Operator Spotlight: Technical Leader Nancy Wang

Looking for practical help and advice on an operational area that may be outside your realm? Each month we spotlight one of our talented operators, who’ll share their expertise and offer insights and ideas that may help improve your own operations. This month we spoke to Nancy Wang, the General Manager of Data Protection and Governance services at Amazon Web Services.  

You oversee a tremendous amount of technical operations at AWS Backup, which in turn has a tremendous customer base, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. How has working remotely affected your operations? Do you have any lessons learned as we all start to think about a “back to work” structure? 

NANCY: Software businesses like AWS are fortunate in that I don’t think remote work hasn’t really affected our day-to-day operations. We now have a better appreciation for which tasks can be taken “offline” and handled asynchronously, and which tasks actually need everyone to show up in a single conference room. As we’re finding out, building software is an extremely team-oriented sport that requires many parallel threads. For that reason, I’m eagerly anticipating the day when I can collaborate with my team and other cross-functional teams in real-time, physically together. 

What are some things product and engineering teams should prioritize over the next 6 months? 

NANCY: Product teams should prioritize meeting customers where they are, whether that means meeting them in their old offices, new offices, or continuing to meet online. There’s no substitute for earning trust with customers by spending time with them. 

Engineering teams should prioritize supporting each engineer as an individual. I’ve found through my career that engineers tend to have less awareness of what they want for themselves (both professionally and personally) than their counterparts in other job families. Exercises like self-authoring (where they deliberately write about what makes them happy) can really help engineers and their managers understand what kind of experience each engineer wants, plus drive greater job satisfaction and retention. 

What will change for technical leaders post-COVID, and what’s here to stay?

NANCY: One of the themes I’m tracking is whether COVID causes the geographic dispersion of technical talent away from Silicon Valley and the Pacific Northwest, and what that means for technology leaders. AWS is investing in HQ2 in Crystal City, Virginia, and many tech companies are moving to Austin. Boston, because of its proximity to MIT and Harvard, has historically attracted talent as well. The question is whether the new leaders in these places will develop into equally influential tech leaders, or whether they will advance their careers by moving west.

You founded Advancing Women in Tech (AWIT) in 2017 to empower women throughout their technical careers. What was the impetus for starting this organization? 

NANCY: When I started at Google, while the leadership was excellent, there were no immediate female leaders for me to look up to. Several female colleagues and I decided to create an open community of role models, so future women entering this field can have access to more mentors for their own careers. I’m proud to say that hundreds of women in the AWIT community have now gotten promotions and raises. My philosophy has always been: if men can refer one another for promotions and roles in their communities, why not expand this club to include women? Enter AWIT. 

What’s one piece of advice you’d offer other women looking to build a career in product or engineering?

NANCY: My advice to anyone, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds, is to be persistent and have grit. If you truly want something, you can’t let rejections or mean words from others distract you from your career goals.  

What’s one thing leaders can do to foster teamwork and a sense of belonging right now? 

NANCY: Our leaders are here to create the vision of the future and to advance everyone – customers, potential customers, and team members – toward that vision. So leaders need to be careful about being drawn into tactical issues, no matter how tempting, until everyone else on the team has tried to solve it but failed. If they are constantly dealing with a particular customer, employee, or project, then everyone else – particularly high-performing team members – will notice and naturally ask, “Where is my leader?” and “What’s my future here?” 

AOC often talks about the skills she picked up as a bartender, and others talk about what they learned working retail. What were some of those formative jobs for you?

NANCY: Out of college, I was recruited to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where I helped build healthdata.gov. This was a formative experience because it changed my professional emphasis from becoming a doctor to becoming a technologist. I’m happy to see schools and nonprofits introduce technical training earlier in girls’ educational journeys, so that some of them have the same realization.

What’s your secret super power?  

NANCY: Discretion. If your super power is secret, you shouldn’t talk about it 🙂

(Jokes aside, empathy. It will help you get through the toughest trials of management and later on, leadership, when you are managing managers of managers.)

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