Impressed with a new hire who had graduated from Hackbright Academy, VP of Engineering at Sharethrough, Rob Slifka, was inspired to get involved with the all-women’s bootcamp. Three years later, Rob continues to mentor students and guest lectures about how new engineers can find jobs they’ll love. Rob tells us what he loves about mentoring software engineers, why he would hire more Hackbright Academy grads in the future, and advice for giving back to the tech community.
Tell me about yourself – how did you get involved with Hackbright Academy?
I've been the VP of Engineering at Sharethrough for eight and a half years. One consistent challenge in the Bay Area – and everywhere – has been hiring engineers. We've been hiring pretty much since the moment I started in 2010 and I’ve spent over six hundred hours interviewing.
I found out about Hackbright through a woman that we hired. She graduated from Hackbright, joined our backend engineering team, and was terrific. It was clear how much she enjoyed the Hackbright program and how meaningful it was to her. I asked how we could get involved and she put me in touch with their team. They needed mentors and guest speakers for every cohort so I opted to do both of those and other Sharethrough engineers have mentored as well.
I saw on your LinkedIn that you have a Computer Science degree. With your traditional background, were you skeptical about hiring from coding bootcamps?
We’ve hired several engineers over the years from bootcamps. Any skepticism we had was around how we would understand a bootcamp candidate’s potential or career trajectory (they might not like engineering!) when we only have a few months of information about them. When you hire software engineers who have significant experience or have a relevant degree, you have confidence that they’ve chosen a career path in the medium term and have more information available to estimate their impact on your team.
However, I never had skepticism around whether someone could learn enough software engineering to meaningfully contribute in such a short time period. There are plenty of self-taught engineers out there; certainly bootcamps providing a streamlined, structured experience could teach someone how to write code.
What made you want to mentor women at Hackbright Academy?
The engineer we hired from Hackbright was terrific and the world could use many more like her. Every engineering team I’ve worked with has struggled both with diversity and scaling. Mentoring at Hackbright is a way to directly affect each of these and you get a chance to work with great, motivated people.
I work with my mentees on the interview process, resume writing, how to talk about yourself, how to talk about your experience, how to tell that story so that the point comes across when you're talking to a recruiter. At Hackbright, they do offer career services and advice, but I wanted to be able to just tell students, "I'm interviewing developers every day. Here's what I'm seeing even experienced engineers struggle with. Here are what the standouts do well."
What do you think of Hackbright Academy's curriculum? Do you feel that they are teaching students the right skills to break into the software industry?
I'm not super involved in the technical curriculum – I’m more familiar with the career services side of things. Every student whom I've worked with has ultimately gotten jobs in tech, which seems like an indication their curriculum is relevant.
With respect to the Career Services curriculum, they have folks from the tech industry speak at Hackbright. I think it’s super valuable to actually get professionals who are living it come in and demystify working in tech, interviews, etc.
Students also go on field trips to visit company offices and work with employees on site. It’s great for students to see the context of the environment they'll be going into and interviewing at by doing a field trip.
Hackbright also helps students with resume writing, and they do demo nights where they get exposure to interested companies and get a chance to practice talking about technical work, a super important skill not many engineers have.
How often do you mentor Hackbright students and how do you communicate with them?
I prefer to meet in person. The frequency is completely up to the mentee. I've had mentees who want to meet pretty regularly; and I've had folks who will send me an email every so often. There have been people with whom I’ve had one meeting then never heard from them again, which is also totally fine. It's up to the individual. Hackbright assigns each mentee two mentors (to account for schedules and different communication styles) so this isn’t too surprising to see variance here.
I like to let the mentee drive our meetings, given what their interests are and where I can help. I'm upfront at the beginning and say, "Here are the times I'm available. I can host you here at the office whenever, I'm happy to respond to email in a timely fashion," and let them determine the pacing.
When we meet at the Sharethrough offices, I find that sitting in front of a whiteboard works well because the majority of my work with mentees is capturing all the things they may be concerned about or have questions about, teasing them apart and diving into each one.
How important do you think it is for successful people in the tech industry, like you, to advocate for more women and a more diverse tech workforce?
I actually founded a conference called Calibrate for people transitioning from engineering to engineering management, which is a career change. It’s a place to go where they can talk to people going through a similar shift and hear advice that's tailored specifically for that point in their careers.
When we are selecting speakers, we have strict goals around diversity and inclusion. Part of that, specifically for a leadership conference, is that we want to provide a platform for diverse speakers so that others see them and say, “These are respected industry leaders that came from a similar background to me, and therefore, I can envision a future for myself in this industry.”
That visibility is similar at coding bootcamps – in order for diversity and inclusion to be bettered, you need more examples of people who are out there doing it every day. Hackbright Academy, in particular, is one of the most direct ways I can think of to influence that – by creating successful women engineers.
How do you define a “successful” mentorship?
For me, there are two things that define success. One is getting students to own the interview process and, two is having students leave with a confident story about themselves and their background and technical work. I want to prepare my mentees to say "Here's why I am here, here are my skills, here's what I'm excited about," versus going into an interview and feeling as though they're being pecked with questions.
A lot of times, folks in bootcamps have doubts about their abilities because they didn't have a certain kind of education. I've even mentored people with PhDs who had doubts about their abilities, which is crazy to me given how much of a demonstrated track record they have. If they can leave with a bit more confidence in talking about themselves, their projects, and about technology, that's going to help them find a job they’ll be happy with..
Can you tell me about the guest talks that you've been doing at Hackbright? What topic do you speak about?
The guest lecture that I've done about twenty times, is about finding a good fit as a new engineer. We spend so much time talking about tangible things and comparing job opportunities based on the number of work hours and salary benefits. We talk less about culture, values, growth opportunities, that sort of thing. It's harder to get answers to that.
So in my talk I share questions you can ask yourself to determine if you’re joining a good team or a good organization. My talk covers what those questions are, and why we'd all want to work in a place where we can answer “yes” to these questions. For example, “do I know what is expected of me?” or “do I have an opportunity to do what I do best every day?” I go over the questions you can ask in an interview to make sure a company will be a good fit.
I know you've already hired a Hackbright graduate at Sharethrough. Would you consider hiring more, and recommend other companies hire Hackbright alumnae?
Yeah, absolutely. One of our challenges is that we have three small engineering teams. We want to have the bandwidth to make sure it's going to be a really good experience for the Hackbright grad and a good experience for us. When we can hire a slightly more junior developer and bring them up, then obviously Hackbright is the first place we're going to go.
You’re not obligated to be a mentor at Hackbright – what keeps you going back to speak at Hackbright and mentor students?
For me, the value is that these folks are super inspiring and admirable. They're changing their lives in a really drastic way, and that takes a lot of guts. They (and oftentimes, their families) are investing a lot of themselves in pursuing something very different than what they did in the past.
My other motivation is that in my own career, I wish somebody had told me the importance of finding an opportunity that's a great fit for me. I had one really crappy job – I would have appreciated someone telling me, "Hey, you need to value yourself more in this situation, or else you're going to end up in a place that might not be a fit for you." I never had anybody break that down to me.
What is your advice to bootcamp students who want to be true contributors to the engineering community? What should their next steps be when they graduate from bootcamp?
As a first step, I’d suggest staying involved with your bootcamp after you graduate. Every time you do something at a bootcamp, you are helping the community. You're going to help people go through bootcamp, and then they're going to finish, and spread the same great information that you gave to them through their networks and through their jobs for the rest of their careers. Share advice with the folks in your own environment. At your specific bootcamp, you can give back in an extremely relevant way by giving students tips you wished you had. Staying involved with the bootcamp is a way to get a broader influence.