Women in Tech: Q&A

The six alumnae panelists who participated in the recent Women in Tech conference answered additional audience questions that weren’t addressed during the virtual event. Here are questions posed to: Denise Ho ’93, Director, Product Management at Google; Rochelle Higa ’89 King, VP, Creative Production at Netflix; Beth Liebert ’01, Product Manager at Apple; Chloe Mai ’10, Senior Manufacturing Engineer at Tesla; Alicianne Rand ’03, Head of Marketing at Venmo; and Dr. Valerie Galluzzi ’05 Liptak, Applied Scientist at Amazon Last Mile Machine Learning.

April 6 Questions:
What would you say to girls and young women who are afraid to enter engineering due to stereotypes?

Valerie: You have to make the choice to make your own life or live a life dictated by society. I decided to do what I want to do, and it has not always been easy. Societal pressures are very heavy in this field, and if this is something someone struggles with, it might be best to consider a different field during this time.

Do you remember an inspiring course or instructor at Punahou that impacted you?

Valerie: Non-AP course in comp. sci. at Punahou. Gave a great first taste of it

Denise: Unfortunately I don’t remember much trig or calc. But, I remember the way of thinking that I learned in those classes forever. Lessons: Don’t ever give up, approach adversity with a good attitude, own your failures, believe in yourself. They were so clear on what they taught, and I wouldn’t be where I am without them.

Chloe: Punahou teachers taught me the art of learning. When I created that publication, the faculty was super supportive. Ms. Macarran was my advisor. 

What would it take for you to come back home?

Denise: We talk about it a lot, especially as a family. The pandemic has taught everyone a lot about what we thought was not possible. I am really encouraged by all of the options that have emerged

A lot of engineers identify as introverts, but working with a team requires developing interpersonal skills. How did you address this aspect of your personality?

Chloe: It’s a balance. Look within myself, but also across the team. A lot of people are introverted. I had to learn how to deal with aggressive and extroverted people. Talking to counselors or mental health professionals can go a long way too. My manager has also been a great resource and advocate. 

All of you attended school on the mainland. What challenges did you face going to college away from Hawai’i or leaving Hawai’i in general? Do you think it’s necessary to leave to be in tech?

Denise: Because of tech, and how interconnected we are, it’s so different than a decade or two ago. You can have a business anywhere. For me personally, I’ve lived in a lot of places and call a lot of places ‘home’ (Bay Area, Hawai‘i, Hong Kong). My parents (fortunately) were not prescriptive. My gut said Stanford. Not everything has to be logical. Gut choices are valuable sometimes. If my team was given the chance to move to Hawai‘i, they would all move tomorrow! I am excited about some of the changes that accelerated over the past year. If I get a chance to speak at the next session, I would love to see how this evolves over time.

Given the challenges you mentioned as a female, what is something you wish you knew before entering the industry?

Valerie: I definitely wished I knew the trick about being your own advocate. Especially in a PhD, it can feel like you’re alone. You’ll naturally have self-defeating thoughts, especially as a researcher doing things that have never been done before. Self talk: you know what, there are a lot of people on that team saying you can’t do it. That team is full. We (self-talk) need to be on the other team, because saying you can’t do it is not fact-based. You need to be your own cheerleader. 

How can the broader community support women in tech?

Chloe: Demonstrate the application. Showing how tech is related to people’s lives, and how they can contribute. More sample projects to test things out. When you think of tech, you will typically think of specific roles, many of which were covered today (Product Manager, Engineer, Research), but there are way more jobs and opportunities in the tech industry that people might not think of right away. 

Valerie, given the challenges you mentioned as a female, what is something you wish you knew before entering the industry?

Valerie: I wish I knew the trick of being your own advocate, which is not something you can learn in school or elsewhere. Especially in a PhD, when you’re working alone, there’s no one to tell you that you’re doing the right thing or doing well. I have to tell myself when I have negative thoughts that there’s a lot of people on the “You Can’t Do It” team. That team is full and there is no room for you. So you have to be on the “You CAN Do It” team. You have to be a cheerleader for yourself.

April 7 Questions:
In our parents’ day, people stayed in jobs for decades if not their whole career. This is very uncommon nowadays. When you’re hiring, how do you view young people who bounce around every couple of years?

Beth: For young people who bounce around, I don’t blink an eye. This is completely normal, even expected, even recommended! You want to make sure you can explain why you made each move, and try to frame it as moving up, pursuing a cool opportunity, or building new experience in a strategic way. Avoid trash talking where you’ve been, even if you hated it. Always position it as a chance to learn and grow to the next step. 

How would you advise people who are weighing job opportunities at a start-up vs a large corporation?

Beth: There is no right answer here; there are pros and cons to both. A big company has some advantages beyond stability. It has a brand-name, which is handy when building your resume, and usually there are more experienced people there who you can learn from. Downsides are that your role can be small and slow, and it takes a while to climb up into more interesting and strategic positions. At a startup, you have the opportunity to move very fast with little in your way, the scope of what you tackle is significantly bigger, and if it’s successful you’ll have incredible opportunities for career growth. But there is also generally less mentorship, many startups fail, and the salary is often lower (you’re banking on a big exit). 

One of the listeners is at a start-up doing the master-of-all function. Do you have any suggestions for getting a foot in the door contributing to bigger/creative campaigns?

Alicianne: My biggest advice is to ask. State your intentions that you want to try something new (creative campaigns) and ask your boss for advice on the skills that you need to get there. Constantly ask for feedback and ask how you can improve. By being open and asking for feedback, you’ll hopefully  develop a game plan to understand what you need to learn professionally to start transitioning to bigger campaigns. Overall, it never hurts to ask. You have BIG ambitions – go for it!

How important is continuing education in your jobs? How are you learning new skills? YouTube? Coursera? In-person conferences?

Alicianne: For my field in particular, I’ve always been interested in the intersection between marketing and journalism. Instead of grad school, I joined a start-up which felt like my grad school. It was very helpful because I could try a lot of different roles and had a lot of people helping me. If I were in a different field, I might have felt differently though.

Beth: I took computer science classes through Stanford’s online program while I’ve been working. A lot of companies will reimburse you for these expenses. I used these classes to refresh my hard skills while I was working. It was really helpful to help me think like an engineer. It was not expected by my manager, but was really great for me to boost my confidence. I love learning, so I really enjoyed it. There are a bunch of online opportunities like these types of classes and very few barriers now that so much is online.

Rochelle: Keep a strong network and have conversations about what is going on in their fields and areas. A number of folks make sure they always have a personal project they work on so they can keep up their hard skills and keep them fresh and honed. It doesn’t have to be big or high stakes, even a small personal project is great.

What’s your best advice for people who want to get into a new discipline like social media, but don’t have any experience?

Rochelle: The startup environment is a great way to dive into a new discipline. Nonprofits also might give someone the opportunity to wear multiple hats, because they are often resource constrained.

Alicianne: All you need is one foot in the door, and then they compound on each other. Don’t be afraid – we all started from the same place (zero!). 

Beth: My relationships outside of work are what got me my jobs. If you know someone in a space that interests you, be interested in them. Find ways to be useful as well, even if it isn’t explicitly with the goal of getting a job.

Given the new levels of remote work and growing infrastructure in Hawai‘i, what would it take to move your team to O‘ahu? (Please dream with us how that might be possible!?) What would you need in terms of support from the State? 

Alicianne: I always dream about moving back to Hawai‘i. I’d LOVE to send my daughter to Punahou, and choose a different quality of life. Particularly when compared to a big city like NYC. I actually think it’s possible. Venmo has employees working from Hawai‘i on different hours.

Rochelle: A silver lining of the pandemic has been it has taught us how to remote work better. It has also expanded the talent pool, geographically speaking. 

Beth: On the topic of hours, it can be an advantage since it’s closer to some time zones, like Asia. I have calls in India and Berlin quite frequently. Having overlapping hours in certain parts of the world can be a value proposition.

How do you confront bias in the workplace, particularly when they are expressed in a public/broader forum? 

Beth: A friend advises that you can ask them to repeat what they said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.” It often makes them reconsider what they said in front of the group.

Rochelle: You can respond with how it made you feel. It’s important to call out and acknowledge that something is inappropriate. It can be an emotional burden on the person who has to give that response, but I think it is important and necessary to confront it even if that confrontation happens days later and not in the moment.

Alicianne: It’s scary to give that feedback, especially if you don’t want to cause confrontation. But if someone is saying that to you, they are likely saying it to others around you. I speak up and say something in private to the person rather than public. I will speak up for my teammates. For example, if someone is mansplaining or talking over a teammate, I will take the person aside and tell them that they need to listen and give women a voice. It’s really important for the team’s success.

How do you overcome imposter syndrome, particularly as a woman?

Rochelle: There is a bit of coming to terms with it. I am very productivity-focused. To self: “I just wasted two hours on this! This isn’t very productive.” I over-empathize to a fault. When other people believe in me or give me confidence, I am able to believe the belief other people have in me. It is a strategy I’ve used to get out of my own head.

Alicianne: Recognize everyone is human. Instead of saying, “how do I compare to this person?” root your being in compassion. It helps me get out of my head and relate positively to other people. Sometimes though, it’s fake it till you make it. You just need to walk and lead with confidence, and the confidence will follow you. 

Beth: One experience I constantly come back to when I feel technically less competent, I had to build a robot at Stanford. It used its arms to grab an apple in a tunnel. I was on a team with thre other boys (men perhaps?). They over thought it and were like, “how do we do this?” And I just did it. They were all shocked that the girl solved the problem. I come back to that instance, and I remind myself that I’m JUST as good. From the surface (outside), it is often way way different than the truth (the inside). Perception is often the only difference. I come back to experiences like that when I feel imposter syndrome.

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