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Expert Interview (Part 3): Confluent CTO Neha Narkhede Shares Her Insights on Women in Big Data

In Paige Robert’s three-part interview with Neha Narkhede, CTO and Co-Founder of Confluent, we’ve discussed the origins of Confluent and Kafka and the purpose of Schema Registry. In today’s final installation, we are exploring experiences of women in Big Data.

Neha talks about what it’s been like for her as a prominent engineer and executive in the Big Data field, fighting imposter syndrome, and being an autodidact. Rebecca Collins, an engineer from Oscar Insurance, joins the conversation and asks a key question about interviewing strategies for combating unconscious bias in technical hiring – a common hurdle of women in Big Data and other technical fields.

Paige:  All right. I have a different kind of a question. I’ve been interviewing a lot of accomplished women in Big Data. As a founder and CTO of a major technical company, how has simply being a woman affected you along the road?

Neha: You know, there have been good things, and there have been things to learn. I’m, of course, a bit of a misfit when it comes to traditional CTOs in Silicon Valley. I’m not quite what you would imagine when you think of the CTO of a distributed systems product company. There are several roadblocks from outright to subtle sexism, having a higher bar to clear than otherwise.

What has helped me is adopting a growth mindset and being very persistent. That’s something I grew up with, and now I read all about. The growth mindset is accepting that you don’t have a fixed skillset. You can evolve your skills and learn on the fly. I try to use that to counter the imposter syndrome, you know, which is like, “Oh, this might’ve all been a stroke of luck.” I think: “No one really has all the right answers. I haven’t had the chance to dive into it yet, but when I do, I will do what it takes.”

Related: Senior Software Engineer Yolanda Davis on Women in Technology

I will become better.

Yes, I will become better – that’s what I grew up with. Back in India, that is the parenting I had which is that, you adopt a growth mindset and not allowing others to tell you what you can’t do. That has helped me push through the thoughts of, “I’m not the stereotypical CTO in Silicon Valley.” I accept that several people don’t know how to deal with that, and there are going to be rough edges in perception as a result.

On the other side, I think Confluent has a very unique culture that encourages diversity and inclusion because women make up 50% of our management team. That’s not typical in Silicon Valley. A majority of startup enterprises don’t look like that, top-down. And I’m personally very thankful that I could not only make that difference, but there are two other women who’ve joined the team to do that, too.

That’s awesome. I know you may not blend in with the other CTOs, but I can see where that gives you a little bit more visibility, a little bit more of a voice maybe.

It does, you know. I also could get any mentors I wanted [laughs] because of that uniqueness and visibility. I was open to seeking out advice and knowledge from other big leaders in the industry.

I think being different also allows you to seek out and tap into a network that is otherwise hard to reach. So, that’s actually the brighter side.

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I’m kind of loving that, that there is becoming more of a network of women in Big Data. It’s really building up, and I’m happy to see that. I’ve been at this for a while, and it’s good that we’re finally getting together and forging more of an alliance.

Absolutely. Above all, what keeps me going is the idea that I need to stick around and be one of the role models for more women in Big Data.

I think that it is far more difficult to be what you can’t see. It’s very hard to blend in when you cannot see someone similar to you. That’s where persistence plays a big part. We need to change it, and we need to stick around in order to change it. So [laughs]…

You have to be there.

You have to be there and stick around, right?

To make a difference, yes.

Rebecca Collins joins the conversation to ask: Do you have any thoughts on hiring women in Big Data? 

To be honest, I’m still learning what the right solution is. The problem is real. There is a brain drain, it isn’t a pipeline problem. Recently, 50% of CMU’s CS graduating class were women. That’s a great change in trend. What tech companies need to do is to make sure that the working environment encourages women to grow and stick around.

So, if you’re hiring, how do you recognize that kind of philosophy – that kind of mindset of I’ll learn, I’ll get better?

It’s actually very hard. The traditional whiteboard interviews are actually pretty lossy. We rely a lot on take-home assignments. Also, references and reference checks are actually the most important part of our hiring process.

Good point.

You do not know how a person is day-to-day, and whether they can get stuff done. Was it just a bad day in an interview, or are they always like that? So, we have trained hiring managers within Confluent to pay a lot of attention to reference checks to vet people beyond the interview session. That is really important.

But beyond everything, the culture from the get-go is set to appreciate diversity. That’s very important. Ultimately, one person cannot make all the hiring decisions. We have been lucky to set that tone and culture from the early days. People who come in, they’re almost self-selected, right? They come to us because they appreciate our uniqueness and are excited about building technology that is widely adopted.

It’s one of the things I admire about Confluent, and one of the things I have noticed at certain companies. It stands out so much, unfortunately, because the situation is a bit bleak elsewhere.


One of the reasons I chose to work at Syncsort is that I was amazed at the ratio and its complete lack of a glass ceiling. My boss, Tendu Yogurtcu, the GM of Big Data, is a woman. The Director of Engineering, Fernanda Tavares, is a woman.

It has to be from the top.

Yeah, and having other women around at your own level and higher in technical areas, it changes the way you feel at work. You’re not one woman in a crowd of 75 guys. I was at a recent Big Data event. There were technical and business people from many different companies – 65 people in the room, and only 3 women, including myself.

That’s what I’ve been through most of my work life. In hiring, a lot of that is unconscious bias. If you’re a woman, you know how to set the tone and set the policies. That makes a big difference, I think.

I do know it’s one thing you have to be careful of – that imposter syndrome you were talking about earlier – you can put that on other people too. You’ve got to be careful if you’re interviewing that you are aware of your own unconscious bias against women, which is so wrong, but …

That happens though. You have to train your mind to think, “Oh, is that what is going on here, or is it something else?”

Catch it and think about it.

I hate to admit it, but I do catch myself going through essentially that unconscious bias against other minorities, women or not. And then I have to think about it, “Oh, is this what I’m hitting?” And sometimes the answer is, “Oh, yeah.” And then, “Stop that.” (laughs) It’s amazing how ingrained it is. It’s largely not done on purpose really, even when men do it.

No, we get it from our whole culture. It comes at you from every direction. I was so delighted during my first sprint review at Syncsort – when it was all engineering, all the tech services, all the technical folks in the Big Data business unit in one room. I counted, and estimate it was 47% women. That’s an unheard of level of balance at a tech company. I love that.

Oh, yeah. The change is slow, but I see early signs of progress at other companies, too. I hope that we make faster progress in the future.

For more insights from women in Big Data, read Paige Robert’s interview with Yolanda Davis, a senior software engineer at Hortonworks who shares her experience as an African-American woman working in tech.

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