As an innovative tech company, Cape Privacy relies on a diverse and skilled team of professionals who bring their talents to a highly collaborative environment. Through that collaboration we are building a platform that protects security by default with a novel combination of secret sharing and secure multiparty computation.
For women's history month, a number of our strong women talk about what inspires them about working in tech, how they overcame challenges in their careers, and their visions for what the future of engineering should look like. These fascinating conversations demonstrate the power of what's possible when you build a diverse workforce that values the contributions of people with different perspectives.
This women in tech dialogue is between senior data scientist and head of product Ellie Kloberdanz and Luisa Herrmann.
Ellie Kloberdanz: Could you tell me your name, what you do at Cape Privacy, and where you're from?
Luisa Herrmann: Sure. Luisa Herrmann, I'm the head of product at Cape Privacy. I was originally born in Brazil near Sao Paulo, and grew up there until I was about 18. Then moved to the U.S., and now I live outside of Boston, Massachusetts.
Ellie: I also moved abroad when I was 18, from Prague. I'm curious, how did you get into working in tech and product management?
Luisa: I was always interested in technology. I come from a family of engineers. My dad's an engineer, my uncle's an engineer. My cousin, my grandfather… we have a lot of engineers in the family. Science has always been a big part of my life, and I wanted to do something with science. I ended up getting a degree in chemical engineering, and I hate chemistry. So it was for no reason other than they told me it was the hardest engineering major, and so I figured if I could do that, then I could figure out what I wanted later. That was terrible advice, right?
I got a degree in engineering and specialized in process optimization. And then kind of took a weird turn into marketing, product marketing, and then found product management and really loved it because all the things that I really loved about process optimization in chemical engineering, you can do in pretty much anything that has a process to it. You understand the process, you map it out, you find where you have problems, you figure out how to solve those problems. And so I've kind of made a career out of joining companies at an early stage and establishing and optimizing product development processes and getting them set up for success.
Ellie: You can do anything with an engineering degree – you can go into business, you can go into STEM… So, I think that chemical engineering was a really good choice.
Luisa: That's what my parents always told me, which is definitely like a foreing kid thing, right? You can get an engineering degree and then go into business, but you can't get a business degree and then go into engineering.
Ellie: Absolutely. My undergraduate degree is actually finance, and while I was in finance, I saw that most people had a degree in physics or math or something like that. It seemed that a STEM degree was more beneficial than having a degree in finance.
Luisa: It's weird how that works. Majors don't really map to what you're going to end up doing with your life.
Ellie: So what inspires you about working in tech product management?
Luisa: Product touches every area of the organization. I have to know what's going on with engineering. I have to know what's going on with marketing. You have to know what's going on with finance. I have to go to all of the different areas. Before I was in product management, I would try to get involved with all of these things and people essentially told me to butt out. I got told, "This isn't your area."
I was doing marketing and I'd be asking, how are sales going? How is product development going? What are we prioritizing? And then I found out that all of that went through product management. A product manager isn't a dictator, it's about getting people on the same page, understanding what's going on, making sure that everyone is aware and communicating, and that priorities and expectations are set throughout the organization. It's always been my personality to talk to people and understand where they're coming from. I try to communicate to get people aligned, on the same page and get them moving towards a goal.
Ellie: It sounds like you made the right choice and you're happy with that. There are many people that spend a long part of their life trying to figure out what it is that they're passionate about.
Luisa: I've been in product management since 2015, so that's seven years now. I felt like I'd spent so much time trying to figure it out, but while I've only been in product management for seven years, the time spent before that wasn't a waste. It was just stumbling on the path to get here.
Ellie: Absolutely. I agree. I think it's really nice to have different perspectives and that getting any experience is not a waste of time. You know, you have that experience and you will bring that to your current job.
Luisa: Right. And that's what makes you better at whatever it is that you do as well. It's what makes you unique. No one has the same set of experiences. And so whatever you bring to the table, you know that no one else does it. Yeah, that's kind of nice.
Ellie: So what was it about specifically that you found compelling about Cape and why did you want to join the team?
Luisa: Before Cape, I worked for a company using symbolic AI for natural language processing. And before that I worked with CRM data validation and cleansing. One of the things that always struck me is how open data is for abuse. There is not a lot of privacy around data. Not enough regulation and controls to protect it. Then,when I started talking with Cape it was kind of like, "Okay. You're enabling people to run machine learning while keeping that data protected." When this happens, and the world sees that you can share and use data while preserving privacy? There's no going back to the old way. It's too important.I could see that Cape was at a fun stage of growth, with technology that works. And I could see that there was a talented,super motivated group of people who had fun working together, and I wanted to be a part of it. We have the potential to change the world, and change how data processing works in the encrypted space, so let's get it out there. The question wasn't, do I want this job, but how can I help make this happen?I was really passionate about that, and an anxious to come on board
Ellie: It sounds like you are really passionate about the topic. And I agree, privacy is important for both corporations and individuals – what we're doing can change the industry for the better.
You mentioned how much you like talking to different parts of the organization and being kind of the glue of the company. Could you elaborate on that? What is it that you find the most exciting about your job?
*Luisa:*The most exciting thing about my job is the people that I got to work with. That sounds hokey, but I like working with people that are passionate about what they do. It's really exciting because all of this progress is happening, and I'm helping to steer it. It's exciting to watch it happen, to watch all these talented people working together and trying to fix things and solve problems, and thinking things through. Different people with different perspectives all working together to solve the same problem. It's so incredible.
I was so excited about that. Like the whole time I was like, This is going to happen. This is going to happen. It's happening, it's out there. It's real, it exists. It's something that people can use. It's super exciting to be able to harness that energy and inspire people.
*Ellie:*On that note, what would be the most satisfying impact you could have here?
Luisa: I'm just trying to understand from a macro perspective, what are we trying to do? How does everybody play a part? And then direct people to those spots. And so it is super satisfying to watch all those people work together to deliver on something that no no single person can deliver on their own. Watching that come together, and being able to affect that in a positive way and keep people engaged and communicating and interested in the work that they're doing is super motivating.
Ellie: Yes, I think everybody at the company is very excited about the product and really wants to make it work and truly cares about the future of the company.
We've been talking about how your job involves looking at the macro picture and making sure everybody is working together and working on the right thing. What does your typical day look like?
Luisa: That's a great question because there is no normal day. I never know what a day is going to look like, and I like that a lot. It drives some people nuts, but I love it.
I start my day on Slack asking if anything's on fire, if anything broke, if anybody needs immediate help or an answer with something that came up while I wasn't paying attention. Email, same thing. But there are so few emails these days. And then a lot of my day is spent on meetings with people because a lot of what I do is trying to understand where people are, get status updates, and then get people on the same page. So the easiest way to do that is Slack and meetings. And I know everyone hates meetings, but I don't actually mind meetings, as long as they're productive.
But most of my time is spent understanding where people are, understanding their issues, understanding how to resolve issues, communicating what needs to get done, and making sure that progress is happening. I write documentation to make sure that all of those things are updated and make sure that everything is going smoothly.
Ellie: What are your hopes for the future of product management? The future of Cape Privacy?
Luisa: For Cape, that it becomes a privacy preserving technology that's used by everyone by default, and that it's a product that is ubiquitous. I hope to see us grow into a company that has a suite of products, and that each of the products have their own product managers. And like, it's a big, bustling team.
Ellie: Reflecting on the topic of the interview, only 14 percent of software engineers are women, and therefore, women represent a minority of the high tech workforce. What was it that attracted you to this industry?
Luisa: As I mentioned in the beginning, I come from a family of engineers. My father, my grandfather, my uncle, my cousin. All men. And in broader society there was this idea that as a woman, I shouldn't be doing these things. But it honestly never came up in my family. My mom is a doctor, so it was taken for granted that I would go into science or engineering in some form, regardless of the broader expectation. It wasn't until much later that I realized women were the minority in those fields.
The fact that only 14 percent of software engineers are women is depressing. That's a missed opportunity because women are really good developers. But part of the reason why I moved to the U.S. was actually because it was worse in Brazil. And so I think that it's better here, but it can always get better. I feel like I have some privilege in where I've gotten in my career, and I dedicate a lot of time and effort to mentoring women who are interested in the software industry, who are interested in product management specifically, to try to get them to stay. Because I think the problem is that, sometimes, women get into this industry and they don't stay, and we understand why that is. There's just not enough being done to combat that.
Ellie: I think that one thing we can do about it is to talk about it. So I think this is a great start, but there is no easy solution to this.
Luisa: When I hear the argument that it's because women just aren't good at it, that annoys me. The industry wasn't set up for women to succeed, and it has to change. It's not the women that have to change, it's the industry.
Ellie: I feel like I've been lucky enough that I didn't experience this. But there is definitely work to be done. On that note, what would you just say was the biggest obstacle for you in your career, and in breaking into tech?
Luisa: Actually, the biggest challenge that I face is not related to being a woman at all is the fact that I was an immigrant. Immigrating to the US is a pain, but startup culture in the U.S. was so much better than it was in Brazil 15 years ago. And so the biggest obstacle was being allowed to stay in the U.S. so that I could create a career here.
I have faced some gender discrimination, which was covered up nicely by the fact that I'm usually the youngest person doing my job, and so it was excused as because of my age and not because I am a woman. I'm working to help change that.
Ellie: Can you elaborate further on how you overcame those obstacles? You said you're helping others. But what did you do for yourself to overcome this?
Luisa: On Scandal, Olivia Pope says she has to be twice as good to get half as much as a man. And so I made sure that I was twice as good as everyone else. I learned how to document things really well so that no one could say I wasn't doing a better job than people older than me. I became much better at advocating for myself and having a loud mouth. That's what I'm known for now, but it wasn't always the case.
People shy away from confrontation, but confrontation is not necessarily a bad thing. And so shying away from it is sometimes worse than having a confrontation. And because women aren't known for having confrontations, I became better at speaking up for myself and other people, and being less tolerant of things that I saw as wrong. Being able to talk about things that are perceived as injustice or harassment or discrimination is very freeing once you start doing it. People don't like it, but it feels great.
Ellie: You definitely need to be brave to discuss those things in the open.
What has your experience been like since joining Cape?
Luisa: Oh, it's been amazing. We've launched products. We've worked on the technology. We're on a path. We have a roadmap. We're hiring great people like you. We are keeping the culture. I think when I joined, one of the big concerns was maintaining this culture of collaboration and people working together and trying to solve problems together. I think we've done that. I mean, I love Cape. I love the people that I work with. And we've only added more cool people to the team.
Ellie: We definitely have a unique set of people. And because we're remote, we are able to hire people from all over the world. Having people with different perspectives and different skills is powerful. If you have 20 of the same people, you're not going to achieve what we're trying to do.
The theme for International Women's History Month is Breaking the Bias, focusing on forging an inclusive, diverse and equal future between genders. What would you say is the most important action that needs to be taken to achieve this? And what should individuals and what should organizations do for that?
Luisa: People talk about bias a lot without understanding what it means or what it looks like. We had a meeting a while ago and we talked about unconscious bias and what it looks like, because it's not like people aren't trying to be biased. It really is unconscious. It's the assumptions that you make about people, especially women, and it's really hard to fight those biases. The best example that I've seen was a manager who was a woman who was trying to figure out who to send to a conference. One of the women on her team had just come back from maternity leave, so she immediately wrote her off. Then she thought about it and said, "Wait a second. Why did I make that assumption?" She assumed that because the other woman had just come back from maternity leave that she wouldn't want to go to a conference, even though she was the best person for the assignment. So she asked her and the other woman ended up going.
Organizations are just made up of people. Organizations don't make decisions, people do. So if you have people making decisions who have these biases, it's harder for women to break through if they're getting the wall built up that nobody even sees or talks about because it's unconscious.
People need to open their eyes and be aware of what this looks like, because otherwise it's not going to change because it's so ingrained in our culture. But even as a mom of a four year old boy, I already see it with the differentiation between boys and girls at school. If we don't address that at this basic societal level, it's going to be really hard to change it further on.
Ellie: I think you're right. It starts with individuals since individuals make up organizations; sort of a bottom up approach.
What would your advice be to women who are considering joining tech and product management in tech?
Luisa: Find a mentor! Someone who understands the challenges and is actively trying to change things, not someone who has accepted them as they are. Someone who speaks up and can help you speak up too and navigate this line of standing up for yourself without being looked at as the one who keeps complaining It's a hard line, but if you find someone who can help navigate that, it makes it a lot easier, especially if it's someone in the organization who can stand up for you.
Early in your career, it's really hard to stand up for yourself. And so finding someone who can teach you how to do that, and help you do it if it's the same organization, is amazing. That being said, I've never had a mentor like that, so I had to figure it out on my own; bump up against the walls myself. That's my recommendation. And that's what I try to do as a mentor now.
Ellie: Thank you. This is the final question. Can you tell me what you like to do in your free time? How do you like to unwind?
Luisa: I have a four year old, so there's not a lot of unwinding, but I do play Switch on my breaks. I'm playing Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I'm also reading The Eye of the World, the first book of The Wheel of Time series. And I am an enormous Lord of the Rings nerd, and I love dinosaurs. So in my free time, I take my kid to the Museum of Science pretty much every weekend. That's the beginning of his indoctrination. The scientist indoctrination.