When Anika Narayanan graduated from the University of Southern California in early 2020, she was greeted with a full time job opportunity from Disney as a voice user interface designer. But, before she was even able to begin, COVID-19 hit, causing Disney to close parks and furlough Narayanan’s entire department. She went from college graduate with a full time job offer to jobless in a matter of a week.
Like many college graduates during the height of the pandemic, Narayanan struggled to navigate this new way of life and cope with the fact that in-person work would no longer be a reality. But it wasn’t long before she landed a full time role with the adaptive response personality team at Amazon Alexa, jump starting her career in tech.
In her Diverse Voices 2022 talk titled, “Navigating an age-diverse workplace as a junior woman in tech,” Narayanan discussed her work journey, providing tips and guidance on how to self-advocate and build belonging in the virtual workplace.
Discovering new interests and carving out a career path
During Narayanan’s senior year at USC, she discovered an interest in virtual agent narrative design, which led her to pursue a graduate research assistant position with the Walt Disney Research and Development (R&D) team.
“As someone who entered this discipline without the benefit of learned experience from a more technical education, R&D was a really valuable environment, allowing me to be creative in the context of a very steep learning curve,” Narayanan said.
As a member of the R&D team, she learned industry-applicable technical skills and helped design virtual agent characters with a focus on interaction and emotion modeling.
“I was able to hone my interest in building emotionally intelligent virtual agents with a focus on rapport building and emotion modeling,” Narayanan said. “This role also taught me how someone with a humanities degree could bring value to an engineering team.”
Finding her place within a remote workplace environment
Although she was fortunate enough to land the position with Amazon, Narayanan shared that she felt isolated starting out completely remote and began experiencing burn out. She knew she needed help figuring out how to build relationships and elevate her skills but was lacking support and guidance.
“I experienced a failure to connect with colleagues,” Narayanan shared. “It is difficult to find allies and mentors when you’re not in an office with colleagues there to support you. I soon realized that there is nothing more important than fostering relationships with those around you to help you feel connected and grow in your career.”
In her talk, Narayanan shared three important pieces of advice that helped her locate support in the workplace and attain success.
The first piece of advice she mentioned is to find helpers. Although it can be difficult, asking for help will never hinder your success. In order for her to become a project manager—her current role at Amazon—with no prior experience, she needed to take every learning opportunity she could get, including shadowing colleagues and receiving mentoring from current project managers at the time.
The second point she made was to find—and eventually become—that empathetic leader.
“As a young woman in a predominantly male field, you are placed at inherent odds simply based on raw demographics,” Narayanan said.
Narayanan highlighted occasions where she faced bias and was made to feel subordinate to her colleagues. Rather than dwell on those experiences, she took them as examples of what type of leader not to be, and learned that leading with unwavering kindness and empathy was most effective.
Narayanan sought out senior women project managers who modeled great leadership for her to emulate as she stepped into project management.
The final piece of advice Narayanan shared was to get comfortable with change. Change forces you to leave your comfort zone and grow professionally and individually.
She reflected that she used to think of each career step as an endpoint, but has realized that there are no endpoints when it comes to your career and continual adaptation is necessary to grow and succeed.
Recognizing that many of her listeners are about to graduate and enter the workforce, she concluded on an encouraging note: “While it’s hard to feel confident in the world you’re graduating into, you should feel confident in yourself and your ability to grow in a temperamental environment.”
To watch Narayanan’s talk and the previous talk featuring industry leader Alexandra Navarro, visit the Baskin Engineering Youtube Channel.
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