Career Q&A: Komal Mangtani, Engineering Leadership at Uber

Komal Mangtani is passionate about advocating for women in tech. As the head of engineering for Business Intelligence at Uber, she oversees the technical solutions that ensure customer satisfaction and secure financial systems. She also runs the #LadyEng group at Uber, serves on the board of Women Who Code, and is leading a partnership with Girls Who Code (announced last week) to expand Girls Who Code Clubs programs and increase girls’ awareness of and access to computer science. Komal talked to Girls Who Code about her path to a career in engineering, her advocacy for women in tech, and her advice for girls who code.

Q&A with Komal Mangtani

Tell us about what you do at Uber.
I run Business Intelligence at Uber, and everything I do revolves around two dimensions. The first one is taking care of our users, which means ensuring that the rides are physically safe, that communications between riders and drivers are as efficient as possible, that our drivers get there on time. The second dimension is around ensuring financial systems at Uber run really well. Uber is a platform that has a lot of money movement, so all the work I do ensures that every cent, every dollar, is tracked through our systems. I also build projects that provide financial insight into our operational expenses and identify abuse in the Uber ecosystem.

What’s the most exciting thing about your job?
I get excited just hearing that question! These are problems that are known in the industry, right? With any consumer service, you want to take care of the customers. You want to ensure that your financial systems are in check. But the way we do it, the technical solutions we use, makes it a lot more interesting. We strive for technical innovation in everything we do. The work i just described is empowered by a knowledge graph that models every actor on our platform and their activities. For example, maybe I’m an Uber driver in my hometown, but when I travel to other cities, I am a rider, and I might order dinner with UberEATS in the evening. We create a knowledge graph of all the actors and their activities, and that helps us identify bad actors. It helps us identify financial fraud. It gives us more insight into how engaged our users are.

Were you always interested in computers and technology?
I come from a very loving family, but also a very socially conservative culture, and for me, computer engineering became a ticket to freedom, to independence. Coding was my way out of all the social norms that could tie me down otherwise. So I got excited about coding from that perspective, but then I got super engaged once I tried coding. This was in India in the late eighties and early nineties, so it’s not like computers were easily available. I used to pay by the hour for computer time, so I started writing software programs on paper, and I would run them at a local computer center. And slowly I realized that this was actually giving me a creative outlet. I have a strong imagination, I love solving puzzles and riddles, and I like good mental stimulation and challenges. When my programs didn’t run and I had trouble debugging them, then it became a fun activity, sort of my version of video games.

At Uber Technology Day, led by #LadyEng, Uber’s women engineers unveiled the technologies behind Uber — from marketplace efficiency to self-driving cars — to the larger tech community.

You’re an advocate for women in engineering, and you run Uber’s #LadyEng group. Could you tell me more about how that got started?
#LadyEng actually predates me — I can’t take the credit for starting it. We had these two awesome engineers — they’re still with us, and they’re really amazing — they started this small group, and the idea was, Hey, let’s meet once a week and have lunch together, and that was pretty much it. This was back when Uber was very small, like 40–60 engineers. This very simple beginning sowed the seeds for what would eventually become a strong community of our women engineers and a powerful support system.

I joined around the time when Uber was 300 engineers. The group had grown quite large, and the lunch meetings needed a structured agenda to make it worth people’s time. We started inviting various internal leaders for informal Q&A sessions during our lunches. We then brought speakers from my external network for fireside chats with our #LadyEng members — inspirational women leaders from various tech companies, diversity-focused institutions, and venture capital firms.

Now we have three key focus areas in #LadyEng. One is the professional development of all women engineers at Uber. The second is recruiting, how we make the hiring experience best for our women engineers and how we ensure an unbiased interview process and source diverse candidates. And the third one is our outreach in the community, how we create more partnership opportunities with the companies around us in the Bay Area.

Why do you feel that it’s important to do this work, and to have more women in tech?
Women bring a diversity of mindset, of thought. They bring a unique perspective to problems which emerges from their own unique experiences. For any company, having an equal number of women in their workforce broadens the cognitive ability of their employees and becomes a competitive advantage for their business.

That said, the diversity issues plaguing our industry are making it very hard to retain women in the workforce. I am so glad to be in a place where we are very open to discuss these issues. We are open to having a clear dialogue around what issues women face. Whenever I attend these meetings, I get to learn more from the grassroots — like, what’s going on in the company? What are the issues day-to-day that we need to resolve? What are the hurdles we need to remove? And that defines our key metrics, what needle we want to move in terms of diversity in the next quarter. So it keeps me grounded. Uber’s partnership with Girls Who Code will open up opportunities for these girls, which will further fuel Girls Who Code’s efforts in guiding girls toward fulfilling technical careers. It’s a sort of payback — there are people in my career who have helped me; I want to help back.

Tell us about a time when you failed.
Oh, so many times, right? Anything you do for the first time, there is almost a 70 to 80 percent chance that you’re going to fail. And the key is not giving up, learning from the mistakes, and getting up fast and getting back on the horse again. That has defined my entire career. I remember even simple things like coming to America and trying to drive a car, and getting a driving test. I failed the first time. I was like, What?

But it applies to my career as well. When I was an engineer a couple decades back, I had to constantly identify ways to scale my code. As a leader, each time I fail to support anybody in my organization, I recognize it as a personal area of improvement. Any time we miss our business goals in a key area, there is an opportunity to fine-tune our product strategy.

A principle for myself that I follow is that I am going to celebrate failures. That is the only way I can not be afraid of failure. If I have not failed in the past few months, that means I’m not trying something new, that means I’m not growing. Failure is a very integral part of your career.

Did you ever encounter people who discouraged you from pursuing computer science because you are female?
Oh, yes. Absolutely. I also realize that people don’t come from a bad place. They just don’t know the potential you carry. When I started off, first of all I had to convince my parents — and of course they mean the best for me — why I should get into engineering, why I should do something that is related to computer science. They got excited once they realized the potential it offered. Then when I entered the workforce, I had to work harder to convince people that I was capable of taking on difficult projects. I had to work a little bit harder, always, to convince my managers that I could do this. But when I look back, it turned out to be a net positive. I unconsciously cultivated a habit of building extra discipline into my work; going that extra mile in anything I do.

The other part of discouragement is people judging you. They have a certain picture in their mind of what a leader looks like. When I entered management, I had a soft tone, but I had firm opinions. People would easily mistake it as me not having an opinion. I like to give other people a chance to speak, and that could be easily perceived as, Well, she doesn’t have a voice. So women have a very different set of characteristics when they lead, and you are discouraged because you don’t sound familiar. The key is to not give up, continue and keep going.

What would be your advice for girls who are interested in working in the tech world?
I would recommend all girls out there to not think of coding as a separate segment, to not think of technology as a branch where you have to completely dedicate yourself. There’s a lot happening at the intersection of technology and media, technology and art. You could be interested in anything — coding becomes a foundation for auxiliary growth in any area. My daughter is in fashion design, and she asks me: Why do I need to do coding? Do I need to do coding? My point is, look, it’s getting acclimated to the technology so you can use that to accelerate your goals in fashion design. And maybe in that process you will learn that you love designing applications as well. And actually, that’s what happened. Now she loves designing applications, and whenever we talk about an idea, she starts drawing pictures of how the mobile screen would look.

When we grow up, when our interests develop, it does not necessarily start with math, science, coding. It may start with some creative outlet — it may be writing children’s books; it may be about fashion design, or music. But understand that there is a technology component under every bit of those outlets. Megan Smith, who met with #LadyEng a couple weeks back, described something that I really agree with strongly — that technology is considered in isolation today, and that tech jobs are considered some special thing that you have to work hard toward to accomplish. But the reality is quite different. When you are designing your applications, when you are writing marketing material around your software, those are also part of technology. So broaden the definition of technology, and think of it more in terms of your interests, how they align with technology. You may be developing the next YouTube, because hey, you love watching videos, or you may be developing the next Facebook because you like socializing.

I have a 10-year-old and I have a 14-year-old, and I tell my girls every day, the key message is: Define yourself. Don’t let the world define you. By that what I mean is: Look within yourself, discover your strengths, and double down on them. Invest more in yourself, and do not let other people define your strengths and weaknesses. This is the most common situation I have seen in my own career, and all the women that I mentor: They frequently are told, Hey, your communication skills are not great, you’re aggressive. You have to take all of that with a filter. You have to understand what your own strengths are. You have to look in the mirror every day and know yourself to know where you want to improve and where you want to leverage your strengths.

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