SAMANTHA WHITMORE - HEAD OF ENGINEERING @ KENSHO
“I was lucky to have really good teachers who presented math to me as a creative, flexible discipline and not just a set of rules to be memorized. They showed me the beauty in the exploratory quality of math and I learned to see math and science as tools you could use to understand and describe the entire world.”
Meet Samantha Whitmore, Head of Engineering at Kensho. Over the past four and a half years, Samantha has led Kensho's engineering team from a 12-person startup to its acquisition by S&P Global. Recently named Forbes 30 under 30, Samantha tells us how she fell in love with STEM, how she taught herself backend and frontend web development, and what she does outside of work.
Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up and your background?
I was born in New York City and spent a lot of my childhood reading- my parents didn’t allow me to watch television (and I was an only child). I went to an all-girls school called The Brearley School and fell in love with math and science. As it was all-girls, I was fairly sheltered and didn’t realize there was any institutional bias towards women in those fields. For high school, I went to Stuyvesant High School which is a co-ed math and science-focused public exam school. This is where I started coding. I then went to Harvard University where I studied Physics and Mathematics and then did a Masters in Experimental and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University.
What made you focus on math and science?
I was lucky to always have really good teachers who presented math to me as a creative, flexible discipline and not just a set of rules to be memorized. They showed me the beauty in the exploratory quality of math and I learned to see math and science as tools you could use to understand and describe the entire world.
How did you make the switch from math and physics to engineering?
Throughout college, I worked in research labs each summer, but when I graduated, I wasn’t ready to commit to a PhD program in any of those research areas. I enjoyed the underlying thread of analysis and coding and, for this reason, I thought transitioning into software engineering seemed like a good plan. I had not coded since high school though so I had to grow my engineering skills before being employable.
The benefit of having been introduced to coding so early was that it came back to me quickly. I feel that is why it’s crucial for all schools in America to introduce coding to children when they’re young.
I worked on personal projects to put on my Github. Through my network, I got introduced to the folks at Kensho and when I was offered a job there, I took it.
You effectively taught yourself how to code to secure an engineering job. Can you tell us more about how you did this and what advice would you have for those trying to make a similar transition?
Before I applied to engineering jobs, I focused on strengthening my basic web development and algorithmic engineering skills. I had very little front-end experience, and my prior back-end work had been mostly scripting & data analysis for labs.
What you should spend time focusing on depends- If you want to be a data scientist, it’s useful to spend some time brushing up on your linear algebra and trying to solve a lot of problems on Kaggle or another platform, because math underlies a lot of the skills there. If you want to pursue software engineering, take an online course to get familiar with the institutional lingo. I would also recommend building and deploying some small websites and visualizations. It would be a good way to learn how to get a site up and running.
What inspired you to take your most recent role as Head of Engineering at Kensho and what did you learn?
To a certain extent, it wasn’t really much of a decision for me because it was a fantastic opportunity and was what the company needed at the time! But I also felt like it would challenge me and teach me how to manage and lead teams. I had been working as an individual contributor for the past 2 years, and figured the management experience would be valuable to gain.
One thing I didn’t realize about transitioning from individual contribution to management was how I would have to reorient how I measure my value to the company. When I was an individual contributor, I would measure my impact by the amount of code I wrote and the complexity of technical problems I was solving. As a manager, my main job is to unblock other people and ensure that their work fits together and is contextualized in the right way.
It's also my job to empower my team to solve problems themselves, rather than doing it for them. Although I love writing code and problem-solving, if I spent the whole day coding, I wouldn’t be doing the main part of my job.
What do you like to do outside of work to recharge?
I love to run and do a lot of rock climbing with my colleagues. One thing I’ve noticed in the engineering community is a perception that as an engineer you have to spend your free time coding and contributing to projects. While this is valuable and keeps you learning, this idea that coding has to be one of your main extracurricular passions can make engineering unintentionally exclusive. In my opinion, I find that pursuing my other passions like exercising or reading outside of work helps me unwind and expand my mind.
How do you stay up to date on trends in the industry?
I stay up to date on industry trends in a number of ways. Firstly, I personally read a lot — a favorite site is HackerNews, where contributors post links to articles about new software that is being released or other related topics. Secondly, I ensure that staying up on trends is part of my team’s workday. For example, I source book suggestions from my team related to engineering and we then read and discuss those books as a group. At Kensho, the last book my team read was Designing Data Intensive Applications by Martin Kleppmann which was a great review of modern architectures for data infrastructure. Lastly, part of working in engineering means you are always exploring what others in the field have done. Since most problems in engineering are not new, whenever we are scoping out a project, we do some research to see how other engineers have solved that problem in the past (common tools include asking the opinion of our senior architects, consulting textbooks, or the always-reliable Google and StackOverflow).
Can you talk to us about your view of leadership? What from your background informs your style of leadership?
I’ve learned a lot about leadership from how people at Kensho modeled leadership in our early days. I had a lot of autonomy from early on and I think it helped me grow quickly, so I try to recreate that atmosphere for the people on my team. I give my team a lot of leeway to scope out and execute on projects independently and I view my role as being a resource to them if they have questions or need help.
What is the industry trend that you’re most excited about?
I’m really interested in seeing how the electricity grid will reinvent itself with renewable energy. I recently read The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and our Energy Future by Gretchen Bakke and it inspired me to learn more about what entrepreneurs are building in both the software and hardware spaces related to energy.
What is the most interesting article or book you have read from the past few months?
I would have two. The first is an interactive essay by Bret Victor called “What Can a Technologist Do About Climate Change,” which gives actionable suggestions for people in tech to help solve the global problem of climate change. The second is a book called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. The book teaches you how to grow your confidence by recognizing the difference between a fixed vs. growth mindset. Having a fixed mindset leads you to believe that if you fail at something, it means you’re bad at that thing. A growth mindset, by contrast, means that you view failures to be helpful indicators of where you need to grow, and not as a judgment on your worth or ultimate capabilities.
Who is the female entrepreneur or investor you'd most like to meet and chat with?
Jessica O. Matthews of Uncharted Power. She started her company with the idea of providing lesser-developed areas with power by harnessing the energy created in kicking a soccer ball. Her first product was this soccer ball that has a port installed so that you can use the power created during a game of soccer to power your TV, lights, or other appliances. She has now applied the idea to a jump rope and is working on harnessing the kinetic energy of walking around in your home through smart floors. I saw her speak at Grace Hopper and would love to chat with her one-on-one especially because of my interest in the future of energy.
Best piece of advice you have ever received?
When I was early in my career as a manager, I thought I needed to be able to do everything and I was worried about losing my competitive edge to others by giving up ownership and control of my code. My Co-Head of Engineering gave me the advice to ‘Make yourself replaceable’. What he meant was that as soon as you teach others and scale your own knowledge, you are then free to learn something new and tackle a different challenge. This idea of ‘making yourself replaceable’ requires self-confidence and being comfortable with the idea that you can tackle and eventually master something new, but it ultimately allowed me to keep learning and growing at a rapid pace at Kensho.