In April 2011, my organization from Bangladesh signed a contract with Khan Academy and their partners, Agami from the U.S. to translate and localize their education content in Bangladesh. It took nearly seven months to finalize the deal, meticulously reviewing the requirements, capacity to execute and leadership of the contract. A social enterprise working in capacity building through education and technology, this contract was the first of its kind for my team. It would open new doors and provide us with worldwide exposure to like-minded communities. I was thrilled to receive the contract and lead the project.
In the months following this event, my organization was heavily criticized by the local civil society and technology firms. Khan Academy is an internationally recognized ed-tech company, and while my organization had experience with deploying scalable education programs, we had not worked with a technology company before. We did not plan on onboarding a technology partner either. We were called out for our inexperience, our decision to manage the production internally and our recruitment of college students in important positions. I was singled out as an ‘incompetent leader’, targeted by peers and competitors as ‘the woman who did not write a single line of code’ and ‘guaranteed to fail’.
In a nutshell, after 17 months of grueling work hours, we successfully submitted our content, and received accolades for high-quality and seamless production. Since then, my organization has gone on to signing contracts and building partnerships with Google and Startup Weekend. My curiosity and experience in working at the intersection of technology and education grew over time; although in hindsight, I had always felt slightly nervous. I was not trained as a technology professional and any number of things can go wrong in a project that may be beyond my experiential knowledge. In spite of our success, I was publicly scrutinized for my lack of programming experience or engineering education. The criticism sometimes left me unsure of my own ability to lead technology products to market.
My decision to apply to graduate programs on the West Coast and eventually enroll at UC Berkeley was largely determined by its proximity to Silicon Valley. I was committed to strengthen my skills to become more actively involved in the technology industry. I chose a discipline I believed would help me understand the big picture, emphasizing my inherent belief in an interdisciplinary approach to tackle any question. I was confident that U.S. will not be clogged by the stereotypes I faced a woman and non-engineer in Bangladesh. I will meet a diverse range of people, be inspired by their varied backgrounds and re-discover myself as an asset inside technology companies. I was under the impression going to a school like Cal, being close to Silicon Valley and taking courses that explore various dimensions within technology will help me to build a career in this industry.
I was surprised by how wrong my assumption was.
In the first few months after arriving in Berkeley, I was caught off guard by how rigidly technology companies defined their scope. In the spotlight, the companies are lauded for innovative products; their founders and CEOs preach ideologies of a brave, new world. Behind the curtains, there is a cesspool of sexism, ignorance and arrogance. 43 percent of Silicon Valley’s top public companies have no female board members. There is a constant battle to justify one’s intelligence and value if you are wearing the hat of a non-engineer, and struggle to earn the respect of the majority of co-workers in engineering or data science teams. The management prioritized their technical staff over operations or legal that skewed the very process of making decisions.
Getting hired becomes more challenging for fresh, ‘international’ graduates from non-engineering programs. In addition to existing U.S. immigration policy to protect jobs for Americans, technology companies impose additional obstacles and a disparate, tougher interview process for international applicants seeking non-engineering positions. This hypothesis corroborates with what I learnt from a senior product manager of a certain global technology company in Mountain View, California. “We need to justify why we want to hire an international graduate in a non-engineering role, therefore we make sure they go through several rounds of complex, difficult interviews. It’s easier and cost-effective to hire an American who is less qualified and can be a quick learner,” he explains to me.
Aside from the time-consuming, stressful and complicated process of interviewing and receiving a work visa, the culture inside technology companies itself can be unfitting and unwelcoming for an international, non-engineering hire. There is emphasis on building a ‘solid’ product; little attention is placed in actually responding to a critical societal problem. Because all teams are geared towards ‘hacking’ product development, assessing the necessity of the product itself or evaluating its long-term impact are secondary – sometimes even non-existent. My friend and senior product manager from Mountain View clarifies the reason for a gap. “The company wants to make profit – it is a commercial entity. It receives investment based on how advanced the product is from a technical standpoint. What is the incentive to invest time in researching the problem definition or understanding how it can benefit society at large?”
It is exactly such attitudes that I found deeply disturbing and astonishing when I began to navigate through Silicon Valley. Coming from Bangladesh, I have firsthand experience in the power of technology products enriching or destroying millions of lives. Affordable online education content has enabled more women (with access to cellphones) to continue with their education. Fake images of burning temples on social media have wreaked havoc between Muslim and Hindu communities. While mobile money has enabled the unbanked labor population to exchange money, it has cost the jobs of middlemen who were responsible for transferring money between different parties. The impact of technology in countries outside the U.S. is incredible, but the leadership in these companies attribute ‘impact’ as an instrument of ‘growth.’ There is a dearth of carefully designed strategy to empower communities through technology, nor opportunity to ‘think outside the box’. This is both ironical and disappointing. The industry promotes disengagement with individuals who are oriented by the big picture and driven by impact. On a broad stroke, the Valley’s lack of inclusiveness and inter-disciplinary thought process in the design and deployment of products shocked me.
To explore why this is the case and the role of non-engineering employees in technology companies, I decided to test my hypotheses in the field. Although my interviews and field visits confirmed some initial thoughts, the real value came with unexpected insights I gathered. A friend and software engineer at Google explained to me how founders’ backgrounds are real catalysts for a company’s ethos. “Many founders are trained in computer science or corporate business, therefore take a certain approach to build their companies which may not align with the interests of political scientists, environment specialists or social entrepreneurs. It is an asset to be able to code yourself without hiring a team of coders. Once the product becomes somewhat successful, the founder builds a team and product on top of the initial programming framework – it’s unlikely to have room for different kinds of thinking or nuances.”
If that is the case, who is tackling key questions on growth and globalization? What factors determine how a technology product should be localized in a different country? Who is investigating whether an overuse of technology is causing mental health issues? Are the founders so intent on proving their computational abilities that they overlook scoping a problem definition, realistic implementation strategy and criterion for evaluation? What really is driving the cognitive framework and mental models in Silicon Valley?
A former employee at LinkedIn who currently works as data scientist at a popular crowdfunding platform offers her personal insight. “Most decisions are made by shareholders and investors. Investors want to see numbers, CEOs want to see advanced algorithms. As technology becomes more robust, there is implicit expectation that there will be uncontrollable, unpreventable, collateral damage on people. However, focusing on this does not get the company anywhere. Numbers do.” She has a background in computer science from India and arrived in the U.S. five years back to pursue a masters degree in the same discipline. Her insight aligned with that of Sam Kriss’ in his recent piece in The Atlantic where he shares his experiences from Europe’s Web Summit. He describes technology as evolving to become strictly functional – “a hammer drives a nail; a virtual bartender is interacted with over Facebook messenger.” The Web Summit, he concludes, is not about showcasing new ideas or changing the way anyone does anything. The point is to attract buyouts or investments.
Given the core mission of upcoming technology companies is to build faster algorithms to occupy more off-shore servers and produce billionaires, it becomes fairly obvious why non-engineering employees struggle to make their viewpoints stand out during meetings. They are trained to process the information differently. In most cases, the management of companies are not equipped to think the same way, therefore the difference in opinions is a distraction for any company on a fast growth track.
How does a non-engineer like me then fit into all this?
Michal Wojtczak, a Canadian who graduated from a mechanical engineering program and is employed by Cisco offers his solution. “Networking is key in breaking through the technology bubble. Most companies have a standardized, machine-operated resume screening process and it is unlikely for you to cut through thousands of experienced applicants who are also applying for a limited number of non-engineering roles. On top of that, you also need a H1B visa sponsorship, something you need to specify in the application portal. The best way to explain to technology companies you are valuable to them is by engaging with them actively – face to face – and position yourself as someone who cares about the company’s goals. Once you are inside the company, you can start shattering glass ceilings.”
I took Michal’s advice to Bayes Hackathon and Science Hackathon in San Francisco this year. At Bayes Hackathon, government agencies such as Department of Labor or Department of Transportation offered participants their massive datasets and shared some insights on the gaps they were facing from a technical standpoint. Once the bell rang, hundreds of data scientists and coders camped behind their computer screens to build web applications or complex, artificial intelligence models that can solve proposed policy questions. A typical question can be how to improve communication between minimum wage workers so they are aware of their eligibility to receive government benefits or social safety net programs. My two friends and I were the only ‘non-techy’, policy ‘professionals’ who participated in the hackathon. We were more interested to define the scope of the question, research on existing means, design surveys to understand if minimum wage workers wanted to know about government benefits, and develop a menu of benefits and their nuances. As we walked around the venue, one team to another, we quickly realized our asset was our domain expertise. In its absence, every single team will end up designing a social networking platform for minimum wage workers. Communicating our ‘expertise’ and reminding participants about the importance of defining scope before solution were challenging, not impossible. Recognizing what we were proposing will in fact, actually help them develop a unique, go-to market product, they were willing to listen.
It will be a mistake to paint Silicon Valley companies with a single brush. The local economy includes everything from the most crass, greedy, and socially oblivious tech startups to the whole “B-Corp” movement of companies that have committed to work based on socially responsible principles, plus a wide spectrum of firms in between. Many companies realize over time that their organizational strategy needs to have both a right brain and a left brain. Some people find the selling process distasteful and are ultimately better suited for civil society, but this of course has its own set of challenges.
My experience at the hackathons brings to light two critical leadership concepts of influence and cultural empathy. Cultural empathy is not limited by understanding different cultures from different parts of the world. Inside Silicon Valley, it is two way street of expecting technology companies to look more closely into their impact and decision to grow, and for professionals from emerging economies or different disciplines to grasp their immediate requirements and overall mental model. In designing a product, most technology companies are inherently focused on their technology, however being able to communicate how the product can create impact in addition to reaching revenue benchmarks can be valuable in infiltrating ‘the bubble’. This was a strength of Apple under its co-founder Steve Jobs, who did not have a technical background. In fact, the most successful tech companies are often those that find an intersection between their products and real customer needs (e.g., “Computers for the masses” from Apple, or the universe of knowledge online from Google). Many others, however, do focus too much on features, functions, and opportunities for a “liquidity event” through which the owners can strike it rich. There is often a class hierarchy within such companies, regardless of nationality, that makes skilled technical employees the higher caste, and those in marketing, sales, HR, etc. the lower one.
This is where influence comes to play. Appealing to values, socializing and logical persuasion are key in communicating why non-engineering graduates can be an asset to companies. I realized my international experience, success with developing go-to market products in emerging economies and domain expertise in education, youth issues or public policy are unique skills that any company interested to scale is looking for. The challenge and opportunity is understanding where the gap exists between a product and market, and being able to position non-engineering professional like myself as a bridge.
This realization certainly does not mitigate the fact that technology companies – small, medium or global – need to reconsider their scope. There are real problems that can be solved using technology as means, not the end. I look several data science courses and learn to code. I learn to built technology products or process data to reveal insights this past year. I have finally come to terms with my own assumed ‘incompetency’. In traditional technology terms, I am more market-ready, but a year of research into Silicon Valley have reminded me where my true strength is. It is the unique ability to ask questions, define the problem, connect with people and distribute – not develop – a product that becomes sustainable beyond its immediate success.
And that is acquired through years of working inside and with communities, not in an intent to teach or save them – rather to learn and unlearn.
N.B. All interviewees’ names have been kept confidential to protect their identity and reproduce unscripted comments.