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The cavnessHR Podcast can be found at the following places or you can just type in cavnessHR on the respective app.
Google Play: https://cavnesshr.co/8ab5f
Pocket Casts: https://pca.st/54HE
Social Media links for Poornima Below!!
Build YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/Femgineers/videos
Poornima’s Book Recommendation!!!
“Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well”
Resources from Poornima!!!
Use the link below for your free copy of Poornima’s great book, “Present! A Techies Guide to Public Speaking”
Jason: Our guest today is Poornima Vijayshanker. Are you ready to be great today.
Poornima: Yes I am. Thanks for having me.
Jason: She was a founder of Femingeer and is an avid public speaker who gives talks around the world on topics ranging from engineering to entrepreneurship. She's also given a TedX talk and hosts a monthly web show called Build. Sponsored by Pivotal Tracker. She's also been an entrepreneur in residence at 500 Startups and mentor in residence at Techstars and lecturer at Duke University's grad school engineering. She was the founding engineer at Mint.com. Where she helped build launch and scale the product until its acquisition in 2009. She's also published two books on how to transform the idea of software products and co-authored "Present: A Techies Guide to Public Speaking. She holds degrees in Electrical and Computer Engineering science from Duke University. Poornima, thank you for being here today. We really appreciate it. So what's keeping you busy? Right now what are you focused on right now?
Poornima: Well I am actually getting ready to start my maternity leave in about a week.
Jason: Oh, congratulations.
Poornima: Thank you. Yeah yeah. So I am just kind of winding things down and I'm going to take three months off. But there are certainly a number of things that I'm kind of finishing up and I think the big one is my web show as you mentioned Build. So just finished off with filming until October to give myself some buffer. Then putting together a course for the fall focused on communication for first time leaders because there is a lot of trials they go through as a first time leader. You know the first time you have to hire somebody the first time you have to fire them. Dealing with conflict etc..
Jason: Yes for our listeners, I highly recommend you check out her show. It is very informative with great insights and great advice. It is a great show.
Poornima: Thank you.
Jason: You do a lot of the work with remote teams. How can you tell if someone is going to be a good remote worker? Because that is not for everyone.
Poornima: Yeah, it's certainly not for everybody. I think the couple questions that I often ask to suss out if people would be a good fit are first having them walk through a project that they've done that was self directed. Because a lot of what you're looking for are people who can be resourceful and operate in a way where they're not necessarily going to have somebody sitting next to them or even necessarily in the same time zone. To be able to respond to a question or concern. So have they demonstrated self- leadership in some varying capacity. Or kind of prioritize and manage their time because again they need to be able to know what's top priority. They're not going to have people around to kind of guide them. Then the third what's their communication style. Because there are different types of communication that you need to be comfortable with. A lot of written communication, so e-mail, text messages etc. But then the other is of course verbal. So we still need to be able to communicate easily on things like video chat. You know you're not going to have the same level of face to face or live interaction. So we want to make sure that people are not only clear. But they're also capable of handling difficult situations. You know conflicts that come up or challenging situations dealing with customers and other teammates.
Jason: Do you go see them in person.
Poornima: Absolutely. I think there is no hard and fast rule. I know for myself I try to go at least once a year with the folks that work with me. But sometimes that doesn't happen this year might be a little bit challenging with the baby. But in previous years I've tried to do at least one to two times. The other is to encourage people even if we can't do a big team meeting to have them meet with one another. So people are often going to each other cities or they're meeting up at conferences and things like that. I think that face time is still really valuable.
Jason: Yes I agree. From your point of view, what are tech companies getting wrong or right about diverse hiring?
Poornima: Yeah I think you know it's great to see that there is an interest. I think a lot of times what ends up happening though is. Depending on the startup companies. While they mean well they end up not having the time or the bandwidth to really to bring people on board. So they end up taking some shortcuts and the more often they do that. Years start to go by then it becomes harder and harder. Because candidates are wary of wanting to join the company. Then I think the second thing is aside from you know what stage they're at, it's very hard to suddenly turn on the switch and say OK. Now we want to hire more folks of certain backgrounds or certain education levels or you know because diversity encompasses a lot of different things. So the truth is it takes time and a lot of that means putting in the effort over multiple quarters and often multiple years. So I think too often they want to have a quick set of results you know within a quarter within six months time. A lot of the work that's being done now is really just investment so that in two or three years time you can reap the rewards. I think there's too much anticipation in getting to results quickly.
Jason: I would be interested to see before companies started the diverse hiring programs. What the stats are before and after. Like is that hiring program really affecting change?
Poornima: Exactly yes. That's one of the best practices is to really benchmark where your company is at especially if it's a bigger one. So benchmark you know who in the company. Then also benchmark why people are leaving. A lot of times that's hard to get out at exit interviews. So running surveys and of getting at what's causing people to leave or maybe even to not have then apply. But I think you have to do that research and that groundwork first before you decide OK now we're going to put forth a concerted effort.
Jason: So I'm probably going get this stat wrong. But I saw a stat somewhere that says that of all the girls interested in STEM in elementary school. Only 10 or 20 percent of them are still interested in STEM once they get a high school. How do we fix that? Do you think this is just a societal problem we have?
Poornima: I remember even my middle school class. It was a funny math class where it was 19 lectures. There was 100 percent girls and then by the time I got to my senior level math class. Which was calculus it was myself and one other girl at the time. Then maybe a handful of guys in the class. So I definitely saw the drop off and personally experienced it. I think the challenge is one, getting people interested in the subject matter. So that again even when some of the higher level math classes I took. I noticed they were just smaller in size overall. So both girls and boys oftentimes steer clear from some of these tougher subjects. But then the second thing was I didn't see a lot of encouragement from the families, from teachers kind of pushing young girls to pursue. Part of that is not seeing what the outcome is like what did they expect to do with a degree in stem. Are there additional role models. Is there a support structure beyond high school, beyond Middle School, now into college. I think there has to be. One Piece getting passed to the girls you know how are they being educated. Are they being encouraged. Are they being compared to their male counterparts. Then once they graduate from one level to the other. How are the new teachers treating them. So I think it's an entire process of change and rethinking how we educate people. But then also giving them a sense of OK here's what you could accomplish if you had this sort of degree. Here's the kind of career you could have. Here is the lifestyle here is the impact you can make. In the community and in the world.
Jason: What advice do you have for new developers. Just graduating college and looking for their first development position.
Poornima: I think you know a lot of times people get really bogged down in I need to consider everything. I need to learn like a bunch of programming languages with these different industries popping up and going even in more specialized. Think about what are some of the general skills that you can acquire. That are going to serve you well. Think about how you can maybe initially create a focus area like if you really like mobile and maybe you decide. OK I'm going to spend a couple years or even a year studying and kind of honing my experience with mobile development. I'm going to sort of learn soup to nuts because a lot of times what happens is the industry will change and this was a learning that you put into how you approached it will still be replicable in a new field. Right. So whatever it is that it took you to learn how to do mobile development may be a similar set of practices that you apply to a new field. Like AI machine learning or if you want to learn about block chain and Bitcoin. So I'd encourage people to be a little bit broader in their thinking and focus on how I can acquire this knowledge. How am I going to practice it versus. Oh my gosh I need to learn like everything at once or I need to have this like alphabet soup of languages under my belt.
Poornima: Then the second thing I would say is taking the time to do some of those side projects. But not getting too overwhelmed right like you still want to do your work. But if you can set a goal of once a quarter or twice a year I'm going to go to a hackathon. I'm going to work on something fun on the side that can be really beneficial and then the third thing I've found is really helpful is making sure that you're also doing a fair amount of mentoring. Both ways so you might be pair programming with somebody who is younger than you. In terms of experience and then you might also be working with somebody who's older. To kind of gain their insights and best practices. That way you start to get better because it definitely is a skill. A lot of times we need that help. But a lot of times when we teach people the skill we start to see where the gaps are in our own expertise.
Jason: You do a lot of startup advising. From your point of view what are most new founders not understanding about the process of building a company.
Poornima: There's a few things I think the first is depending on their background. Whether they're technical or non-technical, I actually think it doesn't matter. Because I see this happening with both camps as people get really really obsessed on the product to the technical nature of it. They often forget that they still need to find a market. They need to get comfortable with figuring out how they're going to monetize their product. Beyond that, how they're going to transform this into a business. So they get really bogged down on like oh I'm going to build like this thing. Whatever the thing is and they forget about all the other pieces that go into building a business and building a company. So I think that's the first and then I think the second is really thinking through why they're doing what they're doing. Because it's easy to want to start a company and make it seem really glamorous. But if they don't have the expertise behind a domain or if they don't necessarily have a background having built a business before. Then a lot of the challenges they are going to experience in that first or second in year. When it comes to being rejected by customers, by investors, by potential employees. It's going to make them feel like oh I'm not cut out for this. So that's sort of the other half of the battle. Then I think the third piece is being coachable in terms of having mentors, having advisers. But then being able to distill the feedback and having some instinct around. OK, I know I've gotten two different pieces of feedback around the direction I should go. But let me think through what's happening in the market or what's happening with my customers and make a decision. I think a lot of times first time founders end up deferring a lot to the advisory group that they built up. Instead of saying you know what this is kind of the vision I have for where I want to go.
Jason: I agree. If you are a startup founder and you don't like to hear the word no, it's probably not for you.
Poornima: Yeah exactly.
Jason: Next, can you talk about a time you were successful in the past. What you learned from this success and we can learn from this.
Poornima: Sure. So you know I've definitely had many moments. I think one of the most successful moments was getting acquired. Building Mint.com and getting acquired. I think what I learned from that experience was again taking the time to build a really great product. Build a team who could execute on that product and then always keep a very close eye on. Who that product is going to be of value to not just in terms of the customer base. But also a potential acquirer or a partner. I learned a lot about just general startups and company building from having that experience. But even I think if that hadn't been a successful exit. I still got introduced to entrepreneurship. I had never considered it prior to that experience. So it was pretty eye opening and being at the ground floor also and seeing every piece of it was very very valuable. Because I think a lot of times when you come in halfway or once when something's are in place you don't see the full evolution. So being there at the ground floor really taught me like how we switch gears. How we kind of make small pivots. How we thought about marketing to our customers. You know what some of the issues were that people were reluctant to use the product. There was a lot around security and trust that we had to overcome. Then finally thinking through it even myself because I was an engineer at the time. How to evolve the product as you acquire more and more customers. How do you sort of scale doing certain things not just building the product. But how to scale customer support and how do you scale responding to people's requests. Because everybody wants everything done a certain way. I think that was a very valuable lesson or set of lessons I've learned from that success.
Jason: So follow up question. Talk about a time you failed. What you learned from this and what we can learn from this.
Poornima: So you know was it was kind of ironic right after a successful startup. The second startup I started Busybee was meant to be a solution for small businesses. Specifically, businesses that run on a membership basis like a yoga studio fitness business. We always had a challenging time getting it off the ground. But there was a particular challenge about three years in. What we were trying to do is, we were trying to build a second product. We had built a first product that was a CRM solution. We built a second product that was aimed at providing small business owners a way to take in transactions and get paid out the very next day. Because small business owners struggle with cashflow and so we had built out a product. It took us about four months to build up the initial product and then once we were ready to launch our vendor that we were working with who was providing us things like PCI compliance and all of the sort of guts behind the security and so on., Changed their terms of service as well as changed how their product interfaced with ours. So our four months that we had invested ended up becoming eight months and we were getting really tight on cash flow at this point. Because now we had to reinvest in building a product again. So we spent eight months building this product. We ended up launching it. The fortunate thing is it seemed as if we were succeeding like we were going to get to break even in profitability in six months. Given how well the product was going what really happened under the hood was. Because we were providing next day pay outs because of this like big push we had done with marketing and building awareness.
Poornima: We ended up taking in a bunch of fraudulent charges and basically became like a target for trolls who were like stealing credit card numbers off the internet and putting them through our system. So that ended up severely crippling us to the point where we basically had no more cash flow. I couldn't make payroll in like a month's time. I had to come clean with my team, with our customers, with our investors and shut down the product. So that was a really challenging point in my career to kind of own up to this series of mistakes. You know a lot of it, it was like we had we had done a lot of work. I had spent over a year kind of figuring out how we were going to do all of this. Despite our best intentions just getting blindsided and then having this happen. It was really unfortunate. I think what it taught me was it's always good to be honest in these difficult moments. The second thing is there's only so many safeguards you can put into a system and it doesn't detract all the work we had put in. But it just means that there's more and more that you need to think about. I think it taught me to stay a bit paranoid. Any time I'm in business and really think through you know sometimes people's worst intentions.
Jason: That is a great lesson of all of us. Next, can you talk about someone who's helped you in the past and how that helped you.
Poornima: Yes I think I've had a lot of great partners in the past few years who have been really really supportive when it comes to my business. When it comes to building out kind of products or being mission driven. The two people that come to mind are my coauthor Karen Katlin https://www.linkedin.com/in/kecatlin/on our book "Present". She's just been really phenomenal at opening up her network and working with me. You know initially when we started the book project she put a lot of trust into me because I had not self-published before. I've been sort of repaying that trust ever since. But she was very good at working with me and she's also older and more experienced. So it was it was nice to see that she trusted me and gave me kind of the go ahead and work with me and again opened up her network to where a lot of our initial customers, a lot of our initial sponsors came through some of her contacts. Then you know over the years we've been able to build out a following for our book and for our course. So she was really valuable partner and then the second is for my web show "Build" Ronan Dunlop https://www.linkedin.com/in/rdunlop/ is the producer of it and he's a director of marketing at Pivotal Tracker. He approached me after I had published my first book and we got to talking and ever since probably 2015. He's been working very closely to help me kind of build out this show build out a lot of awareness around it.
Poornima: Again as somebody who is a little bit older and has the ability to pull somebody like me up is just, I wouldn't say getting started and you're kind of halfway through my career. Almost halfway through my career. But see the need to be supportive of someone like me and see the mission and to say yes what resources, what help do you need. So I'm really thankful for both of them sort of being my champions and being my sponsors. I think I wouldn't have been able to do as much in terms of awareness for Femengineer and brand building without either of their help.
Jason: I understand you have a book to recommend for our listeners.
Poornima: Yes so a couple years ago I read this book called "Thanks for the Feedback". I wish I remembered who told me about it. But it's a book that I think that's really valuable. No matter what stage you are in your career or what type of career you're in. I think it's just really value gold because it shows you some of the mental blocks that you have when taking any feedback. From peers, from your partners, from people who are higher than you. People who are maybe getting started and less experienced than you. It's very helpful to have that awareness and then it also shows you how to distill that feedback and apply it when it makes sense. I think it's just a great book. But it also tells you how to give feedback to other folks as well. So I would highly recommend that book.
Jason: I also understand you have something to give to our listeners.
Poornima: Yes. So my book “Present: Techies Guide to Public Speaking”. Would love to share that with your audience. I am a big proponent of getting more voices out there. While it does have a technical bent to it for people who are presenting technical concepts. I think there's still a lot of general public speaking advice in there. But with a slightly different bent I think a lot of folks struggle with things like finding their voice, making sure that they're an expert in their field or oftentimes they're introverted or shy. The book also does a good job of tackling some of those more challenging topics and helping people get their voice out there. Whether it's inside of their company in like a meeting or if they decide to do more. You know speak at an event speak at a conference. It'll walk them through all of the steps. It's very much like a cookbook and not a big believer that you have to do public speaking on TV.
Jason: You have to be able to get in front of a group of people and convince them to do what you want them to do.
Poornima: Totally. Yeah it's great that you're hosting this podcast. It's definitely a great example of public speaking.
Jason: Yes thank you. Can you provide your social media links either for yourself or your company so people can reach out to you.
Poornima: Totally. Yes. I'll be sure to follow up with those.
Jason: For our listeners, we will provide all the links on our show notes.
Jason: We are coming to the end of our talk. Do you have any last minute advice or knowledge on any subject you would like to talk about.
Poornima: I think the big thing is coming back to what I was saying about voice and getting comfortable sharing your experience sharing your expertise. It really doesn't have to be oh my gosh I need to do something earth shattering in order to share my experience. I need to be somebody of a certain level I think a lot of times we can start as early as we want. There's always somebody out there who is a little less experienced or who is looking for guidance. So I always like to treat it as you know think about being somebody's Big Brother or Big Sister and helping them out. A lot of times you end up getting mentoring from them. So it is a great two way street and I would encourage your audience to start thinking in those terms. Because I think it's a great way to build out your network give back to your community. But to also think about how do you want to evolve in your career. Do you want to be a leader. Do you want to be an individual contributor. It doesn't necessarily mean you have to be one or the other. I think it's a great place to start. As you get your voice out there and you share your experience for.
Poornima: Thanks for being a guest on our podcast and you're really busy person. And of course you know you're about to get a whole lot busier in about a week isn't it?
Jason: To our listeners. Thanks for your time as well. Remember to be great every day.