Leader SpeakLeaderspeak with Pawan Uppuluri Pawan Uppuluri interviewed by Team Meytier 

Team Meytier was honored to sit down with Pawan Uppuluri, Chief Technology Officer at Glossier to learn about her journey as a woman through technology. She provided us with invaluable insights into the future of technology and what companies can be doing better to strengthen and empower women in STEM.

What drew you to this industry? Why technology?

Growing up I was surrounded by a number of cousins and other friends and family members who were pursuing STEM. It felt fairly natural for me to get interested and intrigued. It was not very common at the time, but when I was in High School I had computer science as a subject. We were programming in BASIC back then, and I loved it. It was something I was drawn towards from the beginning and tried to keep at it even during undergrad. I actually got my undergrad in chemical engineering but I stayed interested in computer science. I took as many computer science courses as I could during my undergrad and eventually got my masters in computer science. I have always loved the idea of solving problems using technology.

You were an early joiner at Amazon and stayed there for a long time, what made you choose a start up over a larger company this time around?

I started my career at a small company called i2 Technologies (now Blue Yonder). It was a few hundred employees with a very small engineering team. As a result, I got to wear multiple hats even as a fresh graduate engineer. It was an opportunity to work across several functions and I learned a lot. Amazon was already large when I joined, but during my time at Amazon I had a couple of opportunities to work in a “startup” within Amazon. These were opportunities to build something from scratch, be scrappy and build fast as a small autonomous team. I really enjoyed those experiences. I knew I wanted that startup experience outside of Amazon at some point and when Glossier approached me, it fell into place. I was excited by Glossier’s mission and the fundamental concept of empowering our customers to define beauty for themselves.

We’ve noticed a pattern of women dropping out of core technology roles and moving into tech adjacent roles, like project manager and analysis roles. We’ve been seeing this as a barrier to leadership roles at the highest levels as so many firms want their leaders to keep being hands on technologists. Did you see women drop out of core technology roles over the course of your career? What do you think the reasons were?

I’ve definitely noticed this pattern. Some people drop out completely from technology and others choose to take on different careers within technology. I was looking at some research recently and the numbers are alarming- more than half (56%) of women who enter tech drop out. It’s certainly a complex and multifaceted issue, and I think there are many reasons.

I’ve had women reach out for career guidance or advice and one of the typical topics is “I'm planning to start a family and I don’t think I can continue with the pace of work here,” which is fundamentally distressing given it’s women bearing the burden of asking this question, and rarely men. Setting boundaries is important. I had one woman come to me and say that she wanted to start a family but every day they had meetings until 6 or 7pm. I told her to talk to her manager and colleagues to come up with a plan to change that, as it simply wasn’t sustainable. She didn't even think that she could ask that question, or consider setting boundaries in that way as a possible solution. It’s unfortunate that this woman had to be responsible for raising the question, but in situations like that, the entire team or company benefits, because you’re building a more inclusive environment for all parents (regardless of gender identity), and thus a more inclusive organization overall.

I always say that nobody can have it all, not just women. When men are working late in the evening, they’re choosing not to participate in a part of their lives as well. Companies need to support and promote this. The companies who do best at hiring, retaining, and developing women are the ones who do well with sponsorship, flexible working, childcare, etc. These things make a big difference—for all employees, across the gender identity spectrum, and in any sort of personal situation, not just caretaking.

What are the most important skills to succeed in technology?

In terms of core tech skills, it depends on the specific job. Problem solving and critical thinking are fundamental for any role in technology. Learning and curiosity are important because technology is ever changing. We cultivate a particular set of technical skills in college or in our first jobs but those will change constantly. The other thing I’d say I look for is resilience. In a lot of tech jobs, when you are solving problems, it's not often that you get it right on the first try. You’ll hit roadblocks and resilience is critical to be able to do well. One of the things I think is important at mid career levels is to develop laterally. There is so much focus on moving up to the next level but it's just as important to develop skills to help you move laterally. In the long run, it helps in building a well rounded set of skills. So, start taking on responsibilities that are outside your core skillset. I did this at multiple points in my career including taking on general management responsibilities. This has helped me learn different aspects of the business and gave me a much more holistic understanding of how a business operates end-to-end and has helped me grow a lot. At the end of the day, you're using tech to solve different business problems so it's important to get that breadth.

What do you think will be the most important skills/ areas in the future?

Today, in terms of basics, people have to be well versed in cloud computing and cloud engineering. As I look to the future, I think the data science and AI space will continue to grow. In general what happens with tech is that what we learn today becomes outdated tomorrow due to advances and automation through machines. It is a constant evolution. There are so many specializations when you look at AI and data science today. This is the story for today and in a few years it'll be something else. You have to be curious and willing to learn always.

How do you hire? What do you look for in people?

I don't look for skills, I look for competencies. For example, for a software engineer, we're not looking for expertise in a particular language, we look for whether they have the competency to solve problems and program well in whatever language they know. The other thing I look for is leadership and values: how does the candidate relate to, and connect with, the company? I look for someone who has a sense of purpose and feels a tie to the company's mission. At the end of the day they have to have passion for what the company is working towards. If they don't have that, it's hard for them to be successful. I also look for a growth mindset. I was talking about resilience earlier; it's just so important to be able to learn from failures and take on challenges and risks and try new things. At Glossier, we focus on our values – for example, being “discerning” is a Glossier value, “inclusive” is another core value. Diversity and inclusion is very important to us and we assess for these values in our interviews.

What do you think firms could be doing to increase the amount of women who make it to leadership levels?

When we talk about diversity and inclusion, so much of the efforts remain at a checkbox level today, like people are ticking down a list. And inclusivity efforts won’t work unless they’re very intentional. It must be a sustained, long term effort to make sure that everyone in the company takes it seriously. We need employee resource groups that promote and sponsor marginalized groups. We need male allies who are strong advocates on their teams and at their levels. As I said earlier, caregiver policies, flexible work schedules, and parental leave (not just maternal, and not just for birth parents) are all essential. Lastly, companies need to hire more women into senior positions, both managers and individual contributors. Having role models is critical for others to follow. You can’t be what you can’t see.

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