During Women’s History Month, we hear so many great stories about successful women. It’s encouraging to read what women have achieved, especially in the face of adversity. This particular month makes it easy to find stories everywhere, making it all the more hard-hitting and uplifting. Recently in tech, we’ve seen a massive push for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). We’ve come a long way, but there is definitely room to grow. For example, women make up 25% of tech roles, and that doesn’t necessarily mean software engineering. We thought we could inspire women in tech, or those interested in entering the field, by sharing stories from some women leaders at Blameless. Each has unique perspectives and experiences that speak to the myriad options available for women pursuing a tech career. This interview includes stories, opinions, and advice. Hope you enjoy it.
Host: The first question is an introduction. Tell us about yourself — what's your role on the Blameless team?
Elaine Tan: I am Elaine Tan; joined Blameless literally 16 days ago. My role here is to get our security compliant. I manage GRC, governance, risk, and compliance. My goal is to help us truly be the leading SRE platform. And part of my 30-60-90 days here will definitely be to assess the gaps that we currently have — what do we need in order to move to the next step — and also partnering with Sales and Product. When we present Blameless as a product, we’re also presenting it from a security compliance perspective. My next big project is to get us to SOC 2 and then help with the hardening of our security and compliance posture.
Christina Tan: I'm Christina, Founding Team Member at Blameless. My role has changed a lot, but right now, I'm focused on executive team cohesion and alignment. In addition, I contribute to the SRE thought leadership space. I gave a talk at SREcon yesterday. Also, culture is very near and dear to my heart. I worked with Lyon (CEO) and the founding team from day one, starting with how we conduct interviews. We look to see if someone is collaborative, self-aware, can trust their team, open up about struggles. Real ones, not like “I’m such a hard worker.” I rallied the team to live our six company values: aim high, team first, ownership, reliability, resilience, continuous growth.
Host: What sparked your interest in tech? Can you describe the moment you realized this was a field you wanted to pursue? What led you to that?
Elaine Tan: I got into security and compliance literally by chance. If you know MuleSoft, they’re considered the unicorn of unicorns because they didn’t just IPO. They also got bought by Salesforce, like a year later. Anyway, I’m the person who created their security compliance program. I don't talk about that a lot, but it was actually my first foray into managing security compliance. The virtual CFO at that time, he was — I've never heard anybody talk about security compliance so passionately. At the time, I was more like a system network administrator than a security person, but I always thought about security like closing the front door. Everybody knows when you lock your door, everything is safe and secure. But I’m here going, “What about your windows? What about your vents?”
So I started to realize, not that I like chaos, but I like fixing things. There’s always a way! And that was my opportunity. Whether it was lucky or unlucky — I don’t know, some days. *laughs* I was given the opportunity to be a part of a startup and do a lot of different things. I was surprised by my passion for getting things to compliance. I never thought I’d enjoy that. It was an incredible opportunity. Six startups later, I can safely say that this is where I thrive, and it’s something I definitely love doing. Sometimes I have to reign myself in a little bit. I can get pretty passionate about compliance. I love that with compliance, there really is no gray area. You’re either compliant, or you’re not. Of course, you can’t always be 100% secure. But anyway, I discovered my passion for compliance at MuleSoft, and my passion is a big reason for my success.
Christina Tan: I chose to study computer science in school. I did a computer science and business double degree program. When I thought about making an impact in the world, I thought you can't go wrong with these two fields. I think my passion really is working with founders and supporting their growth and transformation. Founders are some of the most interesting, driven, eager-to-learn people. So talk about giving feedback, they always receive it incredibly well and internalize it and apply it forward. I met Lyon before he started Blameless, while he was still investing, and have always wanted an opportunity to work with him. When I found out that he co-founded Blameless, I joined as quickly as I could.
It all came together once I talked to a few key people in the space. The Head of SRE at Uber, Bob Nugman and the Head of Customer Reliability Engineering (CRE) at Google, Dave Rensin. Bob really brought it together for me. He said that SRE is like the plumbing of the internet. It’s not glamorous. When things go well, nobody notices. The second something goes wrong, everyone’s hovering over you, asking what's going on. I saw that SREs are underappreciated. If Blameless does well, we can give reliability teams wins to celebrate. That motivated me. Dave Rensin helped me zoom out another layer. He said that a person waking up at 3am to respond to an incident is a relationship where humans serve machines when it should be the other way around! If we do SRE well, we can get the machine working for us again. It’s a compassionate thing to do, so it’s really a question of humanity. Blameless (the company) is an opportunity to contribute to that.
Host: What challenges do women face in engineering? What tips would you give to other women, maybe even younger women, who are considering getting into the field?
Elaine Tan: As a POC (person of color), even a WOC (woman of color), I’m the odd one out. And I’m always fighting for a seat at the table. But I think over time, that narrative has changed for the industry. Personally, I changed my narrative, meaning I’m not fighting for a seat at the table. I deserve it. And if you don’t like what you see, then this is not the right fit for me. I think my first, maybe, 15 years of my career, I had to convince myself, “I'm good enough. I'm not just a DBA. I’m also a sysadmin.” Back then, I felt like the sysadmin role was only for engineering. And if you’re a woman, you were a DBA and pigeonholed. There was a limit to how high you could go up the ladder. It was so important for me to have good mentors and leaders that I could learn from. In the earlier part of my career, I dealt with managers who were always nitpicking at my weaknesses instead of embracing my strengths and working to help me improve the areas I wasn’t so great at.
And so I think once I found that leader and mentor, it was a huge shift for me, because I felt like I totally belonged. I deserve a seat, and I can even recommend others who deserve a seat! This is actually something I started actively doing maybe about 18 months ago. I started mentoring people. I had recently mentored a group of ladies who just graduated. The conversations were amazing. For example, we talked about what they should do when they get started in their career. Also, how do you get past the bias? I know my experience speaks for itself, but I’m sure you’ve all heard the term “mansplaining”. My response in those moments is, “Thank you so much for verifying what I’ve said”, or “I’m glad you share the same feedback that I have.”
Christina Tan: I remember someone repeated exactly what I had just said, like two minutes ago. I was like, did this really just happen? So I called attention to it. I spoke up, and I do it when I see it happen to other people. It validates the reality of what's going on.
Elaine Tan: Right! So maybe in the beginning of my career, I would feel bitter. Now, I’m like, This is me. Take it or leave it. I know exactly where I am. I’ve built a strong reputation in my field. Before, it felt like I was chasing. Over time now, even the industry has gotten better. More companies are working toward DI (diversity and inclusion) which has influenced the culture to change. I have to thank Christina for the work she’s done at Blameless to inspire a positive culture. I think it’s incredible. More companies are starting to see how important this is.
To answer the second question, the biggest thing I emphasize with my mentees, like new graduates, is the best advice I’ve ever received from someone — and I’ve taken this to heart. And that’s to never take things personally. A lot of times, how people treat you is a reflection of their character more so than your character. How people talk to you — it’s a lot about them; it's not about you. So don’t let folks take it out of you, what you’re incredible at. To let others “take it away” is such a shame. If someone treats you like a jerk, it’s a reflection of them. It’s not a reflection of you. They chose to behave that way. They chose to belittle or disparage you. That’s on them. And also find great mentors. Be discerning. It can take time to find the right ones, but they’re out there.
Christina Tan: It’s interesting, I actually didn’t pursue engineering because I found it difficult to gain my footing as a woman in tech. I think being women, sometimes you get asked to schedule meetings and take on more administrative tasks. Actually, these little things matter and demonstrate how women are treated in the workplace. It may seem too trivial or too petty to bring up, but it makes a big difference in how respected women feel. Even giving more consideration to working remotely, making sure that people can balance family priorities and work, a tradeoff that disproportionately impacts women more.
I think the biggest struggle I face is being able to tell the difference between, How much of this is me? How much of this can I change? versus How much of this is because I'm a woman? I think what I've seen is that men just can sound a lot more confident. So it’s important to believe in what you have to say and say it.
Women can be penalized for acting with strong emotions at work. I’ve experienced it first hand and I’ve seen it happen to other women. They’ll say you're emotional, therefore, I don't have to listen to you. But we’re people. We bring our whole person, and often strong emotions at work reflect passion and deep conviction. For the tech industry, having emotional intelligence and inviting emotion rather than rejecting it, will help us get much further. For everyone, not just for women.
Host: Engineering is a high pressure job. How do you stay calm and grounded?
Elaine Tan: I’m definitely very type A, very high strung. So maybe I’m not the best to answer this question. I have my moments, and I have my days, but typically what I do more now is exercise. That sounds really simple but to me it's like maybe taking a walk or sometimes I just go to my car and let out my frustrations. I haven’t had that here. I didn’t even have issues at my previous job where we had a “No A-Hole” policy. Taking a walk, actually seeing the sun, helps me to deal with pressure. It keeps me grounded. I try to do that every single day.
Claudia Wibowo: I would like to give kudos to Christina. I think peers make a huge difference when you can confide in them. There have been multiple occasions where I’ve chatted things out with Christina. She's always been a listening ear vice versa. I think those are some practical ways of staying grounded, especially, as you know, when you have women on your team that understand things that you're feeling. …Speaking of emotional intelligence from earlier. Another thing I do is to stack rank my priorities and create checklists. That way I don't feel overwhelmed as well, and just kind of go through my list of action items regularly.
Christina Tan: I also think it's important to give ourselves permission to rest. It’s non trivial and can be very difficult, even if you take one day off or like a week off. Sometimes you don't allow your brain to relax. You feel guilty if you sit in front of the TV, and when you're feeling guilty you’re not really resting. Give yourself permission to just, not do much. *smiles*
Host: What trends are occurring in the software industry today, even in your particular field of expertise, that excite you the most right now, and why?
Christina Tan: What I’m most excited about is bridging the different organizational functions through SRE. If you look at the Google SRE book, in my mind, there’s a big emphasis on creating a shared language between engineering and product. You’re measuring customer happiness. So really instead of being seen as a cost center, SRE can be seen as a value add. We contribute to the top line, budget sheet. At Blameless, I’m really excited that we’re putting out content through the marketing team to drive that movement and momentum for SRE. We’re bridging SRE to other functions of the business.
Elaine Tan: One of the trends that I'm super excited about in terms of compliance is the emergence of the privacy world. For those of you who live in California, you might’ve seen the CPR (California Privacy Rights) prop on the ballot a couple years ago. Also, I see more diversity. At least at the last conference I attended, there were definitely more women. When I interview candidates, I’ve seen more diversity there too. Not the same candidates I saw in security several years ago. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve interviewed candidates and been asked, “Oh are you HR?” No, I’m the hiring manager. Luckily, I’ve worked with great talent teams to do a thorough screening and avoid more situations like that. You should never be in an interview where the candidate thinks just because you're a woman you're in HR.
I was so happy joining Blameless. When I came in, and saw Mindy and Claudia, I was like Wow! So progressive! And I joke about “progressive” but it’s actually a long time coming. It means so much to work at a company with female engineering managers and directors. To me, it’s huge. And thank you to our marketing team for updating our website to showcase our leadership team. We have women on the site!
Claudia Wibowo: That’s something that I've been noticing too. In tech as a whole, with everything happening in our world today, we weren’t talking about emotional intelligence or diversity as much before. But it’s taking more of a stance in recent years. Underrepresented groups are being welcomed into tech more, and actively. It’s way more emphasized now than in previous years. This is what I’m most excited about for tech.
Host: What is your proudest achievement throughout your career to date?
Elaine Tan: I think my biggest accomplishment is for both home and work at the same time. I am a single parent, and I can say that I was able to raise both my kids as a single parent while surviving, you know, six startups. Building security compliance programs for each of the startups. Still being who I am, not losing my values, and even gaining soft skills. This is my greatest accomplishment, never compromising who I am, my integrity, and holding onto my values. It’s really, really hard to do as you go up the ladder. I’m so happy that I still have my family, my kids. We talk all the time. We’re very close. Also, I get to do work that I love!
Claudia Wibowo: I would say, if I were talking to my younger self, I never thought I'd be in engineering. I actually didn't go to school for engineering. I kind of fell into it accidentally because I initially wanted to become a graphic designer. Art school was crazy expensive, so I learned HTML and CSS instead. I never thought that I’d be an engineering manager one day. That’s crazy! That’s for people who like math and science. So that’s one of my accomplishments.
Christina Tan: Wow, I can see that inspiring younger people who don't identify as being good at math or science to be more interested in tech. It doesn’t always feel accessible, like it’s so difficult to reach, when it doesn't have to be.
Claudia Wibowo: Yeah, I was talking to a girl that works at this market nearby. She's looking to go into engineering. She’s kind of doing it part time and stuff like that. And I was just encouraging her that it's okay to not know. It's okay to hit a wall and be like, I don't get it. That's part of learning and perseverance will get you very far. I think people, especially women, just need to hear that it's okay, you know. It's okay to not have all the answers. You're going to get there, eventually, as long as you just persevere.
Christina Tan: I think the proudest “moment” in my profession as a coach are actually “moments”. It’s when I see true moments of transformation in someone I’m coaching. We have such an expectation for leaders to be perfect or to exemplify model behavior that we’ve witnessed before or consumed in the media. We’re all human. All the glory we see is curated by the media. It’s what they want us to see. What I’ve seen is that the greatest source of growth stems from the greatest source of shame. It’s difficult to admit when you’re not good at something or fail. Often we punish ourselves, which makes it even harder for us to grow and move forward. True moments of transformation happen when you’re able to face what makes you feel most vulnerable and when met with compassion and acceptance, you’ll have the world of courage to pick yourself up and move forward. I worked with a CEO who was blamed by the entire team for the struggles that the company was going through. This CEO rejected that notion at the outset, but had actually internalized themself as the source of the problem. After confronting and opening up about this fear, they could see that they were not the source of the problem, but the key to the solution. And that’s exactly what they became! That would be my greatest accomplishment, facilitating this level of personal growth when the leader got stuck, and seeing the ensuing transformation in the entire company.
Claudia Wibowo: I like to say that there’s always a story behind the story. And Christina is great at surfacing a person’s “story behind the story”. I can attest that she’s good at diggin deep and coaching you through. Kudos!