Speaking Truth: Mentoring Women in Tech
By Pramod Khincha, Chief Technical Officer, Vida Health
23 to 8. No, I’m not talking about a varsity basketball game, but in fact the ratio of males to females in my daughter’s computer science class. If my daughters were entering the technology industry today, they’d find themselves there, too. There is no doubt that males make up the majority of the tech industry. I want my daughters to have the same opportunities their male counterparts do, so this is an issue I’m personally passionate about. However, its important to realize that a lack of gender diversity in technology is a problem that affects all of us. It is a huge contributor to unconscious bias, which results in poor product choices and data decisions. For example, LinkedIn’s search feature has been known to auto-correct female names to male names.
It is more important now than ever to encourage future female technology leaders and inspire them to be involved in the field. But how do we do this? There are many ways, big and small, to bring attention to this issue and start a conversation within our organizations. We’ve taken a few approaches at Vida. Big picture, we pride ourselves on equal pay between men and women at the same level. Everyone has the same opportunities and we’re constantly diversifying our workforce, especially on the technical team, as much as possible. Currently women make up 33% of our team. Overall, 56% of our team work in product development or in technical roles.
We also created initiatives to drive conversations internally, like naming our projects after renowned female scientists, mathematicians, or technologists. Our most recent project, involving rewriting our content search infrastructure, is named after Sally Ride — the first American woman in space. After effectively introducing this idea, conversations about gender diversity amongst our team and the technology industry as a whole became more prevalent within our company.
In an effort to increase the number of women technologists at Vida and support broader industry initiatives, we partnered with the Duke Technology Scholars Program, or DTech. The program is comprised of 34 female students majoring in technical fields — computer science, statistics, engineering, math — with the desire enter related industries post-graduation. After a rigorous application process, women in the program secure an internship to become a DTech Scholar and begin working in the Bay Area. We were fortunate to have two stellar Duke Scholars, Ashka and Anika, spend their summer with us at Vida.
I sat down with our two Duke scholars Ashka and Anika to hear more about their experience and perspectives.
With all the news about gender inequality and bias from the Valley, were you concerned accepting the offer from Vida? If so, what was on your mind?
Anika: Oddly enough, not at all. While going through the recruitment process my only technical interview with a woman engineer was with Vida. Hearing a female on the other side of the line was so exciting, and immediately made me more interested in the company as well as more at ease during the actual interview (especially given the news headlines recently…). I think the fact that Vida had decided to partner with a women-in-tech organization to hire interns — in other words, the fact that I found the internship through a portal of women — made me immediately more comfortable with entering the tech industry at Vida.
Recently you attended a panel of female founders discussing the lack of diversity in the technology workforce and how to address the gap. Did anything from the panel resonate with your experience at Vida?
Anika: Speak up! I am not naturally a quiet person, but I have definitely made an extra effort to make my voice heard during meetings and in general make myself a presence at Vida. Everyone has been very kind and accepting, but it is alarmingly easy to just stay quiet and fade into the background. I have seen first hand how quieter or less confident people can be overshadowed when more dominant voices lead the conversation, even when both ideas are equally valid. As a front-end engineer, I interface regularly with both the design and product team, and I often have suggestions to improve upon their decisions. By communicating readily and sharing opinions, we have been able to create a stronger product than if I just mindlessly coded up everything I was given without a second thought.
Anika, You help lead a diversity group at Duke and are part of many other diversity programs. Would Vida’s culture pass and how we address diversity of views and culture here pass your bar?
Anika: I am part of several women in tech support groups at Duke (Rewriting the Code Fellows, DTech Scholars, and Wiring with Women executive board), so I have had countless discussions about culture and diversity.
Culture and diversity in a company are not the same thing: diversity is the composition of your workforce, while culture is the environment promoted by that workforce. Vida, like most of the tech industry, could use more gender diversity in its engineering team. However, this is an area of improvement that is actively being addressed as it grows and expands its engineering workforce, and I have seen visible improvements over the summer. It is a very difficult thing to have an engineering team that is 50/50 men:women, because the application pool is nowhere near that ratio. Seeing Vida’s strong female leaders first-hand gives me no doubt that this gender gap will close as Vida grows.
Consequently, Vida’s culture is incredible. There is no “tech bro” attitude nor have I experienced any “imposter syndrome” during my time there. Everyone is extremely respectful of one another and their ideas and it is a very fun group of people! Honestly, I was almost surprised at how much my coworkers listened to what I said — it was awesome being included in all those decisions.
If you were to describe the work culture at Vida in one word, what would it be?
Ashka: Genuine. It’s not very often you work for a company which is wholly dedicated to its mission — both inside and out. It’s refreshing. Working at Vida has meant that it’s time to trade in that Freshman 15 in favor of the Vida -15 (not such a bad thing!). Vida’s workplace internally encourages the healthy lifestyle that it externally advocates; we have team runs on Tuesdays, yoga on Thursdays, and the occasional team hike and outing. We get delicious and healthy (you can get both?) food for lunch and do team planks everyday at 3PM (summer goal: conquer that 3 minute plank). Overall, the environment fosters the mission of the company itself — something I’m definitely a fan of.
Were you surprised at the level of autonomy provided to you and the expectations from you as an Intern. Were they different for other folks (such as men)?
Anika: Actually, what has surprised me the most about Vida is the amount of responsibility that I was given. I always hear stories of interns working on small parts of small things: a phenomenon likely linked to working at a big company that already has a heavily developed, well-established product. As part of the four person (three excluding myself) iOS team, we delved into creating a 2.0 version of our app with a time frame of just a few months. I worked on almost every screen of the app at some point, and created several new views from scratch. Working on a small team that is developing the largest platform through which our app is used put a huge amount of responsibility in my hands to perform. The expectations put on me were no different from any other peer, regardless of gender — that trust not only encouraged me to rise to the challenges presented by my project, but prompted me to exceed what was expected.
Your project at Vida was about the intersection of intelligence and humans. What learnings do you take back to Duke from this experience?
Ashka: “All I know is that I know nothing.”
Many questions can stem from this quote, but the real question is: Was Socrates talking about computer science? Just as an algorithm initially knows only the basics, but grows in strength as it’s given training data, I too came to Vida as a tabula rasa for the most part, armed with simply classroom-taught basics. This being my first official technical internship, I was eager to apply what I had learned to a real (as opposed to fake?) working experience.
I have been working on a feature for coaches called Insights. The Insights section allows for coaches to receive and analyze insightful (surprise!) information about their clients’ health progress. This feature analyzes in real-time each clients data, throws out relevant metrics and insights per client, and delivers it to the coach such that they can tailor their approach to each client. Thus, this feature achieves our goal of balancing technological benefits with the human-component of coaching. It has been gratifying to see the whole development of a feature from the start to end and from back-end to front-end.
From a non-technical standpoint, what do you look forward to in your day-to-day experience?
Ashka: They say that students in school should learn both “in and out of the classroom”; similarly as an intern, I’m learning both in and out of the office! (Should I have made a classic California In-N-Out pun there?) As an intern, I have access to so many people to learn from at Vida — one of the many perks of working at a smaller startup. I find coffee chats the way to go when it comes to hearing about others’ experiences and getting to know them. Through coffee chats, I’ve gotten to hear everything from stories about navigating career paths to a detailed analysis of which Netflix shows are objectively better than the rest. It all sounds amazing (and it is!), but the one negative is that I drink way too much coffee now. Maybe it’s time switch to “caffeine-free green tea chats” instead?
Switching gears, tell me more about the Duke Technology Scholars program. What has been the most valuable aspect of it for you?
Ashka: The Duke Technology Scholars program is a program which helps provide a platform for and promote women in tech. It serves as both a forum for discussion and a network of other great females in technical fields. I find the most valuable aspect to be the lasting friendships I have made and the people I have met in the program. From great mentors to fellow students like Anika, I’ve developed lasting friendships that will continue once we all get back to campus. We all bonded for different reasons and have varying experiences, but in the end the common thread is a love for tech and a desire to promote an inclusive environment. DTech fosters friendships.
How aptly do you feel that Duke’s Computer Science program prepared you for your first working experience?
Ashka: Yesterday I flew into San Francisco ready to begin my internship. It was yesterday right?
It’s surreal how quickly summer has gone by. Connor (my amazing mentor), Jack (the data-scientist Connor and I worked closely with) and Josh (who knows everything about everything!) have significantly helped develop my technical skills. Much of what I learn built on what Duke’s CS department had taught and prepared me for. From taking both undergrad/grad courses to being a Teaching Assistant, to starting side-projects with your friends, to getting involved with student organizations on campus, the department offers many ways to learn more about technology outside the conventional classroom setting. Additionally, Duke’s department supports women-in-tech initiatives; for example, many female students (including the DTech scholars) receive sponsorship to attend the famous Grace Hopper Conference (the largest gathering of women in tech). Overall, through various ways I’m involved with the department on campus, I’ve learned new technical material. But perhaps most importantly, Duke has taught me adaptability — learning how to learn. This foundation coupled with Vida’s smooth intern-onboarding resulted in a successful internship experience.
For as much as Anika and Ashka learned, Vida learned equally as much from them. A few of our favorite takeaways:
- The importance of community: As Anika shared, “I think the fact that Vida had decided to partner with a women-in-tech organization to hire interns — in other words, the fact that I found the internship through a portal of women — made me immediately more comfortable with entering the tech industry at Vida.”
- Show Over Tell: Don’t just say you support women in this industry, prove it! As Anika stated, “Vida, like most of the tech industry, could use more gender diversity in its engineering team. However, this is an area of improvement that is actively being addressed as it grows and expands engineering workforce, and I have seen visible improvements over the summer.”
- Support Diverse Voices: Nothing will change if we don’t feel comfortable bringing our whole selves to work and being vulnerable. As Anika advises, “Speak up! I am not naturally a quiet person, but I have definitely made an effort to make my voice heard during meetings and in general make myself a presence at Vida.”
Vida will continue to champion inclusion and will be conscious of the choices we make when recruiting talent. The more we learn from interns like Anika and Ashka the better we can cultivate a culture of inclusion.
Read more about the panelists and the event here.
More about Pramod:
Pramod is the CTO at Vida Health. Prior to Vida, he led many engineering teams at LinkedIn and Yahoo. Pramod likes finding creative solutions to hard problems. In his spare time, he is mostly spending time with his family, or playing Cello and Tennis.
More about Anika:
Anika is a Computer Science and Neuroscience student entering her junior year at Duke. She is on the iOS team at Vida and enjoys bouldering, going to farmers markets, and drinking copious amounts of coffee.
More about Ashka:
Ashka is a rising junior at Duke University studying Computer Science with minors in Statistics and Finance. She is working as a full stack developer on Vida’s web-server application this summer. In her free time, she enjoys exploring San Francisco, reading, and hiking.