In Pursuit of IDIC
By Clara Vu, co-founder and VP Engineering, Veo Robotics
Author’s note: In Star Trek, IDIC—"Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations"—is the foundation of Vulcan philosophy. Embracing it as part of our company culture means encouraging, celebrating, and leveraging a team whose perspectives are informed by a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, and identities. We believe our success and growth as a company is underpinned by a diverse set of people coming together to tackle hard problems. This is the first of a series of posts about Veo's culture where we will discuss how we actively work toward this.
When Patrick, Scott, and I founded Veo, it was important to us to create an environment where people from a wide variety of backgrounds could feel respected and welcome, and could participate fully in building an amazing company and groundbreaking products.
I know from experience how tough it is to be the only [fill in the blank] in the room. It’s hard to feel like you belong when lunch-time conversations take for granted things that don’t represent your life. It’s hard to project authority when people assume you’re attending an event as support staff or a spouse. It’s hard to be confident when you feel like an anomaly. Sometimes, it’s just plain lonely.
To a young engineer, or a kid who’s interested in tech, representation really matters. I’ve seen first hand how just a glimpse of someone who looks like you doing an important technical job can send you down a career trajectory that you wouldn’t otherwise have considered.
Building a company that prioritizes equal representation is important—but it’s not easy. We’ve made progress: our management team is about 50% women and most of our meetings pass the Bechdel test, which has made a real difference for many of the women who work here. But we have a long way to go: for example, only a few of our individual contributor engineers are women. And while our numbers on the “women” axis look relatively good compared to many other tech startups, there are a lot of other axes we can do better on.
In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re taking this opportunity to highlight some of the amazing women on the Veo team, give a little behind-the-scenes view into the work they do at Veo, and share some of their experiences as women in tech.
As Veo’s Design Assurance Lead, Gwenn Ellerby’s job is: “to intentionally break things in a methodical way in order to make sure our product meets safety and performance requirements. This includes leading a team of test engineers and helping Veo meet third party safety certification requirements, a critical element to our product’s success.”
Valentina Chamorro is an Electrical Engineer at Veo. She works on FPGA design and implementation for the Veo camera: “One of the big milestones I hit this year was to get raw data streaming over ethernet from the camera. This means I have to interface with different peripherals and convert between different data types. I am now working with the electrical engineering team to output actual depth image data.”
Meena Vembusubramanian is Veo’s Director of Product Management. She is responsible for understanding both the challenges our customers face and what is technically feasible for our team to accomplish—and then merging the two into a product that does not break time, physics, or the bank.
“It’s one thing when you have an existing product—customers are open to incremental changes as you build and improve on it. But doing everything from scratch with a product that is very new is both exciting and challenging.”
As VP of Sales and Business Development, Molly McCarthy has spent the last year and a half building relationships with customers and designing a strategy for getting Veo’s technology into the market. She uses her experience in the semiconductor industry to identify technical experts and decision makers at different levels in manufacturing companies, and communicate the value Veo can bring to their production lines. As Veo’s first product release approaches, Molly is spending more of her time visiting customers and working directly with early adopters to find good fits for Veo and close our first sales.
Mikell Taylor is Senior Director of Sales Operations, previously Senior Director of Program Management. She has spent a lot of time in startups and early-stage companies and enjoys creating something out of nothing—at Veo, that’s meant building an engineering development planning infrastructure, managing the early days of Veo’s formal recruiting process, wrangling the logistics of prototype trials at customer sites, and, in her new role, establishing and scaling Veo’s customer support engineering group. “I’m incredibly excited for our first product to be released shortly—I love working with customers and seeing the things I’ve worked on be used in the real world, and I’m enjoying building the tools and team that will keep our customers up and running and happy.”
While our experiences as women in tech are vastly different—some of us are new to the workforce, some of us are new to robotics, and some of us have worked in this field for decades—they also overlap in many ways.
What has your experience been like as a woman in tech?
Mikell: “It’s actually been difficult at times for me to adjust to the actively inclusive environment here. Because I’ve always worked in environments that rewarded stereotypically masculine behavior and affect, I became used to coping by becoming ‘one of the guys.’ At Veo, I have to remind myself that I don’t have to do that anymore and in fact, as a manager, I can set an example for other women here by embracing a different way of fitting in. (If you haven’t already seen it, watch the new Pixar short ‘Purl.’ It sums up my internal conflict and adjustment perfectly.) When I first joined Veo, it was the first time in my life I’d ever had a woman as my boss. Now, in my second role at the company, I have another woman as my boss—that’s two female bosses back-to-back! It’s awesome to finally have mentors who have experienced a lot of the same dynamics I’ve experienced in this industry.”
Valentina: “I never felt the gender gap in tech growing up; I went to an all-girl high school and my engineering classes in university were fairly even. But when I entered the workforce I was suddenly faced with an absence of any women in technical or senior roles. At one job, I was both the youngest engineer and the only female engineer for a year, and I tried to ‘fit in’ by making my style less feminine and excusing behavior I now realize was gendered. Working at Veo has made an immense positive difference in how I view myself. Seeing women in senior positions, running meetings, and making decisions has made me more sure that engineering is the right field for me.”
Meena: “In the past, I’ve felt the need to change parts of my behavior so as not to come off as ‘too assertive.’ Over the course of past experiences, I had developed and practiced a certain stoicism and indirectness in how I communicate at work, which is very different from how I communicate in my personal life. Even in the warmest of cultures, that feeling of otherness and wanting to fit in takes up some mental load. At Veo, I feel much less of a need to translate or change my behavior. It’s amazing to be able to channel all of that energy I allocated to worrying about how I am perceived into just doing quality work.”
Clara: “I’ve been an engineer for over 20 years now. Early in my career, I barely noticed the lack of other women—I was pretty used to it from my high school and college math and physics classes. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize how much working with other women means to me. When we founded Veo, we had the opportunity to bake in some company policies and norms that would help make Veo a place where women wanted to work. One way we’ve done that is by recognizing “women’s issues” as human issues. It sends a big signal when your male boss says he’s leaving early to pick up his daughter from ballet class, or when a man on your team takes twelve weeks of paid parental leave. These things create a culture that is more welcoming to women and other underrepresented groups—but also a culture that is more supportive and more effective for everyone.
What advice do you have for people thinking about working in engineering, industrial automation, or just tech in general?
Valentina: “Just because you may not see people who are like you in your field, doesn't mean you have to change who you are in order to fit in.”
Molly: “It's an exciting space, so just do it. It doesn't have to be easy or perfect to be worth it. Messy can still be fulfilling, maybe even more so.”
Meena: “Reach out. It feels awkward and scary but reaching out and asking for help or advice makes such a difference. As long as you are a decent human being and are willing to put in what it takes to do the job once you have it, people are more than happy to help!”
Clara: “At the beginning of your career, stay in technical, individual contributor roles. In my experience, female engineers on average tend to have better social skills. Who knows why—I think it’s because our society tolerates a level of social cluelessness in young boys that we do not tolerate in young girls. Which means that girls are often forced to become better at social interaction even if they’re girls like me for whom this does not come naturally.
It’s all too common for employers to steer young engineers with better-than-average social skills into project management, customer-facing, or support roles. These are critical roles and it’s wonderful to have brilliant women doing them, but making the switch early on can deprive young women of the time they need to mature as engineers—to build the strong fundamentals and deep technical expertise that are required for senior technical and engineering leadership roles. My job today doesn’t involve a lot of direct technical contribution, but I could not do what I do without years of experience writing code, shipping features, and building products.
So to any young engineer of any gender: if you are a great communicator, leader, and systems thinker, there will always be opportunities to branch out into these areas later in your career. Moving out of a technical role may be the right decision for you, but be sure you’re making it deliberately, and that you understand the tradeoffs. And if you’re using your superior social skills to cover for your fellow engineers, make sure you’re getting credit for it!”