Engineer to Engineer: Speaking Your Intention to Find Your Path
Written by Genny Centerno Metri
In this edition of Engineer to Engineer Genny Centerno Metri, Director of Women Who Code’s Merida Network, interviews Sophie Gairo, Software Engineering Manager at The Home Depot. They discuss leadership and expanding experience through certifications and volunteering.
Tell us about the software development side of Home Depot and what it is like to work there.
Home Depot is a large company, around 2,300 physical stores and around 500,000 employees, and 5,000 engineers. It takes a lot of infrastructure and support to make things run smoothly in the stores and when you’re a customer checking out. Also to make sure that all of the employees can coordinate our inventory systems or schedule deliveries. We also have a whole host of partners that do contracting services in the stores. It was announced that Home Depot is partnering with Walmart so that we can do same-day delivery. All of these systems require technology. There are people who need to make sure that that technology is always available. So that’s what I spend my days thinking about. How can we empower our developers, and also empower our stores to function at their best, and help customers fulfill their needs quickly and securely?
It has been rewarding working for Home Depot. The people are wonderful, which is my first favorite thing about working there. I haven’t really experienced this before, but people have been at Home Depot 10, 15, 20 years. They’ve made lifelong careers there. That’s really special to me.
Were you always interested in pursuing a leadership position or were you interested in other roles?
I’ve always gravitated towards the leadership side of technology and in life. I love strategy and problem-solving. Having the opportunity to have big-picture insight into whatever you’re doing has been enticing to me. Also, I am and always have been a people person. My first major in college was psychology. I’ve always wanted to know how I can best help, support, and empower people. Then, taking that to the next level with teams and organizations. Technology happens to be the place where I get to apply those two passions.
What would be your top three tips to succeed in a leadership role?
Speak your intentions into the atmosphere. Say it and act that part until it comes true. Take small areas of ownership in what you do day to day. It’s the little steps along the way. Have people who can help you identify what those are. Be around people who share your same goals and desires. Find the community that is already there. Talk to people and see how everyone’s background and experience is completely different. Learn and pick the best pieces from all of them.
Are there any books or podcasts that have helped you through this journey?
I read a biography on George C. Marshall a while ago. It’s called Soldier, Statesman, Peacemaker. I learned so many valuable leadership tips. It was basically a case study of leadership. One of the most meaningful pieces of that book was the section on candor. How to have effective candor and how meaningful that can be.
You have a Scrum Master certification. What was your motivation to get the certification?
It was one of those small things I had control over that I could show my interest in and also learn new skills. I wanted those skill sets in my toolbox. I was lucky to have the manager that I did at the time, he was spectacular and he encouraged me to do that. I was surrounded by incredibly talented, intelligent people. I felt like I wanted to contribute at the levels they were contributing, unrealistically in retrospect. It was my way to contribute to the next level. I could help our team in a different way than I was able to as a junior engineer.
How did you prepare for the certification?
I was fortunate enough to be supported by my manager and also my company, who paid for me to go to a course and for the certification. I know there are scholarships for programs like that. I recommend touching base with your manager first. Most places are interested in your career development. Even if you’re not planning on switching jobs, it’s still a lot of valuable information.
How was the experience of the actual exam?
Since I was in a course, we had a practice exam ahead of time. That lets you shake out all of your nerves and remind you of what you wanted to study. It helps you rehearse the actual act of sitting through an exam, which I think for a lot of people is the biggest hurdle.
What are some things that help you remind yourself, ‘I’m capable of doing this.’
Being in a community. Remember that there are people outside of your team who are exactly where you are. I write everything down. I write down my goals. I write down what I’m gonna do in a day versus what I want to do this month versus this year. Whenever I do that, it helps me stop my brain from running to extremes.
I saw on LinkedIn that Home Depot was listed as one of the best employers for women in 2021. What is happening within the company that it’s creating this great workplace for women?
It’s an enterprise-wide accomplishment so I will give the best insight from where I sit in the company. It comes down to meeting in the middle of initiatives at the leadership level and initiatives at the very base individual contributor level. I was lucky enough to join Home Depot when Barbara Sanders was the Chief Architect of all of Home Depot and the Vice President of Technology. She was my last interview before I received an offer. First thing in the door, I hadn’t even started work yet, and I got to engage in a pretty technical conversation with the Chief Architect, who was also a female. There are a lot of women in leadership roles at Home Depot.
Also, make sure that you live those values in your individual contributor roles. Home Depot is interested in diverse backgrounds and talent of all people. A major initiative that has made a difference is OrangeMethod. Anthony Gregorio championed the idea that Home Depot has a diverse and extremely talented pool of what we call aprons or employees. Instead of spending recruiting dollars, why are we not investing in our own employees? They started a 16 week boot camp called OrangeMethod. Anyone in the company can apply and go through the boot camp. They’re guaranteed a position on our software engineering team at the other side. And this has been extremely successful. Not only do you get diverse backgrounds you also get diverse Home Depot experience. It’s brilliant to me and has gone a long way for all people, including women at Home Depot.
In addition to pulling talent from our own employee base, the leadership chain has commitments to work in stores. Almost any Home Depot leader has an apron hanging in their office. We go to stores at least twice a year and work. You are never too far removed from the customers and the frontline associates that we’re ultimately here to support.
You have been a volunteer at many organizations, including AnitaB.org and NASA. Can you tell us about your experience as a Solar System Ambassador?
As a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA, I’m able to receive different webinars and training. They try to keep us up to date on the missions and goals of NASA. As ambassadors, we get the opportunity to take that information back into the community and drive community engagement. I get to go into schools and talk to kids about space.
How has it been collaborating with AnitaB.org?
AnitaB.org hosts the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. I recommend everybody go at least once. They established communities and have leadership teams that try to pair the community with different content throughout the year in between Grace Hopper Celebrations. They have great partnerships with different companies. Each month, a different company would host either a hiring event or an event where we can all come together, learn, and socialize with each other. It was refreshing and rewarding to get to work with them.
They have a scholarship to attend the event. You are a part of the Scholarship Review Committee. Are there any tips you can share with women interested in applying for this scholarship to attend the event in the future?
I’ve read a lot of applications. The strongest applications had common structures. The stronger applications had more intent and purpose. Not only what are you going to learn, but how are you going to bring it back to your own community?
At Women Who Code, we continuously encourage our members to take advantage of spaces to talk about their work. Tell us about your experience as a presenter at the ACM Student Research Competition.
Being on stage is scary for me. There are people with cameras. Maybe your face is on a giant screen next to you and you’re trying not to look at it. It’s really awkward. You don’t do that day to day unless that’s your job. Engage your audience. Say, ‘Look, I just had the worst flight, and I’m still nauseous, and they’ll support you. Say, ‘Hey, by the way, I’m a really nervous speaker, and so just bear with me.’
One time I was giving a presentation in front of a lot of people. I was very nervous. I literally said, ‘Y’all, I’m a nervous speaker.’ I called my mom on stage and I said, ‘Mom, I’m in front of a lot of people, I’m nervous.’ I put the phone out and I said, ‘Everyone say hi to my mom’, and they all said, ‘Hi.’ They loved it and bought into my presentation. That made me feel better, I didn’t feel like I was trying to pretend that I wasn’t nervous. I said, ‘Okay, Mom, I gotta go.’ I went on and gave my presentation. Just be authentic.
Are there any trends or developments or anything else happening in the tech industry that really excites you at the moment?
I’m on the City of Austin’s Technology and Telecommunications Commission. They’re rolling out intelligent and autonomous infrastructures. There are these things called network nodes. They are going to go up all around the city. That will lay the foundation for us to have autonomous corridors and eventually autonomous corridors across highways. Being at a retail company will open the door for autonomous delivery. How it affects society, but also how it affects me at a retail company, is pretty exciting.
What advice would you give to someone that is thinking of starting or transitioning into a tech career path?
Keep speaking your intention. Someone will be your match. Someone will unlock a door for you. Never get discouraged. If you are going through interview after interview, you will find what is interesting to you and what is a good fit for you. It’s really important that we realize that technology is multidisciplinary. Technology has applications in every industry. How do you wanna apply technology to your other interests?