Silicon Valley to Hollywood - My journey as a Technology Leader! by Sjua Viswesan

Automatic Summary

Suja Visan: A Journey from Silicon Valley to Hollywood as a Leading Data Professional

About Suja Visan

You are about to embark on an inspirational journey surrounding the life of a remarkable leader, Suja Visan, who passionately delves into the technology industry. With an impressive 20 years of work experience, Visan has been continuously recognized for her remarkable roles at IBM, LinkedIn, and recently as the head of data at Warner Brothers Discovery. Beyond just being a succinct technology leader, Visan also is a public speaker who is passionate about education and empowering women in tech. She has shared her insights with various prestigious institutions like Stanford, Berkeley, UC Davis, and San Jose State.

Suja Visan and Education

Out of work, Visan devoutly works with Pratham, an educational and charity organization focused on creating innovative interventions to bridge the educational gap. She serves as the board member and president of the San Francisco Bay area chapter and has been actively redefining the education sector.

Suja Visan at Warner Brothers Discovery: A Bold Leap to the Media World

Visan joined Warner Brothers Discovery as Head of Data during a transitional phase in the company's life as it was merging with Discovery. Immersing herself in an industry she had little prior knowledge about, Visan turned this into an opportunity for growth. She dealt with managing a much larger team and a significant change in strategy, proving her capability in maneuvering through uncertainty and discomfort. But following her strong belief in lifelong learning, she made, after some time, the brave decision to leave Warner Brothers Discovery to embark on her next journey.

The Importance of Sponsors and Mentors in Suja Visan's Journey

Contributing to her extraordinary journey, mentors and sponsors played a crucial role in Visan's career navigation. These relationships cultivated over time served as a reliable source of guidance and inspiration during crossroads, providing diverse opinions that greatly influenced her decisions. Visan puts great emphasis on forming a group of mentors, or "a board of directors," including family, friends, work colleagues, and subject matter experts, to guarantee a comprehensive outlook.

Suja Visan, a Lifelong Learner

Throughout her career, Visan has repeatedly adjusted her course, thrived in uncomfortable settings, and challenged herself with new learning opportunities. She has continuously achieved her goals, often getting outside her comfort zone, and as a result, making significant strides in her career and personal growth.

Key Takeaways to Learn from Suja Visan’s Journey

  • Always Ask for Help: Do not hesitate to seek assistance. People are usually eager to help, and there is no shame in asking.
  • Embrace Challenges as Learning Opportunities: Look at each difficult situation as an avenue to learn something new
  • Build a Network: Create a support system in the form of mentors and sponsors who can provide the guidance you need.
  • Remember, it's OK to feel uncomfortable: Discomfort often signals an opportunity for personal and professional growth.
  • Don't be afraid to make challenging decisions: Always be ready to take a leap of faith when circumstances require.

In conclusion, Suja Visan's journey from Silicon Valley to Hollywood is a testament to her resilience, commitment, and passion for continuous learning. Her story is a call to women all around the globe to be bold, embrace challenges, and find ways to thrive even in the most discomforting situations.

Video Transcription

Up next, we have Suja Visan. She has held various leadership roles at IBM linkedin and most recently at Warner Brothers Discovery as head of data. She has over 20 years of data focused experience.She is a public speaker who has spoken at various universities like Stanford Berkeley, UC Davis, San Jose State. And outside of work is very passionate about education and women in tech. And this is such a great common theme here today. Of course, with the women that we're bringing to the stage. Um her session right away is called Silicon Valley to Hollywood, her journey as a technology leader and it's really gonna help shed light on how to be bold, how to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and finding ways to get both sponsors and mentors which I know is a hot topic.

So on top of this, she's a board member and president at the San Francisco Bay area chapter of Pratham, which is an educational and charity organization that focuses on innovative intervention to address gaps in the education system so much to look forward to right away from Suya.

Please welcome to the

stage. Thank you. Thank you, Margo. Um I also want to thank Anna. Anna had been reaching out to me since 2020 speak to speak here. And guess what time is a charm? And then here I am. Um so due to scheduling conflicts, we could never make it last few years and this year is amazing. So that's why I'm here. Well,

we're happy to have you here and I will hand it over to

you. Thank you. Thank you. I mean, what a, what a wonderful and accomplished speakers today and he talked about career play area as opposed to a career ladder. Lena, how do I get here to? How do I get someone else here? And also um Dina Lee on the board of directors, which is really cool, Mary on sponsorship come whom I have worked with and it was wonderful listening to her. So this, I'm so honored to be here among all these accomplished uh women here. Um So just to give a brief intro uh of myself. Uh I'm a, I'm a not just a technology leader, I'm a daughter, sister, friend, wife and godparent. I love hiking. Um And uh I mean, I mean, I have been here in the industry for 2020 plus years going through the cycles of comfort and discomfort and learning. Uh Currently I'm on a career break. So I just left Warner Brothers, uh Warner Brothers career about a few months ago and I plan to start my next play soon. In the New Year. Um So one of the thing I want to start with is my story is not that different from uh many of the women who, who spoke earlier. Uh But the one difference is uh I, when I grew up, I had no clue what I wanted to be.

When I grew up, I started out as one confused child and I do believe I still am. When I was in a second or third grade, I was quite positive that I wanted to be um a teacher when I was in fifth or sixth. That changed. I wanted to join the army and fight for the country. I guess it was based on what I saw on TV, or live, that determined what I wanted to be. When I was in middle school, I decided that I would want to be an air hostess and travel around the world in an airplane. I've never seen play airplane until I was uh a teenager. And uh I have traveled in an airplane one when I was 23. So uh this happened and when I was in high school, one of my cousins, one of my 27 cousins uh joined one of the prestigious colleges in India. Iit. And for some reason I believed she was going, doing engineering and that fascinated me and just like Carmenia, I didn't want to do any dissection. So that also still the deal for me to go joining uh engineering. Uh That's where I met my best friends, even though I went into engineering in, in two ways. One is, hey, I didn't want to be a doctor. And the second part was I saw, I thought my cousin was doing engineering.

And the third was my mom said, hey, do you're good in math. Why don't you go do some accounts and you can become a CPA. And it's a great career for women. Engineering might be difficult for women. And I was like, OK, that sees the deal. I will do engineering. Um So later in my life, I found out that my cousin never did engineering. She did statistics. Well, at least now I know uh right after my college, I got a job at Siemens as a software engineer. I did electronics and communication and I got a job as a software engineer and I was super thrilled that I was going to be making much more than what my dad was making after 20 years in the banking industry. So I was super thrilled but being an electronics and communication, college graduate and also dating myself, we didn't have computers. When I grew up at home in college, we had a computer but we had to treat that with, as God with, with, with respect, with reverence. We go there, do your homework assignment and then just walk back without damaging it or even doing anything with the buttons. That's all I knew. And here I got a job as a software engineer at Siemens. I went there really worried. It was not an imposter syndrome. I didn't know what I was doing, but I was hoping that the initial training would get me through. And I was also a only woman in the team. So when I, when I, when I got there, they taught me what, how to do my job. Ok. Fine.

I will do that. But one thing I didn't know was how to start or stop the computer. But one thing I knew was I really cared about the environment. I didn't want to waste electricity. So I would go under the table at the end of the day and unplug the computer. And then next day, morning in those days, if you replug the computer, it would take hours to boot because you have shut it down without any grace and it's going to go defragment and then come back up on its own for a very long time. So I started coming an hour early so that I can start the computer about 10 days into my work. Some guy noticed me and then he said, hey, what do you do under the table every day, morning and evening? And why do you come this early? And that's when I told him, hey, I, I don't want to waste the power. So unplug and then he taught me how to click the start button and then shut up and restart. So a valuable lesson that I learned that day is always ask for help. It's ok. Don't go out of the way. Don't go under the table every time you don't know, something, learn to ask for help because people love helping. So thank God that I wasn't a doctor.

I was an engineer because God knows what I would have done if I didn't know what to do when I was a doctor. So I worked there for about a year and then got married and I came to this country as a I, I tell people that I came to this country through acquisition due to my immigration situation, I got bored out of my mind. And then, uh I, so I decided to pursue my master's and I did my master's in computer engineering in San Jose State. If any of you from San Jose State goes pardon? When I was about to graduate, 911 happened. bubble burst. There was an economic downturn in retrospect. I was so silly, worried about my job, worried about my career while there were people losing lives and livelihood. Hindsight is always 2020. Not that the year 2020 was kind either. Um I started attending every job fair, every career career fair in college trying to get, trying to somehow get a job. Finally, an engineering manager from IBM showed up, showed a bit of interest in me and told me, hey, you you should be able to um we, we really like you keep in touch. That's all her name is Catherine Cox. God bless her soul. Little.

Did she know how persistent I was? I kept in touch. Really? I, she pinged me around October. She, when she, I, I met her around October and when she told me keep in touch, I kept telling her, sent her Happy Halloween. Happy New Year. Happy Thanksgiving. Happy Christmas. I kept sending her messages. Do you have a job for me? Until she gave me, actually gave me an interview in January and I got an internship at IBM. Uh I, so I was so thrilled that I extend my graduation by another semester so I can do an internship, one of the best decisions in life because sometimes you have to push certain things in order to accommodate life. Uh I kind, I pretty much grew up at uh IBM. I learned a lot. Uh Again, I was going through unknown territory. This time I was working on mainframes and mainframes I thought was dead by Y2K in 2000. But those who don't know, mainframes are still behind the scenes, working on your ATM transactions, your flight booking, etcetera. So I had a very similar encounter at IBM as well. I didn't know how to stop or disconnect those computers. Uh But thanks to the learning before this time, after two days of goof up instead of 10 days, I asked for help. So those folks who taught me are still my friends, still my mentors.

And at, at various times, I continued IBM at F as a full time employee for 12 years, I grew up there into management. Even in management management, I always wanted to be in management. I even had a five year plan when I joined IBM. And when I was at IBM, uh when I wanted to become a manager, a lot of people told me you will be good at it. So IBM had a great management training program. So I went to the training program to become a manager. I went to the training program came back and I said, I don't think I'm ready because at that point in life, I was not ready to manage people who are much smarter than me. I was in my twenties. I thought I knew it. I knew everything, but I, I believed I was not ready for that yet. So it took another two years again, the best decision of my life to mature myself before jumping into something. And then eventually I became a manager there and I was working there. Um But when I became a manager, what happened was when I was about when I wanted to become a manager, I went to one of my mentors and then I told him, hey, in six months, I will be ready to become a manager. So if you find something, let me know, this guy looked at me and he said, ok, great. Um I currently have a job in development for a manager role. Why don't you go think over the weekend and let me know if you want to take it?

Then I said, hey, listen, I just told you I'll be ready in six months. Why are you offering me a job now? And then he said, Suja, listen, I know you, you wouldn't come to me if you weren't ready. So think about it. Then I told him I worked in QA, I don't know much about developments. You are. I would rather take a Q A engineering manager job. And he said, do you know Q A? Well? Right. Yes. Are you an expert? Yes. So what are you going to learn there? I was like, what development is something that you don't have experiences so you can go and learn. Yes, it's going to be initially difficult, but you will learn something new. So again, he made me get out of my comfort zone and go into a territory that I was not comfortable with. But again, listening to him was one of the best decisions I made and I took that leap. Uh So far you must have seen a pattern. I love comfort. I like to be in a comfort zone. But one thing I have learned is over the time is building a network of people who will keep me in a butt and then move me in the direction of discomfort. And that is what helped me to push myself and learn and then keep moving in my career. I'm not talking about moving in a career ladder. I'm talking about moving the, it's a jungle gym.

You go up and down in different ways, learning and exercising your muscles and also learning. So after about three years of doing that, and then I got bored again. Uh because I, I go through this thing of, hey, I'm very uncomfortable for a year and then I'm like, oh, I'm rocking it and then third year, oh, I'm really comfortable. I don't want to go anywhere. And after third year, I'll be like, I'm bored. Can I do something else? So that's when I went to some of my mentors within IBM. And I asking, hey, what can I do next? Can I work on this project? That project? That's when one of uh one of my managers again pushed me, hey, there is this manager role in um big data space. It is a parallel role. It's not going to take you up. It's actually half the team size that you are managing right now. But this is a up up and coming area. It will be good for you to go and learn time to get uncomfortable again. And I took that role and that opened my eyes to the world of open source, the industry outside of IBM. What is happening. And after a couple of years of being in the industry, go getting to know what is happening in the industry, putting myself out there. Linkedin found me through linkedin and then they were, the recruiter was very persistent. I even told her that I'm afraid of interviewing.

So if you want to interview me, me, this is not a job for me. And then she laughed at me and he said, oh, it's not an interview. We will just talk to you. So that's how I got a job uh interview at linkedin. And I went for that interview with the full intention of getting the free food, free lunch more than anything else. So, but well, I got a job there. And again, I was afraid because for 12 years, I would build beautiful network at uh IBM and leaving it and going was very, very uncomfortable. But there are just like that my family, my friends, my work colleagues, everybody pushed me like this is the right decision. You should be able to do this. And then I took a leap and it was very different. I was going from 100 year old company to teenage company at that time. Um II I at IBM, people worked there for 20 years, 30 years. There were people who were much older than me, much more experienced than me here. I'm coming to IBF and Linkedin. I was one of the most experienced person, worst person, I even in my vanity, I was afraid somebody is going to call me auntie. So, um I, and another thing that happened at IB linkedin that made me gel very quickly was I found the women in technology group at uh linkedin an amazing support system. That's where I met Carini who spoke like a couple of, at, at 12.

Uh, and I met so many wonderful people who actually helped. We all caught each other. We learned from each other and grew up together. So the women in uh network er g was my go to place whenever I was uncomfortable whenever I wanted to learn something whenever I wanted to uh whenever I was in a trouble. So, and I also, that's where I learned what it is to pay it forward to the community. Uh at linkedin, I learned, I, I decided to go give speeches. IW work with colleges, work with students. And that basically opened up my world. I became a mentor at West. Um uh I became part of women in big data and in general connected with the women in tech across the industry. After almost seven years, I got tapped uh by a few recruiters uh who are very persistent and that's when I ended up talking to them because they were persistent. And I got a job at one Silicon Valley Tech company. And also I had a big media company which is Warner Brothers Discovery and this was 2021 last uh yes, last year and in the middle of the pandemic and I didn't know what to do. And I leaned on to my uh ex managers from IBM.

My mentors from IBM, my mentors from linkedin, their friends were moved out. Uh Everybody. Hey, what should I do? Because I was leaning towards the tech company in Silicon Valley because I didn't know anything about media. Other than that, I love binge watching. So I was watching all this stuff. So that's why I'm fascinated by the industry. But I wasn't sure I don't know anything about it, but it was a role to head all of data uh for all kinds of um products from Cartoon Network to Harry Potter to DC Universe to HBO Max CNN. It was just, it was just wild. Uh At the same time, I was so scared to take a role, which also the number of people that I would manage basically quadrupled from what I was doing at IBM. I was so scared but then all my friends like, what are you gonna lose if you don't like it, you can always come back to the Silicon, the Silicon Valley, go do it. And I decided to take a plunge thanks to all my mentors and I jumped into that role on the day I joined, it was announced that the company is being sold to Discovery Warner Media is becoming Warner Brothers.

Discovery the day before I joined the hiring manager who's, who was the then CTO called me and he said, Suja, I'm sorry to say that this is happening. If you want to rethink your decision, it's ok. That was my last day at linkedin. And I seriously contemplated, should I go forward with this or should I just go back to linkedin and say, please take me back. I'm not leaving, what should I do? But at the same time, I realized, yes, sometimes life doesn't go as you plan. I, I went there, I I decided to go there to learn about the media world and also how to bring all these data teams together. Now, I can also learn about acquisition, how to transition a team change management. So I said, OK, still, I'm learning. So I'll go ahead with it. I did that for about a year and a half. After the closing happened, I realized that, hey, this is the, the work that they were with the, with all the cha change in strategy. It was not, I went there. So I had to make the hard decision at that point to separate myself from uh Warner Brothers discovery. It was so it's as important when you have your board of directors to tell you that, hey, how do you push yourself and go there? It's also important to realize, hey, when to go to your losses, when to decide to move on to your next one, next play. When to decide this is done. I'm going to the next one. So I would definitely give a lot of credit to my board of directors.

Sponsors, mentors, uh who were there throughout this journey. For me, a few reflections as I make is that a mentor or sponsored relationship is something that you cultivate over time, especially a sponsor. Uh You have to build a relationship because they have to trust in you.

A sponsor is somebody who advocates for you when you are not in the room. So it starts with your manager first and then it does over time. And another one is a mental sponsor. It's not a mono monogamous relationship like Delai was talking about, you need a board of directors. Uh At the same time, you cannot just go and ask someone, hey, can you be my mentor without giving any specific ask? So it's extremely important to understand why you want somebody to be a mentor. So it should comprise of diversity of people. It can be from your family and friends who know you very well and know where to push what your skills are, what you can, what you can do and some of your colleagues or managers or your mentors who have been in your life through that. And then some subject matters experts. When you have this combination of people, it becomes much easier for you to navigate whenever you are in a crossroads, to get to where you want to one of the book I will highly recommend will be the start up of you by um uh by Reid Hoffman from linkedin and Ben Ben.

It's a wonderful book to learn about how to manage our career and also about networking. And the other one that has helped me was uh help. The book was the power of bad how the negativity effect rules us and how we can rule it, rule it. It is a beautiful book because a lot of times the fear and the discomfort that comes in for us is because of that. Basically, we go into this mode of what if scenarios because the what if scenarios are something that you cannot control. So it's extremely important for us to push that in the push that forward. And the other one is that um like we talked about networking and building the board of directors, right? It's not a very daunting task. You don't have to start learning golf or start drinking or smoking if you don't to figure out how to get there. So figure out ways what works for you. I have a group of women that I go hiking with. I have a monthly coffee with some people and then a phone call or a linkedin message. Uh All those are ways for you to build your network and go from there with that. I will wrap up