An Old Conversation With Poornima Vijayashanker
This is a transcript of an old conversation I had with @Poornima. There’s been a lot of chatter over the years about how to get more women into the technology field, but Poornima actually is building a business around it and delivers (below) one of the best rationales for why computer science and development is a great career choice for women. This is worth a close read.
@semil: We’re in the studio today with Poornima Vijayashanker. She is the CEO and founder of BizeeBee, focusing on management, membership services, and software for small-medium businesses and she’s also the second employee at Mint.com. Welcome to the studio, Poornima.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Thanks for having me.
@semil: So, one of the largest issues in the Silicon Valley, the tech world and the startup world, is this issue of women and technology, including women founders and technical women in the industry. I think would be helpful to start off the conversation if you would dial the clock back a little bit and explain to the audience how you got into technology to begin with.
Poornima: Sure. Well, I was a bit fortunate growing up, because my dad’s actually a hardware engineer. Around the dinner table we always talked about the big tech companies that he worked for, like Sony, TI and Samsung. I grew up with that. I got to see my first fab when I was about eight years old and my brother and I did zany things, like take our computers apart. Growing up, there was a lot of tech focus. That’s not to say I wanted to be an engineer. It wasn’t until I got to college and took my first computer science class that I actually got interested in technology as a career.
@semil: As you were growing up in middle school and high school, were you exposed to computers? Were you learning programming at that time or only when you applied to college and enrolled?
Poornima: I did do some basic programming in HTML and, back then, we had geocities. I did that sort of stuff, but…
@semil: But for how long?
Poornima: Probably less than six months. I never took a high school CS class and I certainly wasn’t sitting there hacking away at my laptop. It was the kind of thing I only learned to do when I got to college.
@semil: How did you decide from the moment when you graduated high school and you were going to go to college that you were going to focus on electrical engineering and computer science? How did you decide that’s it, or did you pick a number of different majors?
Poornima: I wanted to be a lawyer. All through high school I did speech and debate. When I got to college, though, I wasn’t too keen on becoming a lawyer, because I felt like I wasn’t going to be building something and I really wanted to build. Computer science gave me that outlet. Once I started, then I just fell in love with building software. Then, I realized I really wanted EE, because I really wanted to know not only how to build to programs, but how to build computers and systems. That’s why I decided to do the double major.
@semil: What did you do after college? What was your next career move?
Poornima: The minute I decided I was going to be an engineer I knew I wanted to be in California. One, because it’s the tech capital of the world and two, I was always fascinated by the startup scene, as well as the fact that there are so many companies that form here all the time. So, I made the long trek out from Duke to California, and my first job was actually as an R & D engineer at Synopsis, which does CAD tools. It was a good integration of my CS and EE background and I spent about two years working there.
@semil: What was your next move?
Poornima: Then I went to Stanford. Actually, while I was still at Synopsis, I did a part-time Master’s. I did that partly because I really wanted to get into the startup scene and I thought it was the best way because so many Stanford grads, starting with the HP guys all the way to the Google guys, were from Stanford. I thought, there’s got to be something in the water there. Maybe if I start taking classes or meet people, I’ll be able to get into this scene.
@semil: Then you dropped out of the program at Stanford to join Mint as their second employee. Walk us through that decision. Did you agonize over leaving your Master’s program or did you just say, “This is what I’m here for and I’m going to go for it?”
Poornima: Since I only went to the program because I wanted to get into the startup scene, it was a pretty simple decision, in that I wanted to be at Mint. I loved the idea from the minute Aaron introduced it to me and I also really just wanted to be building and be in industry. Leaving wasn’t really hard because I’d taken a few classes, gained some skills in web development, and now I wanted to put it into practice.
@semil: Now you’ve founded your own company, after Mint was acquired by Intuit. You’ve obviously been noticing a lot of the debates around women and technology. It seems to come up again every three or four months and it seems to get louder and louder. And, so, maybe something is happening. You do a lot of work outside of BizeeBee, outside of being an engineer and founder, to mentor and interact with the community. Can you share a little bit about the types of things you do, how long have you been doing it for and what you’ve learned from it?
Poornima: Yes. Right about the time I started at Mint, I was on an all guy team, which wasn’t a new thing to me. I was used to that in college and at my first job. I really wanted to have a forum where I could showcase that you can be a girl and be in engineering. So, I started my blog, femgineer.com, and the whole purpose of it was not to bitch or gripe. It was just, “Let’s talk tech and let’s talk about what it’s like to start companies and build products.” That became the focus, and it’s been going on for five years now. Just over the course of writing the blog, people were contacting me and asking me questions and asking me to come speak. So, it basically morphed into me becoming a lot more of a role model or a figure in the area.
What I do now is go to conferences, like the one I went to on Saturday at Stanford, C++. There was one at Berkeley, as well, about a month ago. I talk about what it is like to be in tech, the jobs that are available to you and how you set yourself up. Whether it’s a CS degree or product design, I try to give people who are in college an understanding of what the major is going to translate to in terms of practice in the industry.
@semil: So, you’ve been blogging for five years and you’ve been very generous with your time, in speaking with either students or post-grads who are looking for advice. What are the common types of questions that come up? What do you hear most often and how do you respond to that?
Poornima: People just have no insight into what a software engineer does or what other jobs there are in tech. A lot of it is, “Look, here’s what startup life is like, here are the kind of skills that you need,” and they’re not just coding in Rails or Java or anything like that. There’s more; there’s being able to wire-frame, do visibility tasks.
A lot of it is just getting people acquainted with, “Here’s what life is like.” And then the other part of that, is there is a lot of anxiety. A lot of people come in and they say, “Well, I don’t know if I want to work for a startup or a big company. What’s the different dynamic?” It’s also exposing; what is it you want out of your career? Do you want to be an entrepreneur or are you really happy being specialized or solving big problems in the world?
@semil: What are the questions that come up with technical women who are in high school, college or just leaving college?
Poornima: Some people ask some pretty hard-hitting questions. There’s this phenomenon right now going on, that I think happens with both women and men, which is that first-year CS class that they take. They come in and say, “I’ve never coded before, so I have no idea to begin. I’ve done these Google searches, but there’s just so much content out there and I don’t want to appear dumb in the class.” So, part of it is just me saying, “Look, take that first project, learn that first language, and then build upon it.” No one is going to look at you and say, “Why don’t you have an entire string of keywords in your resume from your first CS class?”
You also aren’t expected to know everything when it comes to attending that class. It’s really meant to be an intro level. Part of it is just reducing their anxiety and telling them it’s a building process. You learn your fundamentals, and then you’re going to learn actually how to create a program. From there, you’re going to learn the entire computer architecture. Really, the focus is just saying, “Take a class; see if you like it.”
If you like to cook, programming is a lot like cooking. You grab your ingredients, you read a recipe. That’s what an algorithm is. Making it that simple helps them understand, “Okay, I’m willing to take a shot. I’m willing to sit through this first class and then go from there.” That is a lot of what I do when I mentor. The blog itself, though, is a little more focused on things like, “Here’s what it’s like at a startup.”
@semil: Let’s dig into that other side of the coin, such as more personal things and lifestyle things, that you’ve noticed being in the startup world. Obviously, it’s male-dominated. What are some lessons that you impart from your experience to people who maybe ask you about that?
Poornima: I would say a lot of it is, what is it that you want in your life? If you want to be at that startup that’s really changing the world and really going at a fast pace, there are a lot of those to choose from in the Valley. It’s up to you to get out there and promote yourself, either as the developer or the designer, or whatever your skillset is.
There are also a number of startups that are bootstrapped or that have been around for a while and are making a lot of progress. So, if you don’t want to be on that fast track and you would rather still have the ability to make a change in the world, you could choose from those. I think a lot of it is exposing that there’s not just one type of startup out there. If you want to have the freedom to affect your end-users and make change, that’s what a startup is for. It’s to be able to do that. It’s to be able to have that immediate connection with the customer, which you don’t necessarily get working with a larger company or if you have more specialized skills.
@semil: What about the more personal side of it, such as lifestyle choices that either that you’ve made or that your career has afforded you?
Poornima: When I left Mint, it was pretty much to start my own business. I had the experience as a founding engineer and liked seeing the evolution of an entire product from prototype to launch and then acquisition, but I wanted something different. I wanted to build a business that would grow with my lifestyle.
And at the time, I had a lot of different interests. I liked to mentor; I liked to speak on a number of topics; I loved yoga; and I wanted to spend time with my friends. I didn’t want to be at another startup where I was forced to go by whatever the founder’s schedule is. I wanted something where I could establish a business, one that’s still going to become big, but that’s operating on my timeframe.
@semil: How do you think a career in technology affords that, specifically for women?
Poornima: The first way is that I have a remote team. And my remote team is primarily on the West Coast, but I’ve noticed that my employees are really happy when they don’t have to commute. Everybody logs in, they do their work, and then they can go out and do what they need to. I think flexibility is really important, especially for women and especially for that group that is 20-30. They might be starting families, they might even be thinking of starting families. They want some freedom and they don’t want to be chained to a desk or even chained to particular environment that they have to be somewhere. Instead, they want to get work done still, they want to be productive, they want to be contributors. Technology and being able to log-in from anywhere and work from anywhere gives them that ability to do so.
@semil: You’re saying this specifically about people who are working in technical professions.
Poornima: Right. That can be anything. That can be marketing. That can be software engineers. It doesn’t have to be one versus the other. Being in a startup or being in a tech company gives you a lot more flexibility, just given the way that they think about how work is going to be done. It’s a pretty progressive industry when it comes to making sure there is work-life balance and also in making sure that you’re working when you are most effective, rather than punching a clock.
@semil: Let’s wrap up and talk a little bit about what you’re working on right now; where the majority of your focus is on BizeeBee. You mentioned that, and we were talking about it earlier, that it’s a software company helping small-medium businesses manage their memberships. Tell us a little bit about BizeeBee, who’s using it, and dig in a little bit as to what it’s like to actually build a company.
Poornima: Well, the first thing is that it’s extremely gratifying to see an idea start from nothing and have it affect hundreds, if not millions, of lives. I’ve always been a fan of that and with BizeeBee I get to do that. BizeeBee itself is member management. We basically help small businesses or organizations, like fitness studios, and even continued education and professional services, like acting coaches and writing workshops.
The big problem these folks have today is that their data is everywhere. There’s too many different tools. It really makes it hard for them to keep track of their customers, get them to come back, and even do simple things, like get paid on time. BizeeBee just streamlines the process, puts all of that into one product, and then let’s them do what they do best, which is teaching and interacting with their customers.
@semil: How did you get the idea for BizeeBee? How did it come about?
Poornima: So, I’ve been doing yoga for about eight years and I just kept seeing the same problems no matter where I went, whether it was in the US or outside. All these yoga studios I went to couldn’t get their people to come back after an introductory special or they just couldn’t get paid on time or were using software that was really old or had an install base. I thought, there’s got to be a better way. I looked around for some products, even consulted for a number of those businesses and found out there wasn’t a lot in the space. That was the inspiration to start BizeeBee.
@semil: How much do you think that idea process to get to BizeeBee was also influenced by your time at Mint, which is focused broadly on finance and then was acquired by Intuit? How was that experience formative for what you’re doing now?
Poornima: The first thing is that Mint taught me how to build a product from scratch. That really helped tremendously and that’s one of the reasons I went there. That’s the first. The second is, at Mint, I learned so much about financial tech, which is becoming more and more prevalent in the industry today. I learned everything from managing a transaction stream and the growth of that, to a lot around security. Mint was really the forefront of managing people’s personal, confidential data. I learned a ton of security information.
Then the other thing was, how do you take complex data? Personal finance, lotto numbers, people hate doing these kinds of things. Make it interesting, make it fun, and, most importantly, make it simple, right? People don’t want to do their taxes. They don’t want to do their accounting. So, what can you do to make it really push-button? Those are the same lessons I apply at BizeeBee. It’s “How do you take that business management, the hard parts of managing a small business, and make it super simple for these people that are super-strapped by cash and by time?”
@semil: You’re doing a lot of mentorship and you’ve touched a lot of people already through the blog and through the speaking. This conversation is another chance to talk to the audience. What would you say if someone’s out there just on the verge of wanting to join a startup or wanting to start their own thing, like you finally did? What would be your parting advice to them?
Poornima: I think the most important thing is, don’t overthink it. I think people sometimes worry, “Well, I don’t have all the pieces in place.” You need to just go for it and you need to make sure you’ve got a good support system. That can be advisors, mentors, even other founders out there. I think that it’s a really nurturing community. Being able to just say, “Hey, I’m stuck,” once you get stuck is great, but there’s never going to be a good time. You might as well just jump in if you are excited about an idea and if you think you can make it happen.
@semil: Alright. Thank you very much, Poornima, and good luck.
Poornima: Thank you.