There’s no question that Sowmya Subramanian has had an enviable career in tech: With both a bachelor’s and master’s in computer science, she has worked for tech titans like Google and Microsoft, been on the build of some of their most successful technologies like YouTube and Google Search—and is now EVP of Engineering at Discovery DTC, the technology arm of Discovery, Inc.
But it may come as a surprise that one of the skills Subramanian is most proud of is her creative problem solving, to which she thanks her liberal arts education. “Time and time again, what I have learned is, in addition to being a strong engineer or technologist, it is my liberal arts background (thanks to Mount Holyoke College) that allows me to stand out and uniquely drive impact.”
Here, Subramanian talks about the engineering culture at Discovery DTC, her goals as EVP of Engineering, and what skills she looks for in candidates joining her team.
Tell us about your career journey, and what inspired you to pursue a career in engineering.
My mother was a math teacher who made the subject really fun for me, and I always enjoyed math and physics. In high school, I got some exposure to programming and loved how you could take ideas and bring them to life using a computer—things like making the computer draw a portrait or solve hard math problems for you. This is what intrigued me and led me to get a bachelor’s in computer science at Mount Holyoke College, a liberal arts school in Massachusetts, and then a master’s in computer science at University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I have been in the tech industry ever since.
What led to your job at Discovery, and how did you know the company would be a good fit for you?
Prior to joining Discovery, I was at Google for 15 years, working in the intersection of technology, information access, and media. While there, I led the charge in defining Google Search’s path to modernize and transform their ecosystem strategy, launching a suite of products ranging from Google Web Stories to Journalist Studio to activating health authorities for timely COVID-19 response. I also founded and grew YouTube Kids, YouTube Music, and YouTube Live, and was critical to making paid subscriptions happen on YouTube. Prior to YouTube, I led engineering in Google Maps, where I defined and executed on their UGC and local business efforts.
When Discovery reached out to me, I was drawn by the potential to bring my technology experience to help transform the media industry and innovate on ways in which we can make the vast content library engaging and delightful for consumers. The company’s core values as I experienced through conversations I had with people at different levels also resonated with me. I could tell the company and the leadership here were both very experienced and humble, and had a combination of hunger to drive impact and a true growth mindset that is needed to be transformational. The company is also very committed to creating an inclusive and diverse culture and willing to try new ways of driving this.
You’ve been at the company for about five months. What are some of your short- and long-term goals?
I am loving my time here, drinking from the firehose. I also have defined a three-fold approach for both short- and long-term goals:
1. Strategy: My goal is to build a user-driven, shared strategy that the whole company can work toward, shift to defining the “what” and “why” before the “how,” and become more intentional about “buy, build, or partner” decisions.
2. Technology: My goal is to design for future scale while optimizing for today. I have increased investments in machine learning and data intelligence to drive differentiation, evolving our architecture for easy plug-and-play extensibility and maintainability, and focusing on building a strong foundation by burning down tech debt. I am also helping forge forward-looking research collaborations with universities (such as our partnership with Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA).
3. Operations and Culture: My goal is to shift from being reactive to proactive, and build bridges across different functions to ensure we have transparency and strong collaboration. There has been a lot of progress on this front already, including kicking off joint projects across different functions throughout the company. I have also started to get actively involved in our DEI efforts, including how we participate in women in tech conferences, building out university research and summer programs, and more.
How would you describe the engineering culture at Discovery?
We are extremely action oriented while keeping a very high bar for the quality of experience we deliver to consumers. We are also moving at a very fast pace—it feels like a startup within an established company. From an engineering perspective, it is very invigorating and engineers can drive outsized impact. The fast pace also results in us being reactive or incurring more tech debt than we would want to. This polarity is what we need to balance, and I am actively working to ensure we are building the engineering foundation that will be sustainable and scalable, and that we shift from reactive to proactive in our approach to solving problems, as there is a company-wide focus on improving operational excellence.
What do you love most about working in engineering?
I love using technology to solve real-world problems, and working in the intersection of technology and arts, which is why the work at Discovery is so much fun! I truly believe engineering is very interdisciplinary—more “Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math” than “S.T.E.M.”
What challenges have you faced as a woman in leadership in a predominantly male-led industry, and how have you overcome them?
As an international student, there is a piece of advice we were given during my undergraduate orientation that stuck with me: Many might be surprised by how well you speak English due to a lack of awareness, so when you get comments like, “You speak English so well” (which I have gotten), use it as an opportunity to educate by saying, “Thank you, and why would I not—I grew up learning and speaking English, just like you all.”
Similarly, there are many moments of conscious and unconscious bias that one experiences through their career—and it is important to call out such bias and educate rather than to get triggered or lose your self-confidence by it. When I was a junior software engineer, a very senior engineering leader in the company was surprised that I wrote such good code as a woman; instead of getting upset by it, I used the approach I had learned in college, and both thanked him and educated him that I had a master’s in computer science and was a fellowship recipient from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and that it had nothing to do with my gender. This leader both appreciated it and turned into one of my strongest advocates through my many years at the company.
These experiences are not unique to me, but hopefully they are becoming less common. This is why the work we do as an industry to drive inclusion and diversity in tech is so invaluable—as representation improves, we all benefit. Bias busting and always remembering to “turn and pull” and to “pay it forward” have been core to how I operate as a woman in technology. As I have grown in seniority, I leverage my platform of influence to effect change and always prioritize time to “turn and pull”—remembering that contributing even in a small way is better than doing nothing.
What advice do you have for other women who want to pursue a similar career path?
One size doesn’t fit all. Be yourself and know that there are several career paths in technology and engineering! Understand what your super powers are, own them, and apply them. Also, be open to learning new skills or new ways of doing things but do not change who you are at your core or second guess yourself. If you love problem solving and love technology, you can have an amazing career.
What skills have helped you succeed in your career?
I have always leaned heavily on my creative problem solving skills, ability to drive clarity, build trust with others, and see the forest for the trees. These skills, combined with my interest in applying technology, have served me well throughout my career.
I still remember, as a summer intern at Microsoft, I was designing a query component for Microsoft Access (their database offering for the masses)—though I was a software engineering intern, I tagged along to observe usability studies and how users were using our proposed prototype; this gave me insights into how to engineer an even simpler solution for users and that revision ended up making it into their Access Wizard capability!
Even as a leader, I listen to understand what our true business needs are, draw out what our key strategic priorities are, what would our users love, and then see how best to leverage technology and other resources across the company to solve for these. This ability to connect the dots, build bridges, and apply technology have proven to be invaluable.
Time and time again, what I have learned is, in addition to being a strong engineer or technologist, it is my liberal arts background (thanks to Mount Holyoke College) that allows me to stand out and uniquely drive impact.
What do you look for in engineering candidates? What can they do to stand out?
There are three main things I look for:
1. Computer Science Fundamentals: how strong are they on the engineering foundation concepts and understanding, regardless of years of experience.
2. Growth Mindset: Are they quick learners, do they reflect and learn from their success and misses, do they “listen to understand,” and are they able to adapt/be agile.
3. Team Player: their approach to collaboration, will they be a force-multiplier for the team and create an inclusive environment
While domain expertise is important, in many cases it is more of a nice to have, as long as the person is curious and eager to learn. Similarly, while years of experience is very valuable, I care more about potential.