Career Advice, Interviews

How to Become Head of Engineering in 9 Months: Slack’s Julia Grace on Climbing the Corporate Ladder

It’s rare for anyone to go from Engineering Manager to Engineering Director to Head of Infrastructure Engineering within nine months of joining a company. But when that employee is a woman in tech, she’s defied the odds even more. After all, women make up 14 percent of engineers and 22 percent of senior management.

But Julia Grace, Head of Engineering at Slack, is all about defying the odds. She’s been coding for decades, ever since she first learned to program on a Commodore 64 computer (think: the big clunky box that Bill Gates-types clacked away at in the 80s). And that passion for computer science has fueled her throughout her entire career. After receiving both undergraduate and graduate degrees in computer science, she moved to California and has been climbing her way up the tech ladder ever since. Now, at Slack, Grace is solving some of the hardest problems in tech as she leads a team responsible for maintaining and enhancing the performance of a real-time collaboration platform that millions of people use each day.

Along the way, Grace has gathered plenty of valuable insight about working as a woman in tech, how to advance in your career, and what it takes to become a Slack team member. Recently, Glassdoor’s Emily Moore sat down to pick Grace’s brain on these topics and more.

Glassdoor: You’ve quickly advanced within Slack and scaled up your team dramatically since you first arrived at the company in October 2015. What do you credit that to?

Julia Grace: It’s really critical for anyone to deeply believe in the product and the mission of the company they work at. Before [my current role], I started a small company called Tindie where we used Slack and it totally transformed how we communicated. So when I was deciding what to do next, one of the immediate things I thought of was that I should work at Slack because I totally believed in the transformational potential of the product. I joined the platform team first, and that was a really natural fit because I could emphasize with our platform’s audience of external developers. Then I moved into infrastructure when it became clear that we needed a dedicated team to work on the large-scale problems that we had. Drawing from my background — I have an undergraduate and a graduate degree in computer science focused on distributed systems — I could take my deep understanding of the product and how we build it to help us scale up through the next stage of our growth.

Glassdoor: Which accomplishments, both as a team and as an individual, are you most proud of?

Julia Grace: Within a couple months of when I joined Slack, we launched the app directory, and this was the effort of many more folks than just me. We started pretty small, but in about 13-14 months, the app directory has grown to 900 apps. What’s so cool about that is that I used to be the person reading the documentation and figuring out how to build my integrations using other companies’ apps. Now I can say that I’m on the other side of the fence. I’m enabling people to build these things, and that was really amazing and empowering.

Glassdoor: It’s no secret that women in engineering and leadership roles face some unique challenges. What are some that you’ve come across in your career, and how have you dealt with them?

Julia Grace: Going through undergrad and graduate school in the late 90s and early 2000s, those programs weren’t very diverse, but I deeply loved and cared about what I was doing. One of the things I started to realize after finishing grad school and coming to California [was] that building engineering teams and being an engineer is much more than just writing code — [it’s also] fostering and creating inclusive, empowering cultures. I have always tried to speak out and be a catalyst for creating some of those cultures, and at Slack, that’s with the support of our fantastic leadership team.

It can be very isolating if there aren’t people like you at the company who are able to empathize and understand what it’s like to walk in your shoes, [but] what’s been really powerful about Slack is that empathy is one of our core values. I had to learn very early on to be empathetic because a lot of people weren’t like me. Being a person of a slightly different background has been an incredible asset, and it’s very important at any company to understand that that type of diversity — whether it’s background, gender, ethnicity, you name it — means we’re going to build a better product. But a big part of that is having support from leadership, which luckily we have here.

Glassdoor: Slack definitely seems to be one of the companies leading the charge when it comes to diversity and inclusion in the tech world. What do you think sets Slack apart from other companies in this aspect?

Julia Grace: It’s important to note that a company is not only the products they sell, but the culture that is built inside. And we’ve been very deliberate from the beginning to build a diverse and inclusive culture. What that specifically means is diversity and inclusion are priorities when hiring, and they are everyone’s priorities. So there’s not just one dedicated person to think of diversity and inclusion, it’s all of us. It’s a very fundamental part of our workplace and all of the policies and processes we’ve instituted.

I think that during very rapid growth, it can be tempting to put some of the priorities around diversity and inclusion aside, [but] that is something we’ve ensured does not happen. Even though we’re growing at a rapid rate and hiring people across the board, especially within engineering, we’re willing to make sacrifices to find the right people for those roles knowing that they may come from a different background. Our goal is to avoid becoming a place where underrepresented minorities exit the technology industry. We want to foster a culture that creates the next generation of tech leaders and entrepreneurs because we’ve given them the opportunity to come here and then we focus on ensuring that they’re set up for success.

Glassdoor: What type of people are you looking for at Slack, and what does it take to be hired?

Julia Grace: Within infrastructure, we’ve got a ton of very hard problems to solve — sending messages in real time with hundreds of thousands of simultaneous users is incredibly difficult to do in a stable, efficient, and performant way, so we really look for people who are eager to solve very large scale challenges. That doesn’t necessarily mean [you] need to have had experience in the past, but it’s really important that when you build a product that millions of people use that it can’t ever go down. We pay very close attention to ensuring that our uptime and performance are at the very highest level. So [we need] an extreme eagerness and enthusiasm to tackle challenges and a deep passion for building software.

Glassdoor: I know you work with a mentoring program for young women studying computer science at Cal Poly. What’s your advice for them?

Julia Grace: One of the things that Cal Poly has done is set up events and situations where students can interact with people from the industry and get a better understanding of what it’s like in the day-to-day world at those companies and in those roles. I can remember quite well myself where I didn’t really know what it was like to be an engineer every day. I had internships where I would work on projects by myself or with other interns, but I didn’t understand what it was like to be part of a team. So I think it’s really important that students seek out the opportunities to speak with as many different people as possible.

If you’re someone studying computer science now, try to talk to as many of your peers that leave and join the industry as possible and stay in touch with them. They can give important insights, and the technology world is small—maybe you’ll cross paths one day!

Glassdoor: Okay, now for a few fun questions. What was your first job?

Julia Grace: My very first job was waiting tables at a diner in New Mexico when I was 16. You never know what will come up when you’re interacting non-stop with new people all day, and it was excellent training on the importance of communication and adaptability! I also created several spreadsheets for the owner to better manage the waitstaff and cook schedule, and even attempted to convince him I should create the very first website for the diner (this was in the age of YellowPage ads).

Glassdoor: What’s on your work playlist?

Julia Grace: I listen to Pandora whenever I’m not in meetings. I don’t have the time to pick out individual artists, so I created a few stations that auto-play music I enjoy. I generally keep it very upbeat and listen [to] the same fast-paced music at work and at the gym. These days, the station has a lot of Sia remixes.

Glassdoor: Finally, do you have any morning rituals that set you up for success?

Julia Grace: I leave the house at 6:25 AM every morning to catch the train to work, so I have a very tight schedule (I don’t check my phone at all until I’m out the door). Once I’m on the train, I take 5-10 minutes to plan out my day — I check my calendar, taking inventory of all my meetings to ensure I’m prepped for each, and then start responding to DMs, channels, and emails.

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