Career Notes 11.14.21
Ep 75 | 11.14.21

Swati Shekhar: Challenges increase your risk appetite. [Engineering]


Swati Shekhar: Hello. My name is Swati Shekhar and I am Head of Engineering at Ground Labs.  

Swati Shekhar: I think I wanted to be so many things, but I think, um, the most vivid recollection I have is wanting to be an astronaut. I think I was like six or seven years old. The astronaut phase went on for a long time and it kind of passed, but, that desire to kind of go and do something different or to leverage all the tools available to solve problems, I think it came from that phase of "I want to go out there and do that." 

Swati Shekhar: I grew up in a really small, dusty town in India. Went to school in like late eighties and nineties. We were, like from a tech perspective, significantly behind the curve in terms of what kind of technology was available at home or what was taught at school. I had my first real experience with a computer when I was 17 and my first year at engineering college. So it was very, very different. I was never that very practical child who wanted to break apart a remote control and see how it works inside of something. I was really, really interested in, um, keeping an eye on what's the big picture problem I wanna solve, and then look at what tools do I have available. So I'm not going to break open a remote controlled car, but can I put my super-heavy book on top of it and kind of get it to carry it to my room? I was always more interested in using all the tools available and solving problems. I gravitated a lot towards math, towards physics and chemistry, because I think they gave me that, that adrenaline rush fairly easy early on of just going ahead and solving problems.  

Swati Shekhar: I come from a very open-minded family and my parents have been very supportive, but I come from a part of India where women were stereotyped into certain roles. I remember growing up, like my parents always treated my brother and me the same and they had the same wishes and hopes for me as they had my brother. But I remember people like the so-called well-wishers coming forward and saying, oh, well, why are you letting your daughter become an engineer, you know, how will you find a groom for her? Thankfully, my parents didn't have to look for a groom for me. My reaction to that was okay, I'm not going to let this sit in my head. I have to go out there and I have to do my thing. I think we need limitations. So we need challenges that stretch us beyond what we could be, um, a better version of ourselves. 

Swati Shekhar: I come from a family of doctors. My brother and my parents are doctors. I had a choice between, do I go ahead and consider becoming a doctor or do I go ahead, and continue to kind of chase my map? This is where probably a peer group helps because I was with a bunch of kids who were all preparing to go to engineering school. I was like, oh, I like both of these options. Let me just try and see if I can get into either medical school or engineering school. And then I got like a really good engineering college in India, and then it just took off from there. 

Swati Shekhar: Engineering school was a lot of fun, but, um, I must say there were a few things that were slightly intimidating. I mean, first of all, I went to one of the best engineering colleges in India and it's very competitive entrance exam that you go through and you are surrounded by some of the most brilliant minds in the country and you are used to kind of being among the best in your little school or your little town, and then you come in and you're surrounded by so many people who are so much smarter than you, or are able to kind of think more creatively than you. You just feel so overwhelmed and you wonder if you can match up. I think that was just the ability to be able to hold your ground surrounded by so many intelligent people. And also not to be intimidated, you know, when you talk to someone who is smarter than you, but actually to learn from their, or to see how you can leverage their strengths against your strengths to kind of get things done.  

Swati Shekhar: We were 30 girls and 500 boys. And I was coming from an all girls school and it was like, oh my God, how am I going to deal with this? What am I supposed to do? Like the first day was just sheer panic. You know, like there are just way too many boys here. So, but that was, that was easier to deal with than some of the other issues. It's a good culture shock because anything that takes you out of your comfort zone actually makes you learn and grow. 

Swati Shekhar: I graduated in 2002, which wasn't a great year, um, to graduate in terms of getting a job. I was actually able to get a job at Microsoft in Redmond. So coming from this small town in India, studying at this university in India, which was also in a small town, and then you get a job all the way in the U S. And I land up in the us with like 200 bucks in my pocket expecting to get my first salary the day I land, then being told that you have to wait two weeks before you get paid. And I'm like, oh my God, how am I going to manage? When I look back at my first job, where I was all alone, and then I had to fend for myself, I think more about all of these experiences now, I think I learned a lot as a developer, as an engineer, and , as a professional as well. I think it's the softer aspects of like, how do you solve this problem of being all alone in a country you don't know, um, all of 21, with 200 bucks and go figure it out your life. I think that just increases your risk appetite so significantly. All of the challenges then kind of just fall in line accordingly. 

Swati Shekhar: It's been a long and circuitous road to get here. I am an engineer by training. I'm an engineer at heart. Um, I've worked in a number of different companies in a number of different countries. My role itself has evolved. I was an engineer being fully focused, 24 hours a day on solving these very interesting problems for many years. And then until I reached a point where I realized now I need to have problems that are a bit broader in scope. From there I started experimenting. I moved into program management and product management, and now I've kind of come full circle over. I lead the engineering team at Ground Labs where I work. I have a team of developers and testers and product managers and designers and tech writers. So it kind of all comes in together and together still solving problems, just that now I have a team and we work together to solve problems and I'm surrounded by really bright people. I have had very empathetic managers. I've had mentors whom I've looked up to who have truly helped me because they've listened to me and they've understood me, and that is something that I look to keep emulating in all in the different leadership roles that I've had. I think it's very important for me that the team feels that we are all moving together. We're all looking at the same goals. There's just a lot of communication that goes back and forth so that, and, and even if that means more energy spent or more effort needed on my part, I just want to make sure each and every member of my team feels they're all looking in the right direction and they're motivated to go there. 

Swati Shekhar: Be very certain about what is it about that job that excites you. I think once you have that very clear in your head, there are no right or wrong answers. Whatever it is, be honest to yourself because once you know why you're making a job change or why you're kind of gunning for a job, you will have a framework that will just help you decide on what your next steps should be. Always be yourself, bring yourself to the job because I think each, and every person is individual. They have their own uniqueness and they bring their own ways of solving problems. I do think organizations need to cherish that diversity of thought. Ultimately you need to bring your spark and your uniqueness to the job and that will make your job more fulfilling and it'll work really well for whichever organization or whichever set up you choose to work in.