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Profile: Balwinder Kaur, Principal Software Engineer at AppDynamics

Diversity talk: “When dealing with challenges, it is not a time to be depressed or let self-doubt engulf you”

Gabriela Motroc
diversity
© Shutterstock /Lamina2014

Women are underrepresented in the tech sector —myth or reality? Last year, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Balwinder Kaur, Principal Software Engineer at AppDynamics.

A research study by The National Center for Women & Information Technology showed that “gender diversity has specific benefits in technology settings,” which could explain why tech companies have started to invest in initiatives that aim to boost the number of female applicants, recruit them in a more effective way, retain them for longer, and give them the opportunity to advance. But is it enough?

Last year, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Balwinder Kaur, Principal Software Engineer at AppDynamics.

Balwinder Kaur, Principal Software Engineer at AppDynamics

Balwinder Kaur is a Principal Software Engineer at AppDynamics and the founding engineer of the Internet of Things team. Prior to AppDynamics, she delivered a cloud-ready video streaming development kit for the IoT Market. In previous lives, she has built mobile platforms, Android Apps, Enterprise Software, and founded her own startup. Balwinder also is part of the core leadership team driving the Women@AppD Initiative for making the workplace more inclusive.

What got you interested in technology?

Engineering was a natural path for me to pursue as I’ve always had an interest in math and physics. I did my undergraduate in Electrical Engineering and Communications, and in my coursework became fascinated with Computer Science and Technology. So, I dedicated my graduate studies and work to those fields.

The first time I felt like a minority was when I started my undergraduate in engineering. Leading up to college, my high school and primary school classes were filled with very strong groups of girls interested in STEM subjects. But when I walked into my college classrooms it felt a lot like that scene from Hidden Figures when Katherine Johnson walks into NASA Langley’s flight research division for the first time. Everyone stares at you and doesn’t expect you to be competent or right. There was a complete lack of faith from many of my classmates and even some professors.

He openly questioned how a woman would make good use of an engineering degree. It was clear that he felt I didn’t deserve my seat in the class.

As one of two women in a class of 30 people, with mostly male professors, it was a harsh learning environment. A lot of the students, and even some professors, dropped subtle and not-so-subtle hints that I was not welcomed. Someone even asked to my face, “Why are you here?” He openly questioned how a woman would make good use of an engineering degree. It was clear that he felt I didn’t deserve my seat in the class.

Since I did not really have a good solution to fixing other people’s way of thinking, I focused on my studies. Those years were not easy. It took a whole lot of grit just to keep going. And I did more than just “keep going.” I excelled. That changed a lot of opinions about who I was and what I was doing in engineering. And so, close to graduation a lot of my classmates turned around and started respecting me for who I was – the engineer and the person.

A strong support system

My parents were my biggest supporters growing up and throughout my early career years. They never told me that I couldn’t do anything, and taught me lessons that I still use to this day.

My father, who is one of my role models, taught me one of the most important lessons: how to properly communicate with others. I never had problems speaking up or saying what’s on my mind. This can take some getting used to for those who don’t know me. So my father coached me on how to stand by what I say, but deliver it in a way that is easy to consume and invites conversation. “Firm, but polite” has been his mantra.

My mother was a trailblazer of her time. Just like there is so much bias against recognizing that women can be excellent engineers, in her time, there was a belief that girls can’t do math! She did her graduate studies in Mathematics with Honors and was immediately appointed as an assistant professor to teach graduate courses in the men’s college (they were segregated by gender back then). She often talks of the times when the men in her class were bigger and intimidating in size and manner, but even though she felt a bit scared on the inside, she carried on teaching and managing her class with confidence and professionalism of the highest quality. I guess it’s okay to feel scared on the inside once in a while!

My husband and my sons are also very supportive, and very proud of my work. There have been many times, when I may have lost faith in myself, but my husband has seen in me potential that I didn’t even know existed. In that arena, I feel I lucked out – to have so many people who support me.

Role models

I have a role model from Sikh History –  Mai Bhago (circa 1705). When her husband and the men from the village left the path of justice and decided to take the easy way out of a conflict, she not only gave them a piece of her mind, but lead the way back into battle and fought for rights for the downtrodden. I love the part where she addresses her husband and his friends on being cowards!

From today’s time, there two other women who I find very inspiring. One is Megan Smith who served as the CTO of the White House under President Obama. I attended her talk at Google I/O when she as Vice President of Google X, and caught her again at TechCrunch Disrupt. The second time around she took time to have a nice but short conversation. I was inspired by her humble and approachable personality and the visionary that she is.

Another one of my female role models is Madeleine Albright, the first female Secretary of State for the US. I attended her talk at the Watermark Conference and appreciated her words about her father, Josef Korbel. She noted that if an immigrant from Czechoslovakia can mentor two secretaries of state – herself and Condoleezza Rice – then anything is possible.

Did someone ever try to stop you from learning and advancing in your professional life?

Generally, people fall into three buckets: people who are respectful of others no matter what their background is, people who choose not to be civil to most people, and people who just never learned how to work with diverse co-workers. The two latter categories have thrown obstacles at me throughout my professional career when their biases overshadowed rational thinking. It can come off in subtle ways, so one has to pay special attention to the signals.

In one of my previous jobs, I had a very unusual experience. I was leading an initiative for the business unit. During my meetings, everyone seemed energized and there was consensus to do the work. But after it adjourned, nothing would happen. Action items just sat there. This became a trend time and time again. I tried to figure out what and where the problem lied, and I could not. Honestly, it was quite baffling. Finally, I discovered in a very usual way that the problem all along had been that this male colleague who was also the team lead just did not know how to work with women!

My advice to anyone in any type of unpleasant working conditions is to address it right away. Most of the time people don’t mean harm. They just don’t understand the impact of what they are saying or doing. Address issues and comments in the moment. And use the mantra “Firm, but polite”. It is good to learn techniques to provide and accept feedback. I like to use the Playing Card Method from LifeLabs, New York while sharing both positive feedback and constructive criticism.

Proudest moment in your career

My proudest moment isn’t a single event in my career, but the consistent track record of my work. I’ve never treated work as just a job. It is something I approach with 100 percent dedication, high energy and passion. Whatever project I’m working on, I see it through to the end, always aiming for high-quality delivery.

I’ve always worked in bleeding edge technology, which comes with the perks of showing off to my kids’ classmates. As a tactic for balancing parental responsibilities and work, every year I try to talk to my kids’ teachers and plan a presentation that I give to the class about my work in the tech field. One year, when I was working for a mobile company, I handed out cell phones to all the kids and told them to send a text to each other. This was when cell phones were still new, and not everyone had them. When I explained the technology that made all of that possible, and they loved it! I walked away as the coolest mom and even inspired a few girls to see engineering as an exciting career path.

Women in STEM

It is the era of digital transformation. All aspects of life are being digitized. Women are approximately 50% of the population worldwide, and hence half the consumer base of services that get digitized. It only makes sense that the percentage in STEM should be a reflection of that. Personally, for me, the thing that I hope for most is a change in the working environment for women in STEM.

I have experienced very positive working environments when diversity and female leadership was valued, and very challenging working environments in absence of those values. I do hope it is easier for the newer generation of women entering the STEM workforce.

Tips & tricks for women in tech

First, you should really enjoy the field and want to contribute to solving problems using technology. The second thing, you should be prepared for a lifelong pursuit of learning. This field is not for those who don’t enjoy learning, and more importantly self-learning.

Anything worth doing is not always the easiest thing, so be prepared to take things head on. Do it bravely, with grace, and while being respectful for all.

Sometimes despite your best efforts and intentions, things may not go your way. Even the most successful careers are not made up of all success, there are always some failures in the mix. It is how one responds and reacts to such times that is the key difference. When dealing with challenges, it is not a time to be depressed or let self-doubt engulf you.

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Author
Gabriela Motroc
Gabriela Motroc is editor of JAXenter.com and JAX Magazine. Before working at Software & Support Media Group, she studied International Communication Management at the Hague University of Applied Sciences.