My Unexpected Journey to Silicon Valley as a Woman of Color
How I almost didn’t make it and why this story matters
Two young fish swimming in a river encounter an older fish. The older fish greets them, “Morning, boys, isn’t the water great today?” The two young fish continue onward in silence, when suddenly one of them looks at the other and says, “What the hell is water?”
I started my tech career in the late ’90s, first as a developer for Citibank in India, then as an engineering manager in Singapore and, later, Wall Street. I wrapped up a part-time MBA at New York University’s Stern School of Business while on maternity leave, then pivoted to product management on the West Coast. At Walmart Labs, I drove the digital transformation of several verticals and delivered seamless customer experiences, which included patented mobile app improvements. At Atlassian, I now lead a talented product team that is building the next-gen B2B e-commerce experience.
My career as an immigrant female leader in tech is nothing out of the ordinary compared with that of the many denizens of Silicon Valley. On recent reflection though, I was reminded that my journey into tech is unusual in many ways. Just like the fish, what I now take as the ubiquitous and the obvious isn’t so for others nor was it for me when I first got started.
I initially shared my story while volunteering with students who typically would not have exposure to tech careers. I wasn’t sure whether my story would resonate. It did. I was encouraged to share it more widely.
My hope is that this story plants a seed. Perhaps it will find its way to those who may not have the avenues or access to consider tech careers. Perhaps for those of us fortunate to be in tech, this story sparks explorations into how we think about access and its associated privileges.
Inflection point: Choosing my career
I didn’t have many role models in terms of what career I should choose and how I should build a career. I am incredibly lucky to have made it into tech.
My parents grew up in fairly conservative Indian Muslim communities that were also economically disadvantaged. Not only women but many men couldn’t afford a college education. My dad, who joined the army, encouraged his wife and his girls to be economically independent, which was unconventional. He joined the army as a soldier, studied while on the job, and successfully applied to train as an officer. My mom took up a teacher’s training course and went on to become one of the first women in the family to hold a job. She earned one of her college degrees while working full time and coping with challenges such as asthma and arthritis. My parents’ journey was truly inspirational, though I didn’t fully appreciate it at that time.
Due to my father’s transferable job, we moved around eight times before I finished high school, including two moves in 11th grade alone. I often didn’t have teachers for critical STEM subjects such as physics, and we certainly had no computer labs at my school. Despite this, I survived the Russian roulette of public education. Luckily, I finished high school, ranking in the top 15–20 of India’s national-level board.
Perhaps for those of us fortunate to be in tech, this story sparks explorations into how we think about access and its associated privileges.
How I chose my career
For most of us growing up in India at that time, medicine or engineering were the two professions to aim for because of the economic payoffs. It was inconceivable to consider careers in the arts, sports, or anything else that broke the norm. Because I didn’t have meaningful exposure to the arts or sports, they weren’t a distraction. Notice how the lack of access had already dwindled my choices.
It helped that I was genuinely interested in and good at academics — I relished math, devoured books on history, and was fascinated by biology and chemistry. Career choices were simplistic given the binary options. I knew that being a doctor wasn’t going to be my cup of tea. I couldn’t stand the sight of blood! That left me with engineering.
I wasn’t aware of Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) until my last few years of high school. In India, there is a system of private tuition that supplements formal schooling to help students prepare for entrance exams to prestigious undergrad institutions such as IITs. Many families pony up the fees for private tuition, hoping for a coveted admission. This was not even on my radar. Had I even known about IITs, it is likely that the expenses involved would have ruled it out.
In the pre-internet era, there was vast information asymmetry about choices in engineering majors. Financial constraints and the lack of access to peers and role models narrowed my choices. I was considering applying to some regional engineering colleges. This is when Lady Luck intervened.
Getting admission to BITS Pilani was life-changing
Learning of my national-level board ranking, an acquaintance of my father suggested that I apply to a college called BITS Pilani. We had never heard of it. We learned that BITS Pilani was also ranked among India’s premier educational institutions and that it was (and still is) a top-notch school. Luckily, this friend visited just in time before the admissions deadline. Back then, Pilani didn’t have an entrance examination, so I was still able to apply.
When I stared at the list of engineering major choices on the application form, I thought that not having a physics teacher in the last few years of my schooling might prevent me from doing well in computer engineering, although I could have easily opted for it, given my ranking. I didn’t know anyone from Pilani who I could reach out to for advice. I couldn’t afford to mess things up. I knew my parents would stretch financially to cover the cost of my tuition beyond the financial aid that I planned to apply for.
It turned out that, unlike many other engineering colleges, Pilani offered a master’s degree in management for which, in the first two years, I would do the same course work as my engineering counterparts, including exposure to computer programming, and afterward go on to study management for the next two years. So I opted for management and hoped for the best.
I was accepted into BITS Pilani. Excitedly and somewhat nervously, I ventured into my foray away from home. I soon realized that my journey was a stark contrast to that of most students. Many had friends and family who had graduated from Pilani or IITs. Most came from far more financially secure or even affluent backgrounds. They confidently spoke of a path beyond Pilani, including studying abroad. After all, it made sense to follow the footsteps of role models and family or friends who had done the same.
I, on the other hand, was fiercely determined to land a job after graduation and become financially independent.
Pilani was memorable, a fantastic learning curve that stretched and challenged me. Studying side by side with a hugely talented, diverse, and smart group of students from all over India was humbling and inspiring. I learned so much about what was possible thanks to the institution and my peers and seniors. This experience broadened my horizons incredibly, including my exposure to computer programming, which I enjoyed.
Citibank recruited at our campus for its India-based software subsidiary, and I was thrilled to land a job as a software developer. I followed a zigzag career path, consciously choosing to relinquish titles, linear progression, and stability in my career when I felt things were too cushy simply because I wanted to learn something new. That led me onto a trajectory of working for global companies, diverse workplaces, and geographies, from Singapore to Wall Street and now to Silicon Valley.
As I look back, I wonder about the “what ifs.” What if I hadn’t heard of Pilani on time? What if my father hadn’t been transferred during the critical years of middle school to a city like Bengaluru, where I had access to better teachers in public schools? Would I still have done well enough to be accepted into Pilani? Would alternate paths have widened my perspective on what was possible?
While I am extremely fortunate to be where I am today, “what ifs” remain for so many who have the talent to diversify tech with their contributions but lack access and awareness.
The internet makes information more readily available today. However, if no one in your social circle has worked in tech, the barrier to evaluating tech as a viable career is still very high. If you are from a disadvantaged background, all the more so.
The impact of diverse role models sharing their career journeys was reinforced when we invited middle schoolers to visit the San Francisco Atlassian office in partnership with Ignite with the support of Atlassian Foundation volunteers. While it may seem trivial, making the time to just show up and share your story is valuable. You never know the impact you could have.
This article was originally published by Sajida kaliyadan on medium.