Career Life Stories: Vivian Cromwell, Chop Technologies

Where can a childhood love of technology and science, combined with experience in both design and engineering and a drive to self-educate and succeed, take you in your career?

Vivian Cromwell was an engineering manager at Google before becoming founder & CEO of Chop Technologies. Here she shares the story of her career success, as part of the Robert Walters Career Life Stories series. 

At what point did you realize you wanted to pursue software engineering as a career, and had you always aspired to start your own company?

I grew up in an engineering centric-family in China. My father is a physics and optical engineer and my mom is a mechanical engineer.

When I was little my dad didn’t buy my sister and me toys. Instead, we would learn how to build them together. I remember making hand-held toy fans, working in a dark room developing photos, and even helping my dad build our first TV set. With regard to my later education, it seemed very natural to study computer science.

Did I always think about starting my own company? Honestly, no. I made the difficult decision to leave Google after eight rewarding years because I no longer felt like I was learning quickly enough. After my departure, I knew I wanted to gain the experience of building something from scratch.

How would you summarize your professional experience?

Overall, most of my skills span product and engineering with an emphasis on engineering leadership.

I am also very passionate about design; starting my own company offered me the opportunity to enhance those skills to the point where if my designer was busy, I would do design iterations on my own.

What trend, skillset, or technology on the horizon do you think will most affect engineering?

First of all, today’s access to online resources and education is phenomenal. In the past, you had study computer science formally in order to get a job in engineering. Now, you can become an engineer at any point in your career.

In terms of trends, AI and machine learning are becoming increasingly popular. AI and machine learning are becoming as basic as databases. As a result, it is important for everyone to understand the basics of those technologies, whether you are a designer, a product manager or an engineer.

In addition, I’ve noticed that most engineers have very little exposure to the basics of the design process, and yet there appears to be a recent shift in the dynamic between developers and designers. The modern design tools are getting very easy to use, engineers can improve productivity when they learn design with great empathy for the users.

Big companies can afford clear divisions between functions such as engineering and design, but small startups are more apt to hire someone who can contribute in multiple areas. Fortunately, it is very easy to get started with the basics of design; again, there are so many fantastic resources at our fingertips today. 

What resources would you recommend to someone looking to expand their knowledge about leadership or engineering?

I tend to rely on Twitter for technical and market updates which I check once in the morning and once in the evening. My recommendation is to follow the active industry leaders for the topics or technologies you care about. By doing so, you can very quickly catch up on the hottest trends in your space.

One job-specific book I would recommend is Sprint by three Google Ventures design partners which focuses on testing new ideas through design sprints.

Concerning self-improvement and leadership, I enjoy books geared toward empowerment, motivation, and effective communication. I am currently reading Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World by General Stanley McChrystal.

Can you talk a little bit about your experience as a female leader in tech, and specifically within engineering?

Numerous positive influences have shaped my perspective on the topic of gender. As a child, my parents never insinuated that being female would somehow limit my opportunities in life. My manager for nearly seven years at Google never once made me feel like my gender mattered, and my life partner treats me as every bit his equal.

Today, I am careful not to use the phrase “female engineer” in the workplace since the phrase qualifies a difference that, to me, is irrelevant. I believe we should be evaluating each other on the merits of our work rather than our gender.

Dominique Crenn was the first female to receive two Michelin Stars. Interviewers often ask her what it’s like to be a female chef, and her answer is, “I am not a female chef - just a chef.” This sentiment summarizes the way I feel about being an engineer. The way I see it, I am an engineer who happens to be female.

I believe a balance of men and women in leadership positions contributes positively to company culture, so it is encouraging to see an increasing number of females seeking executive positions. Meanwhile, my way of contributing to the progressive movements around gender-equality in the workplace is by mentoring young females.

What advice would you give other females who are considering engineering as a career path?

I currently mentor three females with whom I focus on being available, and the advice I give is largely gender-neutral.

Landing that first engineering job is normally very difficult, particularly in highly competitive landscapes like Silicon Valley. Rather than focus on trying to get your dream job right away, my advice is to focus on finding a strong team with the opportunity to learn new skills.

I also encourage mentees to take a long-term view rather than worry about immediate success. Failure is part of the process of growing, and the ability to persist through adversity is very important. The Bay Area has so many great opportunities for engineers and an equal amount of distractions. If you really want to be good at something, stick around as long as possible.

What technical skills and personal qualities do you look for when you hire someone?

It depends. Big companies tend to hire based on specific skills—an expert in Java Script, for example. Startups tend to emphasize interpersonal skills, problem solving and critical thinking capabilities.

On the technical end, engineering is much broader than just being able to write lines of code so looks for developers who appreciate the entire cycle of engineering.

As for non-technical qualities, I focus on the candidate’s ability to collaborate and often lean on references to help evaluate how well they operate in a team environment. Natural curiosity is also essential; in my experience, the motivation to learn is a strong performance indicator.

What is one non-technical question that you ask candidates who are interviewing?

I often ask questions which aim to assess a candidate’s thought process. My philosophy is that critical thinking trumps specific technical knowledge. Candidates who can effectively problem-solve are generally able to adapt to new frameworks and technologies on the job.

What advice do you have for people early in their engineering careers?

I’ve mentioned that startups value versatile candidates, however, versatility is not a substitute for subject matter expertise. As a junior engineer, my advice is to choose a specialization early. As you develop through your career, you will inevitably be exposed to broadening opportunities across adjacent technologies.

That wraps up our interview with Vivian. Big thanks to her for sharing her inspiring career path within engineering, and to find out more about Vivian’s background, visit her on LinkedIn and Twitter. For more on recruitment news, advice for job-seekers, and thoughts from other Bay Area tech leaders like Vivian see our other career advice articles, and follow Robert Walters on LinkedIn and Twitter.