It’s time to level the playing field

My move from corporate to startup life and solving real problems

Casual murals at our open space office #soHip

When I managed to land a job at Microsoft right out of college it felt like a miracle. I didn’t know anything about tech, or corporate America, but I had clawed my way through thanks to a combination of determination and shamelessness. Universities are complicated, and as the first person in my family to pursue a higher degree, I had to figure out the rules to the game without a coach. Getting into tech felt the same, like I was the only player without a rulebook. But thanks to an endless list of friends and colleagues I slowly figured out how to unlock those opportunities. Ever since I have been on a single-minded mission to share those learnings with others. I know tech can be a life-changing opportunity, it was for me, and I know there are so many others who would thrive if they only knew how to actually get here. But time and again my efforts are thwarted. Amazing, talented students get rejection after rejection while other students sail through without any issues. The sting of that unfairness lives in a part of my brain I simply cannot ignore.

It took me a while to figure out how to turn that obsession into action. For years I battled, begged and badgered Microsoft to let me tackle these problems. I was often met with polite acquiescence. It was nice I cared about things like “fairness” and “economic equality” but that’s not what I was there for. They were right. I joined Microsoft because I needed the stability of a big company to pay off my loans and support my family. I was there to trade my skills for their economic growth, not to solve the problems I cared about. For a long time, I thought I could achieve what I wanted at Microsoft, but I kept trying to push them in a direction they didn’t want to go, and they did the same to me.

It’s been six years since I’ve graduated, my family is in a very different place, mostly thanks to Microsoft. This means it’s finally time for me to explore opportunities based on what I want, not what my family needs. I knew if I went to another big company it would be the same. I realized- I needed a new type of company, one that actually wanted its employees to drive its direction. I needed a startup.

But finding a startup to work for is very different than simply moving to another big company. My network was scattered across the big 4. The world of startups was very dark to me. What if my perfect company was one I hadn’t even heard of? Where do you even start?

I started with non-profits and small startups I had at least heard of. I started to reach out to any friends I knew had large networks or were attached to the startup world. I listened to podcasts like “How to Start a Startup” and “How I Built This” to learn more about companies in the early stages. I followed VCs on Twitter and paid closer attention to news articles about where VC money in Seattle was going. I paid for LinkedIn premium. I even signed up for a service called “Hired” that matches you directly with jobs based on your resume. I said “yes” to everyone who wanted to talk to me. There were a lot of informationals that went nowhere. But it was through talking to as many people as possible I slowly started to build a list of things I was looking for in a startup:

1.I wanted a startup where it was clear what I could contribute. Equally important, I wanted my new company and I agree on how I can contribute, and how I was going to live my values. I was tired of selling products I didn’t care about to people who had more money than problems.

2. I wanted a “grown-up” startup. One with a real idea. One that had raised real funding, that had some momentum. One with founders that were serious and had a real team to back them up.

3. I wanted a company open to conversations about culture. I didn’t care where they were on the journey of culture, just that they were actively thinking about what culture meant and how to move it in a positive direction.

I had enjoyed “How to Start a Startup” (a Stanford class from the team at the prestigious y combinator incubator) but it was clear I needed to steer clear of the types of companies that held Paul Graham’s word as gospel. That podcast is full of great, tactical examples of how to avoid the mistakes of others. But the idea that diversity and culture are things that come later just didn’t sit well with me. Isn’t that what got Uber in all that trouble?

It was this path that led me to Karat.

  1. Karat is a solution that conducts first round technical interviews on behalf of companies hiring software engineers. I have devoted an incredible amount of my career to recruiting, especially to sourcing diverse and inclusive talent. Yet no matter how many qualified candidates I put into the pipeline I never seemed to be able to move that D&I needle very far. Time and again I would get heartbreaking results about candidates I was sure had the technical skills to pass an interview. Too often I found the following things had transpired:
  • The interviewer scheduled for an event had to cancel last minute and a replacement was found too quickly for them to be trained or prepared. The interviewer does their best but is scheduled for 15 interviews in an 8 hour day. By interview 5 or 6 the interviewer is running painfully late and stress levels are high. Great candidates fall through the cracks.
  • The interviewers must decide upon what questions to ask and how to score them against an incredibly subjective system. Senior managers ask students questions well beyond the scope of their interview. Or they ask tricky math questions that make students struggle with foreign concepts and language that has no bearing on their skills as a developer. What is considered too much or too little “hand holding” is completely inconsistent across interviews. There’s an infinite array of other common issues with two strangers trying to communicate in a short, stressful 30 minutes.
  • Students show up overdressed and prepared to answer classic behavioral questions only to be given whiteboard coding exams in which they are expected to code without the help of a compiler or the internet. These students often didn’t realize what was going to be asked of them and struggle to explain their thinking as they navigate questions for the first time in a foreign environment. Students rarely know about the secret requirements like providing test cases and optimizations. Too often I get emails from these students asking for help and I realize they haven’t even heard of “Cracking the Coding Interview” or any of the other interview prep materials. This lack of awareness of “the rules” is far more rampant in communities traditionally under-represented in tech #notSurprising

Karat is working to solve these problems by recognizing that interviewing is its own skill set and time requirement, worthy of its own type of engineer- so we created the Interview Engineer.

Interview engineers are recruited, equipped, and trained to conduct hyper calibrated interviews. This frees your organization’s engineers from the stress of flying somewhere, taking time away from coding, and preparing to conduct interviews.

On top of that, we are working to educate and prepare candidates. Not only do all candidates get an email explaining exactly what the interview will entail, but we even offer a “redo”. A chance to completely redo the interview with absolutely no penalty if a candidate felt they were underprepared or any of the other infinite reasons sometimes humans can’t produce their best work within a time crunch stress inducing hour.

This is a problem I care about. I know this industry is a great fit for so many, but often it’s a lack of awareness of the rules- not ability to play the game- that keeps them away. Not only did I want to help build this product, but with my background in teaching, I was excited to provide my point of view on how to write unbiased questions and to create courses to prepare students and interviewers for the best experience possible.

2. Karat was founded by Mo Bhende, formerly the senior director of product strategy for xbox at Microsoft, and Jeff Spector, Melinda Gates’ chief of staff at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As if that wasn’t enough pedigree, Neil Kumar joined as CTO, one of Yelp’s earliest employees, where he learned how to grow and scale real teams. I’ll just leave this here as my proof that, yes, we are a very grown-up for a “startup”.

3. We in the D&I community are constantly reassessing our language, approaches and focuses as we try to tackle this mammoth issue that is diversity in tech. I didn’t realize until now, but I have set levels of D&I awareness that I expect from certain entities. I expect large companies to at least be at “D&I is great, emphasis on giving minorities the opportunity to connect with one another”. The next level up is “D&I is essential, and so is allyship”. From there we can get into specifics and nuances around “equity” vs “equality” approaches etc… I knew I was in the right place when in my interviews we were having conversations about “culture add, not just culture fit”, that eliminating bias means looking for candidates beyond the traditional schools and companies, how inconsistent standards disproportionately impact minorities. These weren’t D&I org members, I was having these conversations with software engineers, interview engineers, program managers. There’s something special when everyone at a company is invested in growing their own understanding of culture and inclusion. At Karat, not only are we focused on our own internal culture, we are taking what we learn from our interviews and sharing how to create inclusive hiring cultures across the tech industry:

So internet, stay tuned. I am on a new journey to level the playing field and make sure the door to tech is open to all. I’m also on a journey to learn everything I can about what it’s like to build a company from scratch. I promise there will be plenty to share along the way. So raise your glasses to new beginnings, and if you have any advice, please dear God send it my way.

-Karat Employee #42

Software Engineer at Karat & Comp Sci teacher at Franklin High & University of Washington. Passionate about #techforgood and #cs4all **opinions are my own**

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