Originally aired on October 13, 2021 @ 1:30 PM - 2:00 PM EDT
Uma Chingunde is Vice President of Engineering at Render, helping build an innovative public cloud alternative for developers. She has more than 15 years of experience building and managing teams focused on cloud computing technologies.
Most recently, she built and led Stripe’s Compute group that supported the internal compute platform so that all of Stripe engineering could deploy and operate their services with security, reliability, and scale during the company’s growth phase. Prior to Stripe, Chingunde was an engineering leader at Delphix and also at VMware.
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Women in Tech
Hi everyone, welcome back to this week's episode of Yes We Can. Very excited to be here today with Uma. Hi Uma, welcome. Hello, hi, so excited to be here. Me too, me too. So this is always a highlight of the week for me and I love it because you're a VP of Engineering at Render and before that Stripe and VMware and Delphix, you've been the tour of Silicon Valley. We're going to dig into that a lot today but just one housekeeping item before you and I get started Uma is for all the audience tuning in, if there are people you'd love to see on the show, please email me. I always love to get your notes. You can message yeswecan at Cloudflare.tv and there's a way to submit questions if you really want to for Uma but we have a lot to cover today so we can get started. All right Uma, so you are currently the VP of Engineering at Render. We're going to get into more what Render does. It's an early stage company, the next wave of compute, so super excited to dig into that but maybe you can start from the beginning. How did you fall in love with computer science and engineering? Yeah, I kind of describe it as it was an interesting process by elimination. So I was actually like picking majors. I grew up in India and you have to pick your majors like relatively early in school, like pretty much at undergrad level and through a kind of combination of things I really didn't want to do which is like academia because my parents are both academics. I'd kind of rule that out early and then I was really very interested in STEM early on. So that was pretty much going to be a focus. That was very clear and through a kind of, you know, I really loved both biology and also kind of, you know, engineering streams and then I ended up not getting into the medical school stream and so it came down to biotech versus tech and so I ended up picking tech because what I was told, which is probably not actually true, is that you can actually pick engineering and then always go back into other things. It was almost like a process of optionality. It's like what can I do that keeps my options open and will also lead to a meaningful career and that's pretty much how I fell into it. I love it. Well, you fell into it and so now, you know, kind of 15 years into your career, as you reflect back, are you happy you fell into it, Uma? Oh, yes. I feel just incredibly fortunate. I think I, just in terms of the timing, right, this was the late 90s, the early 2000s, the dot-com bust just actually happened as I was graduating from university. So there was a bit of like, oh, did I like, you know, make a mistake? Was it just like a flash in the pan? But as we all know, that was just like, you know, that the bust was actually the flash in the pan and we've been like, the last two decades has just been this huge advance in technology and I think I've also just been lucky in through a fortunate set of kind of, you know, lucky choices and then timing, I've gotten to like, you know, see multiple things really that were very much on the kind of, you know, like the forerunners of the time. So kind of, you know, like building blocks in many ways. So VMware was kind of like in many ways, the underpinnings of what led to cloud computing, which is to me has been the defining part of the decade and a half, because what virtualization did is what, you know, essentially cloud computing and the ability to just provide compute for everyone around the world, that it was built on top of that. And then that's what the next generation of companies was built on essentially, like companies like Stripe, companies like Renders. It's kind of been like a kind of joke, actually, that it's been rising up the stack, like when I started at the kind of the hypervisor and the hypervisor management level, higher up, and now we're like, you know, Renders, this additional layer of abstraction that we're providing on top of all the underlying layers. Abstraction is kind of like a theme that I believe in. Amazing. We're going to dig into more of that. That's great. That's such a great, I think that your characterization of you didn't know it, but it ended up being kind of at the forefront of a lot of these trends. And I like, to me, I feel like we're in another like shift right now, just like acceleration. And sometimes when you're in it, it's hard, but it's like, there's so many companies getting created and so many big companies growing quickly. It's just, it feels like this another wave, we're at another forefront of innovation. And we'll look back five or 10 years from now and be like, oh, that's so obvious in retrospect. But I feel like which gives just an opportunity for people who want to join tech now or try maybe joining a new company. It's like, now's the time. There's so many interesting things going on. So you mentioned how you've had so many different chapters of your career. And so what I love, Uma, as we got to know each other is you were at VMware early, but you were there kind of, when you say early 4,000 to 10,000 people, which is to some people like late, but still early in the VMware journey. So you were there, you got to see VMware grow from 4,000 to 10,000 people. And my sense is you got the growth bug. So then you joined Stripe at about 800 people and you helped grow that to 2,500, 3,000 people. And that's continued to be an amazing company. And then you joined Render when they had 20, 25 people. So you have been at so many growth companies, but at different stages and they're like, that's rare. So I'd love for you to like, that is an amazing collection of experiences from your career. So I'd love, can you share some observations with the audience about maybe what were some similarities by these different, I mean, all the companies did different things, but the stages, what was similar and what was really different depending the 20 person versus the 10,000? I think the similarities are, and first, I also love this question. I think the similarities are whatever the stage is really the people that matter. So when you're surrounded and that's kind of been one of the patterns in retrospect, I think it was when I was making my choice of joining Stripe was when I realized that I've always really enjoyed my work and been successful when I picked a place where it was the right people, because like, you know, full disclosure, I was actually joining Stripe. I didn't know much about FinTech. Luckily, I know a lot more, but coming in, I actually didn't know anything. And the reason I really took the role was because of the people. It was just, everyone was just so smart, but humble and kind. And that was, you could tell that that was not an accident and it had been very intentional. And then when I looked back, that was also very similar of other places where I felt drawn to, and where I was happy and successful was VMware had this really great culture. Like when you think to the 2000s, tech didn't have like such a great name, but VMware really stands out. And I believe still stands out. You actually like, we'll still hear on Twitter of like people talking about the good culture where very strong, very smart people, but also humble and really collaborative. So I think, I really believe that when the workplace creates that culture, then great things happen. And so when you create this really amazing culture where everyone can succeed, then really good things can happen. I don't think it was an accident, for instance, that the founder and CEO for a really long time of VMware was Diane Greene. And she's obviously really well -known in tech and in infrastructure in particular. So I think just really good leaders build really good cultures. And then if you follow that, you tend to kind of find good impactful opportunities. I love that. That's a good, I often say the best part of my job are the people I get to work with. And it's, I haven't said that about every job I've had, but at Cloudflare I really believe that. And it sounds like you have a similar experience where the people really matter. I mean, obviously there's so many differences between those sizes of companies, but anything as you kind of reflect back that you want to highlight for the audience? I think where things maybe are like different is I've seen like velocity really matters where, and it's really hard to do velocity at scale. And that's where I think Stripe really stood out to me as a company where it's kind of, it's one company and one org that I think has really learned how to do velocity at scale, where I think, and there's a bit of like a generational shift in like just the way companies think about velocity. And from the outside, it appears that Cloudflare also seems to have kind of figured that out. But I think that's like a key differentiator. And I think a bit of like, you know, my desire would be that more companies that I am at have that. I think the second one is where it was less apparent previously was just like this customer focus, every company needing to, I think that's become more taken for granted that companies need to listen to their users a lot more. And I think that's the difference between companies that do really well. And then there's obvious differences like enterprise software is very different from SaaS, enterprise software for like, you know, it's just a different audience from payments, just very different spaces. Definitely. Right. Well, I always say life is a collection of experiences and you've collected a lot of them. So thanks for sharing some of those perspectives around the people and the velocity. I think that the customer focus, those are all good lessons for all of us to keep in mind, no matter where you work. I feel like those are all good reminders. So switching gears a little bit. So now you're later in your career, you're a technical leader, you run, you're the VP of engineering, you run a large, at Stripe, you're at a large engineering team, at Render, you will run a large engineering team as the company does a little really well. We're going to talk more about what Render does. But I'm curious, what's your people philosophy in the sense of how do you manage? How do you think about people management? And has that changed kind of over the course of your career? For you to kind of share some of your insights around that. I think it has changed in a sense that I think I am a lot more sure of the way I operate as a leader versus earlier. And I think this is a natural collection of things where when you're early on, you're kind of a little more consensus driven and you want everyone to like you and you want to build consensus. And then I think there was a point in time where you're like, actually, that isn't your job. And it isn't even your job to actually be always by your team or even your peers. And I think that was kind of a hard lesson to learn. But the things that have stayed the same is I really believe in a very high trust and high integrity leadership style. And I think that has always kind of been my... And that was where my instinct has deepened, where it was more instinctual to operate that way. And now, I realized that that's actually the better way to operate, where just being consistent, just being consistent in the way I show up, the things I see. And I think that that naturally just avoids a lot of pitfalls of leadership if you just show up with a lot of consistency and integrity. And then I think there's things that go with it, such as transparency, where I always do my best to be as open and transparent as I can with my team, with my peers. So those are things that have deepened. And I think the thing that I've maybe discarded a little more is avoiding the consensus, avoiding trying to make everyone happy part of it. So those, I think, are the twin things that I've got. And I think my natural style still leans towards consensus. Buildings have to work hard to not let it overtake. I feel like that's a... You're making me revisit some of my recent meetings. It's a good reminder. So thank you. Yes, that's great. Okay. Well, tell us more about Render. So you joined... So let's just... I mean, as someone who lives and breathes technology, and I also live in the Silicon Valley. I know you do too. I mean, to leave Stripe, which is... I mean, VMware to go to Stripe, and Stripe is an amazing success story, incredible. And then to leave Stripe to go to Render, which I think it could also be an incredible success story, but it's early days. I mean, less than 30 people... Or you joined when there were fewer than 30 people, which is very early. I mean, maybe tell us a little bit about the company. So tell the audience what the company does, and how did you decide to join them? And then we're going to talk about... Because there's a lot of people listening who are probably like, how do I get the next Uma to join my company? Because that is not... That is... Kudos to the founders. So I want to hear a little bit more, and you, I want to hear a little bit more about this experience. Yes. So it was definitely not the best. I was not looking. I was 100% in the not taking calls. The reason I actually responded when I heard of this opportunity was really, one, it was just like... So one team is the infrastructure and compute team, really. Right from VMware, I've always worked in that. Even at Stripe, the team I worked on was literally the compute team. So internal infrastructure for all of Stripe's engineers. And then, because the Render CEO, Anurag, is actually also next Stripe, and really well regarded within the network, I'd already been following his startup. The reason I'd been following it was just for the sheer ambition. It is very ambitious to be able to be like, this is... I'm actually going to build a new cloud provider. So what we do is essentially hosting for developers. So the idea is, if you are a developer and you want all the complexity of the underlying cloud providers abstracted away from you, and you just want to write your code and deploy it. So narrowing that gap as much as possible, where you don't have to worry about all the underlying complexity, that's Render. So the easiest way for developers to develop their applications in the cloud. That's our one line summary. So the two things were, one, I instinctively... This was the space that I was familiar with. And then the second theme was what I referenced earlier was abstractions. So what I've seen is the most powerful companies are built in the space where you're providing something of real value that's essentially abstracting away complexity. So virtualization is like the original abstracting away complexity. It's like allowing you to run multiple operating systems inside one particular server. And then Stripe is abstracting away payments. So Render is like the next layer. And I could just see that also as my own team had shown me that there was this real need. So another theme I have is that if there's an entire team being spun up at a large SaaS company that's only doing this, then likely there is a market there. So I could just see the opportunity. I could see the ambition. And then the other thing was, again, it came down to the people. It was like Anurag really cares about building a good team full of really caring, kind people, but also that want to do good work. And clearly, the ambition is huge. So that combination was, OK, this just checked all the boxes. And then it came down to it checks all the boxes, but it's a little too early. I would have preferred this two years from now. And then it was like, OK, if that's it, then I went back to if timing is the only thing that's wrong, I might as well take a risk. I'm actually not that much of a risk taker by nature. So it felt it felt a little bit odd to be taking such a big risk. But I decided that it was it was worth it and that I would essentially came down to what I regret doing, not doing this more than doing it. And so far, I'm extremely happy. Oh, that's great. I love that story. It is interesting what you said about often we end up regretting the things we don't do. It's interesting how that can sometimes be kind of like way on your shoulders over time. So it's interesting that you saw that. Well, that's great. And so it sounds like things are going great and you're having a great time. Are you growing your team, Uma, at all? If there's someone who's listening, they're like, oh, wow, this sounds super cool. I'm interested in I want to work with Uma, I want to join Render. I want to I want to I want to you're inspiring people to rethink. Well, how can they learn more about the role of hiring? We're like always hiring. There's like a website or I've linked to like the job posts on Twitter. I also realized I didn't answer the second part of your question, which is I think maybe it was kind of hidden, which is like, you know, the people and what are you actually trying to build? And that's the important thing. And that's how you get the right people in. Like you really have to convince them that there has to be some intrinsic motivation there, especially at a startup. Right. Right. You're saying for. OK, so there's both. If you're interested in Render and working for Uma, they would love to talk to you. So that's that. And then and then if you are happy where you are and you're the founder, you're a hiring manager. I mean, I know there's a lot of hiring managers listening, saying I'm trying to hire the next person for my team and I need to hire my next Uma. You know that we all that everyone has a metaphorically you're saying finding the intrinsic what really they care about and trying to align being purposeful around the people and the vision and the ambition. That's what really worked for you. And I think that there's having been in I was render I was on a wrong, you know, many years ago now, 10 years ago. But that's we kind of use a very similar it's like ambitious find people who really believe in this vision. And I think there's some really great people who are like, I want to be part of that. If this can happen, that'd be amazing. So I love the story. It's such a it's it's like made for Disney special story. I think I'm not a Disney fan. OK, sorry. Can we say Pixar? OK, Pixar. I know they're the same now. There's a made for movie Pixar. They're the right in there. There's some there's some good fairytale ending. All right. So, you know, you mentioned the word infrastructure and technology. And what's interesting is, I mean, and you've kind of mentioned this a couple of times during this conversation that you're in the infrastructure industry or you have like you're a woman in the infrastructure industry within technology. And I would say that that's not that common. And so maybe you can share some of your your reflections with the audience as to why you love this industry. And, you know, I also work in the infrastructure industry and I want more women to join. We have great women to cover. We need more. We need more people to get into this field. And so maybe you can help inspire the next generation of women to to to think about taking a chance on infrastructure. But why don't you start by saying, well, why do you love it so much? I think it's one was I really like kind of, you know, thinking like in terms of like systems, like more broadly in like the kind of the systems thinking framework and then also like, you know, operating systems, file systems that that. So there was just this kind of natural confluence where you get to think about like, you know, broad systems that have pretty broad impact, you know, like distributed systems in its in its core that that's kind of what it is like. I like to be able to think of problem solving and puzzles in like, you know, a broader sense. Like, how does this affect this? Like, how do you actually like, you know, build, you know, different protocols, things like that. So that was what drew me to the space. And then there was another one. There was just this kind of angle of there was this kind of subtext when I was both an undergrad and grad school where women choose, you know, the kind of the more fun front and UI thing. And I always had this kind of a bit of a stubborn streak where I would not do what I was told to do or where I was being pushed. Hence the Disney comment, right? Like I was very much the not about pink and not about princesses and not not being told what to do that. Oh, you're a girl, so you should do this. And so that kind of was like, OK, I'm being told I'm being pushed in this direction to choose the opposite thing that I'm being told not to do or that, you know, operating systems are like hard or like kernels are hard. And so that kind of drew me more to the systems domain. And I think I do think it's unfortunate that, you know, women get led away from the harder underlying problems just because they're really fun problems. And I think that are there isn't like an inherent thing that we're better at or worse at. These are just like really hard problems and just they exist at all layers of the stack. And it can really lead to a really fun and fulfilling career. So I really wish more women were in my operating systems course. It is actually like a fun story. It was always just like me and this one other person. We became really good friends and we partner on the project. But literally all our courses had like just the two of us. So I wish that was not the case. And I think that we can do it really. They're just you know, it's like fun and it's challenging problems and there is no reason why you can't have a really great career doing this. I really wish more people would opt in instead of opting out earlier. I love it. That's great. That's a good that's a good call. I have a bit of goosebumps. Do you know what your operating systems partner do you know what she's doing now? I believe so. She worked at she worked at a much larger tech company for a long time, but then she actually chose to take a bit of a break and raise a family. So yes, she's doing other important things. Lots of lots of lots of important things in life. Awesome. Good. Well, I you know, you're what you said about solving hard problems. I find that at Cloudflare too, where it's, you know, you work at such scale because fundamentally, it's the underlying foundation for so many different sorts of things. And so you you get to work on really hard problems with a smart group of people. And it is you feel like you have a lot of impact in the world. And there's something really rewarding. I find something really rewarding about that. And it's like, wow, this is I couldn't do it myself. It takes a team. But wow, I love being on this team, that I get to be part of it. There's a little bit of both sides. So I couldn't agree more. So good. Thanks for sharing that. So you know, you talked about all these different trends. And again, let's talk about how things are moving at such fast pace. How do you stay current on what's going on? Like, how do you stay current on technology, new technology, new programming languages? I mean, there's just so much. And I feel like the expectation for you to know what's going on is quite high. And then there's all and then there's just like the general trend, like, what do you read? How do you keep your technical skills sharp? Just maybe you can share a little bit with the audience, because I'm sure there's a lot of engineers listening, thinking, Uma, what do you do? Help me, help me. I read, I think I read a lot. Though I think I've become less good at like deep reading, which is which is a problem I'm actually working on fixing. I read a lot. And it's usually just like, you know, there's kind of like, I just try to read a very broad level of things, both tech and not tech as well. For instance, I try to read or listen to podcasts that are actually well outside of tech, but are more like leadership or team building, stuff like that. In the kind of the tech sphere, I just try to keep it as broad as possible. Like newsletters have been great for this. I like the occasional paper. So here, there I rely on kind of, you know, looking at conferences, or there's a lot of really great people on Twitter who do like summaries of conferences, conference papers and abstracts. And then so I'll kind of, you know, just keep an eye on what's going on in terms of trends there. I read company blogs, Cloudflare has a great engineering blog that I read and share. And then so it's kind of like really a mix versus one thing. And I think, and then what I would like to do is more of a deep dive and actually find something interesting. So right now, it's more at, you know, getting the breadth. And then occasionally, when I find something interesting, I do a deep dive, but that's rarer. And I would like to do more of that. But right now, it's kind of very breadth focused, really a mix that the papers when I find something that someone else has hopefully summarized, you know, follow, I've tried to follow a lot of really interesting people on but then also like, you know, just just keep an eye on like conference talks, stuff like that. Amazing. So there's so many similarities to what I also do my same thing, like a lot of breadth, lots of different topics. And it turns out, kind of you start to connect dots, you're like, Oh, that's really interesting, can apply to this situation. So I love that maybe if somebody's listening, and they have a great deep paper, they can they can tweet at you and share it to find you on Twitter and share it with you. And it sounds like you're in the you're open to finding more that the deep content, which is great to complement the breadth. You know, the, you know, because you've worked at so many companies and done and different industries and stages, because you think back, what are one or two moments or projects that you're so most proud of that you can maybe share with the audience? Love to hear this. Yeah, this is this is a good one. I was trying to think of something earlier. And then I realized that there's one one that actually don't think of that often, but it was it's a it was a really fun project to do. So I was part of this really good team at VMware, where we kind of our manager very consciously, actually, like, you know, informally, she set up this, not not an official 20%, or even 10%, but just like, you know, every week, we'd kind of like discuss interesting ideas. And then, if the idea spanned out, she would actually cut out time from from the busy schedule to kind of, you know, let us work on it. And one of those discussions came about with it was an end. So one of the discussions kind of led to this idea of stitching together the kind of the physical data center hardware, and then allowing a kind of virtual view into it. And then we kind of led to a couple of patterns. But the prototype was basically you walk up to a server rack in a data center, point your phone at it. And it immediately connects you to like the dashboard, that's actually like all the VMs in or whatever's inside. And that's the basis of the pattern. And then when I think back about it was like really fun, and also still a pretty interesting idea, because it was like, the original idea actually started with Google Glass, like having Google Glass do this, but it was still early Google Glass and have an API. But the whole idea of, you know, connecting kind of like this overlay of this virtual world, on top of a physical world, you know, what's now being kind of talked about as the metaverse was a really fun thing to do. And like, it kind of like, was also a very practical application of that. So I'm pretty, I'm pretty proud of actually being a part of the group of folks that and then we actually like built a prototype, we got the patterns for it, I don't think it was ever productized, but it was really fun, kind of a very like a moonshot sort of idea to do. And I also love that we were given the space to actually work on it, like as part of a job. And that was very powerful. I love that. I love that. That's great. That's a great, that's a great example. All right, we have about a minute, 90 seconds left. And so the one question I like to ask every, every guest that comes on the show, this is the only one that I reuse every time is, you know, you're as a woman in technology, where has the industry lived up to your expectations? And where has it fallen short? I think it has in terms of a career. And for me personally, what I have gotten is far beyond my expectations. I just would not have thought that this is where I would be, you know, 20 years ago when I was just graduating. So I feel very fortunate in that. I think where it has fallen short is maybe there's this kind of optimism that tech, how somehow by being new would not inherit all the kind of the problems of society as a whole. And as we're seeing over the last few years, tech is very much still a part of society and its impact is on society. And so I think my concern really is how do we kind of, you know, make sure that everyone gets to participate in tech and in this kind of, you know, this wave of tech and it doesn't remain like this kind of small niche thing that, that, you know, only a few few lucky people that have made it to the Bay Area or Silicon Valley get to participate in. And then downstream, like how do you kind of like, you know, think of the impact of it downstream? Amazing. This was such a great conversation, Uma. Thank you so much. I'm glad that you ended up in technology and not at med school. Everyone, thank you so much for joining in for this week's episode of Yes, We Can. Thank you.