also be open for them to tell you what's on their mind. It's important to just be human.

Q: Any advice on transitioning from team lead to management?
A: This is probably more challenging than moving straight up. Learn to let go of the design/development aspect of the project and let your people do it.

Q: Were there any big surprises when you first transitioned into management?
A: There are a lot of misunderstanding and miscommunication within the team, people are usually not trying to be mean to each other! Also, things that come easy to me actually come hard to other people, like having good listening skills, initiatives, delegation, articulation, know the importance to follow up, or just making sure your team knows they are important.

Q: How do you know whether you'll be a good manager?
A: First, identify any areas you think you have shortcomings, and get training/coaching/read books about it. Also, it's ok to try it, you'll never know until you give it a try.

Q: What do you think about formal education (like MBA)?
A: education helps you understand the business, financial, planning part, may not be necessary as you can learn a lot of these on the job. You don't learn how to be a good manager in school, the interpersonal stuff comes from interacting with people.

Q: What kind of impact did the transition have on your home life?
A: First, your inbox blows up. You may not spend more time on the job, but you need to change your strategy of dealing with the stuff that comes at you. It's important to know your boundaries and set it for other people - turn off your blackberry at night, don't attend meetings that have no impact for you, etc. It's also important to make time to take a step back and look at things from the top level, always be doing the most important thing you could be doing.

That's the end of the session, the panelists also mentioned a useful site,, that has more resources. I will definitely keep these notes around until I seriously consider the transition!

GHC09: Tools for change: human-centered design research

(cross posted to official GHC blog)

The second session I attended on Friday morning is titled "tools for change: human-centered design research". I wasn't sure what to expect, because I haven't been working on too much consumer electronics or user products. It was truly eye-opening to learn what goes on in a completely different field.

The presenter first gave a short description of her area of expertise, which is design research. She investigates through making materials, methods, and processes. Some of the research methods she uses include: questionnaires and crowd-sourcing, observational and immersive ethnography, interviews and conversational formats, probes, prototypes and mock-ups. One important thing going into design research is to hang your values at the door! Put your pre-conceived notions aside and really listen to what the people say.

She then described a few projects that she's done using the design research methods. The first was a game targeted for girls, to persuade them to engage with computers. They studied how boys and girls behave differently, while males create social dominance by overt competition, direct measures, and status hierarchies; girls do so with covert competition, affiliation & exclusions, and status networks. Their primary learnings from this study include: 1) everything you know (or wish were true) is (likely to be) wrong, and 2) human-centered research is fundamental to design, especially design that's intended to change things.

She then presented a few projects she advised at various schools, including one that investigates why car dealers were hiding their hybrid cars in the back and not try to sell them (this was back in 2001). It turns out that the car salesmen don't understand the hybrid technology and were afraid to talk about them to the customers. The students created education material to inform, expand, and connect the hybrid car community.

The next project created a toy targeted for tweens. The key learning from this project is that for tweens, technology = comfort. If we were designing things that are comfortable for the designers instead of the target audience, it would never sell because of the difference between the generations.

There were two more projects (environmental hero, organic food marketing), but because of the time constraints, she went through them fairly quickly. The project teams followed the same research methodologies and gathered information from the target audience, be it young boys or adults who were not interested to purchase organic food for various reasons. The findings were sometimes non-intuitive, but the end products/prototypes were successful because they listened to the people who will be using the product.

After the slides, we had a brief Q&A session, here are some notes:

Q: How do we design tools/games/gadgets for girls/women for things they are normally not interested in?
A: keep in mind that women tend to be more interested in the technology when they can see the outcome. In comparison, men tend to be more interested when they know how things work.

Q: What advice do you have to come up with creative methods, and turn data collection into key insights and solutions?
A: the most important thing is to get your feet wet and get into the field!

For me, this topic is interesting in another aspect. Back in grad school when I was choosing my specialty, it was a very close call between computer architecture and user interface design (Carnegie Mellon has a great Human Computer Interaction department). I eventually chose computer architecture, but this talk gave me a glimpse into the type of work I would be doing if I went the other way. I am living vicariously through the conference! :)

Friday, October 2, 2009

GHC09: Technical mentorship and sponsorship: why you need it and how to find it

(cross posted to official GHC blog)

I've known about technical mentors for a while, but I only just learned about the concept of sponsors a few months ago. I'm sorry to say at the moment I have neither :( A few years ago I had an informal mentor, but as things get hectic I kind of lost the relationship. Anyway, I was pretty excited about this panel, because I really wanted a kick to jump start my finding a mentor and/or a sponsor.

First, the panelists gave a good explanation of the difference between mentor and sponsor. A mentor is a person who has the power to create positive change in your career. They give you technical advice to help you stronger technically, steer you toward the right projects to make you more visible, help you gain leadership skill and learn how to use your technical skills more effectively, and is someone who will listen to you vent.

In comparison, a sponsor is someone who takes an active role in endorsing your work and open doors for you, they suggest new opportunities and supports you in pursuing them. A sponsor need to have a seat at the decision making table, to be your eyes and ears. They need to be closer to your organization, compared to a mentor that can be anywhere. Also, you should be careful what information you share with the sponsor, show them your good work so they can recommend and endorse you. Don't show them your struggles.

Q: Where do you find them?
A: Your manager could be an obvious choice, but it is already their job to help you. Look for your manager's peers, and anyone in senior roles. Look in social/network affinity groups, you can meet and connect with the right people through these networks. A sponsor needs to have enough influence to open doors for you, so a peer would not make a good sponsor. At the same time, you don't always have to find sponsors at executive level. You need to build good working relations with people and sometimes they'll advance to a position where they can help you. Also, recognize that sometimes someone will be your sponsor on their own, and you need to recognize that.

Q: What do you do with a technical mentor?
A: You can review your job description with them and scrub through what is expected of you. Have them help you identify area of growth, and think about how to strategically approach your career growth.

Q: What do you do with a sponsor?
A: You need this person to be your PR agent, who can extend/demonstrate your work/skills that you bring to the table. You can sometimes ask your sponsor to do things, like removing roadblocks for you.

Q: What do mentors look for in a mentee?
A: Know what they are looking for, have a goal, thirst, and passion, so they can go on a journey together and both benefit. You need to want to reach, grow, and extend yourself.

Q: Can a mentorship be bad?
A: Sometimes a mentor can tell you something you absolutely do not believe in, you may have to break up with them. Make sure you don't burn any bridges. A nice way to do that is to show that you've accomplished your goals and have them recommend a new mentor to help you with new goals. If you are in a formal mentorship program, be honest with the program manager if things aren't working out.

Q: Thoughts on informal mentor relationships?
A: There is definitely benefit in both informal and formal mentorships. In formal mentorship it forces you to articulate your objectives, and you have an opportunity to develop a deeper relationship with that person. There is less potential for that in casual mentorships. However, don't give up the casual mentors, they could lead to a more formal mentor relationship later.

Q: How do you ask someone to be your sponsor?
A: you don't necessarily need to ask them to be your official sponsor, but you can manage your interaction with them to give them more information to act on your behalf.

Whew, that is definitely a lot of useful information! Now my goal is to identify some possible candidates before I go back to work next Monday!

GHC09: What you need to know on the road to becoming a technology executive

(cross posted to Grace Hopper official blog)

We had a wonderful plenary session on "what you need to know on the road to becoming a technology executive", with 5 hugely successful C*O level executives from facebook, Amazon, Xerox, Lockheed Martin, and Intuit. What I found interesting is that throughout the session, answers to many different questions eventually came back to one thing - having passion for what you do.

The moderator started by asking each panelist to go through their career paths briefly. What was interesting is that they all took quite different paths to arrive at the executive seat. Some stayed at the same company for a long time, some jumped from one to another, but all of them ended up successful. This just shows that there is not just one path to the top. Following the brief introduction, there were many thought-provoking questions & answers. Here are some notes:

Q: do you have any career planning advice?
A: have a good solid technical foundation. Good communication skill is also important, especially being able to explain technical information to non-technical audience. You need to be a good problem solver, able to multi-task, and prioritize and manage your time well. Also, don't think of it as a career path, more as a career obstacle course. You are more energized to solve the obstacles and know they are there to test you.

Q: is there going to be a job for new college grad in the next few years?
A: throughout the economic downturns, people who are talented and passionate are almost always employed. If you are excited and passionate about your path, love what you do, you will be successful. If you're only doing it because you think it's a good career path, you may have a harder time.

Q: did you ever stop feeling like you're invincible?
A: if you feel like you've lost your confidence, your invincibility, your determinism, regroup and maybe find another company that can re-energize you. If you get rejected from something, find out what you need to work on. Sometimes realize the position isn't what you really want anyway, and it may open up another door that is a better fit.

Q: people are working more and more nowadays, and this is sometimes given as a reason women leave the field. Advice on that?
A: we can be more flexible now, with people being able to work from home. Try to find a company that believes in that value. Be very diligent about how you spend your time, and realize world doesn't end when you don't check your email for a while, and your company doesn't collapse when you don't work 80 hours a week. Also, delegate! Find babysitters or other helpers, don't think you have to do everything. Educate your manager that even though you aren't in the office really late, you can still do great work.

Q: what's the greatest challenge for the new generation who's just entering the work force? Any advice for them?
A: managing your time well is very important. You also have to make decisions much quicker, and have to sort through a lot more information. At the same time, if you are passionate about something, you can really make an impact in the world.

Q: is the true passion for technology what gets you to the top?
A: if you truly love what you're doing, that should be reward enough and you don't need a promotion or raise. You may not be passionate about all aspects of your job, and that's ok.

Q: how do you develop depth and credibility and move up the ladder?
A: if your manager isn't helping to make you successful, maybe it's time to change managers. If you feel like you can't bloom to the fullest potential in your organization, it's time to leave. Also, you absolutely cannot lose your technical expertise, no matter how far you go up.

Q: what does it mean to have "executive presence" in your company?
A: best executives are always very decisive. You can lead from the front or the back, but if you're effective people will go to you for advice. You have to learn to act confidently even if you are not confident inside, eventually the confidence will come in. It's also important to be able to disagree effectively, and still commit and be a good team player.

Q: any advice on risk taking?
A: don't feel like you have to have every skill and qualification for a job and be completely perfect before applying for something. Stretch your comfort zone, there is great opportunity in risks. You won't know what you can or cannot do until you try it. Sometimes other people see things in you that you don't see yourself.

It was such an honor and also fun to listen to the executives talk so candidly and passionately about their work. I feel very refreshed and energized to go back to my job and make some changes. :)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

GHC09: Imposter panel

This is one of the sessions I most looked forward to ever since I looked through the program lineup. I learned about the imposter syndrome a few years ago and I know I suffer from it. The panel consists of 4 high level, successful women with very impressive accomplishments, and they actually suffer from it too? This is too good to miss!

First, a short definition: the imposter syndrome is a common yet typically unacknowledged condition where those experiencing it have difficulties believing in and internalizing their own accomplishments. Each panelist went though many situations where they felt like a total imposter and were afraid any moment people will find out the truth and know what a fake they are. Situations from getting "only" 90% percentile in a test, to feeling inadequate because they don't spend 24/7 in the lab; from being rejected for jobs (of course they wouldn't give that to ME!) to getting awards (they must have made a mistake!)

The panelists offered many suggestions on how to cope with this syndrome:
  • Ignore that nagging voice that says you're not good enough, and just push through
  • Psych yourself up - act confident, and you will be confident
  • Look for support from friends and family
  • Realize that people who seem to be very confident or arrogant aren't always smarter!
  • Seek mentors, colleagues, and managers who give positive feedback but also are critical sometimes
  • Force yourself to take on some uncomfortable things that you know are good for you, it will get easier
  • Mentor others to help them get over their imposter syndrome, it will help both them and you
  • Grow old enough not to care :)
One very interesting question that came up was whether there is any positive in having this issue - you tend to push yourself to succeed and still maintain the humility. The panelists all agreed while that is a possible outcome, there are other, better ways to achieve it without so much pain. Also, sometimes people over-compensate both by working too hard and ignoring other commitments, and by putting up a front to cover how insecure they feel inside and end up appearing arrogant.

Realistically, I don't know if I can ever completely shake off the feeling of inadequacy myself. But hearing those stories will definitely give me pause next time I beat myself up for not achieving perfection. :)

GHC09: keynote by google VP Megan Smith

Before the keynote started, we watched a very awesome video "I'm a technical woman". It was great to see so many technical women at last year's conference happily proclaim "I am a technical woman!"

Megan started her presentation by telling us the MIT admission question she had to answer when she was applying: what animal would you be and why? The interesting thing is that many boys chose eagles, because they can be at a high vantage point, fly and soar above. Many girls chose dolphins, because they travel in groups and have a lot of interconnectedness.

This leads into her talk about interconnectedness and how it is changing the world. The first area she touched on was interconnectedness in developing world. There is a big pool of talented people in Africa that are not connected to the rest of the world. The good news is broadband is going to the continent and they soon will adjust to life being always connected to each other.

The second area she talked about was interconnectedness of data. Google's virus trend app is gathering disease queries in real time with 80-90% accuracy, and this is helping CDC who is used to having many days of lag before they receive the information. We also should get away from paper-based healthcare records, and we'll be able to aggregate the data and find some common trends in diseases.

Then, Megan talked about civil liberty and individual empowerment. People like to know they're not alone, and they can let each other know what's going on. Send SMS alerts to warn people about dangerous roads and find people who you can walk together.

Lastly, she talked about the impact of computer science on environment. We can use technology to solve the renewable energy problem, make it cheaper than conventional energy and be able to compete with it. We need to invent our way out of the energy crisis.

This year's conference theme is creating technology for social good, and Megan's talk really touched on how we can step back and take a look at all we have created and how they can be used for social good. The keynote is very different than other sessions I've been attending, which mostly focuses on how I can improve myself and get ahead in my career. It is refreshing to take a bigger picture view and be reminded what we work so hard to achieve.