Tech, Women, and Career

Ying Liu, Director of Engineering at Level 5

It was a decade into my career that I had my very first female manager. I remember the first time I walked into the restroom and saw her there I felt really awkward! I thought, “How do men deal with this everyday?”

That was the opening story I shared in the Lyft-hosted Women in Leadership event in New York recently on a cold, cold night. Despite the weather, 150 New York women in tech showed up and joined us for champagne and a panel discussion about tech, women, and career.

People laughed at my opening remarks. From the stage, I could see 150 faces full of curiosity, eagerness, enlightenment, and confidence, and my mind drifted away for a split second.

It Used to Be Different

It would be hard to imagine a gathering like this when I started my career as a software engineer many years ago. Back then, I was used to being the only woman in the team meeting, the only woman giving a tech talk, and the only woman in tech at the staff meeting. I accepted it—this was the norm.

One day I was asked the question, “What is the difference between a successful male tech leader and a successful female tech leader?” I thought for a bit and came to the conclusion that there is no real difference — both can be successful tech leaders. But the journey to get there could be very different.

As part of my journey, I have met and worked with a lot of great leaders who were both empathetic and energetic, warm and firm. I want to share something I learned from them, and hope they will inspire you as they did me.

Lessons from E

A principle for career growth

E has been my mentor for many years despite moves to different companies. She has always been a highly effective leader: well-planned, precise in her execution, and result-oriented.

E has a philosophy for everything. My favorite one is about career growth and how to be more effective: execution, strategy, influence, and ecosystem.

  • Execution is how well and quickly you do things. In the early stages of one’s career, execution is a linear function of time. The more time you spend learning, the more tech and domain knowledge you will master, and the better you are at execution.
  • Strategy is about laying out a plan for success beyond effective execution. Getting to this stage you will realize success is more than doing something well. It requires the right setup as well. Do we have the right tech stack, the right people, the right product market fit, and the right timing?
  • Influence is getting others to collaborate on achieving a common goal. Once we have a plan, getting others to collaborate on the plan requires investment in communication skills and relationship building. You learn to identify the key stakeholders and how to strike a win-win situation with them.
  • Ecosystem is building a self-sustaining workflow. By this stage you developed a group of cross-functional, cross-team participants to work towards a common goal. To build a self-sustaining ecosystem, you must cultivate optimal individual execution as well as group execution. In a healthy ecosystem, individuals have room to learn and grow and maximize their impact, while the group makes consistent progress toward the shared goal. What’s required here is building a healthy culture, a balanced team, and a shared vision. Check out our blog on Growing from Zero to Sixty for the tips of building a strong ecosystem.

Applying a growth mindset

If there’s one thing I learned through the decade of career in software engineering, it’s that change is the only constant.

In my early career, I was a software engineer at Oracle where data schema design and writing scalable SQL queries were my core technical strength. And I was super proud that I was very good at SQL tuning turning hour-long running queries into seconds or milliseconds.

Later, when I joined Google to work on the application layer, storage became so cheap that the database table design no longer needed normalization: it was flattened out and optimized toward fast access and aggregation.

Then, MapReduce was invented. Suddenly all our problem solving required a paradigm shift from sequential-based to parallelism using divide-and-conquer. Now when a problem is presented, the first thing you’ll be thinking is how to break it into key value pairs so that you can automate hundreds or thousands of machines to compute it.

And then came the Deep Learning era where you program with data than code!

I can’t enumerate how many times in my career I felt what I mastered would soon be obsolete. But at the same time, I felt curious and excited about what I would learn next. If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that change is constant and the only way to deal with it is to embrace it and maintain a growth mindset.

That’s why after rotating through several different product areas over 12 years at Google, I joined Level 5, Lyft’s self-driving division last year. I am passionate about human-machine learning, which is a core component in teaching machines to drive a car. So it’s an exciting time for me to learn something new while contributing something I know.

Lessons from D

The power of relationships

The first woman manager I had was D. She taught me the power of investing time in relationships in order to build safe spaces where people can express themselves freely.

I always knew I could have D’s time. We had weekly one-on-ones, ad hoc lunches, and occasionally I would stop her in the hallway and do walking one-on-ones. My favorite times with her were late afternoons when not many people were around. I’d walk into her office and we’d chat about work, life, and everything else. I felt psychologically very safe letting her know who I was and what I thought. Creating a space where people can bring their full selves to the table creates the richest of work environments.

Later, when I led my own team, I put this same value into practice by spending time with both my direct and indirect reports on a regular basis. Now in D’s shoes, I realized that the core component of the strong relationship we had was trust. By investing time in our relationship, trust came naturally.

One-on-ones are perfect for building trust, so I want to share some of my best practices for making the most out of this time. If the environment allows, I prefer casual walking one-on-ones. This creates a more relaxed environment and the conversation tend to drive itself. If there’s a fixed agenda, a sit down meeting is the better choice. Try to sit closer and diagonally in this case — physical distance matters in building relationships. Of course time matters too. Don’t skip your one-on-ones; make time for them!

A note about diversity

Growing up in a family with both parents being biology teachers, the word diversity always carry a special meaning to me. One day I was in my backyard getting rid of some bushes growing wild, my mom saw and stopped me. “But they are different plants mingled together, they look very disorganized,” I complained. Mom said, “You know, it’s the diversity that makes them grow strong together.”

Few months after I joined Lyft, people asked me what impressed me most here, and I said, “Diversity!” I explained that I didn’t mean gender or race (in these dimensions, all of Silicon Valley and the tech industry has a lot of room to improve), I meant the mixed background of people here: they come from all walks of life and are free to be themselves here. (In case you haven’t heard, Lyft’s first core value is “Be Yourself.”) We share the same vision of innovating transportation but come in with different ideas and approaches. The fact that we celebrate these differences really cultivated the diversity.

It’s the diversity that makes us strong, just like my mom said.

The panel discussion on that cold New York night with 150 curious faces ended with one question: Knowing what you know now, if you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice what would it be? I used to worry a lot about doing the wrong thing, or doing things the wrong way. Now looking back, I regret the things I didn’t do and the opportunities I’ve missed. So my advice to the person who I was then and who I am now is: Just go for it!

This month, Ying will be speaking at Level 5’s Women in Self-Driving event in Palo Alto. We’ll be hearing from female leadership on topics like the future of transportation, autonomy feature development, readiness and the road network, and scenarios. While our guest list is full, you can join the waitlist here and stay tuned for a debrief on the event by following us on Medium.