This is a guest post by Tamar Bercovici, a software engineer at Box who leads the Data Access Team
I recently had the pleasure of attending the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference. There were many interesting discussions on the low percentage of technical women, and the many challenges they face. While I think these discussions are critically important, that’s not what this post is about.
I am a woman in computer engineering. Have I faced bias? Probably. The thing is, we so often get caught up in the assumptions people have about us that we end up being defined by them. We all face bias in our lives.
The question is how to not let it stop us from achieving our goals.
Three things that have worked for me are:
- Not waiting to be invited,
- Owning my story
- Working twice as hard
When I was most recently looking for job opportunities, I knew I would have to overcome bias. No, not because I’m a woman — at least I hope not.
I had just graduated with a Ph.D. in theoretical Computer Science that had nothing to do with the job I was looking for. I wanted to work at a web startup, and I knew that I was a kick-ass engineer, but my resume didn’t read like it — no MIT or Stanford, no Google or Facebook, the previous startup I worked at wasn’t known in the Valley, and I had basically been doing math for the past five years. During my interviews, I got asked — multiple times — whether I liked to code.
Related: Box boasts a surprisingly young and diverse workforce. Read our roundtable interview with the “first ladies of Box” here.
I had to be proactive. I wrote to everyone I knew that worked somewhere remotely interesting. I also crashed a couple of Stanford career fairs, where, incidentally, I met Kimber Lockhart (Sr. Director of Engineering at Box). Career fairs were great for owning my story. I could enthusiastically talk about my love for coding and building products. I could emphasize the experience I had, and the incredible growth opportunity that my Ph.D. had been. It worked. I got invited to interview. Not everywhere, but enough.
I knew my interviewers would be trying to figure out whether I was a theoretician, or a “hacker” worthy of joining the team. So I studied. A lot. I was in good shape on the algo side, but I knew I would have to counteract the lack of webiness on my resume. I read up on new web technologies, MVC design patterns, scaling challenges… The works. I counteracted “are you sure?” with true enthusiasm, and more often than not, it worked.
As the engineering team at Box grows, we’re constantly in a state of having lots of new people. In fact, most of us have been here under three years. We’re all pretty new. Being at such a fast growing company is incredibly exciting, and offers us all an immense opportunity for personal growth and impact. I’m very proud of our merit-based culture, but being a newbie can still feel a bit daunting. So, can you guess my advice by now?
Don’t wait to be invited
One of the main reasons I wanted to work at a startup was the idea of working somewhere dynamic where you end up doing anything and everything you’re capable of. So if you hear about an interesting meeting, ask to join. Don’t know what the cool projects are? Just talk to people. Ask what they’re working on. Take an interest.
Own your story
Remember that bias against your newness can be justified. Being new, you lack context. This can be great because it gives you a fresh perspective. Understand what’s interesting about the project you’re working on and then talk with people about it. Everything we’re doing here is part of such an amazing goal that it is by definition, exciting. Being the person working on a cool project is fully within your control. Own that story.
Work twice as hard
When you’re new, people don’t know your value yet. This is true regardless of your experience. Unless you’ve actually written the book on something (like Box’s Nicholas Zakas), respect has to be earned. So go ahead and earn it. Learn from your projects. Learn from the people around you. Become valuable. And you know what’s cool? Working harder actually makes you better for real.
On my first review at Box, I got a peer comment about not writing enough lines of code. My manager and I knew that this didn’t hold weight. So why the comment? Was it because I’m a woman? Because I had a Ph.D.? Because I was new? Perhaps it was all of these things. Personally, I don’t think it matters.
When I was working on sharding, I wasn’t a staff engineer or even an engineering manager. I was the newest person on the team. So I worked hard. I was enthusiastic. I learned a lot. I brought value. Bias is surmountable. You own that.
Tamar Bercovici is a Staff Software Engineer and Engineering Manager at Box where she leads the Distributed Data Systems Team in scaling Box’s database architecture. Prior to Box, Tamar was an early-stage employee at XMPie (now a Xerox company). Tamar holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology.
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