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The Unvarnished Truth of being a Woman in Tech

In our fifth episode of Breaking 404, we caught up with Monica Bajaj, Senior Director of Engineering, Workday to hear out the different biases that exist in tech roles across organizations and how difficult it can get for a woman to reach a senior position, especially in tech. We also talked about the best recruiting practices that Engineering Leaders should follow in order to hire the best tech talent without any biases.

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Arbaz: Hello everyone and welcome to the 5th episode of Breaking 404 by HackerEarth, a podcast for all engineering enthusiasts, professionals, and leaders to learn from top influencers in the engineering and technology industry. This is your host Arbaz and today I have with me Monica Bajaj, the Senior Director of Engineering at Workday, an American on‑demand financial management and human capital management software vendor. She is also a Board Member of Women in Localization, a leading professional organization with a mission to create a strong place for women to develop their careers in localization and provide mentorship. Welcome, Monica! We are delighted to have you as a guest for our podcast. For our audience to know you better, let’s start off with a quick introduction about yourself and how your professional journey has been?  

Monica: Definitely. I am originally from India from a city called Indore (central part of India). I did my high school and under-graduation from Indore. I came to the US almost 20 years back for work and settled here. My professional journey has been very interesting. Right after my undergrad in CS, I started my career as an Assistant professor teaching Computer science Teaching has always been close to my heart since it creates a platform of learning without any expectations. Later I did my Masters in CS at IIT Mumbai which was indeed a turning point in my career. I decided to join the tech industry in India, joined Wipro, and came to the US on an assignment. I was one of the early on developers at WellsFargo when they were going through the transformation of being an Online banking application. I started my career as a full stack developer and stayed as a developer for almost 10 plus years.  In 2005 I got an opportunity at a Startup to transition my career into management. I had no idea about people management but decided to take this challenge.  As I embarked on this new challenge, I realized that people management and building teams are something that I truly enjoy. I never looked back. I have been fortunate that as I moved from one industry to another, I was able to develop my engineering management experiences and align with the business needs.  I have had great opportunities working for startups, mid-size, and giant tech companies such as Cisco, NetApp, Perforce, Ultimate software mostly in the enterprise space. I recently joined Workday as a Senior Director of Engineering, building their Community Platform.

Arbaz: What was the first programming language you started to code in and was the code to print “Hello World”?

Monica: My first programming language was BASIC. I never had exposure to computers until I went to college and started my undergrad in CS. We worked on BBC Microcomputers saving our programs on Floppy disks. Resources were limited in India and yes it sounds pretty old but it definitely shows the journey of innovation that has happened in just last 20 years

Arbaz: While we were looking out for guests for this podcast, out of the more than 100 potential engineering leaders that we found, just 5-10% were females. Do you think that there still exists an inequality/bias in terms of gender especially in tech roles? Also, have you ever experienced this yourself and how difficult/challenging is it to reach a senior position for women in tech?

Monica: Definitely Gender bias in the tech industry is very prevalent.  If we just look at the tech industry in the mid-1980s, 37% of CS majors were women. You would think that things must have gotten better as we advanced in this century. In fact, it has dipped to 18%. Today women make up only 20% of engineering graduates. Only 26% of computing jobs are held by women and have been steadily declining. The turnover rate is more than twice as high for women than it is for men in the tech industry 41% vs 17%. 56% of women are leaving their employers mid-career ( 22% get self-employed, 20% leave the workforce, and 10% work with some startups). Only 5% of leadership positions in the tech sector are held by women; they make up only 9% of partners at the top 100 venture capital firms. On top of this, if you are a woman of color, the challenges get even harder when it comes to growth negotiations. These challenges increase as you embark into key Senior leadership roles: Principal Engineers, Architect, Directors, and Senior Directors, VPs, and above. Yes, I have personally experienced this in my career a few times. Once I was being told by my senior leader that Indian women are not meant for leadership due to cultural bias. It was heartbreaking and at the same time, it made me very angry. I did not hold back and did state that things have changed so much. This did cost me my job and I was asked to move to another group.  Another story I have is where I had to deal with  Cultural Bias and lack of understanding of being a mom. I was being told by my boss,” why do you need to drop kids to school and be late to work. I have pets and I leave them and they figure it out. “ I was shocked. Rather than going to HR, I resigned and moved on since I knew no action would be taken. Sometimes such experiences can lead to folks leaving industry/companies. There is a bias and women many times downplay their technical credentials. On the other hand, men do the reverse. Studies have proven that when it comes to applying for a job men apply when they meet 60% of the qualifications and women continue to have second thought even when they are meeting 100% of the qualifications. 

Arbaz: These are really motivational stories and shocking at the same time. It’s really great to hear how you fought all of them. These numbers are really horrifying numbers. We often discuss how women empowerment has been a movement off late. Just a follow-up to that, have you seen any particular changes that companies are taking to bring these differences down? 

Arbaz: You’ve worked with top companies including Cisco, NetApp, Perforce, Ultimate Software and now you are with Workday. What is the biggest technical or product challenge you have experienced? How did you overcome it? 

Monica: The biggest technical challenge any organization faces today is bringing in Digital transformation. Digital transformation is imperative for all businesses and lets us not delude ourselves that the tech industry does not need it., It applies from the small to medium to enterprise and definition changes similar to the definition of the following Agile development process. Digital transformation is hard but if you have the right strategy and clear vision it can do miracles. The key focus has to be Customer experience, Operational Agility, Culture and Leadership, Workforce Enablement, and Digital Technology Integration. As an engineering leader, I had an opportunity to be a part of this journey in my recent role. One of the goals while building a product was to move from an application-centric view to a services-based view. While building this new product on a Microservices based architecture, it was also important to convert a monolith module to a microservice and integrate with other Microservices in the new architecture. It has a significant benefit because the services are autonomous, specialized, can be updated, deployed, and scaled to meet the demand for specific functions of an application. It definitely required organizational transformation around convincing, and prioritization clashes with other initiatives. On the technology and process side, we uncovered a few challenges around integration, deployment, and migration of these services to Kubernetes. Automation was a must requirement to go with. I had the state of art DevOps team who was an integral part of the development process right from the design phase. This really helped us in making sure that we have the strategy around deploying, monitoring, and alerting of these services. 

In the current situation at Workday, I have an opportunity to stand a new platform for an existing product called Workday Community. Choices are Buy Vs Build, keeping an equal focus on the existing product and the future development, Defining the game changers and enriched user experience for our customers and most important keeping in mind the sentiments of the current team to come along in this journey of transformation.

Arbaz: Two things that we most often see engineering leaders focused on are: Technical Debt and High Quality of Code. Keeping this in mind, how do you maintain a balance of technical stability (minimize technical debt) while still delivering quality code at a high velocity?

Monica: As smart financial debt can help us reach our life goals faster, not all technical debt is bad. The key thing is managing it well while delivering at a high pace to meet the customer needs and balancing with emerging opportunities. There are three kinds of Tech debt: 

Deliberate Tech debt  ( where we incur tech debt to reduce time to market)

Accidental Tech debt: More of a design tech debt. It is important to thoroughly consider nuances around design else it can lead to rework. Refactoring of the system can help 

Bit rot: This is where the functionality just ages over years due to incremental changes, workarounds. Most of the organizations face this kind of tech debt.

In my mind, the evaluation of tech debt and its consequences is more of an art than a science.

In order to maintain the overall stability, I make sure that I address 20% of my stories focused on Tech debt in every sprint planning. This again entails negotiations, prioritization against new feature development.  If we start seeing that the team is losing velocity it is a good indicator that tech debt may exist. Test coverage, code smells, code coverage helps in uncovering the gaps around design, and functionality. Developer productivity is important to keep in mind which includes best engineering practices, managing tech debt well, creating reusable components, and building an architecture that allows for decoupling if needed.

Arbaz: That’s really a great approach. At the end of the day, it’s important to keep the balance correct. Just deviating a little bit from our technical talks and getting to know Monica, the person, a little more. What is your favorite leisure-time activity and how do you make sure that you keep that hobby in-tact and not let it die under your workload?

Monica: Gardening and Outdoor activity such as hiking and road trips. I believe that if you prioritize it and if it means something for you, it will happen irrespective of your workload.  In fact more than a hobby, I continue to learn leadership lessons from my garden. Organizations are like gardens and they need a lot of love and care similar to growing plants in your garden.  

Arbaz: Recruiting and engineering, while we are partners, we operate differently. How do you work together? How do you align recruiters and hiring managers to achieve the overall objective of hiring a talented developer? From your perspective when you’re on that table with your recruiter, are you seeing alignment, or are you seeing discordance and how are you handling that?

Monica: Hiring the right people should be the highest priority for any business. I have a great partnership with our recruiting teams. I strongly believe that the onus is on the hiring manager since he/she knows the best what they need from the candidate. In order to make sure that the recruiter has a good understanding of what to look for I work with our recruiting team to define the traits, technical skills, and the overall recruiting process.( Phone screen, technical challenge, panel interviews). It is very important that the messaging around the role, team and company culture is consistent during all the conversations that recruiter and the hiring manager have with the candidate.

Arbaz: There is a lot of debate on the coding interviews right now having algorithm problem-solving skills, and you don’t necessarily use data structures in your real-world coding. But companies globally do emphasize on having questions around Data structures and Algo in the assessment. Do you think it’s a good approach? How do you reconcile the two and do you think the problem-solving questions give you a good idea of their future performance?

Monica: I think Data structures and Algorithms are fundamentals or core plumbing. While interviewing, I want the candidate ( for a developer or QA role) to go through a problem and see if they can apply the core principles of software engineering such as algorithms, testing, debugging logging, scale, performance. As a hiring manager, I like to see how an individual is able to think out of the box and be creative. It also helps individuals agility around picking new technologies and come up with the best approach to solve the problem.  In fact, the candidate should be able to speak to their resume, hence better storytelling. Having the candidate go through live examples in their resume speaks for collaboration, cultural fit, observance, team building.

Arbaz: What is the most challenging part of any technical assessment and interview? If there is anything that you would like to change in the assessment and interview process, what would it be?

Monica: The most challenging part of technical assessment is to ensure that the entire panel is of the same understanding around the expectations and level of any given role. As a hiring manager, it is our job to ensure that. In terms of bringing a change in this interview process: I am not a big fan of the process where rather than focusing on the job role and the candidate’s experience, the companies start asking these random questions such as “ How will you deploy software on Mars or  how will you move Mount Fuji ?” Companies do not realize that the candidate is also interviewing them so it is fair game on both sides. You always want to hire smarter people than you so that you can bring in new talent and ideas rather than converting them or making them fit in your model of thinking. I consider this as “ hurting their creativity and hence diminishing the impact they can make if they get hired”. If you approach a candidate, you need to value and embrace their experience and see how it aligns to fit your business and organizational needs. 

I want to bring in a diversity of thought and creativity. I do not want candidates to be pre-programmed to speak the buzzwords that the company is looking for or the structure that they publish.

Arbaz: It’s wonderful how you shed light on how important it is to foster learning and growth for talent and the candidate is also assessing the company. Now as the Senior Director of Engineering at Workday, do you still code, and if not do you sort of miss coding? We would love to know how the role changes because a lot of times developers have this thing of – Do I need to go in the path of a developer, a senior developer, a principal engineer instead of like a chief architect, or do you want to go down the developer, engineering manager, director, and CTO journey. And sometimes you can end up being a CTO or VP of engineering from multiple paths. So how did you choose to go which path you wanted to take?

Monica: No, I do not code and neither do I miss it.  (  Most of the companies offer two tracks in any given role. If you love to be close to only technical aspects ( coding, architecture, design ) you can grow as an Individual contributor such as architect, principal engineer, and be on a technical track. However, if you are more inclined towards people management, mentor, and be able to invest in people, hire the best talent, you can be on the management track. Many of us get lost when we have to make a call at this turning point of being a manager and not doing hands-on every day. It is hard to let go of things that you are comfortable with. I was a developer by career for more than a decade and then I got my first break into management ( due to my dev and tech skills). Soon I realized that I enjoyed people management and never looked back. One important thing I would like to share is keeping a fine balance between being hands-on and being a manager.  Managing an organization cannot be a part-time job. You can easily fall into the trap of being hands-on since you are comfortable with it. You may think that you are contributing but in fact, you might be hurting them by taking their space and creativity and also ignoring your first priority of investing in your people. 

Arbaz: Which software framework/tool do you admire the most and consider as a gift from God?

Monica: IaaS: Infrastructure as a code. Modern Marvel of Cloud engineering where you don’t have to worry about maintaining the infrastructure, worry about the scale and other services such as monitoring, security, logging, disaster recovery, load balancing, backup, etc. It allows a greater level of automation and orchestration also speeds up the overall delivery process.

Arbaz: Considering the current scenario around the COVID-19 outbreak where companies have asked their employees to work remotely, what do you think is the biggest problem/challenge with managing remote engineering teams? What do you think is the best way to keep a team of engineers motivated?

Monica: With COVID, the boundary between homework and work from home has been blurred. The working hours have become much longer due to flexibility and hence the balance between family and work does get impacted. More importantly, since everyone is at home, it can get harder for folks to focus on their work more so if they have space limitations or little kids.  Communication with the entire team has also become all virtual. I joined Workday 5 weeks back and I was virtually onboarded and now I am learning and building relationships with my team via a virtual platform. I agree that nothing beats in-person engagements. If you look at the pros, it has given an opportunity for people to save their commute from 2-3 hours everyday to none which is indeed priceless. For many people, it has improved the overall quality of life but given us a pace where we can stop, admire, and focus things around us.  It has allowed people to rejuvenate themselves rather than chasing the rat race of life.

When it comes to your teams, stay in touch, be transparent, Value them, and continue to express gratitude. 

Arbaz: If not engineering, what alternate profession would you have seen yourself excel in?

Monica: I would be a Master Gardener. My parents are avid gardeners so I would say that I inherited some of those traits from them. I love outdoors, I need quiet time where I can just sync in my Garden. I feel it is a way for me to communicate with Mother Nature.  You are constantly growing and learning about these plants. I feel the same way in my career where I continue to learn and grow every day.

Arbaz: What would be your 1 tip for all Engineering Managers, VPs, and Directors for being the best at what they do? 

Monica: Try to hire people who are not clones of yourself.

Arbaz: It was a pleasure having you today as part of this episode, I really appreciate you taking your time. It was informative and insightful, and I definitely enjoyed listening. I hope our listeners also have a great time listening to you. Thank you. So, this brings us to the end of today’s episode of Breaking 404. Stay tuned for more such awesome enlightening episodes. Don’t forget to subscribe to our channel ‘Breaking 404 by HackerEarth’ on Itunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, SoundCloud and TuneIn. This is Arbaz, your host signing off until next time. Thank you so much, everyone!

About Monica Bajaj

Monica Bajaj is an engineering leader with a wide variety of experience around building high performing globally distributed Engineering teams aligning with product delivery and customer satisfaction. Her prime focus has always been around developer productivity and enriched experience for customers. Monica is currently Senior Director of Engineering at Workday where she is responsible to build a Community 2.0 platform along with other partner teams. Prior to Workday, she worked at various Tech giants such as Cisco, NetApp, and Ultimate Software. She also serves as a Board member at WomenInLocalization, a global organization focused on Women mentorship and localization activities. She is a featured mentor on Plato and Everwise mentorship platforms.

Monica holds a CS undergrad from Indore and grad from IIT Mumbai in India.

Finding outdoor activities keeps her refreshed. When she is not working, she is either gardening, hiking, or mentoring. She can be reached on:

Twitter: @mbajaj9

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mobajaj/

Podcasts

Fun and adventure loving Manchester United fan with a passion for traveling | B2B SaaS Marketer professionally.

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