In honor of International Women’s Day (March 8), Disha Pancholi, Uber Bangalore Engineering’s Site Program Manager, sat down with members of her office to discuss their experiences as women in technology.
When I started working at Uber in May 2017, many of my peers and former colleagues questioned my decision. Not only was I switching roles—transitioning from recruiting to program management—but I was coming onboard during a transformative time for the company. Nine months later, I can say with pride that joining the Uber Engineering Bangalore team was one of the best decisions of my career.
In this role, I’ve been given opportunities to learn and grow in an inclusive and supportive environment. My work supports our Bangalore-based technical teams build more seamless and scalable systems for our rider, driver, payments, vehicle platfo rm, and maps teams, driving change for the future of urban mobility in Bangalore and across the globe. My job would not be as fulfilling, however, if it wasn’t for the community of inspiring women I get to work with on a daily basis.
I spoke with members of our Uber Engineering Bangalore office to learn more about their experiences in technology, why they came to Uber, and the projects they’re working on to build safer and more reliable transportation solutions. Here is what they had to say:
How did you first get interested in technology and engineering?
My dad is a mechanical engineering professor, and he always encouraged me to learn new things. As a kid, I would spend summer afternoons sitting in the computer lab at the college where he works, discovering new things I could do with a computer. Most of that involved using a greeting card making program to design cards for my friends and family. Then, when I was 13, we got a home computer because he wanted to learn programming. Sitting beside him during his programming lessons was my first introduction to computer science. Eventually, they became my programming lessons, too.
Before coming to Uber, where did you work previously and what did you do there?
I worked at a financial technology company as a senior engineer where I was responsible for ensuring the delivery of all products on the merchant side. I was leading a team of five engineers and two quality assurance managers, along with interfacing with product managers and heads of other teams. Most of my day involved talking with stakeholders for each project, gathering requirements, doing task breakdowns, and managing timelines and dependencies for my team’s products.
When did you join Uber?
I joined Uber Bangalore in September, 2017 as a Senior Software Engineer on the Maps team.
Going from FinTech to mapping is a huge jump! What inspired you to join Uber Engineering Bangalore?
I heard from my friends and colleagues that Uber was undertaking challenging engineering projects. I saw videos outlining Uber’s massive infrastructure with thousands of microservices and open source contributions. I was looking to have more impact with my work, but most of all, I was looking for a supportive and dynamic work environment that could provide me with more senior technical mentors. Uber Bangalore presented such an opportunity and it goes without saying that I’m happy with my decision!
What do you work on at Uber?
On the Maps team, I build out our location search functionality to improve the pick-up experience for people in markets with sub-optimal network conditions. The current project I am working on is about enabling transportation in emerging markets for users with destinations in areas with poor network connectivity.
What challenges or hurdles have you faced as a woman in tech?
The first thing I realized as a new engineer was just how few women programmers there are. I have been the only woman in the room many times. Fortunately, I’ve had strong female role models and amazing colleagues throughout my career who have supported me every step of the way. Specifically, at my first job, my team’s principal engineer became my mentor; in fact, when I joined the team, the first thing she said to me was that she was excited to have another woman engineer on her team.
I count myself very fortunate that I have very supportive family and friends who respect my ambitions, but outside of my direct network, I have encountered biases. I once had a male colleague who would dismiss my suggestions for improving the engineering-support interactions and escalate issues unnecessarily while accepting the same suggestions I would make when they came from my male peers. Early in my career, I often received negative feedback from my peers about being too opinionated, while the same trait in my male colleagues was described as confidence. On the opposite side of the spectrum, I have also had colleagues recognize some of these biases and call them out.
Now, I use my experiences navigating these challenges to mentor young women with ambitions in engineering. These opportunities to coach have always left me feeling brighter, happier, and more optimistic about the future of our industry.
Why did you join Uber Engineering Bangalore?
Where else does one get a chance to solve the most difficult technical problems at an unprecedented scale and design, or write and deploy software that impacts the lives of millions of users? That’s why I work at Uber.
What do you work on at Uber?
After first joining Uber, I worked in the Asia Strategic Payments team. I used to take care of rider payments in India and South East Asia. Our mission was to make rider payments as frictionless as possible. Then I joined the Global Access team where I work on building our out-of-app booking experience for riders. Our purpose is to make Uber accessible to potential riders who can’t access Uber over their data network for various reasons, such as handset or network limitations.
What most excites you about your job?
It’s threefold: we have a fast-paced, startup-like culture with a high bar for quality, I get to work with some of the smartest engineers I’ve ever met, and my code has a direct effect on millions of riders. What could be more exciting than that?
How did you first get interested in product design?
I was on the career path to become a biotechnologist. I had actually never heard of UX Design until my first year of college where design was a discipline. The real ‘enlightenment’ happened when I read The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. I fell in love with the fact that design can help people make better decisions. It exposed me to a different perspective on design and deeply shaped my beliefs, encouraging me to change my major and study design. Fortunately, I was lucky to have parents that supported my decision even if they didn’t understand where my degree would take me. I’m happy to say that I’ve found a career I couldn’t be happier with.
Where did you work previously and what did you do there? At my previous company, I worked on the design of a communication tool targeted for enterprises in emerging markets. Designing for enterprise solutions is a different ball game altogether when you consider the complexities involved, the stakeholders, the technologies, and constraints–a designer needs to overcome all of the above before they start creating a product capable of performing complex tasks . I have also worked on e-commerce solutions for small and medium sellers to help them leverage new technologies to grow their businesses.
Why did you join Uber Engineering Bangalore?
I thought it would be exciting to work on products that are used by millions of people everyday, including me! I have always wished to explore how adoption and new information technologies can address social issues on a large scale, and Uber is one of the few tech companies where I can really say that its product has a direct impact on the physical world and improves lives.
Another reason was to be the part of this very talented team here in Bangalore.
Which Uber products do you work on?
I am working on products targeted towards users in emerging markets with low phone storage and poor network connectivity. One of such recently launched product is m.uber , a lightweight web-app. The aim is to enable everyone to request a ride, regardless of location, network speed, and device.
What is most challenging thing about your work at Uber? One of the most challenging, and simultaneously most gratifying, parts of my job is helping design a product that works for so many different people. Our system manages millions of cars in real time across the 700-plus cities Uber operates in, while also monitoring user feedback and managing a smooth payment flow. Despite everything happening in the backend, we try to keep the experience as simple as possible for users. As a designer, it is a huge responsibility to deliver an experience that is intuitive and pleasing on the surface without diminishing the complexity and power that lies beneath the surface of the product.
What interests you most about the intersection of design and technology? There’s a tough balancing act between form and function. Technologies don’t go mainstream until users have an easy and reliable way to use them. By taking the right approach, designers and engineers can marry the two, hitting the sweet spot between simple engineering and a seamless user experience. The most successful products are created at this crossing.
Did you face any resistance when you decided to become an industry engineer?
I remember my passion for writing code started when I was in high school, when I began building C++ applications for fun. This love for writing code kept growing and I decided to study computer science at university. I was lucky to have received support from my parents, who were excited for my future, but apprehensive of my decision to move away from home for school. Years later, they couldn’t be more proud to see me growing and thriving in my career as an engineer. In fact, younger members of my family now seek my advice on their academic and career decisions.
Where did you work previously and what did you do there?
I worked at two companies before joining Uber. My first job was at an e-commerce company, where I was the back-end engineer for its catalog management system, serving data at scale to different teams across the organization. My team built the server layer of our catalog and listing data, handling terabytes of catalog data and serving millions of requests per second. Before that, I had a two-year stint at a large investment banking firm where I developed automated solutions for the brokerage business. Needless to say, by the time I came to Uber, I knew what it was like to develop at scale.
Why did you join Uber Engineering Bangalore?
I wanted to join a company whose product I could get behind, and whose brand has a global impact. Uber has changed the meaning of the word “commute” by making it convenient and secure for everyone in Bangalore to access reliable transportation. By the time I joined (in late 2017), Uber had already established itself as a fast-growing company with a geographically diverse workforce, and I felt like I could learn a lot from the experience of working there.
What do you work on at Uber?
I’m a part of the Vehicle Solutions for Rentals and Financiers team. We build solutions for Uber’s vehicle rental business across the globe, which can be really gratifying work. For instance, I recently had the opportunity to visit our office at Sao Paulo, Brazil, which helped us realise how big the Vehicle Solutions market truly is. During our trip, we learned about the day-to-day challenges of the local operations team and met with some of our biggest rental partners. This exposure helped us analyze how we are performing and scope out future improvements in these types of emerging markets.
What drives you outside of your work at Uber?
I like to do a lot of different things. I used to make handmade cards with paper quilling. I’ve also made some paper quilled jewellery, designing colorful things for my family and friends. I like to watch old movies and shows on Netflix, and listen to prog rock and blues music. Doing all these things with my close friends and family makes it all the more fun.
Who were some of your mentors growing up?
When I was growing up, my parents filled the house with books. Naturally, my earliest inspirations were writers, from the poet Rabindranath Tagore , to the most stand-up Muggle we’ll ever know, J.K. Rowling. Later, it was Steve Jobs, whose sense of wonder changed the world for the better. My interest in seeking the unbelievable and extraordinary explains my interest in tech. In many ways, high tech is the closest we’ll ever have to magic.
Naturally, I’ve also always looked up to women in tech as mentors, women who taught me to #bethenerd, to ask questions, and never to let who you are stop you from being who you want to be. I’ve had the fortune of meeting some of these heroes, including Sheryl Sandberg and Deborah Liu from Facebook. I also have to mention Megha Yethadka , a director at Uber and my long-time mentor. She taught me three golden career rules: a) being an owner doesn’t mean you can’t take others on the ride with you; b) ship your vision and don’t worry about recognition, and c) be honest and do the right thing.
Why did you decide to work at Uber?
Less than a year ago, I was looking to move back home to Bangalore, India from my previous gig at Facebook. Serendipitously, Uber had just opened an engineering hub in the city. I spoke to my mentor, who also works here now, about finding new and challenging opportunities to build from scratch, and I quickly realized that joining Uber would give me the platform to do just that.
Do you have a technical background? What made you decide to go into product operations?
I’m an electronics engineer, but I’d take the fifth if you quizzed me–I haven’t touched a circuit in years! My first job was at an enterprise technology company, helping build apps that used smart networks. I spent a lot of time tweaking the UX for one of our apps, and had an epiphany: I enjoyed talking to users more than writing code.
This love only grew stronger during my stint working in customer insights for a social media company. As an early hire, I got to play around in policy, consumer insights, and analytics. I loved the ability to create something that would affect a billion users, but what I loved the most was the variety, which is what my current product operations role in Uber is about. You can evolve into a product manager, try your hand at business development, or anything you fancy. It gives me the freedom to approach problem solving in myriad ways.
Describe your day-to-day as a product operations specialist.
Product ops is defined as a bridge between product and operations. How you choose to shape it is up to you. One day you could be launching a product experiment in a new market, on another, you could be structuring a study to assess driver satisfaction, and on yet another day, you could be partnering with engineers to build new features. I get to wear many hats, from analytics to strategy to research, and I love it.
What is most gratifying about your work at Uber?
The fact that you can transform lives for the better around the world. Not kidding. Uber is in over 700 cities, and my team, Vehicle Solutions, builds products that support drivers who don’t have easy access to cars, and get them driving on Uber. We help unlock jobs that will empower men and women from radically different walks of life. It’s both deeply satisfying and humbling.
What do you envision as the future of urban transportation in Bangalore?
We’re on the brink of change. People are embracing modern ridesharing, doing away with car ownership unless it’s really needed, and choosing ecologically friendly alternatives like electric cars and bicycles. This change coincides with the boom of the service industry providing cars, bikes, and just about anything you need at the touch of a button. And there’s more! Carpools can evolve into various multimodal transport options. Maybe we can even have driverless cars someday, but we need the country investing in the right infrastructure to support innovation first.
Header image credit: Anurag Arora