Hard Problems

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Several months ago I was serendipitously seated next to Tara Lemmey on a flight home from London to San Francisco. Somewhere over the Atlantic we got to talking about technology, career paths, management, and life. When I asked for her advice on my own next steps, she offered me a guiding principle which has stuck with me ever since.

“Go solve the hard problems,” she said, “everything else will sort itself out.”

Certainly there is no shortage of “hard problems” in our world, but it has been trickier than I imaged to find one to help “solve”. I started to have a series of discussions with everyone and anyone from whom I could steal advice. I was looking for hard problems that resonated with me and a specific opportunity that aligned my passions, skill sets, and career aspirations. I came up with a list: Healthcare, energy, government, education.

San Francisco has a hot job market and is hiring product managers like gangbusters. I’m both lucky and privileged enough to have obtained a skill set and network that afforded me many choices when it came to a next career move. Unfortunately, few of the obvious job opportunities fell into the “hard problem” bucket. Many of my mentors or advisers, who so generously lent me career advice, were encouraging me to pay my dues, gain more experience, or in some way seek prestigious titles or financially sound roles on traditional career paths.

Against all of this well meaning and sound advice, I found myself creating reasons to turn down director titles, lucrative stock options, or opportunities at red-hot-sexy startups. Who am I? I feel crazy! Who am I to turn this down? Has my ego gotten out of control? My boyfriend can attest to many a stressful evening debating details with myself, fighting impostor syndrome, and becoming pre-occupied with trying to understand why I was uncomfortable accepting these opportunities. Certainly I have plenty to learn about people and general management–and these were great ways for me to accelerate that growth. Despite my best efforts to understand the “why”, I was left with the simple gut feeling that something wasn’t clicking. The opportunities were getting easier and easier to turn down. I kept thinking that I didn’t want to spend my life just optimizing bottom lines for large fortune 500 companies.

I wanted to be on a team solving a “hard problem.” Tara’s advice kept banging around in my head. These weren’t hard problems.

With some persistence and luck, I was offered an opportunity in the Watson division at IBM. Consistently, the advice I was getting was some version of “Watson is occasionally a really great career accelerator, but also an uncertain vortex where it’s very hard to be successful and many get chewed up and spit out – I don’t want that to happen to you”. Not exactly a ringing endorsement to accept the position. A lateral move to a team where I had no connections. No one to say “Oh yeah – I know them – they are great.”

Something in my voice had changed when I talked about the Watson job with friends and family. My eyes glimmered with the potential of the technology, and the opportunity to get in on the ground floor and help shape the market. Maybe this was a hard problem.

“If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on!” Sheryl Sandberg

Last week, on my first day getting up to speed, I joined a roadmap meeting for what was about to become my product–Watson Vision. “Holy crap I’m out of my league!” is all I was thinking. The team members’ resumes humbled me with their long list of accomplishments and contributions to the cognitive computing, image recognition, and artificial intelligence communities. I continued thinking to myself “I’m supposed to be figuring out the strategy, technical priorities, and business model? I barely understand how it works.”

I have a lot to learn.

“Watson” technology is named for IBM’s founder, Thomas J Watson. Watson encouraged his team to “go ahead and make mistakes, make all you can. Because, remember that’s where you’ll find success–on the far side of failure.” I, am going to make mistakes as I take on this new challenge–but what day one taught me, was that in no uncertain terms – I found a hard problem.

While I have no idea how to solve this hard problem, I’m delighted and excited to be privileged enough to be tasked with figuring it out. Which of the world’s problems can we solve with this technology? How do we build, package, and sell cognitive image recognition technology to sectors like healthcare, retail, aerospace, finance, and security? Facial recognition has many applications: it creepily impinges on privacy; it powerfully detects cancer diagnoses automatically; and importantly drives insights from weather patterns.

There seems to be no limit to how cognitive vision technology could impact different industries and everyday lives. Balancing privacy interests, helping shape near term product offerings, and navigating executional realities is going to keep me busy. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could automatically diagnose abnormalities in x-rays, instantly find lost ships and aircraft, and unite families when disaster strikes?

Hard problems? You bet! Thanks, Tara–I think I found one.

I’ve decided to jump on the rocket ship and see if I can lend a hand.

Hey Girl

On Being a (Young) Woman in Technology

I woke up at 6am for a call the other day only to open my email and be greeted by a note from a senior sales executive. It opened with a condescending, “Hey girl,” and proceeded to outline how I wasn’t being aggressive enough with bringing a new product to market and that I should call him so we could discuss further.

First time for everything.  I didn’t know if I was more taken aback by being called slow and passive or being addressed as “hey girl”. As is typical for women in the industry, I’ve often been called too aggressive, unduly assertive, or bluntly that I need to work on softening my tone.

Shocker – I wasn’t in a rush to call him. In fact, I never did.  However, I quickly responded to note that in fact it was his team that was causing the delay, and that P.S. – in the future, “Alyssa” worked better than “Hey girl.” This interaction is similar to many I’ve had and unfortunately seems to be the norm amongst my female colleagues.

  • I’ve been called a “Hot ginger,” which would make a “great draw” for a marketing event.
  • I’m referenced as “the mobile girl” more times than I can count.
  • I’ve been asked if I’m going to be late because I might need time “for a mani pedi.”
  • I’ve been told that big opportunities were given to me because they need folks on stage who “aren’t old white men.”
  • I’ve been propositioned by senior staff members – both directly and, on occasion, in writing.
  • I’ve been entirely ignored / talked over / interrupted in technical discussions, seemingly presumed not to have either a valid opinion or any relevant knowledge.

I’ve thought a lot about what it means to be a “woman in technology” – I’ve wrestled with a lot of different questions on both the macro and micro levels.  I’ve spoken with my boss, my family, my boyfriend, my therapist, my friends, my colleagues, my executives, attended conferences, and begun thinking critically about my own daily experiences.

A few things I would like to share:

  1. I’m not alone. I’m humbled by women like Sandy Carter, Tara Lemmey, Sheryl Sandberg, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Ellen Pao and many others whom I follow and from whom I try to learn. There are a lot of women who have navigated these waters before me. They put on conferences like the PBWC and WITI. They form groups like Anita Borg, LeanIn and Girls who Code. They host lunches and seminars and try to help elevate others. These have become sources of strength, knowledge and relationships which inspire and humble me.
  2. It is hard. Harder, different, difficult, awkward, and challenging. First step to fixing anything is identifying the problem. One problem is that simply being a woman brings additional barriers, navigation, and hassle towards making a contribution. It is harder to be heard, harder to know what’s appropriate, harder to form relationships, and harder to get ahead.
  3. There are no easy answers. Every situation is nuanced. Depending on my mood, the background, or the lead up, my response to an insensitive  comment varies significantly. Sometimes I smack the person, sometimes I make a joke,  sometimes I launch into a discussion, or sometimes I do nothing. I have never reported anything to an HR department. I don’t know where the line is, and the line seems to change. I look at examples like Elen Pao and wonder if I’ll get support or become the victim of even more jokes and remarks.
  4. I think most people are well-meaning. That doesn’t mean it’s not wrong. I don’t think those who have made a hurtful comment, hit on me, or been inappropriate are ill intentioned. Insensitive yes, but they aren’t trying to be pigs. Maybe I’m young and naïve, but I believe that most people are using phrases as terms of endearment, ways to break the ice, or occasionally even as a compliment.  That doesn’t mean the comments aren’t  hurtful, or damaging. It’s okay to call them out. Acknowledging the damage is the first step in repairing it.

I’ve wondered at times why I am so fixated on the topic – can’t I just add value, work hard, and not think about what gender I am? Why do I care so much?

I realized that what gnaws at me is bigger and more important than just what I am experiencing as a woman. I believe that there is damage being done, and I’m worried that I’m contributing to something negative. Certainly there is a lack of female presence, but there isn’t enough diversity – of any kind. Technology is being built by a group of people who are from a very small – and insular – subset of our society, with limited viewpoints and narrow set of experiences. I believe that the technology we are building as an industry – which is quite literally building the future – is not particularly good – or as good as it could be.

Furthermore, how will I participate in change? What will my contribution be? I struggle with integrating my own sense of self – my character – in the technology world.

I often marinate on teachings from my own Jewish upbringing as well a pivotal moments in history. One of my biggest fears is that I will be a bystander- that I will not participate in the work of making the world a better place.

It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work [of repairing the world], but neither are you at liberty to desist from it. -Pirke Avot (2:21)

I’ve resolved not to be a bystander.  I won’t behave correctly every time – I won’t engage with every comment or person, but I will not be silent. I’m worried there will be negative consequences for me. I’m worried it will make people uncomfortable. I’m worried it may stunt my career advancement, and I’m worried I’ll be wrong.

The only way I know how to move forward is engage and speak up. I do so on a macro level because I think it’s important to have diversity in our workforce, in the work of building the future.  I do so on a micro level because frankly, I’m sick of being the only woman in the room.

Hired! In San Francisco

When people find out that I’m a native San Fransican – it’s typically met with – “Really?!” San Francisco is full of newcomers, transients, and passers-by. It’s part of what makes the city so wonderful and unique. I’m often asked by people who have recently moved here, or are about to move here, how to go about tapping into the thriving job market.

There are a few basics that are necessary:

A killer LinkedIn profile

There are plenty of online resources with tips and guides on how to highlight your best qualities. Stick with concrete accomplishments, a few strong recommendations, and as many connections as possible.

Personal website

Most people who have worked in San Francisco, particularly in tech, have an online presence of one sort or another. Making a simple website using weebly, wix, or (for the more sophisticated users) wordpress is a great way to tell recruiters that you exist and are serious about being in technology. Doesn’t need to be complicated, just include your resume, a few hobbies, and any portfolio of projects. It’s a great way to express yourself and differentiate yourself from the crowd. If you’re applying for a technical role, be sure to include you github account; for designers, a portfolio is a must.

Network

The best way to get a job is through an introduction from someone you know. Period. Bar none. Network, network, network. LinkedIn is a great tool for this. Find a job or company you’re interested in, and then search to see how you might be connected to someone who works there, or who formerly worked there. The valley is a small place – you’ll quickly be connected to many companies. Ask to be introduced, go get coffee, or a drink with folks you know.

Start looking specifically

Job boards

Venture Capital Firms

Read the news

If you are new to the area, and new to the industry – welcome! There is a plethora of information to read about the technology world. VentureBeat, Re-Code, and TechCrunch all report on the goings on, mergers, investments, and new companies. You won’t want to look uninformed in an interview when someone asks you what you think about that latest and greatest happenings.

Show up in person

It’s possible to start applying to jobs before you arrive, but most companies will want to meet you in person – more than once.

Here is a common interview process one might go through:

  1. Skype / Phone interview with recruiter
  2. Phone interview with hiring manager
  3. In person interview with hiring manager and a few other folks
  4. Meet the whole team

Common practices for technical roles

  1. Technical interview (architecture / thought / whiteboard exercise)
  2. Coding test (actually writing code, solving problems)

Common practices for design roles

  1. Design workshop (lead creative workshop on sample project)
  2. Design project (take – home creative project)

Culture fit

It’s easy to think that applying for a job is about the best skill set – wrong! Culture is a very serious part of the technology community here – each company has it’s own vibe, practices, and unique culture. Pay attention to the subjective things you learn about the company through the interview process to learn if you’re going to fit in well. The company will certainly be evaluating you on culture fit as well. Basics such as being friendly to recruiters, office management, administrators, are key – as well as more traditional etiquette such as thank you emails, punctuality, and preparedness.

Attire

Whatever you do – don’t show up in a suit! My first day at my first job I didn’t know what to wear. My manager had told me casual, my parents encouraged me to “step it up.” I ended up wearing a pencil skirt and a blazer. At the end of the day – bless her heart – my manager (a wonderful Executive who was the Chief of Staff at Verisign internationally for many years) took me aside and kindly mentioned that tomorrow, I should feel free to wear jeans.

Not dressing the part demonstrates that you don’t understand the world very well. Dark jeans and a button down with well groomed accessories is good measure for most start-ups. Just be prepared that whomever the interview is with probably will be dressed more casual.

Notable exception:

– Enterprise sales executives: dress the part!

Get the basics right and you’ll have a job in no time. Much easier than finding an apartment!

 Find me on LinkedIn.

On Saying “no”

“The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes.” – Tony Blair

Confession: I don’t like saying “no”. Saying “no” feels negative, closed, and lonely.

I associate much success, personal growth, happiness and good fortune to saying “yes”. Saying “yes” is taking advantage of available opportunities and leaning in with a why-not attitude. Saying “yes” I have been afforded wonderful opportunities to travel the world, find unexpected treasures, and have found friendships and relationships I will treasure forever. I pride myself on my fearless jump-in-with-two-feet-and-try attitude. However, by saying “yes” so much – I have unwittingly missed out on many opportunities.

I have said “yes” for reasons I am not proud of – for fear, insecurity, or distrust. I’ve said “yes” because I fear that I might miss-out on an opportunity, because I can’t rely on others, or because I don’t want to burden someone else. By saying “yes” so much – I at times find myself overwhelmed with obligations and am forced to say “no”.

Recently – I said “yes” to a new job with lots of opportunities for travel. By saying “yes” to an exciting new job – I was at the same time saying “no” to many other parts of my life – and I knew it. Traveling so much has forced me to say “no” far more than I am accustomed to. Just in the last few months, I have said “no” to my usual running routine, “no” to a friend’s birthday party, “no” to time with my sister, and “no” to studying for graduate school. Ones “yes” meant quite a few “no’s”.

It is only recently that I have begun to understand that saying “no” is equally as powerful to finding occasions to learn, grow, and expand. It’s not possible to do everything, and “yes” to one opportunity – often means “no” to many others – clearly visible or not. I have been forced to start to become comfortable with “no”. Saying “no” has allowed me to relax, time to myself to read, and time to be successful.

At work – prioritizing comes easily. There is simply so much time and resources that it’s fixed. However, personally – prioritizing is hard. I want to do everything, to take advantage, and not limit my opportunities. But if I continue to say “yes” quite so much, I will be overwhelmed with opportunities that I will not be able to take advantage of, or be successful. I need to say “no”.

Historically, “no” is plain uncomfortable for me. It’s negative, sour, unfriendly, and cold. But what if “no” meant time to reflect, time for traveling, time for running, and time to become an expert. “No” can create just as many opportunities as “yes”.
With my default “yes” I have built a very full life. I am lucky to have a life full of family, friends, a great job, and even a wonderful partner. I have girlfriends to run and go to yoga with, colleagues to join in on happy hour, and mentors to guide me through complicated decisions. I wouldn’t trade any of this for the world. The question – is what will I be able to achieve by being able to say both “yes” and “no”?

A few resources on saying no:

Thanksgivukkah

Last night I had an impromptu girls night out “family dinner” with three of my best girlfriends. The type of evening you can’t plan – one that organically integrates and you need it more then anything. When everyone had a crap day, and needed a collective shoulder to lean on.

We were celebrating new jobs, former jobs, and grand future plans together. Laughing, sharing stories of love, heartbreak, sexism, leaning in (and out) and everything in between, I was reminded how grateful I am for the wonderful women who navigate silicon valley along side me. Even as four privileged women – who have been given every opportunity for success – spending any amount of time in this valley can be hard. Really hard. Even when it’s suppose to be an enlightened, progressive, meritocracy, where everyone is empowered and breaking traditional norms are celebrated, it can still be hard. In order to have any hope of success or happiness it’s imperative to have girlfriends (of all types) along for the ride.Shared Dessert

Girlfriends at the office, who you can share a smile with when someone shows up with a push up bra, collagen lips, sleeping with the boss and asks to be taken seriously.

Girlfriends who will point out that your ex-boyfriend is giving a TedTalk which has gotten 20,000 views today and it’s probably a good sign you had no idea. (But it’s okay to watch it when you get home).

Girlfriends who will tell you it’s okay that you didn’t say anything when you were told “you should have been born a man” because you didn’t even realize how offensive it was until the moment had passed.

Girlfriends who know how to eat – and understand that sometimes a fries course after an entrée is not only acceptable, but encouraged!

Girlfriends who will remind you that you do in fact know something about the market you work in, and it’s okay to share that.

Girlfriends who know what it feels like to be articulate and poised navigating technical nuance and market share, but tongue tied and blubbered about their own emotions.

Girlfriends who will take you out to dancing and karaoke and make sure you finish that fireball damn-it! And let you pass out on their couch and take your hungover self to work the next morning.

Girlfriends who run along side you around the park and back because the endorphins will make you both happier. Bright neon shoes highly encouraged!

Girlfriends who will get you hired, be your boss, mentor you, and teach you what “ROI” means. (The amount of jargon in this valley could fill several dictionaries).

Girlfriends who look to you for guidance that remind you how far you’ve come even when you think you haven’t learned a thing.

Girlfriends where you can be yourself, judgment free, and have a good long laugh with.

In this season of Thanksgivukkah – I give thanks to the women along side me.