Miriam Aguirre, SVP of Engineering at leading eSports platform Skillz, came to the US as an immigrant when she was just a small child, where a love of math led her to a degree in computer science and a career as an engineer. She talks to us about being a woman and an engineering leader in the gaming sector, how she made the change from individual contributor to engineering executive, and the most important career lessons she’s learned along the way, as part of the Robert Walters Career Life Stories series.
What inspired you to pursue engineering as a career path and how did you get your start?
I arrived in the US as an immigrant, while I was between preschool and kindergarten. I didn’t speak English very well, so it was difficult at first for me to master subjects in a foreign language. This led me to gravitate toward math because it was a language I could understand, and it became the vehicle through which I felt I could communicate with teachers.
As I got older, I thought I would go into aerospace engineering because I was fascinated with spacecraft. My high school teachers encouraged me to apply to a number of universities, including MIT, which is where I ended up going. But when I got to MIT, the aerospace department heads held a meeting for students interested in aerospace engineering and discouraged us from pursuing it as a career! They suggested we consider computer science instead, because the aerospace industry wasn’t doing so well and held very limited job prospects upon completion. I took their advice seriously and signed up for a computer science course – after one class, I was hooked.
Can you talk about what it was like to transition from an individual contributor (IC) to an engineering executive?
Early in my career I intentionally steered a course towards being an individual contributor. I thought that the best use of my time and skills was always going to be as a high-functioning individual contributor. But I came to realize that there is only so much I, as a single person, can contribute. I switched my mindset; instead of focusing my energy on delivering code by myself, I learned that helping ten other people deliver ten times as much code is actually a lot more powerful for the organization than what I could accomplish on my own. Once I started thinking that way, it became clearer to me what skills I needed to focus on to led high-performing teams.
When I made the transition from an individual contributor to a team leader, I had a classic (and faulty) expectation that it would come naturally. That’s not exactly true. You really need to learn to be humble and put yourself in the mindset of being a beginner again. Some people can handle it and others can’t.
I now understand that you can start honing leadership skills very early in your career, even without a formal title. You can volunteer for opportunities to engage in projects as a facilitator or as someone who is going to help everyone align on objectives. If I had the opportunity to go back and do it all over again, I would definitely focus on developing leadership skills earlier in my career.
My transition into leadership was spurred by the frustration I had been experiencing as an architect at a fintech company. I was disillusioned with the pace of work and how much code I was able to ship to production. That situation gave me the drive to seek opportunities that would allow me to have a greater influence and satisfy more of what I was looking for as an engineer.
On my journey to find an environment that was much more agile and productive, I was fortunate to meet with Andrew Paradise and Casey Chafkin, the co-founders of Skillz, who were looking for somebody to take on this type of engineering leadership role. It was so refreshing to know that we were all aligned on how fast we wanted to build and ship the product. I was able to leverage my engineering skills, work on my leadership skills, and help create an environment for other engineers who were looking for somewhere they could learn and grow very quickly.
What is Skillz?
Skillz, the leading mobile eSports platform, connects the world's 2.6 billion mobile gamers through competition. In 2017, Skillz was named the fastest-growing private company in America by Inc. Magazine, the first eSports company on CNBC's Disruptor 50, and the only eSports company on the San Francisco Business Times Fast 100. Over 18 million gamers use Skillz to compete in mobile games across over 13,000 game studios. Founded in 2012, Skillz is headquartered in San Francisco and backed by leading venture capitalists as well as the owners of the New England Patriots, Milwaukee Bucks, New York Mets and Sacramento Kings
How has being a woman in a stereotypically male-dominated discipline impacted your career and leadership style?
In a way, I feel like I could have achieved a lot of the success I’ve experienced earlier in my career, if I’d had more support and opportunities to learn, grow, fail and succeed. Even for someone like me who has had a successful career, there is definitely a cost involved. Gaming in particular tends to be very misogynistic and toxic for women. It makes you contemplate whether or not you even want to enter the industry at all. When you don’t feel like you can or should participate, you inevitably have a scenario where many people don’t even try. It’s long overdue for the gaming industry to fix these problems.
Now that I’m in my current position, I do what I can to create balance across the team, and I actively try to make our business different to a typical gaming company. We’ve always strived to build a very inclusive and meritocratic environment. I’ve found that when you set out to achieve balance from day one, you can accomplish it without a lot of friction. It’s a lot harder to fix imbalances after the fact. Also, if your initial team is diverse, then they will naturally bring in referrals that reflect that diversity.
Overall, I think there was definitely a drag on my career progression based on gender biases. Now I feel like I’m surrounded by the right people who support me and share a vision for the type of organization we all want to build.
What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
I think a lot of people are surprised when I tell them I don’t look at a lot of internet memes or videos. Sometimes people reference videos or memes and I have no idea what they’re talking about! For me, I just don’t want to click on or watch any random links sent to me that haven’t been screened.
What technical skillsets do you think are important for junior engineers to master early in their careers?
First, you have to master fundamentals. You’re not going to get very far without understanding data structures, design patterns, object oriented programming, functional programming, unit testing and integration testing. These are things you have to get good at, no questions asked.
Second, if I had it to do over again, I would definitely focus on the softer skills earlier. If you want to be a good leader, you should work on accepting feedback and giving good feedback, especially when you’re in code reviews with your peers. It’s easy to be a jerk (and deliver brutal feedback) – it’s a lot harder to give feedback that’s meant to be constructive and collaborative.
Third, I think one of my attributes that’s contributed to a lot of my success is my ability to make smart estimations. Being a good estimator is extremely beneficial. In the beginning you have to be very meticulous about your approach to a project plan. You have to write down every task in painstaking detail and track how much time is needed for the research, planning, design, approvals, iterations and building phases of a project. Over time, your ability to omit details and still approximate these phases becomes invaluable.
Finally, when approaching a problem, it’s important to truly understand the root of the issue before jumping to solutions. As engineers, we’re wired to build and sometimes we do so without understanding the underlying issues, which can led to creating things that are unnecessary or that could even make the problem worse.
As the pace of technology continues to accelerate, how do you and your team keep up? What are some things you do to stay relevant?
As a team, we’re really lucky that we’re all in an industry [gaming] that we’re very passionate about. We’re naturally consuming the games and content – not just for work, but for personal enjoyment. It makes a big difference when you get to work on something that you love.
In terms of engineering industry trends, as a team, we try to hire the smartest people we can and let them loose to test new frameworks in order to solve complex problems. Resources like Medium blogs and podcasts are great places for a younger company like us to tap into when we’re trying to save ourselves some time by leveraging the lessons others have learned..
What advice do you have for startups trying to recruit top engineering talent?
It’s very competitive in Silicon Valley. I think the best thing you can do to set yourself apart as a company is to be authentic and upfront about your mission as well as what you’re trying to accomplish as an organization. You want to find people who are going to align with your mission.
If you want to be the startup that pays the most or has the most perks, that’s fine, but those things aren’t going to guarantee success in the long run. You’re not going to build the best products if the candidates you attract are only in it for perks or compensation. I would focus on the fundamentals of your company: What are you trying to do as a business? Who do you want to help you do that? It’s important to be clear on those things as an executive team before talking about perks or compensation.
Finally, it’s important to go where the candidates are. You have to be present in the community – go to the conferences and meetups that your ideal candidates are attending. You have to put in the work; engineers are not going to just fall into your lap. That legwork is something you cannot shortcut. Send people from your organization out to these events to foster relationships, even if you’re not going to hire immediately. The people you meet may not always be your target profile, but you could also tap those relationships later for strong referrals.
What is one question you always ask during an interview?
“What’s the best way you learn?”
I like to ask this question because right away it gives me a good sense of whether the candidate is a good fit for our environment and vice versa. It also gives them an opportunity to be introspective.
I also like to ask candidates about the last thing they learned. These two questions allow me to find out quite a lot about their intellectual curiosity and whether the team they are considering would be complementary to their interests.
What advice do you have for engineering candidates who have multiple job offers to consider at the same time?
It’s a great position to be in! Candidates in this market certainly have the opportunity to be selective. In order for candidates to make good choices around potential roles, they need to seriously evaluate what’s important to them. If you’re going to work for a product company, do you care about the product? Although it’s a privileged decision, it makes a world of difference if you can work on things that matter to you.
When it comes to the interview, I suggest that candidates ask their hard or awkward questions upfront. Some example question to ask the interviewer may include: How do you know you’re doing a good job at this company? When was the last time you were praised as an employee, given a promotion or felt challenged? This will yield some very unguarded responses directly from the interviewer, and help you determine whether that company’s environment is a good match for your desired career progression.
Do you have any go-to engineering resources that you’d recommend to other engineers? (e.g. blogs, books, podcasts, conferences, courses, etc.)
I would definitely encourage people to seek conferences tailored to the career they wish to pursue. The biggest benefit of attending conferences isn’t just the content, but also having the ability to make professional connections. Another great way to network is by attending meetups or participating in public Slack groups geared toward a particular subset of your discipline. Those are all great ways to connect with people who are like-minded and who could potentially point you in the right direction for additional resources, or even offer mentorship for your specific career path.
Finally, what is the best way for readers to connect with you?
LinkedIn is the best way to connect with me about possible opportunities at Skillz or for professional mentorship. You can also follow me on Twitter @techaguirre for more casual interactions.
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