In addition to wogrammer, Erin is a Tech Lead for Social VR at Facebook and Zainab is a Product Manager at Airbnb.
How did you get to where you are today?
Erin - Ever since I could stick two Legos together, I’ve always enjoyed building things. I excelled at math and physics in high school and got into robotics during my senior year. This was the late 90’s before there were all these DIY robot kits. I scoured Jameco catalogs and borrowed wheels and gears from kids I babysat. It was so exciting seeing my robots come to life! I went on to get my BS in Electrical & Computer Engineering at NC State and my PhD in Electrical Engineering & Computer Science at Berkeley. I’ve been at Facebook for over 4 years.
Zainab - By taking it one step at a time. I never sought out to be an engineer or thought I would work in tech - I didn’t think I was smart enough. My parents didn’t go to college, but they always encouraged me to read and dream big. When I was 18, encouraged by my parents, I came to US by myself with $107 to learn more about the world I was living in. I enrolled myself in the undergraduate program at Winthrop University in SC and started working over 40 hours in part time jobs to pay for college. My goal in early twenties was to learn as many new things and explore cultures very different from mine. During this period, I spent a year working at the prestigious Charite in Berlin - the largest university hospital in Europe where I studied Alternative Medicine and published clinical research. I then spent time building business models in developing countries for FIMRC because I so wanted to give to the communities I came from and was familiar with. Inspired to have greater impact, I accepted a fellowship to study Health Economics at UW-Madison. This is when I seriously started considering a career in tech and realizing, that I could do anything I put my mind to. Through my travels and work experiences, I had seen first hand the impact technology was having on people’s lives. So I switched majors, and turned to Industrial Engineering and Computer Science. I taught myself how to write code, and eventually joined Facebook where I was most recently a Tech Lead for Advertiser Growth. I am now a Product Manager at Airbnb.
What was your toughest obstacle and how did you overcome it?
Erin - Near the end of my PhD I was eager to work in an industry that was fast moving, on products that I used everyday and that impacted lots of people. I was set up to go to work in aerospace or defense easily, but my heart wasn’t in it. I had a lot of fear and a lot of inertia where I was at. I had invested 5 ½ years learning something that I didn’t want to do and I felt kind of foolish walking away from that. My peers told me I wouldn’t be hired because it was so different from my PhD research. I didn’t have any examples to help show me a path of how to pivot like this. Luckily, I ignored the naysayers and figured out how to make myself marketable for companies like Facebook and landed a job.
Zainab - Hands down, coming to US. I had no money, knew no one, had no place to stay. Every day was a challenge, and oddly enough - I really enjoyed it. I loved brainstorm how I would get the money for next semester’s tuition or figuring out where I would stay. That is when I realized, you must learn to love the journey.
What’s the key to staying focused & motivated?
Erin - I set goals and milestones for myself. I spend a lot of time planning upfront and setting expectations with key stakeholders. When I first started my career, I would work until whatever I was planning was finished and then pop up once it was done. This is a terrible way to work because, you don’t have support along the way and people have no idea what the hell you are doing while you are building whatever you are building.
Zainab - Through hyper prioritization and learning to say no. I consciously practice this everyday and still can’t say I do this well. But I think I have gotten so much better by thinking about the limited time I have on earth and how I only want to invest my energy into something that truly resonates with me.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
Zainab - The harder you work, the luckier you get.
What advice do you have for someone who is looking to start a new venture?
Zainab - Deeply believe in the mission of your work. The journey won't be easy, but it will be worth it.
Erin - Find people who have the job that you desire. Do your research and ask them good, difficult questions. Ask for specific advice.
How do we get more women leaders?
Erin - We get more women leaders by promoting a culture of inclusion. Elevating women to senior positions, having men call out inappropriate jokes or behaviour when they see it (even if no women are in the room). Encouraging women to lean into their careers, supporting them, listening to them. A lot of people focus on recruiting women but forget the inclusion piece to retain women and minorities.
Zainab - + 1 Erin. To add to what Erin said, we get more women leaders by changing the narrative on what it means to be a man or woman. We need to ask men and women the same questions, hold each equally responsible for domestic as well as professional work.