Software systems to innovate and grow

Episode 37

Claire Hough with Udemy: Employee Diversity In Tech

Show Details

Claire Hough entered the tech world right out of college, and is now the Head of Software Engineering for Udemy, a learning platform bringing teachers and students together.

In the work place she has witnessed a huge decline of women engineers, but shares it was not always this way.

Listen further to discover Claire’s advice on how implementing diversity in the workplace is an essential part of her success, and the success of the future.


  • Leadership is an Art by Max DePree
  • Grit by Angela Duckworth
  • Brene Brown
  • Managing Bias by Facebook

Show Transcript

Carlos: Claire, thank you so much for coming on the show. How are you doing today?

Claire: I’m pretty fine. Thank you!

Carlos: Alright, so it was a couple of months since we last spoke. How was the rest of the last few months have been on your end?

Claire: It’s been hectic, very busy, but everything is going well so I’m happy to be where I am; looking forward to the holidays.

Carlos: Alright. Yeah, it’s that time of the year, absolutely. Alright, so Claire, I think one of the interesting questions I try to start with is tell me a little bit about your background and how did you end up in software?

Claire: Let’s see my background, it’s all software but I didn’t intend to end up in software. I have a degree in Industrial Engineering in Operations Research. I specialized in manufacturing systems optimization and also transportation system so with the master’s degree in operations research. I did some consulting and transportation and manufacturing. So coming out of school, I was looking for a position that will allow me to work with companies optimizing either manufacturing or transportation, so I ended up at this company. It was a semi conductor automation software company. So immediately joining that company I became a software engineer. I had taken some programming classes in school, so it wasn’t too hard for me to pick up software programming 100% of the time but I certainly didn’t expect that that was what I was going to do. And then I went back to school to take some additional courses afterwards.

Carlos: So, the funny thing is that some of the people who have this, let’s say engineering background are able to get alot of this software engineering stuff much faster than those who haven’t built those mental models, and I think that’s really an advantage. So, again what led into this path, kind of through engineering. What’s really interesting now is, you are teaching other people now, right? Even if indirectly, you are building a platform that allows other people, other creators to teach each other different skills. So, just for the few who don’t know what UDemy is and what you do there, can you give us a little background on Udemy and your role?

Claire: We’re an e-learning platform where we bring teachers and students together, so we allowed anyone who has a passion to teach to come on to our platform and become an online instructor and teach what they want to teach, like where they have expertise. And then we bring in students to find those courses and learn from them, so it’s a really enabling platform for both instructors and students. We have over 40,000 courses taught like by 20,000 instructors, and we have students in 196 countries. I mean it’s a very exciting platform because we really believed in students finding that teacher to learn from. So our mission is that anyone can learn anything on our platform.

Carlos: What is your role in the company? Last time we spoke you were VP of Engineering.

Claire: Yes, I’m the head of Engineering for Udemy. I joined the company when we were only 30 people. I joined Udemy because at this point in my career I really wanted to work on a software system that really makes a difference in people’s lives. Udemy’s mission of like making education accessible and affordable really spoke to me. So when I met with Eren Bali who is our founder, who grew up in a very remote part of Turkey and he had privilege of going to a very good university and upon graduating he wanted to make education available to people who otherwise would not have that access to education. You know, when I met Eren I think we really connected at that level. Like he had a mission and I wanted to be part of it. So I came on board three and a half years ago. As the head of engineering I lead engineering obviously so engineering’s job is to provide that platform that enable instructors and students and make sure that our software, our platform is accessible all over the world and it is scalable for millions of students who want to take courses on our platform.

Carlos: One of the subjects that we took shape in our first conversation was your view of an employee development and people management. Can you give us a little bit of your philosophy, in terms of, let’s say what’s your view on developing skills and know how within your team as part of their career?

Claire: Yeah, you know, I believe any capable engineers can learn whatever challenge that we bring forth. We as engineers are solving problems and we’re building software that solves those problems, so I very much want our engineers to really think end to end about the solutions that we’re providing and how we are providing this amazing user experience or amazingly scalable platform that people don’t have to really think about when they are using it. Number one, we try to bring in people who are very motivated, who are behind our mission. And you know, obviously we hire at different levels. So I believe in forming a team that has differences of skills and differences of strength at different levels. That way, people learn from each other and that lot of senior engineers have an opportunity to mentor junior engineers and junior engineers have an opportunity to learn. We have a career ladder and we talked about like how you can develop skills that you need to get to the next level if that’s what they want. But we also have a parallel career path of being leaders of people, so beyond Senior Staff Engineer level which is the Level 4 Engineer, there is a dual career path. They can take more of a leadership, people management path or they can continue on in their technical career path and become principal engineers, architects, principal architects etcetera. On the management path they can start to manage a small team and then they can maybe manage multiple teams as they become directors, and senior directors and VPs. We really encouraged people to look at what they enjoyed doing the most and help them developed skills in that direction.

Carlos: Clearly soft skills are kind of a buzzword, what’s your view on soft skills and how you train engineers on that sort of soft skills area?

Claire: I think soft skills are very much part of skills that we need to develop as engineers, right? We have to be able to work with our peers and work with our business partners, product managers and be able to explain why we are doing what we are doing and how we approach solving these problems. So soft skills I would say communication skills, collaboration skills, ability to work with different types of people. I think by giving our engineers opportunities and also giving them very direct feedback as they develop those skills, I think that we are constantly challenging each other to build soft skills but all other skills as well whether it’s a design skills or testing skills or developing high quality coding skills, all those skill. I think through feedback I believe that we try to develop our engineers to have very well rounded skill set.

Carlos: And what are the, this is a sensitive topic but I wanted to get your input on this so with the sort of migrant crisis all over the world and the topic of culture inclusion is becoming more real, not only cultural level but making sure that we have diversity in the workplace where culture of female engineers or again multi cultural. Do you have any experience on this topic and how do you approach this as a head of engineer in an organization of the size of Udemy?

Claire: Yeah, we actually have very diverse group of people working at Udemy, and also in engineering. When I first came on board and actually on board at Udemy and took over the engineering and product and design teams I actually inherited 100% engineers from Turkey which I actually did not know when I took the job, and actually I didn’t know two weeks into my job, and one day a couple of my engineers were speaking in Turkish to each other so I turn to them and say, “Oh, do you all speak Turkish?” And they all laugh at me because it was so obvious to them that it was 100% team was made of people from Turkey because our founders were from Turkey. So for me, you know, I have been around the block a few times in Silicon Valley so I worked with lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds and countries, so I don’t even think about it. I had a team in India, I now have a team in Dublin, I have a team in Ankara, you know, I work with teams from other parts of the country as well. I don’t think about it but I do think that we have to be mindful of that creating that diverse work environment where everybody feels included and everybody feels that it’s a safe environment to be who they are because I think it is that diversity that they bring to the table that really strengthens us. I think it’s very rewarding to learn other people’s culture, and I think it makes a very enriching work environment when you have people from different backgrounds who are freely and willing to share their backgrounds and values and whatever beliefs that they bring to the table. When we all respect each other for the diversity that they bring to the table it just creates a much richer and healthier work environment. And I have to say that it’s not always the case that people are that aware and sensitive and inclusive and be very conscious of creating this kind of work environment. I think people have to be reminded when they don’t know or they are not aware. I think most people do want to work in a safe work environment. You know, even if you are representing majority, I think when they think about the times when they might have been excluded for one reason or another I think they will understand what it feels like to be minority. I have engineers from minority backgrounds and for them it’s extra effort for them to feel like they’re fitting in. It’s an environment that people would accept them for who they are because it doesn’t come naturally to them for being a minority. The way I approach it is number one awareness, that everybody is aware that we all have biases, that we all come from different backgrounds therefore we have these biases and what’s important is being able to recognize those biases and combat it, have open mind about how we would work with or include people coming from different backgrounds. So we do managing bias training, we watch a video from Facebook, we discuss it and we also openly talk about biases that exist in the workplace especially in tech. We also watch this film called “Debugging the Gender Gap”. It is more about why this big gender gap exist in tech today and getting people to really understand and be aware that these things exist, and that we could create a much better work environment if we combat those biases. But it’s not a one-time training thing. I think it’s one of those things that you have to constantly talk about. You have to give each other feedback when somebody is not behaving inappropriately and whether it’s unconsciously or consciously. We have this thing called, like giving feedback is kind of giving gifts so when somebody is willing to give you feedback let’s take it as a gift that we’re getting.

Carlos: I think this is an extremely interesting and important topic. So kind of what interests me is, solving the problem of measuring this, how do you measure the way you are solving this as a problem. First you have to see this as a problem to solve this. So, I want to get an idea of your thoughts on this, what are some measure that could lead us to get an idea of where we are.

Claire: I think number one metrics how well are you doing in your building a very diverse team, right, so it is like you have to look at your gender diversity. What percentage of your work force is male or female? What percentage of your work place is people coming from minority backgrounds? What percentage of your work force is people with different sexual orientation or representing some minority. If you’ve actually achieved having that gender balance or having more minorities represented in your workplace then you’re succeeding otherwise you’re not succeeding. But the other measure would be people who are in the company who come from underrepresented groups, how do they feel about the work environment. Do they feel it’s a safe work environment? Do they feel included all the time or they feel like there is a lot of biases that exist and they are constantly dealing with stereotype threat. I think doing surveys and having a very open work environment where people can openly talk about these issues is super important, and you have to measure it in ways that makes sense, by numbers and also by anonymous surveys of how people feel.

Carlos: So given that you have experience in some of these different companies, I’m really interested in knowing your view on this, but I see a lot of this as a trend, but across an industry where people are growing into a role or being hired for a role. What’s your vision on this?

Claire: Yeah, think so. Well, let me see if I can answer this right. I’ve always been a small company person, and I think the biggest company that I’ve worked for was about 2,400, so that’s the extent of the size that I can comment on. You know, I’ve always been a small company person because I like the impact that you could have in a small company and I like the innovation and nimble stages of startups. I sort of sought smaller startups all my career and I’ve enjoyed a lot of the companies that I’ve worked at. I think if I look at tech, how did people evolved; when I first start my career there were more women actually in Computer Science. There were more women programmers. There were more women in the workplace. I think over time we have less women and I think there we’re some cultural bias or there were less welcoming stages of our industry where women won’t as welcome then to tech. I think if you look at even number of women graduating with Computer Science degree have like diminished from late 80’s. I think the tech has gone through some stages of where we were not addressing the issues of diversity. And when I look at lot of startups where there is this lot of competitive sort of in your face culture and that is not a culture that is really attractive to a lot of women engineers, and as a result I think more women leave tech at a faster rate than men. I have seen people change? Yes, and I think there were times in my career where it was very difficult to work in an environment where a lot of young men thought that being in your face and being very critical of each other that was cool. I think now there is more awareness and I think everybody realizes that that’s not cool. Nobody wants to work in an environment like that, so I think we are evolving. It’s good for us to talk about this and just raise awareness.

Carlos: In terms of women in engineering and in general but also in your particular cases as a woman as a leader of engineering. Can you tell us about the challenges you have to face, or had to face in the past? Any advice to share with other women who might be listening into the show or to men who are not sensitive about that topic, haven’t even thought of this. How can we enlight these people?

Claire: You know, I have to say that I’m busy dealing with the issues of my job. Like I said, there were more women in the beginning of my career and I didn’t really compartmentalize this as a huge problem until more recently as I saw the statistics of number of women in tech going down and more women are getting out of tech. I am very disheartened that it happened in my career. It happened on my clock while I’ve been engineering leaders these things were happening where women didn’t feel welcome to the technology companies and they didn’t feel like they can be successful because of the biases that exist or the behaviors that exist in the companies. When I started at Udemy there were no women here in engineering, or product or in design so we worked pretty hard to attract more women and try to create a work environment that is more inclusive but it doesn’t come that easy. While I’m a women and you think that because I’m a women that there would be more respect or just the more conscientiousness about including women in our groups but I would say first 2, 3 engineers in our company faced some challenges as well. We have women’s group where we women engineers actually get together and talk about some of the challenges that they face. But through that I realized just providing them that forum is not good enough. It’s really we, our entire engineering group or our entire company has to become aware and create a safe work environment for everybody. That’s when I really championed bringing in management bias training to the company and start having these small group discussions including men and women. I believe that diversity problem in tech man has to get involved in solving this. Women alone cannot do it because men has also to champion the cause and they have to come to a realization that makes a much better work environment and they could produce a much better product when there is that diversity of thoughts and backgrounds that is brought to the table. Like I talk about this with my male engineers all the time, you know, I want you guys to be also the champion of diversity not just women always talking about diversity. You know, one of my peers who is a VP at a company said, “I don’t want to go out there and talk about diversity because I don’t want to be names as that women who talked about diversity.” So like women are even afraid of talking about diversity because they don’t want to get that identification as a woman who talked about diversity. But if you don’t talk about it then we’re going to continue to face these problems. But it’s not just women who should be talking about this. I want more men to talk about it. You know, I go to the CTL groups with groups of colleagues both men and women, and I’m asking my male colleagues, you guys should be out there talking about it, you should be writing a blog about why it is important to build a diverse team. I think we all have to take responsibility for creating tech more diverse workplace.

Carlos: I couldn’t agree more. We recently hired our first female on the team in October last year and we’ve added a few ladies who were on our team, and, maybe it’s a little bit of sexism what I am about to say, but not in a bad way, but they have given our workplace that female touch that just different what guys do, again, I do not mean that in a bad way. I think that’s a really positive thing by the way, we have to embrace our differences and they have been able to balance things out alot in our company. So, even if we’re being a small team we are trying to balance the mix between man and woman. We’ve really enjoyed seeing what teams feel like when some of our female coworkers now are on the team and we’re really pushing hard to making sure that it stays in balance, and also to make sure that they are comfortable. We try to be as natural as we can, but, with the same token, for example when I say “Hey guys!”, instead I say “Hey… hey everybody!”. So, anyways, we are seeing the importance of that touch.

Claire: I believe we all are building products for all people or people of both genders, right? I don’t know too many products that’s only being built for men or products that are only being built for women. Maybe Birchbox for women or Birchbox for men but it’s still like we are building this software systems or products that serves both genders so I think making sure that, and both genders in all racial groups and all that and especially our product, so I think it’s important that product is built by people that represents the people who would use it, especially at Udemy because we are trying to reach the world of people who want to continue to learn. I believe it’s really important for me to build a team that represents that audience that we are trying to serve.

Carlos: Alright. Ok Claire, this has been an amazing interview. Now I have three last but very important questions to you. So first one is, if you say run into yourself, your younger less experience self, let’s say 15 years ago, what would you tell yourself? What’s a key piece of advice you would tell yourself?

Claire: What key advice would I tell myself 15 years ago? Ok, so 15 years ago was during the .com era, right? I’ve always been, I think I wish 15 years ago that I was more aware of these issues of building this well rounded skill set in a group and in individuals and I wish that I was better equipped to instill those values of recognizing diversity and also values of building more agile software development process because it wasn’t as agile and we were just starting off 15 years ago. I think the advice I would have given myself would be think out of the box and always learn and be open to learning new things and change things. You know, always look outside of your circle to learn new things and recognize some of the amazing things that are out there as well as some of the problems that are out there so that I can always do better.

Carlos: I know that you can definitely refer to any resources from Udemy in your courses but what’s a book or resource you would recommend based, you know, it could be about some of the topics that we discussed today, diversity, inclusion and all these things or engineering, what would be some resources or books you would recommend?

Claire: Some of the books that I would refer to would be so I like the book, it’s an old book called “Leadership is an Art”. It’s about like how to provide the leadership that you need to provide. The recent books that I really enjoyed were the book on grit and how grit is so important in a person in terms of being able to tackle and persevere through things that are difficult because we all face a lot of difficulties in life and it isn’t the talent or smartness and all that, it’s really about the grit that kind of gets you becoming more successful at tackling new challenges and being successful at it. Grit is a book by Angela Duckworth and I really enjoyed reading that. The other person whose books I really enjoy is Brene Brown. She talks about Power of Vulnerability and she talks about daring greatly. You know, importance of being in the arena and taking those risks and letting yourself be vulnerable in opening up.

Carlos: Alright, we’ll have those on the show notes. And there is a resource that you led me to actually, Managing Bias by Facebook. I’ll add that also to the show notes. What do you think?

Claire: Yeah, that would be great. There is also a similar kind of training from Microsoft as well as Google. I just chose to use Facebook because we are a data driven company and Facebook a lot of their research that they talk about is very data driven and it’s a researched based.

Carlos: Alright, last question. If you’re hiring how can people apply to jobs and how can they actually be noticed by your team? How can they find you if they have any questions, how can they find your work?

Claire: Yeah. I’m everywhere. I’m on LinkedIn so feel free to connect with me. Udemy has a career page on our About page, so look at our job listings. We have offices in Dublin, and Ankara, as well as San Francisco and we’re hiring in all three offices. So people in Europe who want to join our Dublin team you could submit your résumé for the Dublin positions, and people who are in the States or in California who want to apply for a position in San Francisco we have open positions here as well. But if you are really passionate about education please feel free to reach out to me directly. We love hiring people who are very mission driven.

Carlos: Alright, well, that was our episode. Claire, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show and taking time to answer all my questions, and I really had a good time. I hope to next time I’ll meet you in San Francisco to take out for coffee.

Claire: That would be great. Thank you for inviting me, really enjoyed that talk.

Carlos: Alright, same here it was an honor to have you.