Daring Women Q&A: Billie Sue Chafins, Vice President of Software Development at Hulu

"I think many women have experienced similar internal conflicts about how to be successful and grow our careers while still staying true to ourselves."

Our latest installment of the Daring Women Q&A series features Billie Sue Chafins, vice president of software development at Hulu.

Read about the challenges she’s faced in her industry, her mentors and her advice to women starting out in their careers.

1. Tell us about the high point of your career. What do you love about your work? Describe your proudest moment.

Shipping Hulu with Live TV was one of the major high points of my career because it was a monumental task. Building Live TV meant rebuilding our entire stack and re-architecting our systems. We added an entirely new product line to our current offering and did this in just two years and doubled the tech team in this time frame to make it happen. It was a new business model the company had to consider and it affected every single person at Hulu across both the tech and business teams. This project pushed me to grow as an individual and scale the team and product in ways I hadn’t before.

Beyond shipping live, some of my proudest moments have been when I see the impact of mentoring and growing someone. Helping guide my mentees and see them start taking risks and growing their own careers, that’s a wonderful feeling.

2. What challenges have you faced as a woman in your industry? How have you addressed them?

When I first started my career in tech as a young woman, it was challenging being seen as the “girl” and not being taken seriously. I was aware that I wasn’t part of the boys’ club and it was not easy being the only woman in meetings. Twenty years ago, I looked around the room and didn’t see anyone else like me and didn’t have that many female role models. You start feeling like you need to assimilate to become part of that club to move forward and be successful at work.

I think many women have experienced similar internal conflicts about how to be successful and grow our careers while still staying true to ourselves. As an introvert and someone who is more softspoken, this was a challenge for me. I’d get advice to be more confident, but that wasn’t actionable feedback. Did that mean I needed to be more outspoken during meetings? Did that mean I needed to be more forceful or louder?

With my personality, these were not techniques I could directly implement, so I started finding ways to be heard without changing my personality and core values. That’s why I tell my teams and mentees - you don’t need to change who you are to be successful. There are ways that you can be heard, and managers should also be thoughtful in their feedback to employees to ensure it’s actionable and concrete.

3. Tell us about a person who has inspired or mentored you. What key lesson did you learn from them?

My first female manager and one of my first mentors was Julie Larson-Green. I worked for her for about 10 years at Microsoft and she really helped me build my confidence and opened doors to amazing opportunities. As a manager, Julie would always call out a job well done and give me credit in front of my peers and was a strong influence in paving my career path. She helped me come into my own and be confident in my abilities and myself.

4. What advice would you give to a woman getting started in her career?

It’s critical to find mentors and role models at the start of your career. Especially in tech, women don’t have as many female mentors that they can go to for support, to rant to, or to ask questions of. While you can go ask for advice or answers from your male coworkers, there is something different about speaking with a woman mentor, especially from the start. I think mentorship makes a difference in women joining and staying in technical careers.

Also, be yourself. Recognize who you are, what you want and what tactics you need to develop to stay true to yourself and still be successful.

5. What can women do to improve gender equity in the workplace? What can men do?

It’s important to provide opportunities for mentorship and support and also create an environment inclusive to all. Hulu does a great job with this through our internal women’s organization called Hula, which helps connect women at the company and offers mentorship and support. We’ve also been hosting something called the Storyteller Series, which brings in speakers to discuss topics around inclusion, diversity and bias in the workplace. Activities like these show women (and other groups) that we acknowledge their unique challenges, appreciate their differences and are here to offer support. We’re all trying to provide an environment that supports equality.

For men, there is an aspect of helping them become allies and defining what this means. We need to help them understand the challenges women face — challenges they may be unaware of — and give advice on how to support and mentor the women on their team. You need to give women credit, give them visibility and help them get their perspectives communicated during meetings to make sure they’re heard. I often find that men truly want to address this problem, but they just don’t have an understanding of the unique challenges women face. We don’t do enough to explain the challenges in a way that isn’t accusatory or makes them feel like they’re the bad guy. We have to create an environment where we can ask questions that may be a little uncomfortable to build understanding and create a dialogue.

6. Tell us about a favorite book/show/podcast and why/how it inspires you.

Lately, I’ve been listening to HBR’s Women at Work podcast. It puts into words the things that a lot of women and men experience and gives actionable advice on how to tackle it.

7. Where do you find support and inspiration? How important is networking and how do you expand your contacts?

Support and inspiration comes from my husband. He’s my biggest ally, supporter, fan and cheerleader!

I am also part of this brunch club that’s a very strong “Lean In” circle. We’re a group of women who all started in tech about 15 to 20 years ago and we’re now all leaders throughout the tech community in Seattle. This group is important to me because I admire and look up to the women so much and we do a ton to support each other. For example, if one of us is looking for new hires, we’ll leverage this network and try to find more women or diverse candidates. It’s so important to have your tribe, and this brunch club is my tribe and I find a lot of inspiration from them.

8. What are the most important characteristics of a good leader? What leadership traits are overrated?

Being a good listener, being empathetic and being genuine are super important. You need to let people on your team shine, let them try, fail, learn, and coach them through all of that. And you need to provide them vision, direction and motivation, while trusting and empowering them to deliver.

This is more of a misconception than an overrated trait, but some leaders think they need to have all the answers. They’re not listening to their teams or to context and they become disconnected. Leaders are always told they have to be biased toward action, but if you move too quickly, you can sometimes make uninformed decisions.

9. What would you do differently in your career if you had a do-over?

There are times in my career when I got a bit complacent and comfortable. If I had a do-over, I would recognize when change was needed and would have taken risks sooner, whether that was moving teams at Microsoft or moving to a company like Hulu.

Daring Women Q&A responses have been edited and condensed.

We’d love to hear from more women across all industries who are challenging the status quo. Does it sound like you? If it does, click here and fill out our questionnaire. Feel inspired? Join us for our second Daring Women event in May 2019, date TBD.

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