United VerveCon volunteers, participants and organizers(Photo: Vervecon)
United VerveCon volunteers, participants and organizers (Photo: Vervecon)

Speakers at the conference ranged from data scientists and UI designers to architects and directors of engineering, from companies that included Amazon, LinkedIn, Intel, Uber, Facebook, SurveyMonkey, Juniper Network, Netflix and IBM.

As a reporter, I’ve covered tech conferences all over the Bay Area. But that was almost 20 years ago when I lived here. Last Friday, I was shocked to feel the energy from hundreds of passionate women (and a few brave men), who discussed everything from AI and IoT to search engines, UX, big data and security.

This was a conference different from anything I’ve ever experienced.

Unfortunately, over the last few decades, the hard reality that has gone unchanged is that women remain as a minority in their respective engineering teams. They are paid less, and they struggle to make their achievements visible.

Sudha Kasamsetty, VerveCon founder
Sudha Kasamsetty, VerveCon founder

Many women at the conference including VerveCon founder Sudha Kasamsetty, believe that the fuel for the women-in-tech conference was none other than an ex-Googler’s so-called “diversity memo.” That 10-page memo written last summer by a male software engineer arguing for less emphasis on gender diversity in the workplace, triggered a culture-war eruption in Silicon Valley.

It was a wake-up call to many women, including female engineering executives, who might have mistakenly thought the inequality between men and women in a workplace was a problem solved decades ago. Many women took the “diversity” memo personally, as an attack on their ability (or lack thereof) to do science, engineering and coding.

It made them — including myself — suddenly realize: “Whoa! We are going backwards!”

Suja Viswesan, who was at IBM for more than 10 years as a senior software manager before joining LinkedIn as a director of engineering, said, “I agree. It’s not the time for us to stay silent just because we’ve got ours.”

A sense of urgency — that “we must do something” for their engineering sisters — was obvious among the VerveCon crowd. But it is less evident that many male engineers or executives got the same memo.

After VerveCon, I was amused to hear from the male-dominant tech world comments like: “Men were not invited? Or they were simply not welcome? How did you keep men out?”

Guys, I get it. This conference — primarily developed by women and designed for women — put you in an awkward spot. The sight of all those erstwhile helpmeets playing the “Woman Card” might make you feel uncomfortable, if not threatened.  However, seen positively, this role reversal offers men the opportunity to see workplace inequality in a different light — from the other side.

If you feel, for the moment, a little victimized, consider how women tend to feel all the time.

To be clear, VerveCon was open to men. Male attendees and speakers were welcome. Steven Lease, financial advisor at Morgan Stanley who was among a minority male audience at VerveCon, told me it wasn’t until when he became a Girl Scout leader that it dawned on him: “We as a society aren’t giving enough training to our girls.”

VerveCon 2019 is already in the works, with hopes that more men will take part.

‘Hidden Figures’?
People I met at VerveCon provided me a close-up view of the Silicon Valley’s changing landscape. As I’ve written, the area is becoming, more and more, a fast-growing data-driven marketplace.

Indeed, many engineers who packed VerveCon appear to hold titles and pursue careers as “data scientists.”

A conference room full of female data scientists evoked, for me, the female coders and mathematician who calculated flight trajectories for Project Mercury and other missions in the film “Hidden Figures.”

When I asked several attendees if the “Hidden Figures” scenario applies to data science, many said, “You can’t just assume that.” After all, even today, the typical female ratio among data scientists processing data at any given company is about 30 percent at best.

One attendee who used to work for a secretive startup called Silicon Valley Data Science confirmed a recent report that Apple earlier this year quietly acquired the startup’s data science and engineering team. The company’s specialists were analyzing data, helping clients improve their forecasts, operational efficiency, and customer relationships. Larger clients like Apple now want to own such data analytic skills internally. Hence the acquisition, she explained.

What You Missed by Not Attending VerveCon

So, in the example of Silicon Valley Data Science, the percentage of female data scientists was probably less than 20 percent, if you separate data engineers from data scientists, she said. What’s the difference between data engineers and data scientists then?

Data scientists clean, massage and shape structured and unstructured data. She explained, “They do it over in an island over there — sort of a utopian world — where the big data is stored,” she said. “But it’s critical to have data engineers build a bridge to get to the island.” Data engineers must first transform data into a useful format for analysis. A data scientist, in other words, can be only as good as the data provided.

As the demand for data scientists builds, more college graduates with computer science degrees are coming to the data science market. Not all data scientists are equal, though, she cautioned. It’s critical for data scientists to possess “critical thinking,” she concluded.

Continuous learning
Talks at the conference were heavy on big data-related topics, a key to the needs of young, energetic female data scientists in the Valley.

Hundreds of female engineers packed the main conference room for its keynote panel
Hundreds of female engineers packed the main conference room for its keynote panel (Photo: VerveCon)

The conference, however, also drew female engineers in diversified fields — including process engineers from Dainippon Screen, program manager at Synopsys and Cadence, a research scientist working for NASA and many startup CEOs.

A common thread was an eagerness to learn, to stay current and keep an eye on broad topics.

Selina Tobaccowala
Selina Tobaccowala

At the keynote panel, which I co-moderated, Selina Tobaccowala, a serial entrepreneur (founder of Evite, ex-CTO at SurveyMonkey and a CEO of Gixo today), cited the importance of “constant, deliberate learning.” She noted, “I have been very explicit with my goal as to what new things I learn each year.”

What engineers should learn isn’t limited to just engineering topics.

Rebecca Parsons
Rebecca Parsons

Asked about how she secured her CTO position at Thoughtworks, Rebecca Parsons said, “Engineers need to learn the business of economics.” Being CTO means that “you should be able to communicate with those in business.”  Getting oneself “out of a tech box” is vital, she noted.

Parsons recalled an incident early in her career at Thoughtworks. She attended a big internal conference where business people discussed ambitious revenue plans for the coming year. Surprised at the projected numbers, Parsons asked the sales people if they thought they could pull it off. They said, “No.” Nevertheless, the meeting went on no one challenged the unrealistic goals.

“While I thought it was a little strange,” said Parsons, “I was new to the team and I thought I was a technologist, so I remained quiet.” Lo and behold, six months later, the sales team failed. “When that happened, I thought… I should have spoken up.”

Engineers can’t always hide behind their façade as technologists. “You must bring your whole self to a meeting,” Parsons said.

A few more tips for engineers
Kamini Dandapani, senior engineering director at LinkedIn, reminded the audience of the importance of “going an extra mile to showcase your work.”

Kamini Dandapani
Kamini Dandapani

An introvert, Dandapani said she hesitated to express her opinions in a meeting. “But I like writing. I found a way to summarize my own thoughts after the meeting. I sent it via email or posted it in my blog.” Whatever the mechanism is, “It’s important to articulate your thoughts and raise your opinion in the public view,” Dandapani noted.

Before meetings, “I rehearsed what I had to say many times. Practice makes it perfect,” Dandapani noted. “Your body language is also very important. When in a meeting, you need to own the room.”

Gixo’s Tobaccowala agreed. “Women tend to hold their thoughts in a meeting. But you just need to say something. Otherwise, you would be labeled as someone who has nothing to add,” she said. 

 


Angel Rich
Angel Rich

Angel Rich, a young entrepreneur who founded a startup called the Wealth Factory in 2012, told the audience, “One thing to remember is that every boss has a boss.”

Before the startup, she worked at Prudential Financial as a global market research analyst. Looking back, she said that she was often underestimated not just by her colleagues but also by her own boss. When that boss threw up a roadblock, Rich simply climbed over it and talked with her boss’s boss to share her ideas for cost cutting, streamlining operations and improving productivity.

Asked if this behavior annoyed her direct boss, Rich, who doesn’t mince words, said that she couldn’t afford to be fearful of her boss. As a young black woman, her primary goal was to be taken seriously.  

With her fintech background, Rich invented a mobile game called “CreditStacker,” a financial educational game on credit reports, budgeting, saving, investing, banking, car financing and taxes.

VerveCon audience last Friday (Photo: VerveCon)
VerveCon audience last Friday (Photo: VerveCon)

Bias and #metoo movement
Asked how the #metoo movement is impacting the workplace, Tobaccowala emphasized that #metoo — which is essentially tied to sexual harassment and criminal behavior — is a separate issue from workplace bias against women. Often, biased men aren’t even aware that they are discriminating against women, she said.

In a meeting where a male colleague keeps interrupting women, someone needs to speak up and tell him: “Hey, you keep interrupting Mary. Let her finish first,” said Tobaccowala. Telling Mary after the meeting how awful it was for that guy to keep interrupting her wouldn’t help anyone, she noted.

Parsons also cautioned, “Bias is such a loaded word.” It’s always more effective to point out that a certain behavior is biased, rather than accusing someone of bias on a personal level, she explained. “The focus should be on actions — what they just did.” As Parsons once wrote, “Accept that one isn’t evil for having a bias,” because we have our own biases. “The evil comes from not acknowledging the bias or refusing to mitigate against it.” 

Female roles in big data?
EE Times asked several speakers if they see anything specific female data scientists might do about the way big data is being shaped and handled.

After all, data scientists are doing everything from creating algorithms for self-driving cars to automatically captioning images.

The conference participants struggled to point out anything specific that female engineers could do or are doing.  But many acknowledged that the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is what “we all talk about all the time” at big data-processing companies such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon.

GDPR is a European regulation intended to strengthen and unify data protection for individuals within the European Union. Some female data scientists in the United States feel that GDPR provides Europeans good privacy protection. “So, why wouldn’t the U.S. simply extend the EU regulations to the U.S. citizens?” Others, however, pointed out that a few data processing companies in the United States, loaded with money, would rather wait until someone sues them, so that they can settle.

Fauzia Chaudhry
Fauzia Chaudhry

Either way, many data scientists appear mindful of their own privacy and that of their own children.

Citing terabytes of genealogical data collected by Ancestry.com over the last 30 to 40 years, Fauzia Chaudhry, senior technical product manager at Ancestry told the audience, “It’s important to think about what kind of data we are handing down to our next generations.”
 

— Junko Yoshida, Chief International Correspondent, EE Times