As Lambda School’s former Chief Technology Officer, Namrata Ganatra is building the future framework of tech education. She joins Lambda School after leading engineering and product teams at Coinbase, PayPal, Facebook, and Microsoft, among others. Namrata sits on the Forbes Technology Council and is the founder of the Ashia Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to educate and empower women of all ages, races, and religions.
Today, we’re kicking off our new Women in Tech series with a Q&A session with Namrata. In this session, she shares her personal and professional story as a woman, parent, and person of color in tech – along with practical and tactical advice on building a successful (and happy!) career.
Q: Please tell us a bit about how you first became interested in CS? When and how did you decide this was the path for you?
A: “I grew up in Mumbai India in the ’90s and at that time I didn’t have any exposure to computer programming or technology in general. We didn’t even have a television at our home. I remember, when I was in middle school, I read about Microsoft’s Windows 98 launch in the physical newspaper. It talked about Microsoft’s vision of having a computer on every desk and in every home, and how Personal Computers would automate jobs in the future. that intrigued my curiosity in the computer field...I thought to myself that this is the future of technology, and I dreamed of working at Microsoft someday.”
Q: I know that part of what you drew you to Lambda School is our mission to make education accessible, an issue that is very personal to you. Can you please tell us a bit about your own educational journey?
A: “My parents were very supportive, but I grew up in a middle class family and I have three siblings – there was no money leftover to fund my studies. I had to find another way to pay for my computer science education. It was a very eye-opening experience for me because at the time in India, scholarships were all based on race and religion. Every year, I had to qualify for 10-15 scholarships just to get through my 6 years of school. I was fortunately able to pay for it through scholarships, but I lived in fear of losing access to education due to not being able to afford tuition.
“I was writing code at home, one problem at a time, but on a notepad because I didn’t have access to a computer. And then I’d go in early to school, type that program into the computer and run it to see if it worked. That’s how I learned to code. This continued for 3 years and I finished the diploma program with honors. I then enrolled for a bachelor's degree in computer science.”
Q: How have you learned to advocate for yourself as the only woman or person of color in the room?
A: “It wasn’t easy or intuitive. I didn’t know what I was getting into as one of the few women in technology at the time. Things are getting better now, but I started experiencing challenges as I transitioned from being an individual contributor to being a manager. The numbers of women in those roles were really low. I began to feel like a minority, like my voice was not being heard. Often I was the only woman in the room in leadership meetings.
“In my early days of leading teams, I would get feedback that I was ‘too aggressive,’ while my male counterparts were praised for being ‘assertive.’ I learned to combat these biases by being self-confident, working harder than anyone else in the room, taking every opportunity I got, and by practicing and preparing for every opportunity I had to make my voice heard. When I was younger I assumed that if I just did a good job and kept my head down, salary increases and promotions would naturally come, but I had to learn to advocate for myself.”
Q: What advice do you have for women who are trying to break into the tech field and build confidence in themselves?
A: “Having to work so hard to fund my education taught me to ask for what I needed, and to get out there and talk to people. I had to learn computer science and English at the same time, and I was very successful at that, which gave me a lot of confidence. It’s important to learn to believe in yourself. There were times when I asked myself, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen?’ and I made bold choices based on my answer to that question. Lastly, always speak up and state your opinion in meetings. No idea is a bad idea. Those principles were the foundations of building my self confidence.”
Q: How do you tackle and approach code challenges? What advice can you give students who are learning computer science?
A: “Learning to code is not different from learning anything new. Everyone has different learning styles, but if the fundamentals are clear, you can learn any programming language. I’ve never navigated my career according to a specific language or tech stack, but instead based on what excites me about the organization’s mission or on a specific skill I want to build there.
“Focus on the fundamentals. To this day, I still write technology framework on a piece of paper before transferring it into the code. Build your foundation, and keep learning. Every coding question I ask candidates in interviews, I solve myself first.”
Q: How do you approach offer negotiations as a woman and POC?
A: “During the first few years of my career, I didn’t negotiate at all. I took the first offer I was given because I was very grateful for those opportunities and I feared that they would withdraw the offer if I tried to negotiate. I now see how naive that mindset was.
“After a few years of getting paid lower than my male counterparts, I became a stronger negotiator. Two things hold women back in negotiating: self-doubt and not knowing your worth. So my advice for negotiation would be to “Learn Your Market Value”. Do your homework and know your value. Talk to your friends about their compensation, research salaries online, and then present your data in negotiations – knowing what you deserve gives you leveraging power.
“There’s no risk in negotiating. No company is going to withdraw the offer, and there is no harm in asking. Not negotiating at all is the wrong move. They’ll either come back with a counter offer or give a final offer, but there’s nothing to lose by negotiating. Never leave money on the table.”
Q: What advice would you give for new engineers who are interviewing for their first positions?
A: “When I interview candidates, I focus on the potential of the engineer and what soft skills they bring to the table. A great engineer needs two things: core technical skills to do the job, and a hunger to be successful.
“Sometimes I will interview someone and they won’t be able to solve a coding challenge during the interview, but they’ll go home, solve the challenge, and email me the answer. That shows confidence and grit, that they’re willing to go above and beyond the job description. Those types of people can offer the most value to a team. If you can show how proactive and passionate you are for the job, that’s what shows you’ll be a great addition to a team.”
Q: Any final words of advice for women who want to build successful careers in tech?
A: The best advice I have received is to have a seat at the table and to let your voice be heard. Don’t be intimidated regardless of the situation.
Watch Namrata Ganatra’s full Ladies of Lambda Q&A below:
To learn more about Namrata and find out why she said Lambda School is the ‘opportunity she would have wanted for her younger self,’ check out her Lambda School profile.
Published November 7, 2019