Each month, we ask Senior Technical Women to share their stories and what they have learned. This Senior Technical Woman Profile features Sharada Sundaram, Principal Research Engineer, Symantec.
1. How did you decide to pursue a career in technology?
My interest in computers and technology was an evolving process. At the age of 10, if you had asked me what I want to become when I grow up, I would have said – an Artist. Then one day my uncle showed me his new Apple Powerbook laptop. That changed many of my beliefs. Until then computers only meant a dark screen being fed some cryptic commands. This laptop was so different, so intuitive and so very beautiful. I still remember my first drawing using the MacPaint application. I was so enamored by it. I still am. I am one of the biggest fans of Apple computers and all of their products just for their sheer beauty and elegance. This laptop brought me closer to computers. In due course I found programming to be useful and utilitarian but research to be artistic and beautiful. R&D is a combination of imagination, logic and creativity. Basically having unconstrained thought just like in art. That is very intriguing!
2. Based on your own experience, what skill(s) or characteristic(s) do you think are most important for technical women to succeed?
I believe that computer science fundamentals need to be strong. Technology keeps on evolving in this space. We need to adapt to these changes fast. We need to be good at sorting the potentially valuable from the trivial with very limited information. Critical thinking is a very useful skill to have. It helps to extrapolate knowledge into the future and make better decisions today. Another important skill is good communication and the ability to present your work. It is crucial to clearly articulate and present your ideas to peers and convince them the value of your work.
Most importantly, have fun and be comfortable with your work. Passion and purpose help us work harder and longer with more joy and satisfaction.
3. What was the greatest challenge that you overcame in your career?
Throughout my career I have been involved in research in computer science. This job comes with its own insecurities like we neither have clear problem statement defined nor do we have the gratification of instant results. In such an environment there are bound to be a lot of failed attempts. Not giving up and falling prey to the imposter syndrome that we women are so prone to, was the challenge. Especially in research these negative thoughts could get amplified. It requires perseverance, commitment, and dedication and more importantly taking accomplishments and failures in stride.
I found that it helps to work on real problems and issues where we can make actual difference and the results are tangible. Collaboration with different researchers and sharing of ideas helps in staying focused. It is also very important to publish papers and file for patents. They stand as public record for all our good work vetted and evaluated by our peers and big boost of self esteem.
4. How do you deal with work/life balance?
Work/Life balance for me does not mean working exactly 8 hours in a day, leaving work at 5pm and not thinking about it. I look at it as a whole. It is hard not to think about work at home or worry about home at work. There are some extremely busy days at work or home and some slow days. Both can get stressful and it is important to not get burned out by either. I make sure I take out time to do things that I want to do. Personally I like to stay active. I go hiking, biking and swimming . Maybe in the background I am still thinking about some problem. But it has only helped. I have had so many of my eureka moments in water.
Work life balance is anticipating which is going to be more busy and be where I am needed. I do not mind putting long hours at work during crucial deadlines so that I can leave early when life happens.
5. What advice would you give to women in high tech who want to advance on the individual contributor technical track specifically?
If you haven’t already, I highly recommend watching the Ted Talk given by Sheryl Sandberg on ‘why we have too few women leaders’. She raises all the right points on how we women underestimate ourselves, do not negotiate, attribute our success to everyone else and give up earlier than needed. Honestly, I do not think that I can do a better job than her in encouraging women to be in the workforce. But simply put, we need to fight our inner demons, especially the ones of our own creation.
Computer Science is a good career choice for women because it offers flexibility and an ideal work life balance. I find that women are naturally better positioned to handle a research job. They are good at analyzing things and organizing stuff. They bring in a totally different perspective to the table which is much needed in innovation. I am sure the impact would be huge when more and more women get involved in high profile jobs and important decision making roles.
6. How do you stay current in your technical field?
I read a lot. I like to get different perspective from many different news websites, opinions, blogs, magazines. There are many sites dedicated to Tech that helps to keep track of the latest trends. Sometimes I even attend webcasts, join newsgroups and forums. These days a lot of courses from top universities are available freely on the web. I highly recommend taking those. I still do. My job requires that I read a lot of technical papers. This helps me to be on top of academic research.
Eventually practice is what makes it perfect. I have come a long way from C code to Ruby on Rails code. The methodology keeps on changing and so does the design, architecture and testing. Hands on coding is important.
7. In your opinion, what (if any) are the remaining barriers faced by women in technology?
I am really amazed at the dearth of women in research. When I came as a visiting scholar to Stanford University, I was the only woman there in a group of all senior researchers from top companies in Asia. I attended my first international security conference in Europe only to find myself being the only woman there. Later I joined Symantec Research Labs in the US and to my surprise I was the only woman there again (fortunately that has changed now).
The biggest problem at all of these places is that they all gave me only men’s sized t-shirt. Oversized t-shirts make me look fat! This is a major problem still and only women would understand and easily solvable if more women join me. Hoping that many of you would.
Sharada Sundaram is a Researcher in Symantec Research Labs’ Core Research group in Mountain View, CA. She holds a Masters Degree in Theory of Computer Science from Stanford University. Sharada is currently working on enterprise cloud computing, specifically access control in SaaS environments.
Sha has experience with data privacy, applied algorithms, and high performance computing. She was the principal researcher of a 5 year Data Privacy and Security collaboration between Tata Consultancy Services and Stanford University. This research modelled privacy and utility; formalized legal regulations, such as HIPAA; and applied the resulting formal models to health care. Prior to developing various data privacy tools, Sha worked on linear and non-linear problem formulations and solutions at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.