Are All Women Engineers Like You?, with Rukmini Reddy

rukmini-reddy-vp-engineering-abstract

Rukmini Reddy is the VP of Engineering at Abstract, a design management system that centralizes design decisions, feedback, Sketch files, and specs for your team. It’s kind of like Github for design. Abstract has raised over $50M in VC dollars since their founding in 2015. Today, Rukmini oversees their engineering team of about 45, and will be expanding to 60 within the next 18 months. 

In this episode, we discuss how she’s used feedback to get better, how she attracts less traditional candidates to engineering roles on her team, and why the “10x engineer” trope is harmful to women in the engineering field.


Listen to the Full Episode Here:


Full Transcript:

Wes Winham:
Rukmini, thank you so much for joining us today on Scaling Software Teams.

Rukmini Reddy:
It's my pleasure to be here, Wes. Thank you for having me.

Wes Winham:
What is the most important inflection point in your career that got you to where you are today?

Rukmini Reddy:
I spent the first part of my career as a programmer building content management solutions at Fortune 500 companies. It wasn't very interesting, but I had to do it because I was an immigrant and I was bound by visa restrictions and all other difficulties that came with it.

I vividly remember this the day before Thanksgiving about nine years ago. I had a bad day at work and I was shopping for a bike on Craigslist. I got a little distracted by doing that, and I went to the job section on Craigslist and said, "Let's find my dream job, which is to be a content management architect in a product company." I was so surprised that a listing was posted earlier in that day and it had the exact description I was looking for. So I was like, you know what? Let me take a shot at it. And an hour later the CTO of that company called me and I thought to myself, "How desperate are these people?" It's the day before Thanksgiving. They put up this listing and now they're calling the first person who applied maybe on Craigslist an hour later.

In our conversation, he told me he had been trying to fill that specific skillset for six months, and out of desperation he came to Craigslist. It was meant to happen. I took that job. It was a great team. It was a company. It was Determine. And for my first three months, I built the integration that they were waiting for closing the biggest SAS deal of that time for that company.

About four months in my manager, Leo Segall, he came over to me and he was like, "You know what? I see something in you. You have a passion for people and you care so deeply. Do you want to take a shot at becoming an engineering manager?" And I was petrified as most ICS do. I'm like, "No, I don't want to leave my technical role. I don't want to get into people." And he said, "You know what? Try it out. And if it doesn't work, you can always go back to being an IC." So I'm a hustler. Took the risk, and in five years I went from engineering manager to being VP of engineering at Determine. And if I look back, I owe this inflection point and all the opportunities have come my way since then to my amazing boss, Leo.

Wes Winham:
That's awesome. I ask that question a lot and it's amazing how often it's a boss introduces an opportunity, but it's also not just your boss. You took the opportunity, which is that's not easy. So that transition from IC to engineering manager. What are some of the struggles you had early on? A lot of our listeners are considering that path or recently made the change.

Rukmini Reddy:
For me, it was just the lack of time. I think what was jarring for me in those initial weeks was I had to spend less time on coding, which I was so passionate about, and I kind of struggled with it. I struggled to give up coding, my coding time, and it was just a natural evolution. I started blocking chunks of time. I became more organized to code, because I was passionate about it. And then I spent the rest of my time on management related activities, like one-on-one coaching, team meetings, [inaudible 00:04:58] chats.

I reached a point, I think it was about two years into that role, where I felt like I was letting my team down by coding and I had become a bottleneck of sorts, because I just didn't have the time. Yet I was hanging on to this. I had started thriving in my role as an engineering leader at that point. I enjoyed my conversations. I look forward to meeting the people regarding their careers, and watching them shine and thrive was very rewarding to me. So I made a very conscious decision that for my sanity and for everybody else's on my team, I will no longer write code. It's been about seven years now. I have not written much code. Maybe a properties file here and there, but that's about it.

Wes Winham:
You wrote a great article, linked in the show notes, about your journey to become a bad ass engineering leader. One of the things that stuck out to me is you talked about candor not being criticism. What advice would you have for someone that's looking to deliver more candor in feedback to their team?

Rukmini Reddy:
If you're going to make it in any industry and especially in tech, I believe you have to learn the difference between feedback that's meant to keep you in your place, which is criticism, and feedback that's actually meant to help you grow, which is candor. We see a lot of trolling on online culture, and sadly and truly it permeates into our work culture through Slack or other social media. And especially when you start creating, taking chances and creating really groundbreaking work, there are going to be people who criticize you. A lot of them actually, because it's always easier to criticize work than it's actually to create it.

It's going to remind some people of times when they didn't settle in or where they didn't fully express themselves, and when you add gender and racial dynamics to it, it becomes really challenging. Especially as a woman, I felt that when I spoke my mind or advocated for my work or challenged my male peers, a lot of them found it difficult and threatening. Unfortunately, I remember a former male colleague told me they hated me and men have ... Yeah, it happened and it's unfortunate, but it happens every day. I believe so. Men have second guessed my decisions publicly, and this is the reality and it sucks. But if you absorb that negativity, I feel you will lose your power, your motivation, and your spark.

I personally thrive by identifying the critics who matter to me and managing the impact they have on me and my decisions. It's a don't feed the trolls mantra that helps me stay focused on my work and the impact I'm making. It doesn't mean that I don't want feedback or I rather expect feedback that's rooted in genuine care and honesty, which is radical candor. But there's a ocean of difference between criticism and candor, and knowing that difference for what it means for yourself will help you focus on what's most important to you.

Wes Winham:
Whenever I'm getting some ... Someone's talking to me. It's feedback and I'm trying to decide is this candor or criticism? What are some maybe some heuristics that you use to tell who is just trolling you versus who is actually trying to be helpful?

Rukmini Reddy:
I'm a Brenee Brown groupie. I would categorize myself as one, and I love how she describes this in the book. She says, "You want to rumble with me? You better get your face dirty." And I always keep going back to that line and it helps me distinguish between criticism and candor, because if you want to give me feedback, I want you to offer me alternative solutions. I want you to tell me how I can ... I want you to come up with solutions and just not point out the problems or poke holes in my theory or my decisions. I want you to come up with something and say, "Rukmini, here's why I think we can do things differently." That helps me. If I keep going back to that sentence in her book, it really helps me guide who's in it with me, who's rumbling with me, and who's getting their face dirty.

Wes Winham:
Getting their face dirty. I like that. So people who maybe point out things but then have example solution. Those are folks that you feel like are giving you more candor versus just criticizing because it's easy.

Rukmini Reddy:
Absolutely. Another thing is the way you provide criticism. I always say to people, "Don't say something to me on Slack if you wouldn't say to me on my face." And that's also very important to me, because it's so easy to troll in a public forum and I prefer direct human communication. I think the medium with which the criticism is presented is also extremely important. I think candor is presented in a more personal level. It's usually a direct human to human conversation, and I value that tremendously, to be honest.

Wes Winham:
So I think we're all seeing more and more Slack communication, more text communication. So when you see someone on your team maybe exhibit that type of Slack communication you think would be better elsewhere, how might we coach those folks to move towards that better norm?

Rukmini Reddy:
I think it's also just like embedding in the culture. I send them a private message and be like, "Hey, I see things are getting heated up in this conversation. It would be great if you two can just take it offline onto Zoom and talk about this.".

Wes Winham:
So you spot that behavior, reach out in private message, and try to coach the right medium?

Rukmini Reddy:
Yes, absolutely. That's the best way to move forward. I don't feed the trolls. I don't participate in large 55 thread conversations.

Wes Winham:
So you've gone from being educated in a convent, immigrating, taking that first role at a CMS company that maybe wasn't as exciting, getting that promotion. This is a really inspiring story. I would love to hear you've also written about maybe feeling some imposter syndrome. I would love to know how ... My journey is a little more straightforward. It was, frankly, a lot easier, and I wonder how I might be able to help folks that are also feeling more imposter syndrome. What advice would you have for how someone like me could be more, could make things a little easier.

Rukmini Reddy:
I think it's a part of evolution for who you are as an engineer, as a person. I think you have to learn who you are, and it's okay. You're going to have imposter syndrome. Embrace it. Embrace the suck. You have to do that to learn that it's not good to do it. Am I making sense? Do you know what I mean?

Wes Winham:
Yeah. What is that? Can you explain embrace the suck. What does that mean?

Rukmini Reddy:
It's that feeling like if I go back to my story, it's the night I left India and it's a feeling of leaving everything I knew behind. Leaving my parents, my family, and everyone who loved me and moving 10,000 miles away to Arkansas or taking a plane ride for the first time in my life. I'd never been on a plane before, but I was taking it to leave everything I knew behind. I felt this feeling, like I was really afraid. I was actually terrified, to be honest, and I wasn't sure if I should step in and embrace the suck, embrace that feeling. It sucked to leave everything. I've never felt more vulnerable in my life than that night that I was leaving everything behind.

Wes Winham:
So embrace the suck. Leaning into that feeling, that discomfort. How can we as managers help our team embrace the suck a little bit more?

Rukmini Reddy:
While I was interviewing with Abstract, my current manager, Kevin Smith, who was also a co-founder, asked me, "What are the two things Rukmini would need to be successful at Abstract?" And I told him, "I need two things. The first one is for you to have my back and the second is to get out of my way." And he leaned in, and he's amazing.

After I joined Abstract, I turned around and said the same thing to my entire engineering team. They were a little taken aback, like, "What does she mean by get out of my way?" And I don't blame them. For somebody who doesn't know me, it might feel like I'm obnoxious, but I went on to explain to the team that when I say, "Please get out of my way," I'm saying that so you can allow me the space to take a risk for this organization and for this team knowing that it might fail.

Leadership, I believe, is about making calls in murky waters, and I may or may not succeed and failure is a completely acceptable intermediate state for me. By embracing the suck myself and being vulnerable, I hope to role model this behavior to teams I lead, to encourage them to embrace their own suck, to allow each other room and space to fail and learn from our failed experiences as a team and grow from there.

Wes Winham:
I love that. Clear expectations up front. What do we need from each other? It seems like a great way to start a relationship. I'm going to switch to a less uplifting conversation. On Twitter there's a lot of chatter about the 10X engineer. I think we have a lot of opinions and a lot of angry typing. What are your thoughts on that conversation?

Rukmini Reddy:
At first, I thought it was hilarious and I thought somebody posted it as a joke, to be honest. When I realized it wasn't, it made me very sad and very angry as an engineering leader. I felt it was very irresponsible, especially coming from a venture partner who invests in startup to increase these stereotypes. One of the responses on the thread said, "This felt like an ultimate guide to hire a tech bro," and I couldn't agree more. I feel like it reemphasized all the tech stereotypes and biases women engineers like me fought so hard to change every day.

A couple of things really stood out to me in that thread and I like to call them out as total BS. One of them goes on to describe a 10X engineer as someone who likes to code late at night and who comes to the office late. So are you telling me by just saying this one thing, you're discounting all women engineers who are moms like me or actually all parents as not being good enough programmers? Research says that teams that have gender diversity are 15% more likely to outperform the industry average. And publishing that lead work hours and not having a family/work/life balance is going to make you a better engineer somehow is just an irresponsible stance to publish.

Wes Winham:
Yeah, those stereotypes are not helpful. Any time we have a stereotype about what good looks like that's not related to the actual goodness, I think it's damaging. One challenge I have is I feel like it makes sense to push into stereotype. Personally I'm autistic. I know that a lot of the stereotypes in that thread that specifically your stance on meetings, preference for weird time schedules, they're kind of the same stereotypes that fit autistic folks. And I also see a world where 60 to 80% of autistic adults are unemployed, and I wonder how we can thread the difference. So saying that is what an engineer looked like is wrong. Saying that we're working late is damaging also seems wrong. How do we make space for both of those ideas, especially on Twitter?

Rukmini Reddy:
Like I said, don't feed the trolls. Don't let somebody take your spark away from you. Step into your own power and use social media responsibly. I think it's just also you have a moral obligation on how you respond to these sort of threads. And there's another example on there, which talks about how engineers are poor mentors. 10X engineers are poor mentors and would rather do everything themselves, and that just goes against the fundamentals of teams. I believe personally that coding is a social activity, and I've enjoyed it since I was like an eight-year-old girl, like with Lego in my computer lab back in India. It was always a social activity. It's something I embraced and I enjoyed participating in. And a good engineer is one who can raise the bar for everybody else on their team by sharing their knowledge.

I feel mentoring is also a very natural, an organic evolution for you to step into tech leadership, because not everybody's interested in management positions or people leadership. So to become a principal engineer or make your way to its architects, it's extremely important. You learn how to technically mentor other engineers.

So yeah, these couple things really stood out to me. One just like discounting and encouraging biases of what a work day should look like. And the other was just like you don't have to be a good team player to be successful. So if I look back on the tread, these two are the most. There was a lot of other atrocious things said on there, but these two have really stood out to me as being unacceptable.

Wes Winham:
Have you ever managed someone like that in your career that kind of maybe fit some of those stereotypes?

Rukmini Reddy:
Unfortunately, yes. There was an engineer, I remember many years ago. He used to come into the office at 3:00 p.m. and think about this. It's release day and he would insist on running all the bills himself. He never shared knowledge about how our CICD worked with anybody, and he would start building the product at after 3:00 p.m. after everybody else left. And then he would start it for the first time and cause a bunch of chaos, put everybody through a fire drill, and then scoop in to save the day with a last minute miracle fix.

And I was like, "I've seen this pattern before. If there's anything I'm good at as an engineering leader, it's pattern recognition." I quickly decided to identify the toxicity and just break that behavior. So some things I did was I insisted on a process. I insisted on documentation. I set deadlines to when we would run test builds prior to production release. I insisted that the release would get done before 5:00 p.m. the night of the release.

I encourage my engineers by saying that I don't need people in capes walking around the office. I don't care for superheroes. I want normal, happy people with very balanced lives outside of work coming to work and doing the best work of their career. And it took me about a month after I rolled these changes the 10X engineer quit and the team was better off without that 10X engineer.

Wes Winham:
Causing problems that then we can swoop in to save is maybe not the best team behavior.

Rukmini Reddy:
It's not.

Wes Winham:
It sounds like just setting specific expectations of what the new policy would look like that kind of allowed that person to kind of self-select out. That's great. That seems like a really effective way to manage that kind of change.

Rukmini Reddy:
Everybody has a chance when you roll out any new change to a team. Are you going to step in and lean in or are you going to sit this one out and head out? It's a choice we all get to make on a daily basis when we show up to work.

Wes Winham:
Early in your career you were involved in the one side of the hiring table. You had to deal with H1B Visa system, which makes it even more hard. What can we change as hiring managers to make your type of story more common?

Rukmini Reddy:
I strongly believe that we need to look beyond the cookie cutter resumes of Ivy League degrees and invest more in people from non-traditional backgrounds. If you take my example, I had a master's in computer engineering, but however from University of Arkansas, and I was a woman of color. It was extremely difficult for me back in the day to get an interview with a top tech company. I remember back Microsoft let me go for an interview on site, and it was one of those grueling eight-hour days at the Seattle office, and I thought I did really well. And in the end they told me they decided to go with somebody who came with an internal recommendation.

I had to claw and scratch my way to make it to where I am today, and I believe there's so much untapped potential in people who might not have the financial backing to make it through a traditional four-year degree. Folks who are self-taught, graduates of boot camps. My experience is that these folks have a fire in their belly to make it, and they're usually very quick learners and a huge culture add to a team.

Our director of inclusion at Abstract, my amazing colleague Edgardo Prairies, put up this article blog post about how you build intersectionality into your hiring strategy, and he has some great tips you should check out as well.

Wes Winham:
So sometimes it helps us to have examples in mind when we think of folks that can really do the job. I talk to a lot of startups who are like, "I need someone who's really senior and can hit the ground running." Have you ever worked with anyone who didn't quite fit that stereotype that did an amazing job?

Rukmini Reddy:
Yeah. I've worked with startups. Everybody would want 50 senior full stack developers yesterday. That's not the reality [inaudible 00:22:29]. In my previous job I worked in, I had a team offshore in Ukraine and they were an incredible team. About three or four years ago I came across this incredible young engineer. I was the last round of interviews. I was his exec review, and I always like to learn their story, like how they came to be an engineer, how you came to be a leader. It's really interesting to me when I interview people.

He brought up to me that till about the previous year he was a sailor working on land reclamation in the South China Sea, and I was like, "That's interesting. So how did you come about to be an software engineer?" Unfortunately, he had a tragedy in his house where he lost two people who really mattered to him in the previous year, and he had come back home from his sailing work to be a full-time caregiver. And when they passed away, he did some self-reflection and decided that he didn't want to go back on sea and he wanted to do something different, and he attended a tech bootcamp and he taught himself Java.

But as I was talking to him, the amazing [inaudible 00:23:36], I remember I had goosebumps, because I could feel a burning passion from him. I knew he wanted this more than anything else in the world. We decided to take a chance with him. It was the best, one of the best decisions I've made as an engineering leader. I think six to eight months later, he was one of our top code contributors. He was outperforming every senior engineer on the team.

We had this joke that is he living at work, because we always see him. But he was so, he was enjoying his work so much. He told me he loved learning and he felt like he was learning so much. He was like a sponge, and his skills were so transferable, because he was a good team player. He had a passion for his craft. He knew how to leverage other people's strengths and skills, and he made a fantastic engineer. If I went with the cookie cutter resume and expected a computer science degree, I would never have hired him. So I'm so glad I did.

Wes Winham:
When you think about what was different about your hiring process at last company that allowed that great engineer to get to you in this exec interview, what did you all do that allowed you to find folks like that that didn't have the traditional credentials?

Rukmini Reddy:
Our recruitment team did an amazing job scouting people, hosting meetups that were like tech meetups that were free. Every meet, every Saturday, they used to have these lunches that people came to where they just got to interact with these different candidates with diverse portfolios, and they always look for passionate people. That was like a requirement. I would say I don't care so much about your technical skills, because everybody can learn to code. There are some skills, like soft skills. Like I said earlier, how do you leverage each other's strengths and weaknesses? Are you comfortable in your own skin? Do you have the ability to change and to learn something new that you've not done in the past?

So these were things that the people team and the recruitment team used to scan for. And I also had, the way I had set up my previous team, I had grown it organically. So I had worked with some of these people for eight years across companies. So we had a culture and we knew what our culture was, so we always look for culture adds. The people who would raise the bar for everybody else, whether with their experience, with their diversity, with their new way of thinking, they made us a better team.

Wes Winham:
We have a lightning round, so I'm going to make a statement and you're going to give me your rapid response in about 60 seconds or less. Are you ready?

Rukmini Reddy:
Yes.

Wes Winham:
All right, Rukmini. Let's do it. What does a six star culture app look like for your team? Even better than five star.

Rukmini Reddy:
At Abstract, we actually don't believe in culture fits. We look for culture adds. Every employee is different and their intersectionality of who they are is what makes for amazing and inclusive culture.

Wes Winham:
What's the difference between maybe what you might call A player versus a B player? Someone that you really want on your team versus maybe someone you don't.

Rukmini Reddy:
Every engineer on my team has their own unique strengths. I actually, my coaching mantra is to always ask engineers to strive to be better versions of themself and to own their own carrier progression and never compare themselves to other people. So a question I would typically ask if I would ask Rukmini, "Rukmini of Q4, are you better than Rukmini of Q3? Are you more improved version?" That's the only comparison to get better yourself. Don't compare yourself to other people.

Wes Winham:
What advice do you have for an engineer looking to get hired on one of your teams?

Rukmini Reddy:
Bring your whole self. We are looking for engineers who have a passion for building products and who want to join a team of world-class engineers who build amazing tools to help designers build better products. So that's your thing, Abstract's the place.

Wes Winham:
What's the biggest mistake you've ever made in an interview?

Rukmini Reddy:
I made a mistake taking a meeting a long time ago. I was a new mom. My twins were three months old, and this tech manager kept convincing me to come in for an EM interview. I emphasized, I told him I don't code anymore. And he was like, "Oh, you come in. It's not going to be a problem."

My gut told me I shouldn't go for the interview, and I still did. I was still on maternity leave when I went for that interview. And once I got there, it was the most bizarre experience I've ever had. They asked me to code syntax on a whiteboard. I requested them to give me an ID. I was like, "I'll write it," and I said, "I can solve a problem. I can do an algorithm." And they insisted on doing that and I felt so humiliated and unworthy, especially given the time of my life I was in and the stage of my life I was in.

I've never done this, because as an immigrant I always have a respect for job interviews. I never take them for granted. That was the only time in my life I walked out of an interview. I got up and left and said, "You know what? I'm sorry. I'm sorry I wasted your time. I cannot put myself through this process.". So I would say my biggest mistake was not listening to my instinct to not go to that interview.

Wes Winham:
I think the walkout part was definitely not a mistake.

Rukmini Reddy:
No, it was not. It was one of the best decisions I made.

Wes Winham:
Walk me through the interview that has had the most lasting, positive impact on your impression of the candidate.

Rukmini Reddy:
About a year and a half ago, I was hiring for a full stack position in the Silicon Valley. We had so many amazing candidates, and I remember this engineer. She came in and she was actually one of the people who could not complete the algorithm that we had asked her to complete. She just completed about 90% of the way before she ran out of time. She was just amazing overall and she left the interview. An hour after she left, she sent us an email saying that she knows that it might have been not even matter, but she went back home, thought through the problem, and figured out how to complete it and sent us the solution.

We hired her over everybody else who had solved the problem 100% the first time, because she showed a grit and a resilience that made her the best fit. She went on to be one of the best engineers on the team. It was a very positive impact.

Wes Winham:
Before we go, in our pre-call notes, you wanted to talk about being a mom while being a bad ass engineer. I'd love to get a chance to talk about what's it like to balance your role and parenting six-year-old twin boys.

Rukmini Reddy:
Interesting enough, my husband is also in a very similar role as me and it's not just balancing my role. It's balancing our roles collectively and raising six-year-old twin boys at the same time. It takes a lot of leaning in everyday. We coordinate schedules. I think small things that help me are knowing my schedule as far out as possible. Making sure we have shared calendars. Allowing flexibility. I love Abstract, because Abstract, we are a remote first company.

My nanny quit last week because of a family emergency, and I didn't flinch for the first time in my entire career. I'm so glad I'm at Abstract, because I can support that, support whatever's happening to my family. My manager put out this article about how remote work is inclusion work, and I couldn't agree more, because when I needed that time and the space to be with my kids last week, my job allowed me to do that. So it's tough. It's not easy, but I think it's incredibly rewarding when you have a life partner who steps in everyday, who leans in with you, and it's a constant negotiation saying, "You went for a five-day offsite. Here's my three days right now. Let's make it work together." But we do it.

I'm so grateful that my boys get to see me, a woman, as an archetype type for what a leader should be like. I was reading a book to them recently. It was a children's book called The Most Magnificent Thing, and it talks about this little girl who's going about building something. In the end you discover she built a scooter for her disabled dog and with a sidecar. It's really cute. It's about an engineer. It's about an engineer. I closed the book. My boys look up to me and say, "Mommy, are all women engineers like you?" And I said, "You know what, honey? That's a conversation for a different day." But I thought to myself, "I'm so glad my boys live in a world where they think that is normal, that all women can be engineers and I want them to grow up in that world."

Wes Winham:
My guest today has been Rukmini Reddy. Rukmini, thank you for joining us today on Scaling Software Teams.

Rukmini Reddy:
Thank you, Wes. It's a pleasure.

Tim Hickle