Help others. I’ve had a lot of help from great engineers along the way, who’ve given me advice, support, opportunities and just plain good will. At the end of the day, you really need to pay forward. Help someone else grow, help them find their dream project or get recognition for their work. It makes the world a better place and it’ll help you gain satisfaction too.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Neha Pattan, Senior Staff Software Engineer at Google.
As a Tech Lead at Google, Neha is responsible for leading teams to design and develop products and services for Google’s Cloud business. She works with customers, often from large Fortune 500 companies, to understand pain points in deploying their applications to the Cloud, then works with dozens of engineers, product specialists, UX designers, sales and support personnel to build a solution. Neha is a key architect of the APIs to manage virtual networks on Google Cloud Platform and has overseen the launch of several major products in the past 5 years. Neha has a Master’s degree in Software Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Neha! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thanks for having me.
I remember I was 14 years old when I read about Deep Blue and was fascinated by its victory over Gary Kasparov, the world chess champion at the time. It was amazing to witness this moment in history when machines showed the first signs of intelligence. I knew I had to study computer science and was thrilled when our first desktop computer, a Pentium II arrived the following year. I started my college years in arguably the best years for any tech enthusiast — witnessing the exponential growth of computing power and memory and then diving right into the explosion of handheld devices and smaller form factors after graduate school. It’s been a remarkable journey, not just because we get to see all the amazing ways that technology is changing the world, but because we are part of the teams that are building these technologies.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
At Google, I’ve led teams in a bunch of different areas — Search, Ads and now Cloud. It’s really fun to watch something you’ve built get used by people and hear them talk about it when they don’t know that they’re talking to a tech lead who built it. There was this one time that a friend and I connected after a really long time and she introduced me to her fiancé. When I asked him what he did, he said he worked as a Director responsible for cloud migration at one of the largest retail stores in the country. I asked him what made his life easy and what made it hard and he went on to describe to me a product that my team had just launched a few months ago and one that we were still working on. After I told him what I did, he went on to tell me how well our products are designed and why he thought we are better than our competitors. It’s a great feeling to know that your work really matters and is making a difference.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I was interviewing at Google, my recruiter asked me if I had someone in mind who I wanted to have lunch with (between the interviews). I got really excited and said — of course! I want to have lunch with Jeff Dean or Sanjay Ghemavat. They’re two of the most senior engineers at Google and have authored several papers I read in grad school. Googlers even have Chuck Norris style jokes about them, like — Jeff Dean’s PIN is the last 4 digits of pi. Jeff Dean’s resume lists the things he hasn’t done; it’s shorter that way.
My recruiter met my enthusiasm with a reality check and replied back — I meant did you have a friend or someone you wanted to connect with? I felt disappointed at the time but I later got to meet both of them at different occasions. I learned that things have a way of working out — often times better than what you would have planned, so have faith and hang in there.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Google is the best place to work — not just because of all the fun stuff you get to learn and do to impact millions, even billions of people worldwide, but also because everyone is so down-to-earth. There was this one time when I was meeting with a Senior VP of Engineering to discuss one of my projects. It was early in my career and I didn’t know what to expect, so went in thinking it would be a board-room style, grim meeting. I was surprised to find out how open it was — everyone was heard, ideas and jokes came from all ranks and everyone contributed. I think it’s this diversity of ideas and backgrounds that makes Google a great place to work.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’m leading a couple of projects that we’re excited about. Unfortunately I can’t say much about them but we’re really excited about how our users will use and interact with them.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I think there’s more work to be done before women are equally represented in the industry, especially in leadership roles. We’re still far from that point. Although we make up more than half the professional workforce, women hold only a quarter of the jobs in the tech industry, less than 11% of executive jobs and only 5% of tech startup founders are women. These numbers are up from the last decade, but there is clearly a lot to improve on.
One thing that will help change the status quo is equality in pay. It is disappointing that we still face pay disparity in our industry and I hope all tech companies will work towards eliminating the pay gap and being more open about their pay structures. Google has been making progress here by investing in studies to dig into the pay and opportunity gaps and I think it would help the industry for more companies to do so.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
The strength of numbers. When I started out as a fresh grad, I remember being in meetings where the decision makers were mostly men. I remember the first time I was in a meeting where the senior most engineer was a woman and noticed the difference — not only in the tone of the meeting but in my own self confidence and comfort at presenting my ideas and challenging those of others.
Having more women and leaders in tech means that we need to focus not only on encouraging more women to join the tech field but also to stay in it for the long haul. It means that we need to give everyone an equal opportunity to grow and lead. Those who are currently in leadership positions will need to make more of an effort to identify their biases and address them in order to help grow people from all genders and backgrounds, equally. It’s not an easy task but bias busting workshops and generating awareness have proven helpful.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
One of the conversations I feel has had a detrimental effect on the movement is around women being physiologically (or in any other way) predisposed to fail in STEM or Tech. I’m not sure how anyone can even come up with this stuff. Having to justify why this is wrong and talk about how women have equal aptitude for analytical thinking and logical reasoning is exhausting. Women are here to stay and here to lead — let’s accept it and move on.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned over the past decade and a half, it is to stay true to yourself and keep an eye on your goals. There will be many distracting forces and often obstacles that may seem insurmountable. The only thing that will take you to your destination is your will to get there.
It’s no secret that women work harder and longer to achieve the same successes as their male counterparts. We often get caught up in this race and lose sight of what really matters — having fun. I tell every new engineer who joins my team — keep learning and have fun. It’s key to being successful at anything you do.
I’ve been fortunate to get to work with some really great people. Whether they are men or women, people of color, coming from different backgrounds and ethnicities, we all have similar goals. We all need help getting there and we get stronger when we join forces.
I’ve had a lot of help from great engineers along the way, who’ve given me advice, support, opportunities and just plain good will. At the end of the day, you really need to pay forward. Help someone else grow, help them find their dream project or get recognition for their work. It makes the world a better place and it’ll help you gain satisfaction too.
Celebrate your wins.
One thing women don’t do enough of is acknowledge and celebrate wins. We work really hard to achieve our goals but when we get there we attribute success to everything else but ourselves. I think it’s really important to take the time to celebrate our successes, look back and learn from them as much as we do from failures.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be confident in your decisions and stand up for them. Even if they are unpopular in the short term, the right decisions will pay off in the long term and your team will respect you more for making them. While doing so, it will help to be transparent about your reasoning and help your team see your decision making process. The more they know, the more they can trust you.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Delegate. It’s something I’m trying to grapple with as well, but I’ve learned is necessary for growth. Trust others and allow them to make important decisions, only stepping in when needed.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I couldn’t have been where I am today without my mother’s support. I have sought her advice on matters big and small and her wisdom has always led me to make better choices, faster. I was once in a tough situation where I had to negotiate with powerful stakeholders. Mom gave me really simple advice — try to make others win too. I had an aha moment and changed my strategy completely. I was surprised at how we found a solution where everyone was happy and we improved our relations along the way.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’ve mentored several engineers at Google and often help them navigate their way through their career. It’s been a great experience and I’ve learned as much from them as they may have from me.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the
most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what
your idea can trigger. 🙂
That’s a great question. I would start an #ISponsorHer movement, where every techie — young or old, male or female, chooses to sponsor a woman they know. Being someone’s sponsor means that you are vouching for that person, making opportunities available to them or encouraging them to grow by mentoring and coaching them. Imagine a world where you are able to always rely on someone to help you make good career choices — even as soon as you just start out.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My grandfather taught us a Sanskrit word when we were young kids: Tathastu (so it shall be). It means that the energy you put out into the world eventually comes back to you. It’s been a word I am reminded of every time I think negatively or feel pessimistic.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I have many role models but if I were to name one, I’d say Sheryl Sandberg. It would be great to sit down with her and learn about her perspectives on what went right and what could’ve been done differently with the Lean In movement.