Nov. 10, 2020

#9: Tia Caldwell - From Software Engineer at Microsoft to Director of Engineering at Slack

My guest for this episode is Tia Caldwell, who is a great mentor and leader. She has eleven years of professional experience at Microsoft, where she began as an intern and worked her way up to a senior engineering manager. She has also worked at Netflix. Tia was also a Director of Engineering at Slack. In this episode, she describes the importance of having community and tech, and how she has transitioned from being a software engineer to a director.

Show Notes

Introduction [0:00]

How She Discovered the World of Technology and Computer Science [01:00]

Why She Decided to Stick with Coding [02:24]

What Drew Her Towards Microsoft and Why She Decided to Stay for So Long [05:50]

What She Would Have Done Instead If She Had Left Sooner [10:05]

Why She Decided to Make the Transition from Being A Software Engineer to Being A Manager [12:58]

How Her Experience of Being a Software Engineer Differed from Being a Manager [15:45]

How She Has the Energy and Motivation to Be an Engineering Manager [21:24]

How She Got the Higher Up Roles That are Rare for Black and Brown People [25:35]

Her Thoughts on Why We Don't See a Lot of Black Engineers or Leaders in These Roles [28:39]

Obstacles She Had to Face Being a Software Engineer [35:26]

What Helped Her Get Past Those Obstacles And Push Forward [41:22]

Advice for Those Looking to Get into Senior Management Roles [43:24]

Key Takeaways

  • The importance of role models is really significant…
  • “Being in a room of 10,000 different women from different backgrounds, who are brilliant and pioneers in their own way really motivated me to stick with it …”
  • “I was trying to understand how I could beef up my skill set or resume, while trying to figure out my true passion…”
  • “The mindset between how our parents were raised and how we were raised is completely different.…”
  • “Leadership is definitely more important than any skill, like solving a problem really fast…”
  • “As a manager, communication and execution are really important. …”
  • All managers don’t have to be extroverts, but you have to really love people. …
  • Being in sync with the people you work with, understanding each other’s values, then seeing them grow, get to the next level and larger projects is what motivates me to keep pushing in this industry and being a manager in general.
  • “People will never be able to walk away from how you made them feel as an individual…”
  • “The most important thing is to have role models or advocates for you, who actually see your potential.…”
  • “Being in tech is a difficult industry to be a part of, if you're particularly a person of color, because the lack of role models…”
  • You got to have grit when you are getting into this industry.
  • “There are bad seeds in a company, not the entire company that operates like that…”
  • If you are the only person of color or the only woman in a male dominated industry, you are definitely going to experience a lot of micro and macro aggressions towards you…”
  • You have to realize when you start seeing patterns of issues and not one isolated issue, then it is like a larger cultural problem...”
  • The final advice I have for people trying to get into senior management roles is that executive sponsorship is really important.
  • If you want to get into a senior management role, try to get involved by leading group projects or cross team projects, and volunteer with intern programs.
  • There are leadership courses, conferences, classes, trainings, virtual sessions, meetups that could help you grow your skills and learn about problems that managers typically face. This will help you become a better leader.
  • “Build that network to get the role that you are interested in and go from there…”

Where to Find Tia Caldwell

Twitter: @ _Tiacaldwell



Note: Black Enterprise Network transcripts are generated using speech recognition software and human transcription. They may contain errors, although we do our best to avoid them. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting a transcript in print. Questions? Errors found in a transcript? Email us! 

Kimmiko James  0:00  
So when you first create a podcast, you're supposed to speak with people you already know, I have ever did the exact opposite and cold message people on LinkedIn to be guests. Totally not on purpose. But But here we are. And this episode, I'm very happy to be speaking with someone I've known for a little bit and looked up to Tia Caldwell. Not only had she had the amazing opportunity to have me as an intern for two summers straight at slac, but she's also a great mentor and leader. She is currently a director of engineering at slack. And in this episode, she describes the importance of having community and tech and how she's transitioned from being a software engineer to now director. Let's get into the episode a

small percentage of black people are currently represented in the tech industry and entrepreneurial spaces. This includes engineers, startup founders, investors, especially those that hold leadership. I want to share their stories. How did you first discover the world of technology and computer science?

Tia Caldwell  1:06  
I would say I actually got introduced early on from my grandfather, he was a computer technician in the army. And so when I was pretty young, he used to come home with like spare computer parts, spare computers. And I had no clue what it was I just knew that he could travel around the world and got to bring home cool gadgets so that we could play video games. So when I started looking into like what I wanted to major in, in college, it was just like, I want to be like him, I want to be just like my grandfather. So I think the importance of role models is super important. Because I think if I didn't have that visibility, I didn't get introduced into real hardcore, coding or tech in general until we had like an AutoCAD class in high school. I think when we were younger, we had like typing classes and all that. But that was nothing to the same extent of like what we're doing now in software engineering. So sticking with that, just seeing like the vast possibilities kind of got me interested in a early, early stage in my career, all right life.

Kimmiko James  2:04  
So why did you decide to stick with it for so long, because as I'm sure you can imagine, when you come across, but college students, they they try it for the first time ever in college, and they're just really turned off by it, and they never try it again. So why did you decide to stick with it, especially the hardcore coding part.

Tia Caldwell  2:24  
So first of all, the tech industry is incredibly lucrative when I was in college, and I was looking at the reports of like, here's the potential earnings for being in this major being in the tech industry was the one major where if you went to school for four years, coming out of college, you can make five to six figures. And that was like a huge influence, not saying I was money motivated, but I truly was more money motivated in the beginning, my mission has changed since then. But I would say also, like the problems that you get to solve there's so many you can do things to change, you know, code for good, you can be a hardcore coder for at the operating systems level, you could do security is just like so many opportunities in areas for you to reinvent yourself. And then I would say if you look at all of the access that you have, once you're in the industry, there's tons of conferences around it, lots of training, you don't even sometimes have to have a computer science degree in order to get hired as an engineer at a company. So I've definitely wanted to do that. And stick with it for so long. I think the other thing here is like when I was growing up, my grandfather was my mentor. But when I was in college, I had a mentor as well, Dr. Antonio Lopez, who saw the potential in me when I was in college, and kind of like coax me along to like, here's what you could be doing. I could have swore I was gonna go to graduate school. When I was finished with computer science, because of him, he got his doctorate in computer science, had great background, introduced me to like the Association of computing, machinery conferences that really helped like shaped my perspective and view to see like, how vast and open it was. And then I would say I also got access to like Grace Hopper conferences where we got to see women in tech and you know, just being at that point, I don't know if it was as diverse as it is now. But I would just say being in a room of 10,000 different women from different backgrounds, who are super brilliant and pioneers in their own way. really motivated me to stick with it because the potential was just like there it was like dangling that carrot it was

Kimmiko James  4:26  
just there. Agree 100% Grace Hopper opened my eyes stuff. I was just like look at all this free stuff.

Tia Caldwell  4:35  
Yeah, that's the thing. This industry is like ridiculous how much free stuff you get when I was in. When I did my first internship It was like, Oh my God, we get free soda. And I was like such a huge, huge deal. I don't know why that was a big deal. I used to drink a whole bunch of sort of back in the day but it was just like open like you get snacks and you know free goodies all the time t shirts everywhere, you know, free free Xbox free. Back in the day it was called a zoo and it wasn't considered a iPhone or anything like that it was just, it was a lot. But um, you know, more power to them. I'll take all the goodies.

Kimmiko James  5:09  
That's that's actually a good transition into Microsoft, which he spent a good portion of your life at. I'm just kidding. I did. I didn't get any. I'm just kidding. I'm just kidding. So So yeah, you started off as a Microsoft engineer, software engineering intern, and then you turn into a full time software engineer and gone to the senior level. And then you turn into a senior engineering manager, and a few teams over the span of like, 1112 years.

Tia Caldwell  5:37  
Yeah. 11 years. So yeah.

Kimmiko James  5:40  
You don't sound proud of that.

Tia Caldwell  5:41  
I am proud. I am smart. I am important. Okay. No, yes. I am proud.

Kimmiko James  5:50  
But yeah, like what drew you towards Microsoft? And why did you decide to stay for so long?

Tia Caldwell  5:56  
When I got an internship? It was, I don't wanna say it's complete luck. But I felt like it was I was pretty lucky in the sense that earlier on, I knew I was going to go to graduate school I was doing when I was in college, I was doing research for the Missile Defense Agency, and getting lots of scholarships through that. So that can help pay for my school. And then Microsoft came on our campus one day. And it was actually due to one of the previous alumni who was working at Microsoft came in he had graduated like a year before me, came back and was like, y'all, this is the life like, it's so great up here. Let me tell you about all the cool experiences I've been doing. I got to meet Bill Gates, I got to do all these different things. And so it was just eye opening to see somebody from Louisiana, I went to Xavier University of Louisiana, shout out to you. And one of the thing was that seeing somebody with such humble beginnings, like I had super humble beginnings go there, get spoiled, really kind of like intrigued me a bit. So I would say the reason why I got interested was just because it was super stable. And it was providing a new way of life that I was not used to. So life is all about taking chances. I'm from Sacramento, California, moved to Louisiana to go to school. And then I was like, oh, should I go to Seattle to do an internship, they came on our campus, we did an initial interview. And then I would say, when it was time for me to fly out for the second round, like they actually got me an air, you know, I'm on an airplane, I'm staying in a fancy hotel. And I was just like, yeah, this is the life, they really know how to spoil you and treat you when you're an intern. I mean, and and everything else. But when you're an intern, it's it's pretty awesome. So just like an incredible opportunity. It was 1000 of us at that time, all coming in from different walks of life. And then it was the peak of summer in Seattle. So let me think Is there anything else is the peak there. So you get to be surrounded around like lots of brilliant minds, you get to see the creators of the Xbox, the creators of office. And these are like big deals and products that we use in our normal day to day. And so it's just like, a great opportunity to be a part of something. So like, that was like such a household name, I would say the quest for learning was always there. So when you're at a company that has 180,000 people, every single organization at a large company operates completely differently. I was in office, I was in Windows, I was an Xbox. And every time I switched, I would typically switch every two to two and a half to three years. And it would be like go into a whole different company. Because the cultural norms, the expectations are just like completely different. And so what I was really chasing was trying to understand how could I, you know, beef up my skill set or beef up my resume, while trying to figure out what my true passion was, I didn't know if I wanted to be truly a front end engineer, a back end engineer. I even tried to stay in a security, engineering service reliability back in the day, they weren't those titles, but just trying to see in the fact that you got to explore and it was so easy to switch was just like a great opportunity in a safe space. paycheck was steady. Nothing. Nothing was at risk. So it was a great opportunity for me to take some minimal risk to try out what I wanted.

Kimmiko James  9:15  
Yeah, that's actually very well, sec. So I had my interview with Microsoft Friday. And she mentioned that Oh, yeah, you should add. Yeah, she kind of said the same thing of like, each time you go to a different team. It's like starting all over again. Because it's so freakin big. And I was like, Huh, t so assembler thing.

Tia Caldwell  9:37  
It's so true. Oh, that's exciting. You gotta tell me how it went.

Kimmiko James  9:40  
I will. I will. When we're done recording. A follow up I had it's just like, often when often when someone stays at a company for five plus years, usually five to 10. They might say Oh, I wish I would have left sooner and tried something else because I felt I was getting too comfortable. So has this thought ever crossed. Your mind and if you had left sooner, what would you have done instead?

Tia Caldwell  10:05  
Yes, it has definitely crossed my mind. I think it actually crosses a lot of Microsoft DS minds. I just had somebody retire from who was a friend of mine or a manager. And he's been at the company for 27 years. And so it's so easy to go there and become a lifer. Because they know how to spoil you, I'm telling you like, they will give you incentives, like, Here's more stock, or here's more money and, and here's all of that, and you, you just you get comfortable. And so I do think that I stayed there way too long. 11 years is way too long. I think if I really wanted to try Xbox, which was like my ultimate goal. During that time, I should have just interviewed for Xbox Xbox earlier, rather than kind of, you know, trying a little bit of everything. But I think it provides a great foundation. If I would be doing something differently. If I wasn't there for so long, I would have definitely tried to get into the startup scene a little bit earlier, I think one of the challenges of being a person of color, and obviously being the first person in your family to go to college, trying to say like, hey, I want to go to a startup, which you know, could potentially fail, not have a steady paycheck just seems ridiculous. in anybody's mind, I can hear my mom now like yelling at me for even considering that. Because being at Microsoft provided me with a good a good life, like a good foundation and just had so many opportunities a stable paycheck, I think I was probably earning more than what my mom made. And it was just like, yeah, you can't walk, you can't walk away from that kind of stuff. So I think I should have once I got to the senior ranks, definitely try to explore being the startup the Seattle startup scene a little bit earlier, or at all, I didn't do it at all, just to see what was out there.

Kimmiko James  11:48  
You really do make more than the majority of your family members in your software engineering internships, as I'm sure you can attest to with me at slack. And like, I do get some crazy looks of telling people, yes, I would like to be a startup founder within the next few years. I'm just like, Well, why would you want to leave your job? They, they treat you so well. They give you free food and money to pay for your desk set up? And I'm like, Yeah, but like you. It'll always be here, I think not risking too much.

Tia Caldwell  12:16  
I agree. I think that's one of the things like the mindset between how our parents were raised and how we were raised is completely different. And I would say being in the tech industry, given that they don't care about the gaps that you have in your in your resume, they don't care about like, Hey, you went to a startup, maybe it didn't do so well. And you came back, it's so easy to acclimate yourself and get reactivated and get back in because the skills are still the same. People need good managers, you still got to you know, you still need good coding skills, understand the design patterns. But our family, I would say doesn't typically see that they just see us walking away from six figures, which is insane by anybody's you know, in any any way shape or form. But sometimes you just gotta do it. Go meet. So I'm so proud of you, you know, just

Kimmiko James  12:58  
proud of you to to. Why did you decide to make the transition from being a software engineer to being a manager? Because like, yeah, I think we both met these people, especially at slack. When I've talked to people. They're like, Oh, I tried being a manager. I didn't really like it. But why did you want to be a manager?

Tia Caldwell  13:16  
I knew I wanted to be a manager early on. It was this crazy experience. I think when I first joined

Microsoft, I had this awesome manager, Randall Bozeman, and Marty Riley, both great managers, who asked me, Do you want to be on the icy track or the leadership track? It was like an exercise where we're supposed to look at like, what do we want to do in five years, and I was just like, I definitely want to be a part of the leadership track. And I don't know if that kind of like stuck with them. But when I got my first management role, it was through Marty Riley. So I think obviously, it stuck with him. But one of the things that we recognize it was when you're an IC is very, you're very much responsible for your deliverable is all about you like how fast you can operate, how fast you can execute? Can you come up with a solution? Can you debug, do you have strong communication, but once you start doing, once you get a little bit higher up in your career, you start doing a lot of group projects, and you'll start seeing that leadership is definitely more important than any skill of like solving a problem really fast, because there's just so many different personalities, and you have to kind of use that influence or that, you know, try to figure out what people's underlying motivations are to help get a thing done. And I was a natural at that. I don't know if it was because I'm the oldest in my family, where I just felt like, you know, if you see a problem, you got to figure out a way to attack it. And here's how we're going to make a path forward. If there's this kind of obstacle, here's the plan B, like it's just, it was just kind of ingrained in me from a young age. And so when I when I got into my career, it kind of translated over the same way. And that was like kind of the biggest reason for why I wanted to stick with it and then you get to see all the decisions and strategy planning that you get to

Do behind the scenes that people don't typically get to see as an IC or individual contributor. So just like also opening up a whole new realm of development and software engineering that, you know, you typically don't get to see when you're at those younger levels.

Kimmiko James  15:16  
Okay, okay. Okay, this is like, kind of a follow up, because a lot of people that listen to my podcast are not usually familiar with the tech industry. So this is for the newbies out here. So for anyone that's unfamiliar with like these roles, we talked about, like, how does your experience differ from being an engineering manager to being an IC slash software engineer, you kind of touched upon it a little bit, but like, what did your day to day look like for each?

Tia Caldwell  15:43  
Oh, geez. Okay. So

Kimmiko James  15:45  
at a high level,

Tia Caldwell  15:47  
say, Yeah, I will say the skills of communication and execution and quality kind of permeate through both roles, but you just use them in a different way. So as a software engineer, you come in for the day, you get assigned a body of work, you are usually in your office debugging, it's not like you ever get to start off from a free clean code base, or anything like that, you're usually always dealing with some gnarly, wonky code base that you have to deal with. But you're trying to figure out how to make the solution from what the product manager has said, the product manager usually writes like a best specification document, to let us know, like, here's what I want delivered for the customer by the end of this project, and you, as an engineer are trying to figure out, how can I break this down to get the outcome of what the your product manager partner wants, and you then have to come up with estimates and tasks to say, here's how I'm going to break it down, you have to communicate that plan to your manager or to your, your, your stakeholders, and your peers to let them know, here's how I'm going to break things down. Here's where you come into play, like I want QA to get involved here. And you are spending a good chunk of I would say 70% of your time coding, trying to debug but then I would say 20% of your time is spent in meetings and trying to, you know, understand, help others understand the design architecture, making sure that you get all of your P's and Q's kind of done like you are filing your tickets in JIRA Kimmiko, you know, I'm talking about and getting all that stuff done, so that you can execute in the most effective way possible, and then hit that deadline to hit that goal to deliver what's best for the customer. So that's what you do. Typically, as an IC, I've tried to like scale it down. But as a manager, communication and and execution is super important. But instead of asking, like, here's how we do it, which is what you would typically ask and and and software engineer, you as a manager responsible for like the how we do it, you know, who do you get involved in a project? How do you decide what engineer works on a problem? When they do work on a problem? Do they have experience in that area? If not, is this going to be a challenge, a stretch opportunity? Or is this something where we need them to go, you know, hidden within a deadline, so I'm going to pull somebody else you care about execution? Because that's kind of what you're judged on as a manager, they want to see how well are you able to influence others to deliver projects by a particular timeframe and how close it is? How close is that project to the pm specification, like the closer it is, the better the you know, clearer, the deadlines are the estimates that your engineers give or you know, is even better, but you are responsible for setting the culture for your team. Meanwhile, updating your stakeholders and working with your peers. So collaboration is like another huge area like you are collaborating with everybody, when you're a manager to make sure that you're bringing others along the way to help people understand here's what your team will deliver. And making sure that's a good body of work so that when you do get to do performance reviews, they can go back and say like, yeah, to kick butt on. These three projects, they went within the you know, they came, they got delivered within the height, you know, within the right timeframe. They had high quality, her engineers raw, they were great people, and we move on to the next and your scope continues to increase as you get better at that. It can either be through more people, or even through like different problems that you're able to solve for the company.

Kimmiko James  19:17  
Those are very two good breakdowns of what I experienced. TLDR for anybody that doesn't know, I was a slack intern last summer when things are normal. And yeah, I would say for me, it was like 50 like, I don't wanna get in trouble. I mean, I can't get in trouble. I don't worry. Yeah. 5050 in terms of like, 50% of talking to all these different people and these meetings and problem solving, I would say, and then 50% coding, maybe even 45 ish. I feel like I just spent most of my time trying to figure out what the hell I was doing. It was a lot. It was a lot as an engineer. You do need to know how to break things down in chunk, which for me, that's just hard. Yeah, as I said previously, at the beginning of this podcast, I just jumped to conclusions of talking to people I never knew. Instead of starting from the beginning, which I probably would have been more comfortable in probably half the interviews I did. But as a software engineer can't do that, you have to actually read the documentation, read the specs, you're given. translate that into like, engineering kind of code, but not really. And then talk, talk about your solutions, and then code it up. So that's just my experience. And Tia, she summed it up pretty well. So

Tia Caldwell  20:39  
yeah, and he's a super methodical process, I would say, we are not used to thinking like this. This is not normal for how we had to think as engineers, but once you once it clicks, like you start breaking down everything, your whole life is starts working out through these like different steps. Okay, I'm just kidding. You

Kimmiko James  20:54  
know, you're not No, you're not wrong. You're not wrong. And yes, like, sometimes when I'm doing too much, I would say that's where the last two summers really helped me, because a lot of people would just go go go, and they jump into stuff like I do. But yeah, sometimes taking a step back and actually thinking things through can really just take you so much further than just rushing through something. So I think that's where software engineering has helped my life.

Tia Caldwell  21:19  
Great. It's super important, happy to be a service.

Kimmiko James  21:24  
How are you? How do you just have so much energy to be an engineering manager? Because it sounded like a lot. And for anybody listening, they're probably like, Oh, my God. So how do you have the energy and motivation to just like, do this? Oh, wow.

Tia Caldwell  21:39  
I would say I'm a pretty extroverted person, like, Oh, yeah, I

Kimmiko James  21:43  

Tia Caldwell  21:44  
Yeah. You mean, yeah, you should. That's the first thing. But I don't know saying all managers have to be extroverts. I think you have to really love people. When I became a manager, one of the one of the, I would say fallacies that was out there was that oh, my God, I'm going to be solving like these super challenging problems, I'm going to have a squad of people that I'm just going to dictate to them what they do. And that is not the case, when you become a manager, it's like way more people problems, like, hey, this person is having issues with person x, let's figure out how to help them confront these two things so that they can work together. And you don't realize how much of your day is taken up by this. But I think what you see is like the beauty of looking at watching people grow. That's what motivates me and keeps me super excited is the fact that people are stretched in different ways, hopefully in the right way, sometimes even in the wrong way, you get it wrong sometimes. But I would say just having at least being in sync with the people that you work with, they have to have, like, they have to understand your values, and you got to understand their values. But then seeing them grow and get like to the next level larger projects is kind of what motivates me to keep pushing in this in this industry. And being a manager in general.

Kimmiko James  22:54  
Yeah, when I first heard you say that, to me, I was just like, Oh, yeah, she's legit, like, a good manager? Because not every manager has like a good answer for that's like, why you're doing this, they kind of BS it. But what I appreciate about you is like it's a genuine answer of like, I just want to see and help people grow into the best version of themselves, which I believe that's what you gave me the last two summers.

Tia Caldwell  23:20  
I think it's really important, right? I think one of the biggest things that I hear in the industry is that people leave companies because of managers. And the one thing that people will walk away from is like, they will never be able to walk away from it's like how you made them feel as an individual. And one of the thing that I, you know, take pride in is that I don't treat people as a resource, or just like a person to go do X, Y, and Z. Like I really want to get to know my people and understand what motivates them what is not working, well give me feedback, I give them feedback. And we're supposed to have these let you know, it takes time to build trust. But I think I really want to open and honest culture, because high functioning teams are the ones that can deliver like really insane amount of work, you worked on the billing team or monetization team, we were there. And I would say that problem space in general, is hairy. And that is just so many issues, you have to be so precise with accuracy. And it's not like these engineers when you wanted to, you know, become an engineer and just do math all day and try to figure out how to collect money. But one of the challenges that are one of the beauty of the whole situation is that you see that there are people who either thrive in chaos sometimes or here's how they like to make things a little bit more organized. And just giving them those opportunities to build those skills to help them out where wherever they go.

Kimmiko James  24:34  
Yeah, there was some chaos the first summer but that's because it was my first internship and I was like I this is a lot. But I think that you helped me get through it. And that's why a lot of my chaotic moments now I'm like, I'm more calm than what I was last year. So when I first got to slack again, it's my first actual tech industry experience. I didn't know much about tech industry and in summary, so I didn't That seeing Black Engineers or black engineering managers was like a rare thing. And yeah, it's like everybody was just talking about Tia Caldwell, and arco Harris. And like just so inspirational because of how they got to these roles. But TLDR, I didn't understand why it was such a big thing to have black engineering managers and directors, so not to put you on the spot. But to put you on the spot. How did you get into like, these higher up roles that just are so rare for black and brown people? Oh,

Tia Caldwell  25:35  
the rare piece really hurt out, but you're being honest, I will say, becoming a director of engineering.

Kimmiko James  25:45  
Hey, guys, Pardon the Interruption, but I just wanted to take a minute to talk about the book I'm releasing in the coming months. If you're a student looking for an internship or new grad job offer, you're definitely gonna want to read this book, I walk you through how to create the perfect resume, how to build side projects, both technical and non technical, how to get leadership skills, and just generally speaking, how to stand out amongst 1000s of applicants, the base ebook will be available January 21. But if you're looking for paperback or Kindle versions, that'll be released sometime in Fall 2021. So be sure to check out the link at bi T dot L y slash GTO underscore book. Okay, now back to the episode.

Tia Caldwell  26:32  
It honestly felt like it took forever, in my mind, because I had been a manager for Sorry, I had been, I've been in the industry for 15 years. And I would say I had under my belt like, you know, seven or eight years of management experience at that point where I'm just like, yes, like, I'm crushing them. Um, you know, executing all my projects, my team is happy. This is pre COVID. My team is happy and everything is healthy. And we're we're executing we're execution machine. But usually what people fail to realize is that getting a promotion into those levels is a lagging indicator. So you kind of have to operate in that role that you want to get to the next level for at least like a year before people even start considering you as a director. So I will say I was a senior engineering manager when I came into slack. And when you kind of understand the career path levels, you'll see that hey, here are the things that I want to make sure that I'm doing and I can highlight, but you kind of operate a little bit different to make sure that you are showcasing that in the right way. So I think the biggest reason why I got there was one, my manager is amazing are quite hairs, like you said, senior director, black woman at slac. I have never in my entire career ever worked with a black engineering manager who was my direct boss. I think at my previous company, there was maybe two or three women who were people of color who were engineering managers. So it is like really rare. And I think the most important thing is to have role models are advocates for you who actually see your potential. I think this is like a common thread through out my entire life where you have those people. And I don't even know how sometimes it comes about, like they're not forced relationships, or anything like that. But having those sponsors just say like, yes, T is doing a great, it's doing great work, we should have her up here, when we have the next like promotion cycle, we should talk about what she's doing or making sure that she's happy. So I would say having that sort of reputation and brand definitely helps out with getting into the higher roles.

Kimmiko James  28:39  
100%. And I'm gonna do quotation marks, because like, that's just how I feel about it. So we see quotation marks lots of Black Engineers at these companies. And I know, it's like I would say I saw, I would say so a black engineer almost every day, which is crazy. Again, I didn't know that was such a big thing. But I did. Yeah, but yeah, we don't see a lot of Black Engineers or black leaders in these roles. And what are your thoughts as to why that might be?

Tia Caldwell  29:11  
I will say being in tech is a difficult industry to be a part of if you're particularly a person of color, because the lack of role models. If I didn't have my grandfather, I don't know if I would actually even be in the computer industry. I think when I when I was planning to go to college, I wanted to be a doctor. I was just like, Yes, I want to be a doctor, not saying I have role models in my family who were doctors, but it seemed more achievable and attainable than being in an engineering field. And I would say the quote unquote, lots of Black Engineers. I think we are now at a place where Yes, diversity and inclusion is an important topic and conversation. But I think we're bringing people in at entry level roles. And that's not what I want. I don't want to see that I want to see like us throughout the entire career path and career ladder. But I think I was trying to reflect on why was it So difficult for me to see myself in these roles is because we didn't have access when I was younger growing up, I knew people, and even in my family today who didn't even have internet connection, to be able to let go on, you know, to be able to program something or try to figure out, how could I get, you know, X, Y and Z program to work, it just, I would say the lack of access and the lack of knowledge, we kind of start off at a deficit. from that side, there used to be this huge initiative called like, bridging the technical divide, or bridging the gap between the technical divide. And that was one of the things where I felt like it's like a huge blocker, it's so easy to have, like, basketball role models, and like an athletic type of role models growing up, but in the, in the industry that we're in is like, I don't know, you don't you don't see it that often. So you're kind of, you know, taking the risk to go out there and do this and be the Pioneer on your own.

Kimmiko James  30:54  
I agree. 100% of like, for me, it really was just like, role models slash the people you're around. And also, again, just access because for me again, I fell into it by accident. I didn't know what computer science was. But oddly enough, I was just really good at using the computer searching on the internet playing video games, just like, you know, stereotypical computer science student habits. But yeah, I just I found out about MLT management leadership tomorrow by accident, I found out about code 2014 by accident. And then luckily enough, I found my way into nesby National Society of Black Engineers on my campus and which Yeah, I'm surrounded by these people that are doing things similar to me. And it doesn't, I don't feel like an imposter should I say, because a lot of black students that are in these programs, especially if you're a black woman, most of the time not to be racist, but it's true. You'll just see the majority of the class is a bunch of mostly Asian and white dudes, barely any women. And it just you feel out of place. Because those people all just say most of those people from that background usually went to these super cool High Tech High schools that teach you how to code and you're just they're kind of set up to be ahead of the curve than you. So definitely community finding out the about these opportunities, it just, it really pushes you forward versus someone that just comes into college, discovers computer science tries to go through the both no community or access really. So. Yeah,

Tia Caldwell  32:33  
I 100% relate to what you're saying. I think when I was in school, even though I went to a black college, there were two women in the computer science program. And she's still like my best friend today. But it was two of us out of like a classroom size, which is perfect. For me. It was like 25 people max. But it was two of us as women are two of them were women. And we it kind of prepares you for being in the tech industry for right now. Because you'll get to these rooms. And you'll typically be like the only black person or the only woman are, you know, whatever. And you kind of have to still figure out a way to show up. Even if people have had the advantage of being an industry longer are being you know, programming longer at a younger age, you got to try to figure out how to make it those gaps pretty quickly to get ahead in your career.

Kimmiko James  33:21  
100%, which is why I'm glad you brought up Grace Hopper because again, I don't know when they'll be doing it in person again, but it's more than just the free stuff. Okay, like, yeah, it should be going to Grace Hopper for the first time. And then I think the year after going to the nesby conference, it was just really life changing for me to just see 1000s of people and women and Black Engineers just that look like me, it's it's really inspiring, and it pushes you to keep going forward again, because you just feel you just feel so out of place like you're not good enough. When you hear someone just talk about how they easily got the software engineering internship at Google. And you're like, still trying to get past your algorithms class. So yeah, you just got to seek out the resources.

Tia Caldwell  34:09  
Yeah, seek it out. And you got to have fighting you you got to have grit like this is the industry when you're getting into it, you got to have some grit, but it pays off by orders of magnitude once you you actually get in there and stay in it. But it is like a difficult field to initially get started. And if you're particularly not from a privileged background

Kimmiko James  34:25  
100% like the last point I'll add over the last I would say three to four years have lost track of time now of like falling into these programs and these organizations by accident. And meeting to meeting our QA meeting other black engineers at career fairs and SV these conferences. It's like it really helped. Because you do want to give up I've wanted to give up on computer science for I don't know when I was when I first started out, getting those hard as homework assignments that take literally like a full time job. Yeah, you want to give up and you've again, the imposter thing, you just feel it. But having a community and role models and Tia and other people I've met it, it really just helps, I would say. So if you're going through computer science for the first time, you just want to give up. Again, I can't put more of an emphasis on community building, and just trying to push through because the rewards at the end are are so worth it. So that's what I just wanted to add. What are some obstacles you've had to face being a software engineer, and now an engineering engineering leader management? Like, you don't have to list companies if you don't want to? A lot of people in previous interviews have not listed the company for this exact reason. But what are some of those obstacles that people like to share? Tia? Oh,

Tia Caldwell  35:48  
yes, I just love this question so much. No, okay, I'll be serious. I'm not gonna list companies. But I feel like, it is not the entire company that has this problem. I feel like there are bad seeds of engineers or people you encounter everywhere. And an obstacle that you know, you typically are faced with is if you're the only person of color or the only woman in a male dominated industry, you are definitely going to experience a lot of micro and macro aggressions towards you where people want you to either I've had people come up to me and say, Can I touch your hair, if I have my hair at a different style one day, I've had people call me a different black woman who doesn't look anything like me, because they kind of like group us together, it's very, it can be a very othering an isolating feeling when you're in the tech industry, if you don't have that support network or that strong community. So you can vent to, and kind of like get your heads a little bit more level. I think the other challenge is that as a as an engineering leader, what I've seen is that when there's an issue going on, like politically or racially motivated, you sometimes feel like you have to be the, you know, you have to provide the reasoning and rationale for all people of your race. And it's just like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, and you have to explain it to your peers, so they can understand it. Never a good feeling, I will say I've seen people try to do that in like really well facilitated organizations or events. But I've seen some people do it pretty poorly, and put you on the spot in front of all your peers and kind of not just know how to support people of color during this particular you know, like during challenging times. One of the most memorable incidents that I've had in my career is when I was younger, are starting up a little bit more junior in my career, I was on a team where we had this concept called a war room. And this is where anybody could go present their ideas. And people on your team would then be expected to kind of like tear your teeth, your tear your idea apart or just kind of like poke holes to make sure that it was a sound argument or a sound project or you're using utilizing and thinking about everything that could potentially happen. One of my peers was presenting, and I noticed the train, whenever I raise my hand to provide feedback, he would say he would call on everybody else. And then say, when I actually got my my turn to speak, he would say, let's take it offline. I'll get back to you. Let's take it offline. And I was like, wow, he's saying that because my my questions are really challenging. He doesn't know the answer, or what but the fact that it happened about three or four times in the meeting, what ended up happening was that he sent me a message after the meeting was completed and said that women should not be speaking up and these sorts of meetings, women are, you know, they should be seen not heard, if I have something to say to him, I should send him a direct message or send it through his manager to provide that sort of feedback. And there was a middle manager that we had jointly at that time. And it was like shocking, soul crushing appalling, because you know, you were, you know, everybody, I try to operate like assuming the best intent everyone. And this was a particular case where there was cultural differences, and how we were raised. And just like, the normal cultural norms of just like, here's how we interact or talk to one another in these settings, was not reinforced by anyone. So it was kind of me trying to navigate this situation on my own. And it was, it was tough. I would say if I didn't have that community of people to talk this thing through. I don't know how I would have stayed on that team as long as I did. But we eventually ended up having to escalate the issue to my manager. And at that time, my manager was like, one year in very immature and was just like, you know, what do you want to do? Get in the ring and box it out? That would be so funny, like, all my money would be on tear. And so it was just, again, this is over 15 years ago, the industry is completely different people weren't as woke as they are now. And so I think, you know, obviously, where people were like joking about the whole situation and not actually considering a person's feelings and how they feel unsafe and uncomfortable. Now as a result of that interaction, was like one of the, I would say nasty lowlights in my career, I eventually did end up switching teams as a result because that person actually, I don't think there were any repercussions for that person, I was just told that we had to work on separate projects from here on out and kind of not interact with one another because we philosophically didn't agree. I tried to have like thoughtful conversations where I would say, Well, here's how you made me feel, everything kind of got pushed to the wayside. And I eventually ended up switching teams as a result, because I didn't want to be a part of a team that kind of allowed that sort of crappy behavior. So when I say like, there's bad feeds in a company, not the entire company that operates like that, it was just like that particular situation.

Kimmiko James  40:42  
Yeah, that makes sense. Everyone out these big companies will just say it depends on the team. So yeah, very, very well said. And I think a follow up I have for that is just like, and again, I might sound like a broken record. But you kind of touched upon, like having that community really helped you get through this, because hearing, stuff like that comments like that can really break down a person. And again, just make you feel like you're out of place and make you feel like you're the imposter or the problem. So what are some things that help you get past those obstacles? And just push you forward? Because I can't be easy to hear that stuff.

Tia Caldwell  41:22  
Yeah, I think, you know, people will stereotype you as much as you want. But you kind of have to see the silver lining in a situation like now, you know, I would say one of the things for me now is like, Well, I know that if I'm going to go to a team, I want to see what the women and men ratio is on the team so that I know that if do I want to be on a team where I'm like, the only or I got to pioneer all these things? Or am I the only black person like I want to know the composition of the team? Those are questions I probably wouldn't have asked when I was a little bit more junior. But I would say being able to have a person to have these bid sessions with when I was younger. In my career, I used to have a group of friends where we would get on a call or go to a you know, like, go to a conference room and talk about issues that we were facing. And they were always there for me. We could talk about any situation that would give me advice that will help me see like, if I write this message, am I being too angry? Or am I saying the right amount of tone? I think it's just like having that support and a sounding board of people to keep you honest, and let you know, like, hey, it's not a you know, it's not you, it's them. And I think what I had a tendency to do was like, try and blame myself to say like, well, maybe it is me, maybe I didn't do this, you know, maybe it was because of this comment. Or maybe I could have asked it in a better way. But you have to realize when you start seeing patterns of issues and not one isolated issue, then it is like a larger cultural problem. And if your management chain doesn't want to acknowledge that, then it's time to probably jump ship and move on. And I think that's where having a support network of people say like, it's okay to not be okay. But then it's also okay, you know, you're not going to let somebody treat you like crap, either. So, you know, it's time for you to move on. And I think it's just like, having that trust between somebody that, you know,

Kimmiko James  43:05  
very good advice, especially for seeing the patterns part. And so yeah, like, do you have any advice for those looking to get into somewhat of the higher up senior management roles, but they have no idea how to get there, because of like, the potential obstacles that you kind of touched upon.

Tia Caldwell  43:24  
The final advice I have for people to try to get into senior management roles is, executive sponsorship is super important. Having a role model somebody not to just bounce ideas off of, but somebody to advocate for you and your career. So cultivating those relationships, through different means to help you get to where you need to go, is kind of what you want to start, you know, doing earlier, while you're an IC in your career. One of the things that I think if you want to get into a senior management role is to try to get involved and leading like group projects are cross cross team projects, because then you don't directly have influence over every single individual. But if you have to start showing, like how can I use my influence on another team to operate and deliver on, you know, said project? Those are the kind of skills that will directly translate into becoming a manager, obviously, also volunteer with intern programs? Sorry, can we go I know you were my intern. But when I was looking to be on the leadership track, one of the things that I did was like I first had an intern to see what it's like managing somebody day to day. And then how was that? Kimmiko? I don't know.

Kimmiko James  44:34  
10 out of 10.

Tia Caldwell  44:36  
Okay, great, great, great. Because I had a lot of practice, I would say, when I'm when I said I was interested in being a manager, the first thing that being at a big company was really great about was that Yeah, there's gonna be 1000 interns coming in for the summer. You can pick one or one victim and we'll see how that is for three months. And then I started managing groups of interns, like maybe I had three or four at one particular point in time and they were in different roles to it was like when I was in test one was in dead one as a product manager. So just like utilizing those skills to help influence them and deliver the right things at the right time. But I would definitely say getting a mentor. Getting a sponsor is really critical. If you have no clue about getting into management, there is so much information out there like this, again, a lucrative industry. There are so many leadership courses and classes and trainings and online virtual sessions, meetups that you could be a part of, to see how can you grow your skills are here the type of problems that managers typically face, to just help you become a better leader overall, and just become more self aware conferences. There's another good one just came from a conference last week where you know, there are a lot of leadership conferences in engineering management in particular, where Yes, you are going to have these obstacles, but people do give talks on these and you'll see the Allies directly in that room where you'll see, you'll hear stories about how a particular company has changed how they operate. And that might be of interest to you, which might lead to a job opportunity, you know, like build that network. So build that network to kind of get the role that you're interested in and go from there.

Kimmiko James  46:11  
Solid advice all round to solid advice all around. She couldn't have said it better. Like that's I guess that's kind of the overwhelming part. But I would say more so the benefit of getting into tech. There's just so so many resources that are free like you don't have to pay hundreds of dollars unless you're trying to go to Greece Hoffman's to, to find a network to build a network and to just learn stuff. So yeah, Google. best resource he got. Do you want to get into tech? So thanks to you. Yeah, no problem. So yeah, this question is probably one of my team is like a great speaker and stuff. But she's very, like, very shy, very humbling. humbling Lee shy. So if you want to be found, where can people follow you or your talks? Because you, I mean, anybody that's finishing this, they probably think you have great advice that you've shared. So yeah.

Tia Caldwell  47:08  
That is a struggle for me. I am an extrovert, but I hate when there's any sort of attention on myself. And I'm just so sensitive, like I don't want people to hate me. So I try not to be involved in too much stuff I know can be good.

Kimmiko James  47:24  
Where can people find you to? If you want to be found otherwise, we can just cut this part.

Tia Caldwell  47:29  
Alright, so I am trying to be a good Twitter person, Benji magicka, you can find me on underscore Tia calwell nowadays, and reach out to me in a DM or you can find me on LinkedIn.

Kimmiko James  47:47  
You want to keep up with Tia or even just reach out to her and definitely be sure to check her out on Twitter or LinkedIn. The next episode, I'll be talking about planned stages, and experienced software engineering intern at Apple. But we'll be talking about might be contradictory to everything I've been saying about getting into tech. But if you really want to know what I mean by that, and you have to bring me to the next episode. Thank you again for listening to the black enterprise network podcast. It would be greatly appreciated if you could leave a review on Apple podcasts or any other platform that has reviews

Tia Caldwell Profile Photo

Tia Caldwell

A top-performing engineering manager on the Lifecycle Monetization team at Slack with over five years of management experience. She has eleven years of professional experience at Microsoft where she began as an intern and worked her way up to a senior engineering manager responsible for leading high-impact teams who delivered essential functionality across multiple organizations. Her most recent work encompasses universal application development for Windows 10, enabling mapping and location based experiences across Windows, client telemetry and reporting, and identity and authentication user management for Office. She especially enjoys working on challenging products and agile teams with a high-spirited collaborative culture.