Your skills are not other people’s skills. I have always been very organized, and good at time management. I used to get frustrated at other people, who would say they were going to do things, but then not get them done! I did not realize that understanding my personal capacity was actually a rare skill, and that I should capitalize on my planning abilities and understand the value it brings to others. Not everyone can do what I do! And once I understood that, I was able to bring more value and get more recognition for what I could contribute. That being said, all of those other people that I was frustrated with? They are good at other things, many of which don’t come too naturally to me. One might be good at setting up sustainable systems; another is a divergent thinker with a lot of very different thoughts that others may not have come up with; a third is an inspirational visionary. Once you understand what skills you bring to the table that others may not have, AND you understand what others have that you don’t have, you can work together to accomplish great things.
I had the pleasure to interview Shruti Aring. Shruti began her career at Hyland, a leading content services provider to global organizations, in 2005 as a Software Developer focused on building new functionality for its OnBase Workflow product. In her 14 year tenure at Hyland, she grew her technology knowledge, skills and experience — promoted to a development team lead then manager. In 2015, Shruti accepted her current role as a director in Hyland’s Research and Development department where she oversees six different R&D teams comprised of 80 people. Outside of work, Shruti teaches South Indian Classical Music and has taught vocal and violin lessons for more than 15 years. She has a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in Computer Science from Case Western Reserve University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
During high school is when the World Wide Web started gaining popularity. I bought a book about how to create web pages and found it to be a fun and engaging activity. Later, my speech class teacher assigned a “how-to” project. I did mine on ‘how to write a simple HTML page.’ That’s when my passion for technology started. When I went to college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to major in. I had always been a math/science kind of kid, so my advisor told me that if there was even the remotest possibility of becoming an engineer, I should pursue engineering at the start because changing my mind and switching into the engineering major is harder than switching out. The very first class was a programming class (in C++!), and I found that I was quite talented at it and got the hang of it easily. I ended up doing a B.S./M.S. in Computer Science because I thoroughly enjoyed the work.
During college, I had two internships. The first was at a software company, and the other was in the IT department at a bank. From both those experiences, I discovered that I liked the atmosphere and working environment at the software company better — it felt different when I was creating the product being sold than when I was creating products to support a different line of business. So when I graduated, I looked for a job at a software company. I started my career at a small local software company, I then moved on to be a junior developer at a different software company — continuing to grow into my current role as a director in R&D where I am today.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
While technical challenges are always interesting, what I really love doing is creating order out of chaos. I’m lucky to have been in a company that has been constantly growing and changing the whole time I’ve been here, and there have been many opportunities to create order when there was chaos. The most recent time was a massive reorganization following the acquisition of another company. The company grew by 40 percent and integrating all the new folks was hugely disruptive to the status quo. I did a lot of work to restore a feeling of normalcy to my people.
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?
Oh, wow! I don’t know that any of my mistakes are particularly funny…one embarrassing one was early on in my career, I was still sort of in “college” mode. Nobody really cared about attendance, punctuality or professionalism — as long as the assignments got done and you did well on exams, it was totally fine to skip class or even fall asleep during an exam — a thing I actually once did!
Well, I was in training at my new company and it was the same sort of lecture as college classes. I found myself slipping back to old college habits and I nodded off during the class! The instructor talked to me about professionalism standards afterwards and while it was embarrassing at the time, I learned something about the difference between the workplace and college!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The thing that makes my company stand out is the real commitment we have to our people. My organization offers many onsite perks, things like onsite gyms with fitness classes, dry cleaning, onsite salons for haircuts and manicures, and others that make a real impact on our lives. The onsite daycare in particular is a big attractor for employees with growing families. Both of my children went through the daycare at my organization, and they both had an amazing experience. I was able to nurse them in person when they were babies, and they had a fantastic Montessori curriculum as they approached Kindergarten. They are both very enthusiastic about school today and I credit the experience they had at our onsite day care for that.
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 it is very clear that women are underrepresented in my field (computer programming). As someone who has thrived in the field, I may be the wrong person to ask what turns women away. I wonder if it’s a bit of a vicious cycle — young women see that there aren’t many women in the field and therefore look elsewhere for career options.
From a hiring perspective, we have a pipeline problem. The number of women applying to these jobs is abysmally low, and tend to be in high demand. I support organizations like Girls Who Code, to get more girls involved in computer programming at a younger age. I also think that when we do find talented programmers in high school and college, we can do more to sell programming as a career to them. The statistics show that young women do just as well in programming as young men.
The industry would greatly benefit from more gender diversity. After all, software is used by women. We should have the representation of women creating it.
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?
I think there are two big things. The first is that it is my perception that our standards for women in tech is higher, possibly because women are underrepresented. I think this is partially self-inflicted due to underrepresentation: when someone feels they are the only one of their kind doing something, they feel like they have to prove themselves by being better than their peers. However, I also think that women don’t get ahead unless they are measurably and demonstrably more capable than their male counterparts.
The second is the typical challenges of working women. Childcare responsibilities, maternity leave and other family responsibilities still fall primarily on women, and juggling everything is a major challenge.
In both cases, I think that managerial support is critical. Managers should give women flexibility to handle their lives, and make sure they are giving their female employees’ opportunities, coaching and advancement the same as their male employees. Additionally, men should also be given flexibility and encouraged to take paternity leave and handle childcare responsibilities. The more that men pick up responsibilities of the home, the more work-life balance will be the norm, and the more equal the workplace will be for everyone.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
There are two myths that I’d like to address.
- Men are less emotional than women. From experience, men and women are equally emotional. I have been in situations where something happened, and I had a half dozen guys in my office freaking out, and as their fearless leader it was my job to calm them down.
- People skills are less important in the tech industry. As techies we like to imagine that decisions are argued and made on their technical merits. However, there are a variety of things that can get in the way of a pure technical discussion. People feel pride of ownership over their work and their ideas; they may not feel comfortable having flaws in their work pointed out in front of their teammates; they may be concerned about their evaluations, careers, and futures; and sometimes they view certain ideas as personal threats. Building trust on teams and navigating the human side of things as we work out the answers to technical questions requires just as much in the way of people skills as any other job.
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.)
- Your skills are not other people’s skills. I have always been very organized, and good at time management. I used to get frustrated at other people, who would say they were going to do things, but then not get them done! I did not realize that understanding my personal capacity was actually a rare skill, and that I should capitalize on my planning abilities and understand the value it brings to others. Not everyone can do what I do! And once I understood that, I was able to bring more value and get more recognition for what I could contribute. That being said, all of those other people that I was frustrated with? They are good at other things, many of which don’t come too naturally to me. One might be good at setting up sustainable systems; another is a divergent thinker with a lot of very different thoughts that others may not have come up with; a third is an inspirational visionary. Once you understand what skills you bring to the table that others may not have, AND you understand what others have that you don’t have, you can work together to accomplish great things.
- Learn to have hard conversations.Getting things done as a leader means you have to be able to convince others to work with you. This means having a shared goal or vision. If you can’t do that, you aren’t going to get too far. Having hard conversations is more than just having the courage to bring up important topics. It means having the skills to truly get to the bottom of the disagreement, find areas of consensus, and ultimately find a win-win in all of it. This may require changing your own opinion!
- Monitor and protect your reputation. One of the more valuable leadership exercises that we do at my company is 360 feedback. It allows me to request and receive feedback from a variety of people around the company. During one of these exercises, I got feedback that I talk over people and interrupt them too much. I was really surprised! In my opinion, everyone talked over everyone else all the time! But after getting this feedback, I started asking around, and yes, in fact, this was a real thing that people thought about me! At that point in my career it wasn’t going to hold me back too much, but I’m glad I received that feedback because as you rise in the ranks, at some point the people who are following you no longer know you personally. They are operating with an idea of who you are as opposed to really knowing you. And the reputation I wanted was of one who listens and takes feedback — not one who is inflexible and talks over people. I’m not perfect by any means, but I think more people view me as flexible than not at this point.
- Plan, but not too much. We used to hear from a lot of people that we didn’t have time to plan. We also used to hear, “why bother to plan? Everything is going to change anyway!” But somehow my team always found time to plan, and didn’t seem to share this view that everything is going to change anyway. What was the difference? In my opinion, it’s finding the right balance within your planning. You don’t want to plan too much, because if and when things do change, you’ll be invested in your plan and resistant to change. But plan too little, and you fail to provide good architecture, leading to bugs in the field and an inability to properly expand the solution later. You also are unable to provide anything resembling accurate delivery dates. Agile practices help a lot with figuring out how much is the right amount when planning.
- Take care of your mental and physical health. We had a re-organization following the acquisition, which took up a lot of my time for the better part of a year. During that time I worked late nights, poring over spreadsheets, preparing communication plans, organizing information and doing my normal job as well. It was hard on me, and hard on my family as well. One of the lessons learned was that you have to put on your own oxygen mask first. As a leader, and as a mom, a lot of people depend on me being functional. I have to take care of myself before I can take care of others, and I have since set some much healthier boundaries that allow me to give the best of myself both at home and at work.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Some traditionally female attributes are huge advantages as a leader. For example, while I certainly do not want my team to view me as their mom, parenting and managing people use a lot of the same skills. Evaluating people and helping to determine what they should work on to improve; motivating people; helping people find their voice … these are all things that we naturally do at home as well as at work. Making your team feel safe, allowing them to make mistakes, and mentoring them will allow them to do their best work.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
When you have a big team, you should not worry that you don’t know everything. You can’t — that’s why we have teams. Learn to delegate, but also be constantly looking for feedback on how things are going. Make it ok for your team to tell you when you are about to do something stupid, because if nobody tells you, you won’t know, and you will make mistakes. I make it a habit to run my presentations past my management team before I give them, and I adjust my messaging based on how they think it will land.
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?
As I implied in a previous question, my leadership was enormously supportive of me. I received my first promotion when I returned from maternity leave. When I had ideas, I was given the space to try them out. When I made mistakes, I was forgiven and given second chances. And when I wanted to take on new challenges, I was given opportunities. I am grateful to my managers throughout the years for giving me opportunities and space to grow my skills.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have been very influenced by my religion, and in particular there is a verse in the Bhagavad Gita that really applies to all aspects of life:
“You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty.” Gita 2:47
What this means to me is that we do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, and we can’t worry too much about the results. Sometimes our efforts pan out, and sometimes they don’t, but we have to keep trying anyway. There are a lot of things that go into whether or not our efforts are successful, so it’s not a good idea to take too much credit for results — though you can always take credit for your efforts. The important thing is to keep your eye on what is right, and keep trying.