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RTC Conversation with Zia Williams: SVP at Two Sigma Hailing from Nigeria

“RTC Conversations” is an interview series with mentors and advocates of Rewriting the Code. The series is spearheaded by two RTC alumnae Lucy Zhang, a software engineer at Apple, and Alice Chen, a software engineer at Two Sigma.

Zia Williams is an Engineering Manager and Senior Vice President at Two Sigma. We spoke with Zia over Google Meet about her experience as a woman in technology.

L: What does a typical week at Two Sigma look like for you?

I have a lot of meetings including One-on-Ones with engineers, alignment meetings with various partners, discussions to refine product and tech strategy, and discussions with HR about the growth and development of my people. I also block some time every week to focus on initiatives to improve diversity recruiting outcomes now that I started serving on the steering committee of one of our ERGs (Employee Resource Groups) BE@TS (Bridging Ethnicities at Two Sigma).

L: Do you still have time to code?

Not frequently, but I try to do one or two small projects each year that bring me closer to what my team is doing. For example, I recently automated reminders around our unresolved support threads with some really bad Python code (laugh). If my team has complaints about our SDLC (Software Development Life Cycle) workflow, I’d get a better sense of what I should be discussing with our SDLC partners by experiencing that workflow.

L: We see you work in Modeling Engineering at Two Sigma. What does that mean?

Modeling Engineering is focused on delivering a set of high-level capabilities that enable the research workflow end-to-end, including data access, transformation, learning and fitting, simulations, and model productionizing. We also work closely with Platform Engineering, which provides the foundational infrastructure that we use to enable high-level capabilities for modelers. I moved to Modeling Engineering from my previous role leading Network Engineering because I wanted to continue to build on my leadership skills. I naturally like to dig really deep, which I still do in my One-on-Ones now, but it’s good that my current role forces me to think more broadly and solve problems across different domains.

L: How did you get into Computer Science?

My dad made me (laugh). I’m Nigerian and came here when I was 19. I come from one of those cultures where you’re going to be either a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, or an accountant…a short list of desirable occupations. Luckily, I am interested in how things work. I was asking a lot of questions that took me really deep down the stack and ultimately led me to Network Engineering: What is happening behind the scenes when I go to a website? What is WiFi? How are things getting transmitted in the air and getting to their destinations?

L: As a woman in tech, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered?

The obvious ones that many have pointed out: not having representation in many ways impacts how you see yourself, how you see your progression, and what you think is possible to you. I was lucky I had some really good champions, mentors, and managers along the way. I’d also seen a lot of fellow Nigerians back home in various roles that made me feel confident about my own path and abilities.

The other thing that we can maybe all relate to is (and this happened earlier in my career) feeling the need to prove myself more so than my male peers. In Network Engineering, we regularly held meetings with external vendors. Oftentimes, the vendors would direct a question at someone who reported to me when the question was really meant for me—they assumed that I was not the person in the leadership role.

Those were challenges that over time I learned to work through because the place I never want to find myself is where my energy and time are spent thinking about perceptions. If I’m distracted in a meeting because someone was being sexist, then I’m not my best self because I’m focused on that instead of the content of the meeting. I really had to learn how to channel that.

A: Tell us more about your involvement with BE@TS.

I, like many others, had a re-awakening after George Floyd’s death. At the time, I wanted to find another Black woman leader at Two Sigma to talk about how I was feeling and how we could engage our respective teams. I looked around and didn’t find many. I then chatted with BE@TS leadership to express my interest in recruiting initiatives, and they were very excited to have me on board to figure out how to engage our community in ways that improve diversity.

I love the BE@TS mission—bridging ethnicities—it’s strongly aligned to what I’m passionate about and glad that Two Sigma is committed to improving Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) and gives employees a way to contribute to these efforts through our ERGs.

A: Did you ever find balancing work and life hard?

Yes. It is especially hard in the work-from-home setting because those boundaries are a lot more blurred, especially when you have a preschooler. That said, Two Sigma has been really great in providing resources. Two Sigma asked us to pick out a wellness gift for ourselves; some got a rowing machine. I also found an amazing sitter through a Two Sigma program. I’m glad to work at a company where some of that pressure is lifted with small perks.

L: What do you like to do outside of work?

I enjoy scooting with my son. He’s a pretty good scooter. The other day I flipped and hurt myself really badly while trying to catch up with my four-year-old.

I also watch a lot of TV, maybe more than I should, including questionably good Netflix shows like Bridgerton. You create time for the things that are important to you. Apparently TV is really important to me (laugh). I find the time when everyone else is sleeping.

Since the pandemic, my mom, dad, two sisters and I have been getting together on Zoom for three hours every Sunday. Most of my family are in Nigeria so it’s really nice to catch up with them on Zoom every week over snacks and drinks.

A: What advice would you give to your 24-year-old self?

Worry a lot less. I took everything so seriously—myself, my job, my personal relationships… There was some benefit to that, but now I have real things to take seriously, like my four-year-old (laugh). I’d tell my 24-year-old to worry less, experiment more, and try out different experiences and opportunities.

A: Where do you see yourself in the future?

I see myself leading larger teams at Two Sigma in the near term. In general, I’m happy in my new role in Modeling Engineering and excited to take on broader responsibilities and grow with this organization. I’m also happy and hopeful about the path we’re taking to improve D&I.

Longer-term, I see myself being more engaged with external communities beyond Two Sigma. I would like to learn more about other companies’ D&I efforts and become more outward-facing to help make a bigger impact.

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