As an Oracle executive, Vivian Wong has accomplished a lot, but she considers it nothing compared to her mother’s journey. With gentle authority and a charming Chinese-Australian accent, Wong explains that when she was 11 years old, her mother moved the family to Australia on a tourist visa, sacrificing her own engineering career in China. “We were illegal immigrants, so my mother washed dishes,” said Wong, a computer scientist and group vice president for higher education development at Oracle.
Her mother, who had been a seasoned railway engineer, went back to college in Australia in her late 40s, and spent 10 years working her way back up from draftsperson to engineer. “Ten years after that, she led the design of the railway track for the Sydney 2000 Olympics. If my single mother could do that, everything I’m doing is a piece of cake,” Wong told more than 400 women who had assembled at Oracle headquarters for the company’s first Girl Geek Dinner.
Founded in 2008 by Angie Chang, Bay Area Girl Geek Dinners are Silicon Valley’s version of the networking events for women that Chang had seen advertised in Europe in 2007. I met Chang in 2011 while covering a much smaller Girl Geek Dinner, and was impressed by how popular Chang’s events have become—Oracle was on an 18-month waiting list for the December 2017 date.
What has changed in the last decade? “Women are more ambitious now. They come with a purpose,” said Chang. She believes the network effect is powerful, and the proof is in the women who return to dinners as they rise in their careers: “The person who came a few years ago as an entrepreneur is now back and she’s venture capital-funded. The engineer comes back, and she’s a vice president.”
But newbies are always welcome—and Chang’s business partner, Sukrutha Bhadouria, has a mission to keep it that way: “I want to make sure that Girl Geek Dinners appeals to the person that I was when I was first looking for a network.” She’s now a senior engineering manager at Salesforce, but still remembers the feeling of being a fresh graduate with a master of science degree in electrical engineering from USC. She liked Girl Geek Dinners so much, she joined as managing director in 2011, doubling the size of Chang’s team to two.
The Next Generation of Girl Geeks
Every Girl Geek Dinner highlights the work of the host company. At Oracle’s event, demos showcased emerging technologies such as a gesture-controlled robot arm and IoT toys, as well as innovations in Oracle Database, its new Oracle Student Cloud, and the bare metal power of Oracle Cloud Infrastructure. The Oracle Education Foundation also had an important message of inclusivity.
“People assume that when you’re in computer science, that means you write code, but what we know here at Oracle is that there’s so much that supports writing code,” says Teryll Hopper, manager of the global Oracle Volunteers program. “If you create a product, you have to market that product, sell that product, and there’s also somebody project managing it all, so you know how and when it’s going to get done. There are many ways to be involved.”
Hopper is part of one very big effort to help grow the next generation of talent: Oracle is the first technology company to build a public high school at its headquarters. Design Tech High School (d.tech) is a pioneering California public charter high school that blends technology and design thinking to help students succeed in college and in future careers. Oracle Volunteers make a major contribution to the effort by coaching d.tech students in classes offered by the Oracle Education Foundation during d.tech’s four annual intersessions.
“Students at d.tech participate in two-week classes provided by the Oracle Education Foundation with support from Oracle Volunteer technologists and business people. In our classes, students work on design challenges in domains such as IoT, wearables, 3D modeling, and gaming. At the end of each two-week class, they do a presentation about their prototypes and how they’ve solved a problem for the user. The Oracle Volunteers who help coach students through these classes are an integral part of the foundation’s program—without them, we couldn’t do it,” said Hopper.
A panel of women executives, moderated by Maria Kaval, vice president of UI technologies at Oracle, shared their selected wisdom on corporate culture, superpowers, mentoring, and ascending into management.
Integrating Startup and Corporate Cultures
Oracle Data Cloud was built largely through acquisitions, but merging startups into a productive business unit is a challenge. “It’s been really important to maintain those bits of culture from all those different startups—and it’s not easy to do. It’s something that we screen for when we look at M&A opportunities,” said Michelle Hulst, vice president of strategic partnerships and business development at Oracle. “We don’t even go down the path, even if it’s the best business fit possible, if that team isn’t a good fit from a culture standpoint.”
Hulst oversees a culture committee, whose “whole job is to bring in those organizations and have them unify under Oracle Data Cloud, but maintain the culture of innovation that made them special, so we don’t lose sight of that as an organization.”
Kaval asked the Oracle execs what each of their “superpower” is.
“I have the ‘make it happen’ power. Some people are good with strategic ideas, and others are good at creating the execution plan—my superpower blends the two,” said Rashim Mogha, senior director of product management for Oracle Cloud Infrastructure. A male executive was the first to point this out to her: “I realized a while ago that I was constantly given ambiguous projects that required diving deep into the problem to create a solution, and that my team depended on me to translate that strategy into a plan that they could execute on.”
Wong had a different answer. “My superpower is collaboration. I rally the troops: ‘Let’s do design!’ ‘Let’s do a baby shower!’” she joked, causing a ripple of laughter in the audience. “A lot of what we’re building is too complex for one person to create. It requires an army to design it end to end.”
Mentoring and Management
“When I was an individual contributor, I always ended up in charge,” said Gretchen Alarcon, Oracle group vice president for human capital management strategy. Even so, “the VP role was a very big shift,” and she took pains to meet with her team of former peers to ensure they’d accept her leadership. But the biggest surprise, she said, came when she was asked to be a mentor: “I was floored. I was like, really? But having been a mentor, the important thing to remember is that when that relationship comes to an end, that connection stays. I still recommend them for jobs. Think about it as someone you’re investing in.”
Indeed, a woman engineer from another tech company with a master’s in computer science (who declined to be named) told me she wanted to transition into product management and had come to the event in hopes of meeting a mentor. She got her chance after the panel to talk one-on-one with Mogha.
“I want to create a relationship with a product manager who can tell me the personality traits I need—or that I should just stay in engineering. It’s very difficult to do this in a corporation where they don’t promote women leaders. Without this Girl Geek event, you don’t know who could help you, or if they’ll give you the right advice. What Rashim did—that was incredible,” she said, enthusing about how Mogha had mentioned spearheading her own project and getting the PMP certification (actions this engineer had already taken) and offered to review her resume after the event.
You Don’t Know You Need It Until You Need It
The words that resonated the most for me at the end of the night came from Wong, who described how her team looked at building the Oracle Student Cloud product: “We have a mantra that my development team uses, and that is: Anticipate the need, illuminate the path, and empower the students to succeed.” If recent research on how talent flourishes proves anything, it’s that we need to see more women like Wong and her peers in order to expand our vision of what’s possible.
Events for women in tech are a bit like women’s colleges—you don’t realize how much you need them until you’re there. There were small details that put me at ease, like a women’s-fit T-shirt. And then there were big ones: a panel of executives comprised entirely of frighteningly accomplished women, many of whom also are mothers.
Finally, there was something almost too subtle to comment on, but that I realized later I had never before heard at a tech conference: the sound of 400 women laughing, in a room of their own.
- Related: Oracle Code call for papers
Powered by WPeMatico