Conversations #90: Career Pathways Panel Discussion
Yi-Hsian Godfrey, CEO and co-founder of Apiari, sits down with Sasi Jayalekshmi, Solutions Architect, Amazon Web Services, Rekha Venkatakrishnan, Head of Product Ecommerce, Taco Bell, Christine Chapman, Senior Software Engineering Manager, Carbon Health, and Kreena Mehta, Senior Manager, Product Management at Salesforce, for a Career Pathway panel discussion. They all share some advice to their younger selves, talk about the path to where they are now, and the skills that keep them successful in their roles.
YG: What was your first engineering job?
CC: I started my career at Amazon and recently accepted a role at a startup. Outside of engineering management, I run Changing The Story, which is focused on helping early-career women in tech succeed in the workplace. My first tech job was in a biochemistry lab at Scripps Research. I wrote programs to determine what experiments to run and then would do a terrible job of actually running the experiment, which is why I moved more to the software side, but it was an interesting job.
SJ: I finished my master's in computer science, but I initially worked in a private sector bank as a relationship officer. That helped me pay my rent and expenses. I landed my job after six months of finishing my master's as a software engineer at Wipro Technologies in Bangalore. From then on, I worked solely on the software development side.
RV: My first job was during college. I did an internship, and I think it was a C/C++ program that I had no idea what to do. Somehow, I figured it out, and I got my internship done. That was my first engineering job. It was hands-on learning what computer programming is. I never wanted to be a software engineer. My dad was an engineer, so he pushed me hard to become an engineer. I think it was just a genetic thing that was happening versus saying, "Hey, I was an aspiring software engineer."
KM: My first job was as a software engineer at HP. I was writing the code in the backend to make sure that our enterprise companies were able to connect to one another. Ever since then, I have worked as a tech lead, people manager, product manager and am now in a product role at ASEX.
YG: Tell us a little bit about how you navigated from your first job to where you are now?
CC: Very early in my career as a software engineer, people would often tell me that they saw me becoming a manager. That was actually not what I saw. I didn't really start off with a robust plan with checking off every box or anything like that. I bet if you talk to a lot of your coworkers, most people actually don't have a robust plan that they're working towards. I didn't really set out to become a manager, but over time, what I noticed was that the types of things I was interested in, the types of problems I like solving, the moments of my day that stood out to me that I really enjoyed the most did ultimately correspond with being a manager.
SJ: When I was a school kid, I wanted to be a journalist. Once I started learning Visual Basic, I realized that I really enjoyed programming. I decided to do a master's in computer science. I also saw there was a demand for software roles at the time in Bangalore, which was kind of like the biggest city next to my hometown. I have enjoyed every opportunity that was presented to me. Right now, I'm really enjoying the role of a solution architect.
YG: When you have new opportunities presented to you, how did you decide to say yes to them?
SJ: My first turning point as a tech lead was another company where I started off with Pro Technologies. I worked there, enjoyed building technology tools and working with a team. Then I had my kid, so I moved around and I started again as a software engineer. One day, my manager came and asked me, "Do you want to be a lead?” I told him, "I'm going to take this up. It's presented to me." If you like something, you will actually do it and you'll get successful, even if you don't think you're 100% there yet.
YG: What skills have been most beneficial to you during your career journey so far?
KM: I have served as an individual contributor, a people manager, and back as an individual contributor. The two of the most beneficial skill sets that have helped me in my journey are communications and teamwork. Communication skills can include speaking, writing, and/or listening. Employers want employees that can articulate their thoughts, ideas and vision effectively. It is important to be able to empathize and build relationships. Whether you are an individual contributor, a manager or a leader, having a team spirit and building that kind of motivation within the team is something companies look forward to.
RV: I go with this principle or a discipline, do something because you care for it. Every time I meet a new person, I think there has been learning. I always like to go with an open mind. I think that's a skill that I've learned over a period of time. I still feel that I'm a learner. Whatever I do, wherever I go, and whosoever I talk to, I think there is something to take away. When you ask for support, it's okay.
YG: Tell us a little bit more about how you decided to continue to stay on the individual contributor track. Is that something that you're continuing on moving forward? Christine, for you, I'd love to hear about the skills that you had to build to move from an individual contributor over to a leader.
SJ: A solution architect is an individual contributor role. I get to work across all the teams. I think I enjoy applying my technical skills and solving the business challenges rather than managing people, which is better left to folks who are very good at it.
CC: It's really important to find what you are passionate about. It's important for us to identify what we are motivated by. When I became a manager, I had to learn and focus on what was best for the team. I was someone who had a lot of strong opinions on things, whether that was how to design something or whether that was how to run a certain thing. I needed to learn a lot more about strategy, vision and roadmaps.
YG: As a product leader, you probably have a team that reports directly to you and you probably have dotted lines everywhere. Talk a little bit about the skill sets needed to manage up, down, horizontally. How did you know that you like doing this type of reporting role?
RV: I have had times where I work in a well oiled mission setup, where it is a very clear delineation between one team to other teams. There's this whole cross-functional setup that you have. It starts with defining the value, impact, and the outcomes that you could drive. As long as we are all aligned and marching towards the common goal, it’s the recipe for success. You have a clear delineation of the roles and responsibilities that you have.
YG: Talk to me a little bit about the role that advocacy has helped you in your career progression at your companies.
CC: Getting a lot of support from my managers, as well as having a strong network have been two of the biggest things. When managers can see that you're responding to feedback, really sincerely working on that, I think you're going to build a lot of trust, and I think that, you're going to be a lot more likely to be thought of as roles come up.
YG: How did you find new opportunities outside your old company? Did you have advocacy?
KM: Getting into this new role and advocating for myself, since I started learning a lot about product, I knew that that was something I wanted to explore further. I started talking to other people whom I knew, other women, and other leaders in the same field that I knew through different channels to try and understand what's out there, and taking next steps and engaging myself with different leaders from there on.
YG: Any tips about compensation and how to get more visibility and make sure they're getting paid fairly?
SJ: We all know compensation is very important. You want to not only enjoy working, but also want to get paid fair and square. These days, it's not just the monetary part. Do you want to have flexibility in work hours? Do you want the community involved or let's say the absence of it? Are you enjoying the work that you are doing with the people around you? You have to prioritize according to all of the requirements that you have. You can look at Glassdoor or the LinkedIn profile to see what's the salary across the companies. Once you know that, are you getting paid right and more based on your experience? If you think that you still deserve more, don't hesitate. Please, go ask for it.
YG: What advice would you give your younger self?
RV: Take more risks and try out more things. Go try out, live your life and dreams that you want to go do it. Just do it.
CC: Lean into your strengths. Be empowered by the fact that the skills that you have and what you're bringing to the team will eventually be valued by the right team or the right role.
KM: Be your sparkling self. Leave your mark with the knowledge, passion and what you truly believe in. The sky's the limit.
SJ: Don't hold back when pursuing an opportunity, thinking that you are not 100% ready yet. You will never be, so go for it. You will learn on the job, whatever it may be. Know when it's time to walk away from whatever you are. Don't burn bridges. There might be a reason why the person you're asking may not be able to do something for you. You never know when your paths might cross again.