A Conversation with Sophia Vicent, Uber’s Director of Technical Program Management


When Sophia Vicent joined Uber Engineering as its first technical program manager in February 2014, she was nervous. It had been 10 years since she removed herself from the workforce to raise her daughter. What if her technical skills were too rusty? Could she keep up with the pace of a fast-growing global startup? Or worse yet, would her teammates stop taking her seriously when they saw the gap in her LinkedIn profile?

Four years later, Sophia knows that these questions were hyperbolic, but not unreasonable. She also knows joining Uber was the right decision for her family. In her role, Sophia is able to provide her daughter with a different kind of mentoring than she did as a mom at home—an example of how you balance work and family.

We sat down with Sophia to discuss her early experiences in IT consulting and previous start-ups, Uber’s vision for program management, and how she leveraged her unique career trajectory to overcome imposter syndrome after a decade away from engineering:

You studied business in college. When did you realize that you wanted to work in technology?

It was a little bit of a happy accident. When I graduated from college, there was a recession going on and everybody around me was struggling to get a job. My family didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up, so I needed to get a job as soon as possible.  It was happenstance that I ended up in IT consulting at Accenture. I interviewed on a whim, and they offered me the job. Although it was not what I thought I would do, I was intrigued.

Even though I didn’t have a tech background, they trained me on the job. I went through a mini-coding bootcamp, learning how to write software, and then I learned design and eventually started managing teams who were building custom software for our clients. With this evolving skillset, I transitioned into different consulting roles, primarily working in utilities. I was so interested in engineering that I started tinkering on the side and studying database design. Back then, relational databases were big and so I focused on database design and how it reflects the business. By the time I left consulting seven years later, I was managing projects that were worth $5 million to $10 million and oversaw 80 to 100 people per project.

What did you enjoy most about technology consulting?

The work I did was really complex. For utilities clients, we would build these really big custom systems that could do everything from taking a meter reading and turning it into billing, to dealing with the customer service side of the business. A lot of what I liked about that role included working with the people who had spent years in the business to reimagine how the software we were designing could make their jobs easier and more intuitive, as well as the complexity and scale of these systems, which were bringing power to millions and millions of customers.

When you were getting started in you technical career, did you face any kind of resistance?

Tons. It’s so hard for me to know how to respond to these types of questions because, in some ways, it just feels like this resistance has always been there, like something you just knew existed and would work your way through. I was also never the sort of person to take anything lying down.

When I joined the workforce, we still wore suits and I remember that it was a big deal as a woman to wear a pantsuit as opposed to a skirt or dress. In fact, I once had a male boss tell me that I wasn’t dressed appropriately because I was in a pantsuit instead of a skirt, which is ridiculous. Another example is when, after being in IT consulting for maybe three years, I rode my motorcycle to work for the first time. When I got in, I put my motorcycle helmet on my desk, and the partner running the project walked by my cube and said, “I don’t think it’s appropriate for you to ride a motorcycle to work. I don’t know if it gives off the right perception for the client.” I was like, “Really? Because the guy across the hall rides a motorcycle every day. Did you talk to him about it?”

While I faced a lot of that kind of thinking, I usually found that it was possible to help those men think differently if I could stay logical. In this case, for instance, he said something to me that he never would have said to a guy, and by showing him that he was able to see that his thinking didn’t make much sense. Despite situations like this, I always felt like when I worked with people closely, I would gain their respect by showing them what I could do and then my gender was never a factor. That same partner eventually promoted me to manager and later asked me to run two big projects for him as my career there progressed.

Did you have any mentors or role models when you were first starting out in tech that helped you navigate this landscape?

I was lucky. When I was first getting my start at Accenture, there was a woman on my team, a senior manager, who was such a role model to me. She had so much responsibility in her life: she was raising a family while running a huge part of our project under a super tight deadline, and our client really trusted her. She was managing to juggle it all. As I watched her navigate this balance, she sort of helped me navigate mine, too. I had a combination of men who were supportive and backed me up and women role models that inspired me, but for many women in tech, this isn’t their reality. I feel lucky at Uber to have women I look up to and learn from. We take care of each other.

How did you transition from consulting to program management?

I loved the work I was doing as a consultant but there were a couple frustrations. One was that you were always at the whim of your clients. Sometimes, they would buy the project you were designing for them, you’d build it, and then they would change their mind and decide they didn’t want it, so you had to drop whatever you were working on and start something else. Back then, building software wasn’t an iterative development process like it is today, so you could spend a year or more building something before you saw it go live. On top of that, because I worked in utilities, if I wasn’t working at PG&E in San Francisco, I was traveling for eight to 12 months at a time running these big jobs. Over time, that made it hard to have a personal life.

In the late ‘90s, I looked around and thought, “There’s this whole internet boom happening in San Francisco. Why am I traveling for work? I should go look for a job at one of these internet companies,” and so that’s when I started talking to people to figure out how to translate my consulting skills to working in-house at a tech company.

What was your first official technical program management job?

My first tech job was actually working with Thuan [Uber’s CTO] as a program manager at an internet advertising company, NetGravity. Like other companies at this time, they were trying to retrofit their product to manage ad serving for a big search engine, and they needed someone to work with the customer to deliver a product for search keyword ad management but didn’t break the experience for their existing customers. I really enjoyed having the breadth, scope, and impact that you get in a TPM role. It’s really a job that requires breadth both technically and from a business perspective. From there, I worked in both program and  product management at a few other companies before taking a “career intermission” after the birth of my daughter.

Four years ago, you re-entered the workforce after your “career intermission” to launch and lead Uber’s Technical Program Management team. What was that transition like?

It was super difficult. As I mentioned, I had worked with Thuan many years before when we were both younger and less senior in our jobs. He reached out to me about coming to work at Uber right as I was starting to think about going back to work, so it was perfect timing. In my experience, it’s uncommon for male execs to actively recruit individuals who have been out of the workforce for an extended period of time. I have lots of male friends who are trying to hire for their companies and I always encourage them to consider the women they’ve worked with in the past, not to discount them just because they took time off to raise families.

Even though I was excited at the prospect of working with Thuan again and loved the product Uber was providing, I was nervous. I had been out of the industry for so long that I was worried I was too behind. When we were first talking about the job, I voiced some of my concerns. (I don’t recommend this as a negotiating strategy when you’re looking for a job!) But he said “You’re one of the smartest people I know. You’re a great problem solver, and the problems are essentially the same. Just study up a bit and come in prepared for the interviews—I have total faith in you.”

After I interviewed and got the job, my imposter syndrome emerged. I don’t think imposter syndrome is just a female experience, but my guess is we probably have it more intensely and frequently. When I joined, I was worried that people were looking at my LinkedIn profile and could see that I hadn’t worked in 10 years. I was worried they wouldn’t give me a chance or that I actually wouldn’t be able to do the job. I wondered if the engineers would see that my technical skills were dated and not respect me. I’m not going to lie, it was challenging.

Four years later you are still here, so that is clearly not the case! What was your work like during your first few years at Uber?

Super fast-paced. I was the first person on our program management team, so I was trying to figure out where we fit in at the company. I wanted to answer the questions: how do I make myself valuable? How do I deliver something real and get engineers to accept me and want to work with me, and therefore, want to work with the team I was going to build? In the first three to six months, I probably cried at least once a week. I didn’t tell anyone that at the time. It was so far from my experience of the job, but I think it was just really intimidating to be in charge of an entire department after being out of the workforce for 10 years, let alone at a startup that was growing really fast and facing many scaling challenges. There were times when we were not sure that our systems would hold up under the load of the upcoming weekend, so the problems we were solving were pretty immediate, and it was stressful.

How would you define a technical program manager’s role at Uber, in a nutshell?

When there are multiple teams that have to be pulled together to deliver something, that’s kind of the bread and butter for the technical program manager. In essence, a program is a set of projects that come together cross-functionally with involvement from many teams, which might include  product, design, operations, security, legal, and of course, engineering.

When a project requires 5, 10, 20, and even 40 teams to come together, that’s really when program management kicks in. It’s the program manager’s job to understand the risks and dependencies of the project so it comes together seamlessly, as well as to communicate with the project’s stakeholders. Then there is the technical side of things—does the solution all hang together to deliver what we need, when we need it, for our customers? Are we thinking about the right problems, and do all of the pieces each team is delivering really come together cohesively? Is it going to scale and be reliable under load? We have to really dive in on both the engineering and the execution side.

What were some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as you were growing technical program management at Uber?

The first challenge was setting the tone for what a technical program manager (TPM) could do at Uber. I wanted a team that was well-embedded in engineering and highly technical, and therefore, respected in engineering and not thought of as just project managers, note-takers, or meeting setter-uppers. The thing about program management is it means something different at every company. So the lucky part for me is that I got to define program management at Uber as what I believe technical program management should be. If you come in from another company and I introduce you to an engineer or to a tech writer or a project manager, you have an idea of what that person does that’s pretty accurate without ever seeing them work. If I introduce you to a TPM, that means something different at almost every company in the Valley and beyond. So we have to show you what it means at Uber.

On my fifth day at the company, we had a global outage that took down our service. My first project was standing up our software stack in our back-up data center, which existed but had never been used. I was digging in with the infrastructure team to figure out how to do that. We hadn’t really stood up any of the infrastructure. We didn’t know how to fail it over when the data center went down. We had to build out a plan, test it, and make sure it worked.

After we had a few projects under our belt, the TPMs gained credibility within engineering. Then, it was question of how to prioritize projects and scale as we built our team. Because Uber’s stack is so extensive, we had to make sure that we had TPMs who were matched well to their roles. For instance, a TPM who works more at the top of the stack on the product side requires a different skill set than the TPMs who work in infrastructure or in data or in security.

Four years later, what does your day-to-day look like?

One of the great things about the job is there’s not really a day-to-day. It depends on what I’m doing. So typically, I spend maybe 70  to 75 percent of my time on managing and developing my team, and sort of the crossover of that to the rest of engineering. Since I’m fortunate enough to sit on Thuan’s direct staff, I have an opportunity to be part of that group and be really thinking about how to solve the biggest problems in front of engineering whether they are technical, functional, operational or cultural.

In addition to management and leadership, I often have a project that I’m directly involved with. Right now that’s GDPR, a new set of privacy regulations from the EU, and a company-wide effort at Uber. A bunch of people on my team are doing a lot of the heavy lifting, but I’m working on it at the “bringing it together” level to make sure that we’re moving that program forward as thoughtfully as possible, given its time constraints.  

What would surprise people about working as a TPM at Uber?

So for me, the biggest risk of any type of job is getting bored, and the most amazing thing about Uber is it that it’s absolutely impossible to get bored. If you join my team and get bored, good luck. I don’t even know how that could happen. There are just so many interesting problems to solve in relation to how fast we’re scaling, even basic things. For instance, you never build systems for more than 5X to 10X growth because there’s an over-engineered waste to that. Yet, when you’re 5X to 10X-ing every year and a half or two years it means you’re rewriting many major systems every two years. It sounds crazy, but when you think about it, that’s the business we have built. Plus it’s global, which has its own set of challenges and opportunities.

The other thing I’m going to say is the realness of it—the whole physical meets digital thing. I know it can sound like a marketing gimmick, but to me, that’s so meaningfully part of what we do. The fact that I get to talk to real people who have been impacted by what we’re doing because we move people and we provide a job for people really makes this job meaningful. As an urban person, I’ve experienced first hand the freedom that Uber gives people, compared to when your only choice was a taxi with terrible reliability.

So when you were getting started in your career or even now, how do you seek out mentors? On the flipside of that is how do you incorporate mentorship into your own day-to-day?

So for me, I usually have one mentor at a time. I also pay attention to my peers and try to learn from them, whether directly by asking them questions about how they would solve a problem or by watching and learning. I think people sometimes underestimate the way your peers can help you in a way that’s less formal. For formal mentorship, I usually reach out to someone whom I see as substantially different from me in ways that I feel like I need to develop.

Do you think mentorship is most valuable for people at the beginning of the career? Do you think it has a place throughout?

I think it has a place throughout your career. In some ways, however, it’s more risky to find a long-term mentor at the beginning of your career. At least for me, I didn’t really know what I was looking for so it was hard to know who to look for it from, if that makes sense. I think that’s the tricky part about youth. If there are good parts about aging, one of them is that you know yourself a lot better and you have more of a vision of what you want from yourself in the future and where your weak spots are today. It’s no longer so nebulousyou’re able to be more thoughtful about who you ask for mentorship from because you know what you’re trying to become.

And finally: outside of your work, what drives you?

My 14-year-old daughter and my dog, an 11-pound terrier-Chihuahua mix.

Before I took the job at Uber, my daughter and I used Uber a lot. So when I told her I had been hired there, her first question was: “You’re going to be driving people around?” I realized that she’d never seen me “work”. As far as she knew, I was her driver. This lack of awareness about my past life in tech was part of the reason I wanted to go back to work. I wanted her to see a different side of me, as a role model. I wanted her to see me making the choices a working mom makes every day about what to be part of in her life while still growing myself professionally. Up to that point she had always come first, but with my work sometimes she doesn’t.

When she was nine, we adopted a dog. Everyone who has a nine-year-old should adopt a dog because that’s about the time that your kids start to realize you’re not actually so perfect. My dog always thinks I’m perfect.

 

Uber’s TPMs play a critical role in executing high-impact, company-wide initiatives and continuously improving process to increase the effectiveness of our product and engineering organizations. If helping engineering and product teams build scalable and reliable systems appeals to you, consider applying for a role on our Technical Program Management team!

 

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Molly Vorwerck, editor for Uber’s Tech Brand team, manages the day-to-day operations of the Uber Eng Blog. In her spare time, she enjoys scouring record stores for pre-G.I. Elvis Presley albums and living vicariously through her pet-owning friends’ Instagram accounts.



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