Mumbai: In a world dominated by male engineers, India-born Ruchi Sanghvi in 2005 became the first woman engineer at the world’s largest social networking site Facebook Inc., where she was instrumental in implementing the first versions of key features such as News Feed and leading product management and strategy for Facebook Platform and Facebook Connect. She left Facebook in 2010 and a year later founded Cove—a company that built collaboration tools for private companies. It got acquired by cloud storage company Dropbox Inc., where she served as vice-president of operations.
Ruchi, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical and computer engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, said in an interview she is “now taking a well-deserved break" to think about her future plans even as she remains an adviser to Dropbox, where her husband Aditya Agarwal is vice-president of engineering. Sanghvi also shared her thoughts on the proposed US immigration Bill, being a member of the FWD.us—pro-immigration reform lobby group—and her reasons for investing in companies such as Flipkart.com. Edited excerpts:
Much of your fame comes from being the first female engineer at Facebook.
Back in college, I was one of the five girls in a class of 150. At Facebook, I was the first. And usually in tech companies, 10-15% are female engineers. And unlike other industries, technology is more forgiving as it is completely based on meritocracy. Being a female, I had to do a lot of behaviour adjustments, and in my case I got more aggressive. I am not afraid to ask questions or ask for things. I was always raising my hand, asking for opportunities and am very opinionated. And there were times when people call you stupid, but it’s all a part of a steep learning curve. The flip side is while I was doing this, I did not realize that there was a negative perception associated with it. My reputation in the industry is that of a very opinionated and aggressive person. Which is not who I really am. I just happen to be a woman who is aggressive and vocal.
Given your own experience, did you hire any female engineers to try to change trend?
In many ways, I feel that women are more strongly biased against women. Women need to understand their own biases. With very little room at the top, especially when you are a woman, and shortage of female talent (in engineering), we need to recruit. Women also change the dynamics of how a company works. First of all, 50% of our customers and users are female. So it’s good to have females in the company who can cater to these. Second, women are more consensuses-driven. Third, they are more collaborative and more understanding. Personally, though, I have not been very successful in changing the trend.
Why did you leave Dropbox? What are your future plans?
I have been in the technology industry for the last decade or so. I started off at Facebook, then ended up starting Cove, where we built collaboration and coordination tools for private communities. Cove did collaborated search, helping identify people in your huge network whom you don’t necessarily recognize by names or faces but still need to liaise with. I sold Cove to Dropbox in 2011. When I was at Facebook, we were about 20 people and when I left (in 2010), we were about 1,500 people. At Dropbox, I saw it grow from 18 to 400 people (currently) in less than two years, and also saw its market cap soar. We began building products for a few million users but now build products for not just users from the US but from across the globe.
I want to be able to take all these experiences, take everything I have learnt, and find a role where I can use all these experiences. In the last decade, technology has changed the way to work and live, and I have had the opportunity to play a key role in that movement in the last couple of years. I am interested in how technology is moulding people’s lives, and that is essentially why I left Dropbox. Everything I think of as an engineer has a set of constraints from point A to B. Now I can work without constraints.
What are you doing in your advisory role at Dropbox?
While I was at Dropbox, I was in a unique position and had many roles. I started out as an engineer and moved on to project management. And later ran recruiting, marketing and even communications. As an adviser, I continue to help with product strategy and recruiting, while also helping set the vision and strategy for Dropbox.
Both Aditya and you are very busy people, and accomplished in your own fields. How did you meet him and how do you manage to strike a work-life balance?
Our professional relationship has been much longer than our personal one. We met in college and had a couple of classes together, a couple of projects together, and that’s when we started dating. He moved to California. And I graduated about six months after him and was going to go to New York but panicked when I looked at my cubicle and the city. So I flew to California, where Oracle Corp. offered me a job. We worked at Oracle together. When I was graduating, I was (in) the first batch to use Facebook. And since he graduated earlier, he had not used Facebook. When we got to Silicon Valley, we both joined Facebook but worked on different projects. I quit to start Cove and convinced him to resign and become my co-founder. Now I have left while he remains at Dropbox. So we will see (laughs).
You have also been an investor in and adviser to a number of Silicon Valley companies. Any notable names to share and reasons for investing?
There is a difference between what I have invested in and what excites me. The underlying theme across the companies that I invest in is essentially in the strength of the founders. Obviously, it depends on the product, and if it is good or not. But strength of the founders is very important.
Any plans for India?
In 2007, I came back to India and tried (to do something) but found it very difficult. Besides, my network is in San Francisco. So if I have to start something, the first thing I need is people. And it is a lot easier to do things in the US.
You have also been involved in the FWD.us campaign on immigration. What are your thoughts on the US immigration Bill?
Silicon Valley is a very idealistic society. So FWD.us is a mission to step down from the idealistic world and do some real work. The mission is to boost the knowledge economy. Immigration is only one part of it, the other part of it is to figure out bipartisan policies to help include STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) studies in the education system. Immigration is a really hot topic and I am very satisfied with the senate Bill. I am hopeful that immigration reform will pass, even though right now Washington is divided.
What kind of trends you are seeing emerging in the technology space?
Genomics is going to be an extremely interesting space. It used to be really expensive to sequence genomes but the cost is coming down. Earlier they gave you a hard disk and there was no way to analyse that data. Now with cloud storage, processing and analytics, all that is going to change the field of medicine.
Education is another interesting trend. And it is going to be complicated and not going to be easy. It still remains to be seen whether working with the offline model is the best way to move forward or having online curriculum elements melded with it.
The third trend is cloud. In the next five years, this space will see a lot of action. One of the reasons why I sold my company to Dropbox was not because we needed the money or we weren’t doing well. It is because Dropbox is building collaboration software. And we wanted to use the platform that Dropbox already has and build on it. The most exciting thing about Dropbox is not that it is cloud storage or that people are storing data, but that we are going to have all this data about us—financial statements, electricity bills, school transcripts, photos, video, et al.—that will all be online.
What are your thoughts on privacy?
I have two thoughts, and they are not as mutually exclusive as people think they are. Privacy and security are really important and people should really take it seriously. Both governments and companies should always keep the end user in mind. I think it is also important to recognize that the world is becoming a more transparent place through technology. While the world is becoming more transparent, our privacy policies need to keep pace with them. Because if they don’t, we are just blocking progress. People think these two are mutually exclusive, but they are not. The interesting thing is that people are willing to share more if they feel safe. Policy should protect people.