Emerging Leaders in Engineering

Archana S
Archana S
Nov 5, 2015 · 4 min read

Everyone who attended last month’s emerging leaders event at Coursera felt inspired to dream more, learn more, do more and become more. Coursera initiated this event because we wanted to create a space for engineers to connect with female engineering leaders. We learned a ton during the process and wanted to share our learnings here.

Our guest panelists comprised of four phenomenal leaders, and we asked them to share advice to their younger self:

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Our own Chief Business Office, Lila Ibrahim

“Focus on your strengths and take it further”

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Prachi Gupta, Head of Engineering, Short Form Content, Linkedin

“Dream big and strive to achieve 10x of what you dream”

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Nancy Hua, Co-founder and CEO of Apptimize

“Try new things and get good at them”

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Zeesha Currimbhoy, Head of Augmented Intelligence, Evernote

“Don’t be scared to make mistakes and optimize your career choices for the right reasons”

We wanted this event to be highly engaging so that people could share their experiences and have deeper discussions on problems. After kicking off the evening with our lively panel sharing their stories, we split into four groups. Each panelist joined a group and we had open and honest conversations about the hurdles we face. Here are the top three things we discussed:

How can we create a culture that enables a team with diverse backgrounds succeed?

We discussed how some individuals can be shy and introverted, and may not always be forthright with their opinions. It is important for us to understand why they may be holding back. We should foster an environment that encourages them to speak up and express their opinions freely. One solution we discussed was to have managers help by creating space for opinions to be raised, and actively soliciting them.

Each one of us also have different lifestyles: some of us may find it important to return home for dinner with our families, while others may love working through late in the night. Having a results-oriented culture can help both these types of people succeed; and we can help by having role models to support this. For example, our Chief Product Officer, Tom Willerer, has his calendar blocked out after 5pm every evening to have dinner with his family. This sets a tone for the company’s culture.

Advocate for yourself

Have you had a time when you held back from asking for something because you felt like you did not deserve it?

We spoke about the power of asking for what we want and having open conversations with our managers and peers. Though it can be intimidating to advocate for oneself, if we never ask, we may never get what we want.

Asking makes us vulnerable since we may not get what we ask for. But, it is the only way to communicate our intentions and desires to others. By being open in our conversations, we can establish deeper relationships and enable our team to help us.

Build your own “personal board of directors”

Just like the board of directors (BoD) for a company, your personal BoD is your group of selected mentors who provide strategic guidance, help make connections, and hold you accountable for your goals. Your personal BoD can support you and help you succeed.

When picking your personal BoD, think about the leaders that you respect: they may be senior leaders in your organization, or even out of your organization. Look for leaders who inspire you, and who have a broad set of experiences. Creating your own BoD takes time; find the right people and ask them if they would be willing to be your mentor. It is up to you to set the tone and define the relationship.

Be sure to communicate your goals to your BoD, and solicit their suggestions. Meet them regularly and keep them updated on your progress. And of course, don’t forget to thank them.

Wrapping up

We had a blast at the event. Many of us left feeling empowered to make a change in our careers. Lila closed the evening by saying, “practice one thing from tonight starting tomorrow”. We hope you will take something from this post that you can start practicing tomorrow.

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