Engineering a Diverse Team: Interview with Sonya Chhabra, Part I

Sonya Chhabra is an Engineering Manager who joined Better in the summer of 2020. We recently got the chance to (virtually) sit down with her for an enlightening conversation about her career and advice she has for being successful in the tech industry.
7 min readWed Sep 15 2021

This is another post in the Engineering a Diverse Team series brought to you by Taffy Chen and Jimmy Farillo

Taffy: What made you decide to pursue a career in software engineering?

Sonya: I have several family members who work in technology. My father has worked in tech. I have several cousins who work as software engineers and in technology. So I knew people in that career, and I had conversations with them growing up. I also liked math a lot. Pursuing a career in software engineering kinda tied well with the problem solving and logic that you see in math problems. There are so many opportunities in tech, so many different industries. Technical skills are applicable in so many different areas.

Taffy: What led you to the managing path?

Sonya: I synced up with someone who I worked with and she asked me if I was interested in being a manager. And at that point I was looking for new opportunities after I had been consulting for a while. It was something that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to consider or if I would even be good at. But someone trusted me with management, and I started leading a team and learning about management. As I did it, I started liking it a lot, and I really enjoyed it. As with most managers, I miss being as hands-on as before when I was writing code full-time. But it’s really good to build a team and help people in their careers and elevate them as well. And at a company like ours, engineering leaders are still very technical in terms of design and understanding best practices and continuous learning.

Taffy: You mentioned that somebody trusted you and gave you an opportunity. That seems like somebody who might have been a mentor or a sponsor to you. Do you mind sharing your experience with mentors/sponsors in your career?

Sonya: That person ended up being my future manager. A manager can also be a mentor in someone’s career. As I was pursuing my first role as a manager, I got advice from my manager and from peer managers who had more experience with leading teams. So indirectly one of my peer managers became my de facto mentor because I would go to him for advice if there was a problem my team was facing or I needed some suggestions or some help. He was a really good person for me to reach out to and even just run my ideas by. I think having a mentor that gives you candid and honest feedback always helps. They share the good things and also give you constructive feedback on what you can do better or how you can improve your management style. I also have had a lot of informal mentors along the way. When I was earlier in my career there were a lot of senior engineers and technical architects I looked up to. There was a technical architect who transitioned careers from studying English in school to a very technical architect role at a very large financial firm. I really look up to people who have made transitions in their careers and are very technical and also very good at mentoring more junior engineers as well. I still look back at some of the advice I’ve gotten from my former managers who I think have helped me really grow, and I try to adopt that as I work day-to-day, as well.

Taffy: How did you form that informal mentorship? Did you reach out to them and ask them a bunch of questions and it happened naturally? Or did you ever tell them that you see them as your mentor?

Sonya: I’ve only had one formal mentor in my career. That was someone that my manager thought would be a good mentor for me, especially as I was looking to grow in my career to the next step. There have been a lot of informal mentors with people I have respected or looked up to. I think it’s about asking yourself what you want to get better at or what you value and seeing that in other people who are already there. If someone is in a role that I want to be in, I want to understand how they got there, what struggles they’ve faced, any setbacks. And everyone’s experiences are different, so my experiences might not be the same as theirs, but at least I can learn from them and see what I can adopt and borrow.

Jimmy: What advice would you give to your younger self when you were early on in your career?

Sonya: In college and school, I think I was very academically focused. Being good, doing homework, passing exams, getting good grades. And part of that carried over into the professional world, where you don’t necessarily have to know everything 100% to be good on the job. So moving away from the more theoretical to the more practical, especially when you’re working in the industry. It’s really the execution that matters early on. I struggled with that a little bit initially, but I think I became better at it from seeing other people who were struggling with that or having more senior people help me practice instead of just reading about things. Understanding the domain area of whatever industry you’re working in also helps. It has helped me become a better engineer to understand what kinds of problems I’m solving. And it keeps me more motivated. I’m not just writing code or designing things in a vacuum. Really understanding the impact of the code you’re writing on your users, on the system, or on anything else. Also, technology is always changing, so whatever you studied five years ago, or even three years ago, it might still be applicable, but there are always new things that are coming up. Sometimes understanding the fundamentals is enough, because you can carry that from technology to technology or language to language and then learn the things that might be different from one library to another library or from one programming language to another programming language.

Jimmy: How do you stay up-to-date with new trends in the tech industry?

Sonya: I try to read articles on websites like Blog posts. If it’s something I want to get into a little bit deeper, Udemy has really good courses. I think there is so much to learn from people I work with, as well. It depends on the level of depth I want to learn about things. Videos, as well. There are a lot of good conference videos on YouTube that I can watch on a topic that I’m interested in.

Taffy: I’m curious about that part. We can read books, read blogs, take courses and all that. But how do you distribute your time? You work full-time and you also want to have some personal time to rest. If you’re being honest, what percentage of your personal time do you spend on learning? A lot of people feel the pressure that they’re behind and need to study more, but in reality I don’t know if everyone is spending so much time doing that.

Sonya: If you read an article and you don’t have an opportunity to apply it on the job, you’ll just forget about it. It will stay in your mind for a few hours or a few days, but I tend to forget things that I read if I don’t have a chance to apply it. Even as a manager, I try to seek out opportunities to learn on the job. Learning about the latest trends in tech doesn’t have to be something you do outside of work or in your personal time. People should be able to find time in their day-to-day to step away from execution and work on their professional development. Sometimes that includes the latest trends in tech. Sometimes it can include things that are not necessarily just technical skills, like people skills, management skills, understanding the mortgage industry better. There are so many things that make us complete as software engineers. Project management is definitely one area that I feel like I’m terrible at, but I’ve been trying to get better at it by learning from others and applying it on the job, as well. I think when you learn on the job, through projects you might not have worked on before or picking up a new language or designing something from the ground up on the job, it’s so much more valuable than just reading about it or doing a basic tutorial. Learning on the job and finding those opportunities is key.

Taffy: That echoes back to what you were talking about before with the theoretical vs practical. When you’re doing it on the job it’s practical.

Sonya: Exactly. And it’s valuable, too. You’re shipping code, shipping features, reducing technical debt, improving the reliability of a system. That’s more valuable than just reading about it. But I like combining the two. I like the formal learning style sometimes, even though it can be really time-consuming. So I try to find something to focus on once a quarter or every six months, that way it’s not taking too much of my time but I’m also prioritizing that if it’s something I really care about. And sometimes I’ll pick up something and realize that this is something that’s not for me and I’m not going to focus anymore time on it. You can’t be an expert on everything, right? It’s better to spend time on something you like than something that you might not like.

Jimmy: Thank you for calling out that you forget things a lot. Because sometimes I feel like I’m the only one. I’m part of a technical book club at work, and the knowledge just leaves my head immediately. Like, how is everyone else retaining all this information?

Sonya: Exactly. Having a book club at work is a great thing because at least it gives you an opportunity to discuss things and learn from each other. Maybe you retain some percentage of what you read.

Thank you for tuning in to the first engineer spotlight of the Engineering a Diverse Team blog series. Stay tuned for Part II of this conversation with Sonya, where we’ll be diving into her thoughts on diversity in the tech industry and her experiences as a woman in tech.


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Sonya Chhabra
Sonya Chhabra
Engineering Manager

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