One woman's path through doula training, childrearing, and a computer science Ph. D. program

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Letter to my younger self: Things I wish I knew when I first started working

This is a post about Letter to my younger self: Things I wish I knew when I first started working at the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing conference, October 2012 in Baltimore, MD.

Moderator: Chiu-Ki Chan (Square Island LLC)
Panelists: Rupa Dachere (, Christina Schulman (Google)

The audience in the session was about 50% undergraduate students -- and Chiu-Ki said that most of the material is intended for undergraduate students.

Christina: Learn from your co-workers.

  • Read their code, participate in code reviews. Do not work in isolation if you can help it. A fancy title does not count as leadership experience; strive for something more.
  • Ask about company and group processes in interviews. Companies with bad processes give you bad habits that are hard to break. Code reviews are a good sign. A lack of automated processes is a bad sign.
  • Work on things you do not already know how to do. Grow your abilities. Do not get stale. 
  • Even if you are the perfect person for the job, it doesn't mean that it is the perfect job for you.

Chiu-Ki: What is the difference between school and work? In school, you take courses and you do exams. You have a clear path and you know when you are done: there is an end goal: graduation. At work you may not have that end goal. It may be clear. Another difference is at school, you have an advisor and professors helping you; at work, nobody is making sure you are growing and taking charge of your career. At school, you get grades so you know if you need to work a bit harder -- for example, if you get a B. At work, you have to figure out how you are evaluated. Your work does not speak for itself. If you are working hard, make sure that other people know what you are doing. Tell people what you are doing. An e-mail, for example, saying "Just a quick update on X" or "Took me a while to figure out how to do X but I figured it out and here is the solution." Answer e-mails right away. Even if you are not 100% sure of the answer, and even if you should probably verify -- just outline the steps that you would take. As your name appears more and more in a team setting, people come to associate you as someone that knows the answers. Learn to say no. In school, you cannot say, "This week I will not do this project." But at work, you have a say in the work that you take on. Question your projects and make sure they align with your goals. Defend your position and you will earn respect with your team.

Rupa: I will tell you the lessons I have learned on how to grow yourself.

  • When I started programming, I thought that writing beautiful, modular, efficient code was the key to doing well. But writing code is not enough to get a project done end to end, but getting a project done end to end is incredibly important. You need to grow yourself from a sous chef to a head chef. Be the person that glues the project together by appeasing people on both sides of the project. 
  • Next, figure out your manager. Is s/he a morning person? What is her/his personality type? How will you help your manager help you? Learn to manage your boss.
  • Your review. This is the most difficult and stress-inducing things in our industry. 
  • First, set concrete goals for every quarter. For me, my manager and I meet every quarter and discuss my goals. You never know what might change (the market, the economy, technology, ...). If your goals are not aligned with your manager's, you need to align them. Next, find out how your project and your team is viewed by your peers, your manager, and others. Mangage the perception of your accomplishments.
  • Know your review universe. Think of a Venn diagram and draw your review circles inside it. Is it your manager? The guy in the next cubicle that knows your personality? Do folks you worked with in the past have a say in your review? Network very well and understand the pieces that come together to affect your review.
  • Be genuine and be helpful.

Christina: Networking.

  • You have to build your network before you need it. I am not saying that you have to go out and hold a big party every other month -- that is exhausting. But I am saying that the power of knowing a friend of a friend of a friend is powerful. Then you will never be looking for a job -- your next job will be looking for you.
  • Networking is about helping other people. Plan to put more into it than you get out of it. Most of the time you will be helping to connect people across your network. It's little benefit to you, but will be hugely beneficial to someone in your network. Don't be the person that is always asking for a favor -- call to say hello, or thank you, or invite to lunch. Your network should be broad and lacking in holes.
  • Carry a business card, dammit.
Rupa: Negotiate your job offer
  • Figure out what is most important to you. Is it base salary, benefits, vacation time, commuter passes, free food, maternity leave, location, etc.?  Rank these.  Then, gather as much information as you can about things like base salary for the position based on your location and experience.
  • Keep calm. Be confident. And be really polite.


Act 1
A software engineering position to Rupa at Foosoft.  Rupa wholeheartedly accepts.

[ Audience boos ]

Act 2
Rupa negotiates: Can you do something about base salary, bonus, vacation, stock options, a pony... Christine says no to everything and they settle on the original offer.

[ Audience cheers ]

(You asked, and you didn't get it -- but you still got the original offer)

Act 3
Rupa negotiates again, with a higher competing offer. The details of the offer are confidential.
[ Time passes ]
Christine comes back with a better offer and more stock but not as high as Rupa wants. Rupa now negotiates some more. Asks for a month of paid vacation.
[ Time passes ]
Christine offers a signing bonus. Rupa wholeheartedly accepts.

[ Audience cheers ]

More information is online at

Question and Answer

Q from Emily from Portland State: How do you go about handling competing offers coming at vastly different times?

Rupa: Rate the places you interviewed from most interesting to least interesting, and wait until you have an offer from the most interesting place.

Christine: Larger companies are aware that you will not graduate until June, so even with, say, a February offer you will not be expected to start until June.

Q from Jo at LinkedIn: I have a problem where I'm incredibly transparent about my enthusiasm. I have no poker-face. I can't negotiate. I'm just happy to do this job, and they can see it all over my face. How do I negotiate if it's so clear that I want it?

Rupa: What is your next step -- what are you trying to achieve? Change fields slightly? Set your goal and 

Christine: I didn't negotiate my offer from Google because I got an offer from Google. Just ask, even if you're crying tears of happiness.

Chiu-Ki  You don't have to be unhappy with an offer. You're just saying, "Can you do better?" Tell yourself to just do it. Ask. If that doesn't work it's a learning lesson. It's a back and forth.

Jo: This is very helpful for someone that is not a student and has gone through

Q from Jana at Columbia: What are disparities in pay between women and men like in tech, and how do you battle it?

Rupa: Go to those sites that I mentioned and find out the expected salary in your region. When you look up those numbers, put in a male name. That is one way to know what the going salary expectation is. These sites have a lot of information on the numbers and also the benefits.

Christine: Part of the reason that this disparity exists is because women don't negotiate. There is a good book called Women Don't Ask

Q from ??: It is hard for me to think about making a mistake, translated into being overly cautious. I don't want to come across as silly or unaware.

Chiu-Ki  That's the whole reason we had Act 1 and Act 2 for you. Nobody is going to say, "Oh, my gosh, she is so aggressive" for the rest of your career.

Rupa: I'd recommend that it's how you ask. Be polite. Use terminology that is not overly aggressive, but ask.

Christine: Research the heck out of it. Ask your fellow students what kind of offers they're getting and compare. Get them drunk first if you have to.

Chiu-Ki  I practiced technical questions and presenting myself as a professional by going to interviews for jobs that I didn't care for. Then I had competing offers on the table so I had some data about what companies offer. If you don't care about the job, you'll be more comfortable asking questions and making mistakes.

Rupa: You should picture yourself as male. Fight for it like a man would do.

Chiu-Ki: I tried to push the boundary and realized that the boundary was not there.

Rupa: With a recruiter it's okay to be aggressive. They expect it.

Q from Lauren from University of Richmond: Is there a limit in the appropriateness of negotiations depending on the position that you're applying for?

Rupa: If you are, say, in a state that you are being expected to work full time but will be unable to fulfill the obligations, don't lie.

Christine: Are you asking if there's a number that is perceived as obnoxious? I'm an engineer; everything is less terrifying when you have data. It is perfectly reasonable to ask what is the range for this position, when you apply.

Rupa: Go to and read reviews on what companies are like to work for. Look up the atmosphere for the group as well.

Q from Liz from ?? College: What would you tell someone that's entering the job market for the first time, that doesn't know what to get into?

Christine: It is hard to give a blanket statement. Work with people that know more than you do. The good thing about a start-up is that you have to do everything. In one place, I had to build my own desk; in some places, there are people that keep your computer running.

Rupa: My personal recommendation is, unless you are super entrepreneurial right off the bat, I would recommend a slightly mid-sized company so that you can learn the ropes. Once you learn the ropes, you can switch into a start-up where you have to know the ropes day one.

Chiu-Ki: My take on this? Internships. That's what they're for. Do one at a big company and do one at a start-up; then you have data.

Q from June from Indiana University of Wilmington: ???

Christine: Ask the company how many shares they have standing and what their valuation is. Do not believe them when they say their stock will split many times when they go public.

Q from ??: How do you balance being aggressive with being diplomatic?

Christine: Own your inner bitch.

[ Applause ]

Chiu-Ki: Most of us are leaning toward the non-aggressive side. It will be a long time before you become a bitch. You don't wake up in the morning and go, "Am I bitchy today?" Unless you have been told that, it is not a valid concern.

Q from ??: What is a polite way to reject an offer?

Rupa: I had 45 interviews in 3 months. I would talk to the recruiter and say, "I am very sorry, I have a competing offer that I just cannot refuse. You understand; the market is really hot. I would like you to keep me in mind and I hope we can talk again at a later point."


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