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Meet the Female Frontier honorees: Theresa Vu

We chat to the Xandr engineer about transforming technology

Vu is Xandr's SVP of Engineering and one of Campaign US’ Female Frontier 2020 honorees for ‘transforming technology’. Here, we find out who inspires her and whether tech is still a man's world.

What’s your one professional rule? Have you ever broken it?
To not play too closely to the rules, as long as you're still in service of the original intent. 

Some other rules I hold close are: 

  • Learn to recognize the invisible work. This is really important if you work in a data-driven technical world where it’s tempting to believe that the only high-value work shows up via a git commit. 
  • Take chances on talent; bet on your people. Developing your people is as important as developing products.
  • Work on your listening – it’s a survival skill. 

And yes, I’ve broken those rules enough to learn the hard way just how important they are. 

Can you sum up your journey in less than five words?
Being yourself requires due diligence.

What three qualities do you need to be successful?
Grit, kindness and not taking yourself too seriously. 

How does the culture at your organization help you to thrive?
The focus on learning. A core value at our company is "Teach & Learn", and within the tech organization we even have our own Learning & Development team. We provide access to great resources (learning stipends, workshops, tech talks) but we’re also not shy about giving people at all levels responsibilities. Those stretch opportunities, in addition to all the learning resources, are what drive progress.

I’ve benefited from that over and over again in my career here.  

Who's your biggest inspiration and why?
It’s a total cliché, but it’s absolutely my mother. My family came to the US as refugees from Vietnam and had to rebuild their lives from scratch.  Growing up, I watched my mom start her career as an office janitor and eventually work her way up to become a Director of End-to-End Testing at Cisco.  As someone who’s familiar with the challenges for women in technology now, it blows my mind to think about what it was like 25 years ago, and that my mom was able to navigate all of that and obtain the success that she did.

I have these scattered memories that seemed innocuous when I was younger but are so much more meaningful now – her coming home from a business trip "laughing" with my father about how she was constantly mistaken as the secretary within her engineering team.

My mother is a beast. If she started her career when I started... who knows how much further she could have gone. 

What advice would you give to someone entering the industry? Any tips for success you'd like to share?
Technology moves quickly – you have to build a solid learning routine for yourself. When things get busy it can be very tempting to eat into your self-development time, but you have to protect that.  

To all the managers out there, management can be very lonely –  seek friends outside of your team. When you’re an individual contributor, you don't have to actively seek out peers, you belong on a team of peers that you collaborate with regularly. When you start managing, the people you interact with most (your team) won’t necessarily be the best confidants for you.  

For one, the dynamics are different, two, there may be levels of confidentiality you can’t breach, and three, you may need a friend who has been in your role before and knows what you’re going through. So, keep an eye on building a good circle of support. The more challenging your role, the more you’ll need this.

Is technology still a man’s world?
If we’re looking at numbers, then the answer is yes.  Numbers aside, there’s been enough proof on the ground that diverse teams perform better. So, in the sense of creating a winning strategy, it can’t be a man’s world anymore.   

How’s it going to change? Or how is it changing?
Generally, awareness around the need for diversity has dramatically improved. Compared to a few years ago, I’ve never seen such lively conversation about unconscious bias or inclusive interview practices or ally skill training. Going from awareness to impactful action has been much tougher however, and that's something we've set a high bar for at Xandr. 

One thing that makes me very optimistic is how the younger generation of software engineers view diversity as a mandate. I think that’s the only way that the industry will be held accountable to change – when we demand diversity and take responsibility for it at all levels, instead of giving the onus to one department in HR, or to one leader in a group of executives.  


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