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WWCode Conversations #80: Mansi Shah, Chief Technologist at VMware

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Written by WWCode HQMay 17, 2023

Women Who Code Conversations 80     |     Spotify - iTunes - Google - YouTube - Text
Rashmi Muralidharan, Technical Staff Member at VMware and Leadership Fellow at the Women Who Code Cloud Track, sits down with Mansi Shah, Chief Technologist at VMware and Women Who Code Advisory Board Member. They discuss the importance of bringing your authentic self to the table so that you can play to your strengths and how leadership comes in more forms than management. Mansi also shares that she flies planes and races cars.

Tell us more about your career journey. 

I started my career in storage at IBM Research. As a researcher, I had an embedded systems background at my school, but I chose to go to IBM Research, because it’s a “mecca” for all things systems. After about four years there, I joined VMware as an early engineer to build a 1.0 product called vSAN. vSAN is VMware’s hyper-converged storage solution and is now a multi-billion dollar business for the company.

Working on vSAN was one of the best experiences of my professional life. All the young engineers on this 1.0 team had an undisputed faith in what we were building. Anytime you work on something a bit disruptive, having that faith is what lets you go through the hardship necessary to get to the other side. I also made some excellent friends on this journey, met my mentors and some people who still champion me to date.

I briefly went to a startup before coming back to VMware. Since then I have led several different storage and data initiatives within VMware. Right now, I'm primarily focused on SaaS-ifying our data and storage portfolio. I've not had many jumps in my career, but the few I've had, internally and externally, have always been the inflection points of growth.

What are the phases of the IC that led to your leadership role? 

To start with, I want to debunk the myth that being a manager is the only way to get a leadership role. Being a manager definitely opens up many different avenues, but that's not the only way to do it. When I was a junior engineer, I focused on producing the best quality code for the given task. You go a little further from there, and you start asking lots of why questions and understanding the more extensive technical ecosystem in which a product sits. You see the touchpoints. You see how it interacts with other products or things within your stack. You try and start offering advice or ideas on how to do something better, improve quality, improve performance, improve usability etc.

I think the next phase from there is a small leap into the business world. You start thinking more about - What is core business your company is in? What are your sales channels? How is this product getting to the market? How are customers interacting with it? What are the incentive structures for the sales teams trying to sell this? All of this adds to what you should and should not build within your product.

Typically this kind of thinking comes from product leaders, management, and business leaders. But when someone with strong technical background starts bringing these ideas to the table they are always taken more seriously, because they tend to be more realistic. So a higher impact leadership role may not be possible if you only want to write code, which is a fair way to live your technical life. But if you want to have more significant impact, try to figure out how you can mix this business and technical mindset and bring the most value from that angle to the organization.

You have a solid technical background. Do you follow a routine to update your skills? 

I spend at least 20% to 25% of my time keeping myself abreast of what's happening in the industry, what new things are coming up, and where I need to focus. I look after a reasonably broad portfolio now and so this is must. I listen to podcasts on my run, read books during the evening, and do lots of online reading. I would take online classes for things I want to go deep into. VMware will sponsor you to keep upskilling. If your company gives you that, go for it. Take advantage.

Why do you enjoy working in systems space, and is it still an exciting area for new grads to explore? 

Why I enjoy being in systems is a bit counterintuitive. I really like to understand the entire stack of software I'm working against. Taking lots of unknown dependencies makes me a bit queasy. Working on lower level systems really gives you the luxury of building that kind of depth of knowledge and understanding what are the limits of a given system. I really take joy in understanding these intricacies. 

The second part of your question was, is this still a good field? We are creating thousands and thousands of petabytes of data every single day. It is a thriving field for anyone who wants to be in data. 

The storage companies are pushing heavily on the performance and capacity limits of the drives and many innovations happen at the file and block-level storage systems that sit just right on top of the hardware to keep up with these storage break throughs. But the real fun begins a layer above that these days, where there a zillion different specialized “data” engines that help us store, process and analyze this ever-expanding data. These systems like object stores, message queues, structured/non-structured databases etc are all full of cutting-edge innovations and most of it is happening in open source. One layer above that is where you start thinking about data as your infrastructure and worry about how to keep your data secure, resilient, highly accessible where it needs to be accessed etc. There are a lot of companies now going the SaaS route to help customers with their data management. All this is happening below the layers where developers are then building their data pipeline to gain insights from their data – so data science is literary the tip of the iceberg but there is so much amazing work happening all the way through the stack. I would highly recommend this field to any new grad. 

In terms of an environment with diverse people and thoughts can you talk about a challenge you had to overcome during your career?

The system space tends to be a relatively male-dominant, at least when I started 10 or 15 years back, it was male-dominant. I don't think that was ever a problem for me.

Soon after I started working, I realized that I'm not like most of the other engineers in the space who like to spend hours and hours trying to improve something deep in the guts of the system, which can be very rewarding for some. But I was a bit different and that has nothing to do with me being a woman, its just because I am an individual and as individuals we all have our unique strengths and weakness. One of my strengths is understanding the big picture of various complex technical components and figuring out how to put them together impactfully. How do you rally and network people together behind a common technical goal. That is not a strength I saw commonly amongst the people I was working with. Instead of trying to be something I was not, I pivoted on my strength. You have to think about what differentiated value can you bring, that will both be useful for the group and make you successful.

What brought you to VMware and your current role?
They were kicking off this tiny little project called vSAN. A few senior people from VMware convinced me this was the best thing to happen to me and that I should do it. I jumped in, and I have never looked back. I feel like this company is part of my identity. It has taught me much about people, values, culture, growth, and everything. I get asked, you've been here ten years? Why are you still here? That's not a common thing in the Valley. I'm here because I'm happy, growing, and believe in the company.

What are you passionate about apart from work?
I travel a lot. I'm a licensed pilot. I fly, and I race cars. I do interior designing. I love gardening and volunteering for things that I'm genuinely passionate about. There are a few, but mental health is one of I am focused on right now.

To answer your question in a more traditional work-life balance kind of way, I tend to live my life in phases. There is a phase where I am heads down in work and working 16 hours a day and then there are times when I just need to take my foot off the pedal and go nuture some other interest.

I have taken several 3 month sabbaticals to travel around the world, and each of them has brought be back to work more energized. I feel we need to balance our lives out because this career of ours is not a sprint it’s a marathon and it doesn’t matter if you reach that career goal a year later – as long as you enjoyed your journey getting there.

Tell us a little more about your mental health journey.
This is very personal to me. I have recently decided to become a very vocal advocate for people taking care of their mental health. I don't know who might benefit from hearing my story. If one person benefits, that is a huge return to me personally. Also, we need to destigmatize this whole mental health thing. I don't know if what helped me will help others, but I want to say that if you try to figure out the right tools, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

I have suffered from depression for almost all my life, but I have been able to successfully walk myself to other side with the right combination of tools. So, I am here to tell you - dreams, aspirations, career success, can all coexist with depression and anxiety, and whatever else you might be feeling. If you don’t give up on yourself.
For me what helped was a great set of supportive colleagues and mentors who supported me and stopped me from self-sabotaging myself, my therapist, a meditation practice, exercise and all those things. Whatever the right combination maybe for you, just don't give up on yourself.

What are your pro tips for women in technology?
Be yourself, play your strengths, and don't try to be someone you're not. Don't try to push yourself into a square hole if you're a round peg. Bring your most authentic, genuine self and see how much you can shine by doing that.

Don't be scared of asking questions. The only thing that can happen by you asking a question is you have a better understanding. Others also benefit, and next time you ask better questions.

Fight for yourself. You will have champions, you will have mentors, you will have all these people, but no one is going to fight for you the way you can fight for yourself. Don't fall into victimhood. We need to be there for ourselves more than anyone else.

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