This is another post in the Engineering a Diverse Team series brought to you by Taffy Chen and Jimmy Farillo
Today we’re continuing our conversation with Sonya Chhabra, an Engineering Manager who joined Better in the summer of 2020. This part of the discussion focuses on diversity in tech and Sonya’s experiences as a woman in tech. If you missed the first half of the conversation be sure to check out Part I of this interview.
Jimmy: What are your general thoughts on the current state of diversity in the tech industry?
Sonya: This is a hard question. It’s not great, that’s the short answer. Across the board it’s not great. I just attended one of the conference talks from IEEE, and the numbers are either decreasing or they’re completely flat. It’s women in tech. It’s other underrepresented groups in tech. So it’s not great, but there are a lot of efforts out there to increase the pipeline in the future, such as Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, and other organizations. But they’re not going to solve the problem in the next five years. It’s going to take time. We need to understand why there are fewer groups in tech. Are people pursuing this and deciding it’s not for them? And what are those reasons? Understanding those reasons and root causes can help out a lot.
Taffy: And it can go all the way back to middle school and high school when they’re not encouraged to pursue technical careers. We’re here, and we want to change things. But we’re limited. We can’t reach that far back.
Sonya: Yeah. How can you make your whole organization 50/50 if there’s not even the talent to bring in that can bring it up to 50% women?
Jimmy: And then that wouldn’t fix the industry as a whole. It just siphons those people away from other companies, leaving those companies less diverse than before.
Sonya: Absolutely. But I think there are more conversations about this now than there were a few years ago. And conversations and discussions don’t necessarily solve the problems, but at least they’re out in the open which increases dialogue. And people can hear about it and discuss it and take action on it.
Taffy: What do you think people can do to improve diversity in their own organizations?
Sonya: Being vocal about it. There are folks that feel very passionate about these things, and they have observed that there are gaps. Being vocal about it is a good start. Working on diversity in partnership with the recruiting team and coming up with solutions together is a step in the right direction. You might not get the percentages that you want, but if you focus and try to bring in folks from the pipeline into the interview process, that’s the first step. The first step is to get folks to be interested and interview for the company. How do we establish that any employer is a good company to work for? For men, for women, for underrepresented groups and minorities. What is good about this company and why does it stand out? And if there are opportunities to improve on those “whys”, then improving on those “whys” will help as well. Even if we have offers out to women, some of them were not accepting, and why is that the case? Do we have women on interview panels? If there are concerns post-offer, having calls with other engineers on the team and other people in a similar position.
Jimmy: On the subject of the interview process, what kinds of questions and types of technical interviews do you find to be most effective?
Sonya: I really liked the interview process at Better. I felt like it was challenging, but I never felt like I was being evaluated or judged. I felt like the person on the other side was working with me on solving a problem and eager to hear why I thought something should be done this way versus that way. It felt like I was working on the job with a colleague instead of being in a very stressful interview process. I’ve been in interviews at other companies where I felt like they were trying to make me fail or make me trip up or they were just waiting for me to make a mistake. I really like system design and architecture questions because they’re very open-ended and it’s an opportunity to see someone’s experience. There is no right answer or wrong answer. If someone is more senior, they’ll come up with a design based on that experience and knowledge. And if someone has fewer years in the industry, they can come up with something that is still correct but based on their knowledge.
Taffy: I personally really like system design and architecture design interviews because you get to work with the person. That tells you a lot about what it’s like to work with the person, and it’s very interesting.
Jimmy: Better’s interview process, when I went through it, felt very collaborative. Which is kind of funny, because it was hard to judge how I did afterwards.
Sonya: Same here!
Taffy: Yeah, the process is very engaging.
Jimmy: We’ve touched on it before. But I would like to get your thoughts on if you feel that women have the same opportunities as men in the tech industry?
Sonya: This is a really hard question! I think in any industry your network matters a lot, and having a strong network can give someone more opportunities. And I don’t mean just opportunities within your company, but industry-wide. As a woman in tech, I do wonder if my network is a little bit weaker and if folks in underrepresented groups in tech feel the same way. Am I having fewer candid conversations about the industry? About the benefits of working in tech? If you have a strong network and you feel comfortable talking to people you can get a lot of information from people that can be used when looking for a job or evaluating offers. I also feel like if I don’t have an opportunity, do I feel comfortable asking for that opportunity? But how do you know what opportunities to ask for if they’re not always presented to you or shared with you?
Jimmy: That’s a good point about feeling comfortable to ask for that opportunity. That sorta touches on maybe the industry is catered towards this specific type of person that maybe women or people in other underrepresented groups might not fit into. And so those people have to work a little bit harder to get those same opportunities. Maybe those opportunities are there, but they’re not necessarily handed to them in the same way.
Sonya: Exactly. How to effectively find a job at a top company, or how to practice your interviewing skills, or how to contribute to open-source projects. If you have the right people telling you about those things or working with you and partnering on that, it helps you move forward quicker. Whereas if you don’t have those opportunities, you have to spend time seeking those opportunities, you have to think about if you deserve those opportunities or not and having imposter syndrome. A woman or person from an underrepresented group who doesn’t have that opportunity might feel like they don’t deserve that opportunity and might not ask for it. But sometimes you don’t need to have all the qualifications to do something. Sometimes it’s enough to show interest and work towards it and learn as you do it.
Taffy: I’m curious about your personal experience asking for opportunities or whether you had good managers who presented opportunities to you.
Sonya: Sometimes I do hesitate in expressing what I want, feeling like I’m not qualified, I’m not ready, or saying that it’s not something that is of interest to me and dismissing it that way. But I feel like asking can get you there the majority of the time. Because the worst thing that can happen is someone will say no when you ask. As you work more and progress more and gain confidence, you feel more confident in asking. And if you work with a supportive team, they should encourage you to seek out those opportunities as well. Sometimes I’ve been given opportunities and sometimes I’ve had to ask for them. And sometimes it’s an opportunity that might not seem like a big deal at first, but it can become something much bigger. At one of my previous jobs I was asked to help with coding interviews. Initially I was just supporting and helping a much more senior person on that, and then they had to transition off of that due to other priorities. And I was able to become the representative and take more of a role on that because I showed a lot of interest, I hit the ground running, and I was serious about it. And that evolved into something else and it helped me get more recognition. If you feel like you’re too busy but there’s a great opportunity, then have a conversation with your manager. In order to grow you have to cut back on the stuff you’re good at and add more opportunities that challenge you and help you grow.
Taffy: That’s amazing. Thank you for sharing that.
Jimmy: What advice would you like to give women who want to start a career in tech?
Sonya: I would say go for it! Working in tech is really building things, to put it in a very generic way. It involves a lot of creative and analytical thinking. At a company like Better, we have a very collaborative environment. We get opportunities to work with a lot of different people and influence various aspects of the business. I would also say when facing obstacles or challenges or setbacks along the way, don’t let that dissuade you from continuing along that path. Anything you pursue is going to have challenges. With a lot of opportunities it means that engineers are rewarded well. And that’s a great thing for women, to work in an industry where there are a lot of opportunities, good compensation, and economic empowerment. And there are a lot of opportunities to grow. In tech you don’t always have to grow vertically, you can grow laterally -- move into different roles, seek mobility, learn about different domain areas -- and still grow in the sense that you’re progressing and moving along.
Jimmy: Could you name some of the challenges that women in tech face or that you personally have faced?
Sonya: A lot of women in tech end up being the only woman on their team. They might be the only woman on that side of the office. That’s one obstacle you might face, where imposter syndrome comes into play. I’ve been on teams where I felt like I wasn’t as technical as my peers or that I wasn’t contributing as much, when that wasn’t the case. But I wasn’t getting that feedback from my managers. A lot of women in tech, especially now, transition out of the field once they reach a certain stage in their life. When they become a mother there are some challenges they face there, as well. In some industries you can learn something, get your degree, and just continue doing that and then maybe eventually move into management. Tech is constantly changing, and keeping up with that can be very overwhelming. And some women might feel like they’re not as technical, which is definitely not the case. But they kinda feel that way because they’re not keeping up sometimes. But you don’t need to know every single technology or be an expert on everything. There are so many types of success that we see in the industry.
Taffy: I think that concludes our discussion. This has been great! We really really appreciate you talking with us!
Jimmy: This was amazing, Sonya! Thank you!
Sonya: Thank you both!
Thank you for tuning in and hope that you enjoyed the conversion as much as we did. We’ve learned so much from this interview with Sonya and look forward to interviewing more awesome engineers! Stay tuned!
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