Deepa Subramaniam, the Director of Product at charity:water, is always looking for ways to push herself both personally and professionally. When Deepa is not building awesome products with impact at charity:water, she makes time to meditate, do yoga, attend tech meetups, and set daily goals for herself. After taking a computer science class at U.C. Berkeley, Deepa discovered her natural passion and made a career out of it by working at Adobe and moving up the ranks. However, despite growing up, going to school, and working in California, Deepa recognized that it was time for a change and moved to New York City for an entirely new adventure in the non-profit world. Determined to continually challenge herself and live a full life, Deepa is incredibly inspiring and is living proof that you can wear many hats, be hardworking, stay involved in the community, remain curious, and in an effort to grow as a person, leave your comfort zone and embrace the unexpected.
Carpe Juvenis: How do you define ‘Seizing Your Youth’?
Deepa Subramaniam: I think youth is subjective. I have met people who are the most youthful, joyous 60-year-olds and I have met 18-year-olds who feel as hardened and put upon by life as older people. Youth is what is in your heart, not your age – it’s how you feel.
I think it’s so weird when people are embarrassed about their age, it’s just a number. There are people who look 20 and are actually 40. I think age-based shame is a bad thing in our culture, and something we all should help nix. I remember being super excited about turning 30. I was really proud of what I had accomplished by 30 and I am excited about the next 30 years.
Seizing your youth is taking advantage of every single day that you have available to you. Make the most out of the time that you have. Just do and create and put things out in the world. Don’t worry about whether it is finished or polished and what other people are going to think. Live a fulfilling life and take advantage of your youth. I look back on times when I wasn’t learning or doing or creating, and that is a real bummer.
CJ: You majored in Computer Science at U.C. Berkeley. How did you determine what to study?
DS: I started school undeclared though a lot of people thought I would be a lawyer. I was good at science and math, but I wasn’t sure if that was what I wanted to do with my entire life. When I went to school, I realized that science was where my natural skill and interests lay. I had no idea about computer science at all. My sister studied computer science and she kept telling me to take a CS class. I shunned that for whatever reason – sometimes being told what to do by a family member is the best way to not do something.
So I started off studying physics. And I found astronomy really interesting. I finally gave in to my sister’s advice and took an introductory computer science class. It was so fun that it didn’t even feel like school! There was a lot of problem-solving and my brain was able to solve these programming puzzles without it feeling like a lot of effort. I guess that’s natural passion, and it was the first time I ever experienced that. This was late in my second year, but I decided to switch majors because I felt like that was the right thing to do. It took me four and a half years to graduate.
CJ: What made you interested in studying engineering?
DS: I like the problem-solving aspect of it. I was interested in how to make things better, how things work, and analyzing the natural friction point in systems. Computer programming was really fun and it didn’t seem like hard work so that was the best engineering pursuit for me. I thought that it would be amazing if I could make a life out of it. I read something recently about Jerry Seinfeld where he said he chose comedy because it seemed like the farthest thing from work for him. Problem solving through programming or technology is like that for me.
CJ: What does it mean to be an engineer?
DS: Engineering is so broad, there are so many different applications of it. I think engineering and being an engineer is about making systems better, whether the system is an airplane, a building, or a software program. Taking the time to understand and propose the right changes to make to a system – that’s engineering.
CJ: You recently moved to New York City from San Francisco to be the Director of Product at charity:water. What has your experiencing moving to the East Coast been like?
DS: I was born and raised in California, went to school there and I worked there for a very long time. I’ve basically always been at minimum, an hour away from family, friends, and parents. Moving to the East Coast was an intentional decision in order to challenge myself to see if I could thrive away from them. It’s a weird thing to admit in your thirties, but that’s just the case. I wanted a personal challenge and I wanted to try being in a new city with a new job in a new domain. I thought I was getting too soft and too comfortable in San Francisco so I wanted to change it up and rely on my inner hustle.
Also, New York is so inspiring right now for anyone interested in design, technology, or creativity. I think what’s happening in New York at this time is what the people a generation before me experienced in Silicon Valley. The energy around New York’s tech & creative communities is addictive and truly energizing.
CJ: What does your job as Director of Product at charity:water entail?
DS: Product is such a broad term. I work closely with our amazing creative and engineering teams to build out products so that it is the best experience for our supporters. As Director of Product, I help road map and improve products in our portfolio so we can raise more money and help provide more people with clean and safe drinking water. With the right products, we can connect money easier to the field so that we are building and sustaining more water projects for longer and ultimately giving more clean water to more people.
Right now I focus on what we can do online, such as our donation flow, our fundraising platform, and the educational components of our website. By having people learn and understand the water crisis, we want to inspire them to act, whether that’s through giving money, fundraising, or just spreading the word about the water crisis.
As a product manager, I analyze data to figure out where our customers are successful and where they are not and how our products should grow. My job synthesizes different aspects of the business from engineering to creative to data analysis.
CJ: You used to work at Adobe. What skills did you bring from Adobe to charity:water?
DS: I was at Adobe for a long time. I was a lead engineer and then switched over to technical product management. I definitely think people should work multiple jobs and work a variety of jobs in their lifetime. Going from a large, corporate company to a small, non-profit has been really interesting. At Adobe, I learned about working in large teams, how to clearly define what the goals and key initiatives are, how to report back to people, and how to ask for what you need to be successful in ways that are going to be met with action.
The people I worked with at Adobe are a very mature group, so I grew up in a business environment but also had a lot of fun. I learned about quality software development, mixing quantitative and qualitative skills, and how to use data to improve products. Because of my time at Adobe, I came to charity:water with a solid foundation and confidence so that was definitely a good transition.
CJ: What do you love most about working at charity:water?
DS: It’s so meaningful day in and day out. The people I work with and the work that we’re doing is incredibly inspiring. There are so many creative, smart young people who could be working elsewhere but chose every day to work at charity: water. We are all here working on something that will hopefully outlast all of us. That passion and commitment is rare, and to see that among a group of 50 people is fascinating.
CJ: What does a day in your life look like?
DS: I’m up pretty early. I like to stretch and try to do a little meditation, 8-10 minutes per day. It helps me find balance and composure in a busy day. I come into work and then the busy day begins. I meet with my team, discuss on-going projects and get a sense of what is most important to accomplish that day. This is a habit I have formed, where I jot down 5 things I want to accomplish that day – both personally and professionally – and anything beyond that is cake. I power through things based on that list and work tends to fly by.
I tend to do many more things with my day in New York than in San Francisco. I’ll go to a design or tech talk, meet friends for dinner, or go to yoga, and then try to get home at a decent time so I can get more sleep. As I’ve gotten older, I have become more dogmatic about self-care. When I was younger, exercise, eating well, and quality alone time was not as high on my list.
To achieve long-term goals, you need the discipline of being able to achieve wins in much smaller increments. So I rely on daily rituals and weekly rituals to keep me focused. If you’re consistent about accomplishing those rituals and are defending them from change or competing priorities, that cadence and discipline will translate to hitting year-long goals. Be critical about what goes on your daily list of things to accomplish. If something isn’t a “hell yeah” I want to do this, then it doesn’t go on the list. I am more careful about the time and energy that I put into something and that means I am ultimately happier with the outcome of my days.
CJ: What is the best moment of your career so far?
DS: So many, I feel blessed. I have just worked with so many great people. One of the things I am most proud of is when my co-workers and I had an idea about a new tool and we pitched the idea to Adobe executives. I convinced them that there was a real need and opportunity and that I was the right person to run it from an engineering and technical perspective. I built a team of engineers and then most of our managers forgot about us till we debuted the tool at our annual user conference. We sneaked the tool and it was met with such excitement and ended up having a great release. That is where I learned that with a little space, a team, and a high dose of passion, we could take something from idea to execution quickly.
That tool, by the way, is called Adobe Scout.
CJ: What advice would you give teenagers or young adults who are interested in being engineers?
DS: There are so many ways to learn about design and technology. You can buy a book, take a class, or just jump in and start playing. The barrier to entry is a lot lower.
Even if you have a tiny bit of interest in programming or design – just try and learn it. A quick Google search will help you find those resources or a local meet up to learn with other people in a social environment. If that hunger comes from within instead of having to create it, then you’re on the path to working on something with passion.
CJ: Did you face any adversities in the workplace or school for being a woman in a predominantly male profession?
DS: There have been situations where something has happened which made me feel weird. Things that I shrugged off in my twenties are things that I would challenge now. For the most part, though, I have been surrounded by amazing people, both male and female. I always intentionally sought out great people to be around, both in school and work. Here’s one bit of advice: don’t wait for someone to ask you if you need a mentor. Go up to people you admire and ask to them to mentor you – you’ll be surprised how often people say yes.
CJ: You are a South Indian Classical dancer. How long have you been involved with dancing and how has it impacted your life?
DS: I still dance and have started choreographing a bit more. I have been dancing since I was six-years-old. Having a creative and artistic outlet has been incredibly important for me. Dance is so great, it teaches you composure, it’s physically great exercise, and it is a great mixture of expression and movement. There are so many amazing dance communities in New York – I love it. I would not be the person I am today without having a creative outlet that I love, which for me was dance. It is a great way to play when you’re not working on your other passions.
CJ: What motivates you in your everyday life?
DS: I don’t like to do the same thing, I like to do a bunch of different things, such as write a book, do a dance show, ship a great product, etc. Learning new things is how I define growing, and growing is what motivates me. I want to squeeze as much as I can out of every day!
CJ: What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
DS: I would tell myself that it’s okay to break some rules and not do the things that you think you are expected to do. Do things that you think are expected of you only if they are in alignment with who you are and what your core values are. So I guess I would tell myself to rock the boat a bit more.
Another bit of advice is that you don’t learn nor do you get better without making mistakes. I still make mistakes every day, and that’s a good sign. In the moment it might feel uncomfortable, but I look back on it and realize that those moments translated to real growth. Force yourself to make mistakes when you’re younger because the bandwidth to recover is so much higher.