Name Dropping: Liz Borowsky, SVP Platform Engineering at Akamai
Name Dropping is a Q&A series that aims to elevate the stories of women and nonbinary people leading in the tech space. The idea came from Angela DeFranco, a VP of Product at HubSpot, who said one way to be better allies is to name drop more women and nonbinary people in discussions of achievement, inspiration, and disruptors in tech, instead of referencing, time and again, the same set of (often male) leaders.
What’s the first thing you ever built that made you realize you loved computer science?
I got into computer science through the back door, in a way. As an undergrad I was a math major, and frankly, I had no interest in computer science at all. My high school calculus teacher said that I should try computer science. I wasn’t sure, but then computer science was required for my math major in college. As it turned out, it was really fun, and it was really easy compared to math. I really liked building things. I enjoy an elegant proof as much as the next girl, but being able to build something that was interactive, that was very tactile, was so much fun. But even then, I loved graph theory, and networks, and algorithms, so I sort of made this slippery slide from theory into systems. I did CS theory for grad school, and slowly became more and more practical, and here I am.
Before coming to Akamai, you worked as an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Boston College. What are some skills from academia that have come in handy in your current role?
There are two things. One is that I can talk in front of a crowd without any worry. When you lecture two or three times a week for large groups of students at a moment’s notice, stage fright just disappears. The other thing is, I’m really good at explaining things to people in the way that their mind works as opposed to the way my mind works. I think of it as translation. Meetings run better when I’m in them because I can hear what this person is saying or asking, and translate it into how that person is thinking about it. And that’s what makes our systems run smoothly — communication, and making sure that we’re all on the same page and not just talking past each other. When you teach, you have to do that. Not everybody comes to a discipline with the same kind of mindset. Some students like lectures, some have to work through the problem, some have to build something. Thinking intentionally about the ways people process information makes me better at collaborative work, which in turn makes me a better manager.
Akamai’s made news lately for enhancing its cloud security portfolio and network protections overall. What other interesting challenges are your team trying to solve today?
We do a lot with security. The security landscape on the internet is always escalating as we all do more and more online. The other big challenge we have, and have always had, is scale. We run a good chunk of the internet’s traffic, and those traffic needs are ever increasing. For example, think about how much video you watch over the internet instead of through your cable provider on TV. The bandwidth demands of streaming video, gaming, and augmented reality stresses internet infrastructure in ways it was never designed for. Making the whole internet work at the scale and quality that end users demand, and with the security level that people assume they’re getting, is a huge challenge. I’ve been at Akamai for 13 years now, and I have a very low boredom threshold, and I’ve never been bored here. The internet’s always changing. Even when you solve one problem, there’s a whole new set of challenges popping up.
Who do you think has helped you become a great leader, either as an inspiration or a mentor?
I don’t have that many mentors. There are people I look up to, professors who were great. Leonard Kleinrock, one of my professors in grad school, was one of the founders of the internet. He’s fantastic. But there haven’t been many women to look up to and follow. That said, I’ve been fortunate to work for many men who value work life balance and encourage that for all of us. In academics it was harder, because most of the rest of the department was men, many of whom had stay at home wives. I had my two children when I was a professor and balancing babies and research and classes was hard, even with a very flexible schedule. That said, I have a great group of friends and peers, both men and women, and we mentor each other. We get together, they vent, I vent, we keep each other sane. We give each other advice, we hold each other accountable. It’s sort of like making your own family, and we forge our paths together.
What is one quality that you think every leader should have in order to generate impact, and lead effectively?
I’m all about authenticity. I think this is especially important for women — you need to just be yourself. There was a long period of women trying to be like the guys. And that doesn’t really work, because if you’re aggressive like a guy, people don’t take it as well from a woman. How can you be strong and kind and still be yourself? Maybe you are aggressive. Just own that. If you’re not, that doesn’t mean you don’t know your stuff any less, or are able to make decisions and lead any less, it just means you have your own style. Instead of thinking so hard about what you have to be in order to reach a certain level, if you’re just true to yourself and it’s the right fit, then you’ll be ok. That’s my best advice. Just be who you are, and have a little more confidence. It took me a long time to realize that if I don’t understand something, it’s not necessarily me. Maybe it’s not being explained well. Be comfortable with that. You don’t need to know everything all the time. Be ok with asking questions. Eventually you get to a point as a leader that you can’t know everything, because it’s just too much. Might as well get used to that early.
Who’s one woman in technology you’d like to name drop and why?
I have two. One is Bobbie Carlton, whom I just met at a MassTLC training. She runs Innovation Women, which is a website and organization that gets women on panels. You can register and list your expertise, and she’ll match you up with speaking gigs. She does a lot of work on “end the manel,” which I think is just awesome. Like Name Dropping, it’s a way of getting people out there and getting more exposure.
When you think about the best engineers you’ve ever worked with, what characteristics did they embody?
Passion and curiosity. It’s inherent in engineering. Engineers like to solve problems. We’re driven by problems. If you have a problem, we say, let me tinker with it, let me fix it. From a leadership perspective, of course, it can be a little interesting. Sometimes you have to remind engineers, some of the things we do are actually good and people are happy with them and we need to appreciate that. Sometimes engineers can get too tied up in, “Oh, but there’s this little problem here, how can we fix that?” But the will to make things better and that curiosity about how things work and how to optimize them, it’s just great. As far as passion goes, I’ve seen avid discussions about all kinds of things between my engineers — for example, how many bits you have in what kind of data structures and the merits of one over another. I just love hearing that kind of passion about any part of the system.
What’s your greatest career achievement to date?
The thing I’m most proud of is that I helped IPV6 happen on the internet at large. An IP address is essentially the address of a machine on the internet. In IPV4, that address is 32 bits long. When the internet started, everyone thought this was fine, because they didn’t foresee the advent of personal computing or smart phones, let alone the internet of things, with every person in the world having several devices that all need IP addresses. So in IPV4, the world was running out of IP addresses. IPV6 is a standard that was developed a long time ago, with 128 bit IP addresses. This extra length meant it would last us much longer than IPV4, but implementation was a challenge.
The problem was there was zero rollout plan. IPV6 was not compatible with IPV4 and we had this real chicken and egg problem where the network carriers didn’t want to IPV6 their networks if the content wasn’t going to be available on IPV6 and the devices weren’t available on IPV6. And the content and the devices didn’t want to do it if the carriers weren’t going to do it. And Akamai, as an internet middleman, was one of the key pieces of enabling this. If we could enable our services to be IPV6 compatible, we could enable our customers, the content providers, to be IPV6 enabled in one fell swoop.
The team that I was leading at the time was the first team to build that technology and led Akamai through IPV6’ing our platform. We participated in IPV6 launch day, and got a lot of our customers on board. It was a lot of work, but it was really fun. The other fun thing was that it gave us a chance to go into all of our components and do open heart surgery and restructure everything. The engineers were able to go in and retire a lot of technical debt and renew the code base. They were so happy. To be the girl behind the scenes who helped to make IPV6 happen, that was probably one of the coolest things I’ve done.
What advice would you give your 22 year-old self?
Essentially, fake it ’til you make it. Give it a try. What’s the worst thing that happens? You fail? Then you learn from failure. Case in point, I was around 22, maybe a little older, and my thesis advisor in graduate school asked me if I wanted to work on the “hot topics” in the field, which other researchers would be working on as well, and there would be a lot of pressure. These were big name people whose textbooks I’d read. And here I am, 22. Or, I could work off on my own and it wouldn’t be as much pressure, but I also wouldn’t get as much of my advisor’s time, and it wouldn’t be as important work. Meanwhile, I’m one of the only women in my program in grad school, and I thought, what would my guy friends do? They’d all think “Sure, I can solve the hot problems, why shouldn’t I be able to do this?” And here I was, so intimidated and thinking how can I possibly do this? So, I decided “I’m just going to pretend I’m a guy for a while and that I have the ego to assume I can do these things”. As it turns out, I did tackle those hot topics in my thesis. I have prizes now because of the work we did solving those problems. So, don’t take yourself out of the running. Give it a try. You find out it’s not for you? So what? Move on and do something else. But it’s way better to have tried and failed than to not have tried at all. Be courageous and fake it when you have to.
I’m a big movie fan, so I have to know: all time favorite movie?
This is a tough one, because it depends on my mood. But I always like a heist movie. Maybe it’s because of the systems, and the people, and the teamwork, which I really like. And then they always manage to do the heist, so it all comes together. I like The Italian Job best — the remake with the Mini Cooper chase scene. That’s my favorite.
Know another woman whose name we should drop? Tweet us at @HubSpotDev with ideas.