Being a strong engineer requires more than just top-notch coding. The ability to navigate interpersonal relationships with colleagues and leverage leadership skills is fundamental to your success, regardless of whether you’re an individual contributor or a manager.
Mentorship and sponsorship opportunities can help engineers develop these soft skills. While mentors focus on providing advice and guidance about their experiences in the field, sponsors take that involvement a step further, serving as an advocate for their sponsee as they advance in their careers.
If you’re an engineer from an underrepresented background in tech, however, finding a sponsor and cultivating a relationship with them can be even more difficult.
“A lot of research shows that people who are traditionally underrepresented in the space, typically women and people of color, may have gotten mentoring to some degree, but they haven’t found sponsorship,” says Monica Parham, Director of Diversity at Uber. “Looking at the point in one’s career where you start to see divergence between people who are thriving and those who aren’t, the difference is often whether or not they have sponsorship.”
The Engineering Sponsorship and Development Program (ESDP) was created by Thuan Pham, Uber CTO, and Sarah Bowman, CoS to the CTO, to help inspire a culture of sponsorship at Uber, as well as cultivate a more diverse and cross-functional engineering community. Through a six-month-long structured pilot program focused on sponsorship and leadership, ESDP gave junior engineers at Uber the opportunity to take leadership training courses in effective communication, leading with resilience, and self-knowledge, among other topics, as well as paired them with sponsors at the senior manager or director level.
“We want our engineering team to be the best that it can be in terms of an environment for people to thrive,” says Thuan. “Having a program like this is very useful because it serves as an impetus for sponsors and participants to form this type of relationship, which allows both parties to grow.”
Sarah designed ESDP with this goal in mind. Richa Maheswari, Stephanie Romo, and the rest of the ESDP program team worked with D&I, HR, and external experts in D&I leadership to develop a curriculum specifically tailored to support employees from underrepresented backgrounds in the tech industry.
“Developing your career is a journey and not built overnight, but the skills you learn and relationships you forge along the way are key to your success,” says Sarah. “Over time, the Engineering Sponsorship and Development Program will lead to a more robust culture of sponsorship at Uber. This is just the beginning.”
Responses from the engineers who participated in the program were overwhelmingly positive. Some described the foundational skills they learned, letting them find new leadership opportunities amongst their teams, while others emphasized communication skills they learned and the social dimension of the program. These results demonstrate how sponsorship combined with training in leadership skills serve to enhance careers at Uber.
Building a tribe of sponsors
One of the distinguishing factors of ESDP is its focus on sponsorship as opposed to mentorship. According to Monica, mentorship and sponsorship are both valuable resources for professional growth, but sponsorship takes that involvement a step further by directly working to up level the sponsee’s career.
“Mentoring is about eliciting advice and getting a response, but sponsorship is more than that,” says Monica. “With sponsorship, there is a commitment by the sponsee to giving 110 percent and getting outside of their comfort zone, and by the sponsor to actually putting their political capital into play by opening doors and creating opportunities for that sponsee.”
ESDP provides a structured approach to sponsorship that encouraged participation from all levels and organizations throughout Uber Engineering. Sponsors and participants meet at a regular cadence to discuss anything relevant to the participant’s career, from best practices for cross-functional collaboration to technical project scoping.
Anu Gali, a senior engineering manager on Uber’s Finance Engineering team, decided to volunteer as a sponsor for ESDP because of the value of sponsorship to her career, particularly as a woman of color.
“Once you’re a senior engineer, getting to the next step of your career is not just about being good technically, but also having leadership skills,” says Anu. “For instance: how do you influence, how do you collaborate, how do you communicate better with stakeholders? Often, those skills are not taught. They are things you end up learning through your own experience and relationships with others.”
ESDP provides a unique opportunity for sponsees to develop these vital capabilities in a supportive environment, but the learning flows both ways.
Nitin Bahadur, a senior engineering manager on Uber’s Core Services team and ESDP sponsor, didn’t expect the program to have such an impact on his knowledge of the challenges and opportunities faced by engineering teams in other domains. He found that the ESDP’s implicit value is in its ability to connect sponsors and participants across teams, leading to greater collaboration on both personal and technical levels.
“Companies grow if their employees grow,” says Nitin. “I saw the ESDP as an opportunity to help my peers and colleagues grow in their roles. I am really passionate about my team, and I saw this as a great opportunity to help engineers outside my org.”
Shinjani Gaur, a senior engineering manager on the Infrastructure team and an ESDP sponsor, echoed Nitin’s sentiments.
“There is a lot of learning on both sides,” says Shinjani. “You give something to the sponsee in terms of guiding them, but at the same time, there’s just so much learning which I would not have been exposed to otherwise.”
Leading through influence
Many engineers entered the program hoping to work with their sponsors on honing existing technical skills, as well as developing new ones. Several found themselves learning not just how to be better programmers, but also how to leverage leadership skills in the office.
For Hayley Parra, a software engineer on Uber’s Knowledge Engineering team, the ESDP presented an opportunity to cultivate a relationship with a more senior member of the tech organization, as well as develop the leadership skills necessary to lead a technical project.
Over the course of the program, Hayley experienced various changes in her project scope. She credits ESDP with providing her with space to grow despite the evolving nature of her work. By setting up clear guidelines and opportunities to connect, Hayley and her sponsor were able to work together efficiently to tackle some of her goals.
“ESDP created a very nice structure for my sponsor and I to work together,” says Hayley. “I think that sort of structure relieved potential burnout from both sides so that we could actually focus on our sponsorship. Instead of worrying about whether or not we were optimizing our time, we could discuss matters that were top of mind related to my documentation project.”
Similarly, Jared Garvin Joseph, a senior engineer on the Business Applications Team, believes that the ESDP gave him the confidence necessary to tackle a leadership opportunity on this team.
“I chose to participate in the program because I thought it would be a good way to meet other engineers at the company and develop useful skills for my career,” commented Jared. “In the past, I’ve held leadership roles and never really felt prepared for them. I figured this would be a good way for me to feel more confident in my leadership abilities if an opportunity like that came up again.”
Despite anticipating that the leadership portion of the program wouldn’t be particularly useful (he’d participated in similar opportunities in the past and found them inapplicable to his career), Jared says that ESDP’s sessions were the highlight of his experience.
“In my daily life, I don’t have that much time to sit and reflect on my approach to work,” Jared says. “Hearing the other participant’s struggles at work and what they’re dealing with, how they perceive things, and being able to talk with my sponsor was actually really helpful and eye-opening for my own career.”
Many of program’s courses focused on how to be a better manager, whether for a project or on a team, through the lens of using one’s own unique approach to problem solving. As ESDP program team member Stephanie Romo remembers, some of the most impactful self-discoveries happened during these workshop experiences.
“One session where this really came to light was when participants took a decision-making self-assessment test,” says Stephanie. “The results of that assessment gave them an indication as to whether they are more inclined to make decisions and solve problems from an analytical or intuitive approach.”
Bingqing Wu, a senior software engineer on Uber’s Marketplace Team, thinks that the ESDP helped her develop the communication skills necessary to collaborate with cross-functional teams. At the time of the program, Bingqing was leading a large, multi-team project. She credits her relationship with her sponsor and several of the ESDP’s leadership sessions with providing the building blocks for her successful leadership.
“As an individual contributor, I could easily execute on small domains, but as I started to take on bigger projects and work with multiple teams, I realized that I needed to explore new skills such as team building, influencing, and decision making,” she says. “During this project, I utilized different communication approaches I learned from ESDP to help facilitate our discussion and execution of our technical roadmap.”
Both Bingqing and Jared attribute ESDP with giving them the confidence and the knowledge to serve as a mentor for their own teams.
Building community around diversity and inclusion
For many participants, ESDP’s value went well beyond sponsorship and leadership skills development. For example, Audrey Lin, a senior software engineer with Uber Elevate (formerly on Uber’s Insurance Engineering team), credits the ESDP with opening her eyes to the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workforce, particularly at a global company like Uber.
Prior to joining the program, Audrey admitted that frequently, if given a choice, she opted to work with individuals of similar backgrounds. Through conversations in the leadership sessions, Audrey realized she could achieve much more on a technical level by going outside her comfort zone and incorporating differing perspectives.
“I learned that everyone has a different working style and problem-solving mode,” Audrey says. “In order to work well with people with disparate approaches, you have to fully understand what they are thinking. When you encounter different opinions, you just have to try to walk a mile in their shoes, which can actually make collaborating much easier.”
ESDP helped Carissa Blossom, a software engineer on the Infrastructure team, push boundaries in other ways. At the time, Carissa was up for the opportunity to serve as technical lead on a new project—a long-time career goal of hers—but had trouble discussing the depth of her technical work with her colleagues, a few of whom assumed that she wasn’t up for the task.
After talking with her sponsor, Carissa realized that the hurdle in these situations was a lack of clear communication. Over time, Carissa learned how to better understand her colleagues’ communication styles, leading to less friction and greater results.
“One of the beautiful things about building a community through this program was the diversity, both in terms of people and personalities,” says Carissa. “And having that clear-cut representation meant that there’s always something that I can buy into and apply across different personality styles in my everyday encounters.”
Through these group sessions, team building workshops, and more casual bonding activities, ESDP participants could connect in a supportive and collaborative environment.
Greta Shi, a software engineer on Uber’s Developer Experience team, suggests that the community that she and her cohort developed during the program was the most beneficial part of the experience.
“I wasn’t expecting to build such a strong community,” Greta says. “I didn’t think too much about how much our bond would mean to me. By the end of the program, we were all friends, fully open to sharing our experiences and ourselves.”
According to Richa Maheswari, ESDP program team member, the relationships forged between participants in this program exceeded any expectations.
“It was amazing to see these individuals from such diverse backgrounds come together and build relationships,” says Richa. “I’ve heard from multiple participants that they found lifelong friends, a network they can trust and people they want to continue to stay in touch with.”
Months later, participants in the ESDP pilot program still meet to catch up, share advice, and reflect on their career journeys. As Hayley Parra notes, the secret to the success of the program was its ability to foster not just sponsorship and leadership skills, but also a diverse community that wouldn’t have otherwise developed. Over time, this community and its participants’ shared experiences will bear even greater fruit.
“The hidden value of the program was the connections I made with all these different people and the things that we’ve shared and learned about each other,” Hayley says. “Only months after the fact, maybe even years, will so much of this experience sink in, settle, and really make a difference.”
In 2020, Uber Engineering is committed to fostering a culture of sponsorship between members of our organization that spans not just their time at Uber, but their entire careers. Continuing to grow and enrich this program is a key priority for Thuan and his team. Currently, the program has scaled to ten engineering offices worldwide, with plans to expand further in the coming months.
“I think a program like this is really important to the health of any organization,” says Thuan. “Sponsorship is a catalyst, and if we act on it together and at scale, it can have a tremendous impact.”
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