Currently, only about 1 in 4 employees in the tech industry identifies as a woman. So what does it take to create a successful career as a woman in tech? In this interview series called Women in Tech, we spoke to successful leaders in the tech industry to share stories and insights about what they did to lead flourishing careers. We also discuss the steps needed to create a great tech product. As part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vidhya Srinivasan, VP & GM for Google Ads (Search Ads & Ads on Google Experiences).
Before diving in, our readers would love to learn more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
From a young age, I have been interested in STEM—it was something that was a part of my everyday life growing up, with much of my family being in the engineering field. So I guess you can say that I was destined to end up here. But, it wasn’t until my first physics class that I was really hooked. And, from there, came coding which absolutely solidified my interest. Coding made me feel powerful. It was the first time I felt like I could truly create something and make it work as I please—it was exhilarating and there was no turning back.
It has been said that our mistakes can sometimes be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?
Though I’m not sure how funny it will seem, there’s definitely one memory that sticks out when it comes to mistakes. I had just started a new job in a new industry—meaning there was a lot for me to learn. Though that was the case, I was called into a customer meeting on my second day. I went to the meeting knowing next to nothing about the product.
The customer left feeling underwhelmed in terms of my expertise, though I did my best to make them feel heard. It was very stressful for me, especially being someone who prided myself on putting in whatever work I needed to know everything there was to know about a subject matter. In that moment, I had to be honest with the customer—upfront about what I knew and what I didn’t, hearing their concerns and following up when I couldn’t respond.
What do you feel has been your ‘career-defining’ moment? We’d love to hear the lead-up, what happened, and the impact it had on your life.
Truth be told, there have been many. But I’ll focus on one I’d consider a career re-definition: when I chose to join Google. Before taking the role at Google, I built my career in Cloud technologies and databases, and it had become a comfortable place to be. But I’m an engineer at heart. I like complex challenges where I have a chance to disrupt set ways of doing for the better. So when the opportunity to lead a new ads measurement and analytics organization in Google’s Ads business arose, I jumped at the chance.
The ads industry was at an inflection point with regard to user privacy and data governance, so getting the job meant I would lead a team driving privacy-first innovations that would ultimately impact millions of people, businesses, and organizations. It was a huge risk, but I am so happy I took it. It’s led to some incredible opportunities to drive industry-leading innovations, from ads measurement to new ads experiences on Search, Maps, and more. From a career standpoint, it gave me confidence that I can be versatile and apply skills across domains and learn new areas at a fast pace.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up?
Before I even had my first job, I faced some challenges early on. In college, I was the only woman in the Computer Science program, meaning I quickly had to forge my own path—a skill that has paid off throughout my career. But, it was a huge adjustment. For example, it was difficult to find partners for joint coding assignments and, subsequently, my voice in class. Persisting through those beginning days has proven to be helpful even now in my day to day—now, I never wait to be invited.
But, while challenging, I never thought of it as an option to give up. I knew this is what I was meant to be doing and was going to do whatever it took to get myself through it. In terms of drive, I expect to have hard days and hard times. I think of it as a necessary component to growth. It has yet to affect my drive.
We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address? How does your company help people?
We provide access to information to people all over the world. For products like Google Search or Maps our goal is to provide the answers people are looking for. And sometimes this information comes from ads. This free and open access to information is only made possible by the ads-supported model that helps businesses small and large to find customers across the web and ultimately succeed.
If someone wants to lead a great company and create great products, what is the most important quality that person should have, and what habits or behaviors would you suggest for honing that particular quality?
To build a great company, you need to understand the user pain point and user need, and keep a steadfast focus on solving it. I also think a willingness to set aside preconceived ideas, adapt and evolve is really important. That openness to new ways of doing things leads to innovative user-focused solutions.
In terms of most important quality, it's a function of what the product does and where it is in its lifecycle. Sometimes you need a war time leader who can steer a team through rough seas with focus and optimism while making tough calls. In other cases you might need someone extraordinarily creative to imagine what a user might need five years from now. This means, creating teams where leaders have complementary skill sets.
What’s a team management strategy or framework that you’ve found to be exceptionally useful for the product development process?
I am a firm believer in determining decision-making principles early in the product development process, and anchoring back to those with every single decision we make as a team. I do the same when it comes to the business strategy for the organization I lead—it ensures I don’t lose sight of what we’re trying to do so we deliver the most valuable results for our advertisers and everyone who uses our products. In doing so, I do my best to empower team leaders to make decisions rooted in these principles, and escalate more nuanced challenges so my leadership team and I can help bring clarity when it’s not so cut and dry.
When you think of the strongest team you’ve ever worked with, why do you think the team worked so well together?
I’ve worked with many incredible teams throughout my career. And all of them brought different things to the table, but the one thing that they all had in common was a passion for the work that we were doing. It’s critical that the team believes in the mission and agrees with what we are working toward. We may have different opinions, different ways of thinking and different ways we’d approach the problem at hand, but when everyone is passionate about the product and knows the goal we’re working towards, strong results will come.
Let’s talk about downtime. What’s your go-to practice or ritual for preventing burnout?
As a mom of four I don’t really get a lot of downtime, and I’m fortunate that my work is actually something I feel really energized by most of the time. That’s not to say I don’t get stressed or overwhelmed, and I’ve definitely reached a point of burnout many times. One thing I try to do to prevent that is meditate every day. It’s something I started years ago, and I believe it’s helped me create mental space so I can approach every day decisions with a clear perspective—both at work and at home.
Based on your experience, what are your “5 Steps Needed to Create Great Tech Products?"
- Understand the problem you are solving. It is easy for engineers to rush to designing a solution without deeply understanding the pain they are addressing for their customers. You should start by thinking about your customer and then think about your customer’s customer. How does the problem you are solving impact each of them? How important is it for them? Will it meaningfully affect their life, happiness, or financial success? How many people can you reach?
- Think 10x better, not 10% better. Your customers are inundated with demands for their attention. You won’t get their attention for something incrementally better than what already exists. Any problem worth solving already either has solutions in the market or is viewed as impossible. Your solution needs to be markedly better than others to make it through the market noise.
“Think big” didn’t become a cliché for no reason. There is merit in thinking big and taking risks. There is no point building something that’s incrementally better than the existing solution. It goes back to what you are solving for—you need to think about really filling a gap. And this doesn’t mean that everything needs to launch in one day, it just means you have to set your sights on something bigger.
- Don’t wait for perfection. Sell the vision of what your solution will become while being honest about where it is today. Your customers will appreciate both. But, they are investing in future potential when making a purchase as much as they are buying what exists today. I personally don’t believe in ‘minimum viable product’ but I do believe in ‘minimum awesome product’. Releasing quickly does mean you need to iterate quickly.
Particularly towards the end of a release, engineers tend to worry about failing. As leaders, we need to take sole ownership for potential failure while sharing success with the team. We need the judgment of assessing when to listen to concerns and when to push through them. I’ve had to do both.
- Establish a moat. Let’s assume you build something astonishing, satisfy an unmet need, and begin growing quickly. How do you prevent others from taking your market position away from you? You need a flywheel driving a durable and growing technology or economic advantage. How does each customer make it easier to get the next? Why will your unit costs to serve customers naturally decline over time? What are you learning from your customers that new entrants won’t know? It isn’t enough to have a head start in the race. A lasting business requires you to be faster than others.
- First impressions matter. Perhaps you’ve delivered the most effective, innovative and technologically impressive product in the market. If it is hard to onboard or difficult to understand, no one will care. Getting attention is hard. Keeping attention is harder. The first 5 minutes using your product needs to be magical, delivering against your brand promise and demonstrating the 10x difference from others. A simple interface helps.
Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
There is always room for improvement. But, that’s not to say we haven’t come a long way. As I look back, five years, ten years and even twenty years ago, the changes have been monumental. Thinking back to being the only woman in my computer science class to now, where my team has many deeply talented women engineers and STEM is a priority for many young girls, I’m proud of how far we’ve come.
But, we need to keep pushing. We are moving in the right direction, but there is still much to be done when it comes to equity across tech and other industries. And that equity isn’t just about how many of us there are—it’s how we are treated in general and especially in spaces where we are the only woman in the room. Managers and leaders have a huge role to play, from hiring, to connecting women to growth opportunities, to setting the tone for a culture that respects women. It’s not just about making sure women are in the room; it’s about making sure that once they’re there, their voices are heard and valued.
Is there a person in the world with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?
One of the books I read recently and truly enjoyed was ‘My Life in Full’ by Indra Nooyi. I would love to discuss this with her over lunch.