New York City
After discovering a passion for computers at a young age, Swati Vauthrin has excelled in a traditionally male-dominated field. She is now a leader in the Engineering team at BuzzFeed, where she strives to create a career that will inspire her young daughter to be a leader one day, too.
Did you always know you would end up in New York?
I’m a born-and-raised New Jersey girl, so I knew deep down I would always end up back here. After graduating college, though, I opted to move to Seattle for a good chunk of my career.
Where did you go to school?
George Washington University, where I studied computer science. I was in university when the first Internet bubble burst. While I loved being in technology, it was impossible to get a job. All these companies that were hiring a year ago were folding. Speaking with my professors, I decided to continue my education and get a master’s in computer science. I got a teaching fellowship, and so I ended up teaching the same engineering orientation class that I had taken in my first year. It was very enlightening for me to be on the other side. Four years later, now I was standing in front of the students and helping shape their first few months at college.
What was it that lead you into engineering?
My parents were a big influence. They're both immigrants who came to America in the 1970s, so that my dad could finish his engineering studies. He was always interested in the next big thing in tech. When I was four years old he brought home a Commodore 64, which was a popular personal computer at the time. It was affordable for the most part, and came with a keyboard, monitor, and an easy-to-use operating system. So I was really entrenched in this world of computers from a young age. Throughout schooling, I always felt a natural affinity for working on a computer, whether it was for school or just tinkering on my own. Then, as I was graduating college, the Internet was really becoming a big thing. AOL was huge, and everybody was “getting online.” I just rode that wave.
Did going back to school give you time for the job market to get better?
It did, and it also helped me focus on what I wanted to do. After the bubble burst, everyone was asking a lot of questions. How do we use this powerful tool called the Internet? What is it going to do for us? Through the master's program, I got exposed to the open-source movement, and why it was so important.
What is open source?
Open source is software that is distributed under various licenses without a fee. People can incorporate it into their existing work. One of the biggest pieces of software that was driving this open-source movement at the time was Linux. Most of the Internet runs off Linux hardware.
So while I was learning about the importance of open-source software, I was also interning for a company that helped people build experiences on the web. We enabled communities to have classified websites for their towns or businesses. I was helping to build technology that allowed us to use the Internet in a better way.
Through that internship, I kind of found my calling. I knew I wanted to work on a product for the Internet. When I graduated, I chose to go to Seattle because a lot of amazing companies were based there. I went there without a job, but I landed one in three weeks!
I started off as a software engineer, building websites that supported car dealers and manufacturers. I worked there for just under three years, and then I wanted to see what else was out there. That's when the Walt Disney Company reached out to me. They had an office in Seattle that was focused on digital technology. That was my first foray into media.
Was it more creative?
Exactly. The digital technology we worked on touched every single Disney business unit. So I got exposed to not just the parks and resorts, but also their media properties like ESPN.
What sort of technology were you working on?
We would build various technology services that were going to enable these digital properties to push content out on their site, enable digital advertising, and incorporate video experiences.
Did you feel like media was a good fit for you?
Yes. I thought if there was one media company I was going to work for, this was the big one. It felt amazing to work for a company that created content that people really loved. I never want to create technology for a company that I don’t personally support.
I started to think that I might want to move back to the East Coast, and again the stars just aligned! ESPN had an opportunity in New York to be a leader on their international technology team.
What was it like finally moving to New York?
I loved it, but I was also working really hard. The job was so demanding. I also had to travel often to the ESPN campus in Connecticut. It was exhausting, but the rewards were great so I kept going. I got to work on some amazing projects, I got promoted to executive level. I got to travel the world, I went to the World Cup….
Emotionally and mentally, it was so challenging. But I felt like it was worth it, because it positioned me where I needed to be to take the next step, and taught me about doing things that I believe in. Many times, I was the only woman in the room. I had to prove myself a lot. It shaped me as a leader, an individual, and a contributor.
What led you to BuzzFeed?
I’d been working at ESPN for just under five years and for Disney together for almost 10. I recognized that I needed something new.
I started to look around at companies that I personally used and loved. BuzzFeed was a company that I really liked, so I reached out to their recruiters and asked if they had any openings. I got an email back saying they had nothing available. A few weeks later, after interviewing and meeting other companies, I wanted to try BuzzFeed again. They asked me to come in, so I interviewed and came onboard as Director of Engineering.
What an accomplishment!
It was! I was given the opportunity to be part of the team that would shape and influence what BuzzFeed technology is. That was two years ago now, and we’ve evolved so much in that time.
How would you describe what you do to a tech novice?
My job is to help build and grow our owned and operated platforms, so that includes BuzzFeed.com and our BuzzFeed apps. I run a team that is actually building user experiences for these. We thinking about how to engage users, how to attract users and keep them coming back. I get to work on things that people use everyday. If you go to BuzzFeed.com, my team has worked on most of what you are interacting with.
Now we're working on some new initiatives. BuzzFeed is starting to look at how we can create content around shopping, because we write about so many products and people look to us for our opinion and voice.
Are you still often the only woman in the room?
Well, the combination of tech and sports was often why I was the only woman in the room at ESPN. BuzzFeed is a bit different, and there are more women here. That being said, there are definitely large opportunities for us to get even more women leaders in the room. Our lead for tech is a woman. Her name is Dao, and she is one of the reasons why I am here.
One of my goals is to make sure that we are not only empowering women at the junior levels, but identifying opportunities for women in leadership roles. It is a challenge, because the women that we want in these roles are not applying for jobs. They are most likely at amazing jobs already. In addition, people don’t often equate media with tech. However, BuzzFeed is different. We are a tech-driven media company. We are leading the path for the ways that content is created and distributed. A big part of our strategy is building a BuzzFeed tech brand, and making sure that people know why they should come work for us.
Your parents must be super proud. You mentioned they were immigrants; do you feel like that also shaped where you are today?
Their work ethic and motivation definitely shaped mine. When they moved here, they didn’t have any extended family to lean on. We only had each other as a family. Growing up and seeing that type of strength, determination, and motivation was amazing. I feel so fortunate that they were able to do that for us as children. They really helped create this dream for us to chase.
And now you are also a parent!
Yes, my daughter is 18 months old. I was actually pregnant when I was interviewing for jobs. It was interesting timing, but it was a decision I made because I was debating on whether my job should dictate motherhood, or I should just do what I needed to do. I was ready to be a mom, and I was going to go down that path. I would make my career coincide with that. So when I started at BuzzFeed I was six months pregnant. I let them know on my second day of work. The response I got was so amazing. That made me want to do even better work, because I knew that I had the support of my leadership and my team. But at the same time, I had three months to really prove my worth because I was going to go on maternity leave.
When I had my daughter, I knew that I had to be an amazing role model for her. And that means showing her what is possible, and what she can be capable of. I have great role models in both my mom and sister. My mom just retired last November, after working for 42 years. I felt like she helped give me this drive that I have, and I really want to pass that to my daughter. My sister is a mother of 3 and works full-time as well. She does it all! She is someone I often look to for inspiration, support and can always lean on her.
The classic question: How do you balance everything?
I am very thankful that BuzzFeed has allowed me to succeed at being a mom, just as much as I have been able to grow here in my career. But it’s not easy. Everybody's transition back to work is different as a mother. I personally wanted to nurse my daughter for the first year, and it was hard but I did it. I put in my calendar the times that I needed to pump during the day, and people knew not to disturb me during that time. I was very upfront with everybody. Transparency is scary to have but necessary—you don’t want people to assume you aren’t doing enough, or you are getting off easy because you are taking time to do these other things. I also told people I need to leave at 5pm. But then to balance that out, most nights I get back online after everything is done at home and I work for another two hours. I want to make sure that I’m still giving 100 percent.
It has been incredible watching my daughter grow. Anytime I do something now, I think about her and how I want her to see me when she is older. I want her to know that she can be whatever she wants to be when she grows up.
What is the best piece of advice you could give?
There are two pieces. The first piece of advice: As a leader, hire people who are smarter than you. They are going to help you do your job better. You, in turn, can help empower them.
The second piece of advice I got from Dao, who is also a mother. She told me that if I was going to be a working mom with a career, I should put all I can into work when my child is young. Early in your baby's life, a lot of things can be outsourced. It sounds terrible, but it’s true. They aren’t yet struggling with school, or bullies, or emotional issues. If you take advantage of that during those early years, then you can build a good foundation with your employer. So that when you do need that time later on, it is easier to ask for. When she first gave me that advice, I didn't really know how to take it. But now that I am in it, I completely understand. Thank you Dao!
What does New York mean to you?
New York has enabled me to have what I have right now. For me, New York is a great balance of being able to work at a great company, being close to my family, and being able to provide a really incredible early childhood to my daughter. Everything is within reach.