Yvette Pasqua - Chief Technology Officer @ Meetup
“A strong leader needs to optimize for continuous learning. I try to incorporate this by hiring people who are smarter than I am, admitting that I am wrong, failing, and applying things that I have learned from experiments to improve. My approach is to run as hard as I can and experiment and fail fast.”
Meet Yvette Pasqua, Chief Technology Officer of Meetup. Over her three years at Meetup, Yvette has led initiatives at the company to tackle 15 years of technical debt, create a more diverse and inclusive engineering team, and bring product improvements to market - enabling Meetups to happen all over the world. Prior to Meetup, Yvette’s career included leadership roles in software engineering and product at startups. We chatted with Yvette about how she frames challenges as opportunities, how to jump into new environments, and what our generation can do to create a diverse and inclusive workplace. Yvette shared with us her leadership philosophy and the steps she takes to ensure she’s enabling her teams to do their best work.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I grew up in a suburb outside of New York City. Early on, I loved working on teams – I played clarinet in the band and lots of sports. My love for teams is something that has stayed with me through my adult life.
My introduction to tech came through my parents; we had a computer at home which I shared with my brother. At 9 or 10, I went to an Arts and Sciences day camp and wrote my first computer program in basic. I grew my interest in computers and by college, I had a part time gig doing desktop support and building web pages. When I graduated college, I made an unexpected decision to take a software consulting job instead of going to med school. I never looked back. My first company offered computer science classes on weekends and I jumped at the opportunity. It allowed me to learn fast and level up skills. At night and on the weekends I would go home and build websites. This was a great step that helped me get to my next job and career.
Now you are the Chief Technology Officer at Meetup. Why did you jump at the opportunity to join Meetup?
There were 3 main reasons why I joined. First, the leadership team is committed, passionate, ethical, open-minded to change, and a group that has proven to take action.
Second, the engineering team mirrored the characteristics of the leadership team but with a few additions. Beyond being a technically strong team with a lot of experience, the engineers I spoke with had a special thing: they were not afraid of change and trying new things. They also loved the product and would go to many different types of meetups to continuously learn. These two characteristics enabled them to foster a culture of learning from one another.
The third thing was technical growth for me. Meetup was a 13 year-old company when I joined, operating at a very large scale of 25 million members, and there was an immense amount of technical debt. I was excited about helping the team overcome the challenge of paying down the technical debt, while still operating a tech platform at a large scale.
When you joined as CTO, you were brand new to the company. How did you approach the early days on the job?
I took my time and met with over 70 people during the first month, which included all 55 engineers and people from other departments. I listened a lot. To get to know people better, I asked questions including: what do you love doing, what do you want to do more of? What do you think we should change and improve? From these conversations, I created a plan for how to proceed. The ideas all came from the team and it was my role to help the team decide what were the highest strategic priorities.
I'm fortunate that my boss Scott, the CEO, and the rest of the leadership team was very supportive from day one. They were willing to invest and be open to paying down the technical-debt to get our system and software to a place where it is modern and able to provide our customers a great experience. We're still finishing up those multi-year initiatives.
What are some of the projects you undertook to get rid of technical debt?
We were in two bare metal data centers when I joined and over a 6 month period we moved everything to the cloud and are now on Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud Platform. It was a huge effort for our infrastructure team and engineers. Why? Because we had hundreds of servers across different locations with 15 years of history. We went all in on using the right native cloud managed services for us to be able to take advantage of some of the best parts of the cloud like auto-scaling.
We also have completely re-written our mobile apps; we launched brand new rewritten Android and iOS apps in September 2016. We followed up with launching the first parts of our new web product at the end of 2017. These are a huge deal for us because we are now using modern frameworks like React and Node and make use of better frameworks and technologies to solve all our problems. We're innovating our business logic on top of that. Rewriting of those apps helped us pay down some of the 15 years of product and technical debt. That was pretty cool.
What do you look for in a design, engineering and product team and what are some of the most exciting trends happening from an organizational perspective in Tech companies?
Similar to many leaders of engineering and product organizations, I look for strong technical skills and people who are great communicators and teammates. When I think about experiences where I derived the most value, they all happened when I was part of a team: be it playing sports or playing an instrument. As a result, I look for people who work well on teams.
I also look for people who want to be constantly learning, improving, exploring, changing, and applying what they learn. I look for teammates that are constantly optimistic that things can improve. One thing that I've noticed being part of WeWork is an unbridled optimism for overcoming obstacles. I think that is one reason why they've blown past their goals over the past few years.
How do you make sure you work with your team to create a cohesive environment and get the most done?
I fundamentally believe in cross-functional teams of 6-10 people (2 pizza-pie team size). Those teams need to have the right infrastructure, people, and process that work for them and enable them to accomplish their goals. Building high functioning, autonomous, teams enables you to scale much quicker as a company.
I like to steal something that (I think) Spotify originally coined, which is about alignment and autonomy. This is the idea that as leaders we need to align all the teams across the company on key objectives, metrics, and results that we want to prioritize. As leaders, our job is alignment. Once you have great alignment, you can then give teams autonomy to come up with their own goals that they know will help their customers. Each of our cross-functional product teams is responsible for their goals, OKRs, KPIs, etc. They know better than anyone else what projects they should work on to have the customer impact we want.
What excites you about women in tech?
It is the same thing that excites me about tech. Using tech for good: software that’s actually good for the world, not just one that is only good in a mission statement. Good can mean numerous things - spending more time with family and loved ones, staying healthier, providing mental happiness, helping people to build real, in person, relationships in their communities. There are so many opportunities to make people better. I tend to be an optimist - I think that tech will lead to more and more amazing things. Even though there’s a lot of negativity that’s crept into the tech space as of late, I don't think we're going to be on a downward spiral.
I think women want the world to be a better place as much as anyone else, and especially for ourselves, our families, friends, and communities. I think mission will play an increasingly bigger part of the tech industry, and women will have increasingly more power to work on making the world better through technology.
How can we get women on paths to, and into, senior roles?
Simple, hire them. Hire women into senior roles. I also don't want to ignore the fact that women are one of many underrepresented minorities in tech that need to be hired into senior roles.
I also believe it is not a pipeline problem. It’s not a pipeline problem, because I'm here now. Companies must do the hard work to hire women and people from other underrepresented groups into leadership. One of the reasons I joined Meetup is because of the leadership team here, which was already 1/3 women when I interviewed. That was an important signal. They did the hard work to get the right people and voices into the room.
Creating a diverse workforce requires a lot of time and work. I spend a quarter of my time recruiting and growing my network. 95% of that time is spent growing my network with people from underrepresented groups, to do a better job of equalizing access to those groups. Being a lesbian woman in tech myself, I'm part of an underrepresented group. However, all that does is make me see what privilege I do have. I am white, went to private college, and I have a lot more privilege then I lack. It forces me to introspect and make sure that people who don't have as much access, have opportunities to access senior roles at tech companies.
You’ve been involved with many different companies and organizations; how has your career informed your style of leadership and what do you think makes a strong leader?
Good leaders are accountable, find solutions, and have a love for working with different types of people. Doing things by yourself is not leading, it’s doing. Good leaders need to put the company and team first. Effective leaders need to believe in the company and mission. When leaders lack that, they lose their ability to lead their teams and align everyone in the company towards the mission and company goals.
A strong leader needs to optimize for continuous learning. I try to incorporate this by hiring people who are smarter than I am, admitting that I am wrong, failing and applying things that I have learned from experiments to improve. My approach is to run as hard as you can and experiment and fail fast.
What is an industry trend that you are most excited about?
The pace at which Amazon, Google, and others are shipping managed cloud services.
This allows companies like Meetup to solve problems and focus on experimenting with the business logic of our business. Meetup's hard problem that we’re solving is having people RSVP yes, show up to a meetup, and have a great experience. I don't want my team focused on anything else, and leveraging managed services helps us focus on what matters.
What is your favorite or most interesting article you’ve read over the past few months?
Lara Hogan’s blog post on Sponsorship.
It is about the difference between a passive mentorship and active sponsorship, and what it means to be an active sponsor.
Who is a female entrepreneur or investor who you'd like to meet and chat with?
I think the world of Megan Smith. Her optimism about technology and the use of it for good has made her very inspiring. I think we need more people like that in the tech industry.
What is your spirit animal?
Wolf - Wolves seem fearless and passionate, they travel in packs, and they love order and structure.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
Don't be afraid to fail. You need to fail to stretch yourself.
Want more from Yvette? Check her out on Twitter.