I met Bonnie many years ago when we were much younger. We were busy creating paper people out of neon printer paper. I haven’t seen or talked to Bonnie since that day — but I am so glad we reconnected. She is doing amazing things for women in the tech industry. The tech industry is known for being male-dominated, but like other industries its slowly trying to achieve gender equality. However, the most significant shift is happening because of women like Bonnie.
Lauren Elizabeth: Tell us about yourself.
Bonnie Sarmiento: After 12 years of being a software engineer, I made the switch to product management eight months ago. Early in my career, my passion was to learn technology. Over time, I realized I could make a bigger difference in a management role. I’m now managing both people and product, and I am more fulfilled in my career than ever before.
LE: During our discussion, you mentioned that you "stay and fight for what I believe in." Can you explain what that means to you?
BS: I started a volunteer project at Walmart called PRISM (Predictive Risk Intelligence SysteM) which utilizes machine learning for early issue detection and root cause analysis for disruptions in the order lifecycle. The project was founded by myself and a group of women engineers. Over time, we also added a couple of male contributors. Once the project gained success and visibility, certain managers came in with the intention to kick all of the women off of the team and replace them with male engineers who were “more suited” to the project, without even understanding what the project is. No concern was given to the women contributors or their efforts, and there wasn’t an honest assessment of their skills. I spoke up and made it clear that this is not acceptable and is against our company’s policies. And to this day, when managers try to schedule meetings excluding the women, I will add the women, and ask them to speak for their areas of expertise. If they are removed. I add them back. If they are removed a hundred times, I will add them back a hundred times. If they are forced to work on other tasks in order to suppress their voice, I will delay the meetings until after hours so they can attend. Gender-equality and fairness are things I will not compromise on.
LE: Also, you mentioned that after a reorganization at work, you questioned yourself. What was it like going through that period?
BS: There have been two times I’ve questioned myself in my career, both times after a major reorg. The first time it happened, I was in shock. I went from working in a very healthy and productive team to working in a very disorganized and political environment. I questioned my entire existence. Maybe tech was evil, and I should go back to school and become a doctor! After many months of things not getting better, and most of my coworkers leaving, I left and joined a startup. I decided I needed to be around people who were passionate about technology again. Once I changed jobs, it didn’t take long for me to be inspired again. The second time it happened, I was not so surprised as I had been through it before. I recognized the signs: dishonesty, people operating in silos, no concern for others, a lot of good people leaving. I got my stuff together and was ready to leave. I had offers. But before any major change, I’ve learned it’s important for me to meditate and seek spiritual guidance. One day, during a period of quiet contemplation, I heard, “Go back. Your work isn’t finished here. You have to go back.” I was told what I was to do, and who I was supposed to work with. This time, rather than leave, I would transform my work environment. So I came back.
LE: What are the top five takeaways you've learned in your career?
BS: Five Things I Learned
Know yourself. Know your strengths, your weaknesses, what motivates you, what ticks you off. Every person is a manager - a manager of one. To effectively manage yourself, you have to understand how you operate in the world. And then no one else’s criticism can stop you because you are your own worst critic. If someone tells me, “You’re an idiot.” “You’re not good at product management.” “You’re selfish and arrogant!” None of these things will stick because I know for sure that’s not me. If someone says, “You suck at car maintenance!”, “You couldn’t cook a pot roast if your life depended on it!”, I will say, “Yes, I agree. That’s why I hire people to do it for me.” I have no time to cook anyway. First thing I tell anyone who wants to date me is “If you’re expecting me to cook for you, you might starve to death.” Fact.
Listen. Great leaders listen to the needs of their people. Great product managers listen to the market. Great engineers listen to other engineers. Great managers listen to the people they manage. Great dancers listen to the music. There is so much hype around being the first to ‘create something new.’ Forget about trying to create something. Listen to whatever is right in front of your face. Then, what needs to be done becomes obvious. And after you save the world, don’t forget to thank the people who helped you along the way.
Don’t wait for permission. I see so many people, especially women, looking to the outside for someone to give them an opportunity, to tell them they are ready. It is part of our social conditioning. Women are taught to be humble, to support others, not to promote ourselves. Men are pressured to act tough, always to have the answers, to be ‘the boss’ even when they don’t want to. We end up with a lot of women stuck on the bottom rungs of the corporate ladder, feeling hurt and resentful, and a lot of men disillusioned that their power is not bringing them the happiness or harmony they actually want in life. What everyone wants is to be themselves and be accepted. We need to dismantle these harmful gender stereotypes that limit people from being their authentic selves. So don’t wait for permission. Be yourself, ask for what you want. Be your own hero.
Pick your battles. You might be right, but is it worth the fight? Learn to discern when it’s a small issue, and for a minor inconvenience to yourself, you can keep the other party happy. And learn when it is a big issue - one of ethics, values, or serious impact on the business or the team, and be prepared to fight it to the death. Try to be pleasant and positive in all interactions. Only stick to your guns when the stakes are high. Be prepared to back up your position with data. Also, stay open-minded in case a new, unexpected solution appears.
You are never alone. You will hit bumps in the road, guaranteed. The death of a loved one, an illness, a stressful career change, a betrayal, a loss. During difficult times, it is easy to fall into the trap of feeling alone, feeling like no one cares. Over time, this cynicism grows like cancer, killing our spirit. It is important to remember there are many people, past, present, and future, who care for you. The earth itself cares for you and provides for you. Regardless of religion, if you pray and seek answers, you will receive. If you take the time to look for it, there are a million ways the universe is supporting your existence every day. Take the time to acknowledge it, and feel gratitude. Then this feeling of love and support will grow. The belief in isolation is the single greatest cause of suffering in the world. The truth is that we are all connected. Friends, enemies, strangers. No matter how many different ways we are trying to get there, we all have the same shared destination - Joy.
LE: Tell us about your breaking glass moment.
BS: About a month ago I had at least 50 people congratulating me on my promotion. I’ve been asked almost every week by someone for career advice. It is all very interesting because, at my current company, I’ve never actually been promoted. Many times I deserved it. Many times my managers knew I deserved it and fought for me. Yet, for some reason or another, I was never promoted. I am moving up in the company, however. How is this possible? The secret comes back to “know yourself.” I knew myself, what I was looking for, what skill set I brought. When I decided to move from tech to product, I waited for an opportunity that I was excited about. When I finally found it, I pounced on it. I scheduled a meeting with my soon-to-be manager (yes, I had already decided he would be my manager). Our first meeting I had everything ready, “Here is my resumé. Here are my references. Here is my vision for the product. Here is my past experience. Here is why I’m the best person for the job.” He was surprised, but quickly scheduled an interview with his manager, and I was hired. Seven months later, there was an opening in my org for the next level. I applied for the next level, explained the terms that I wanted, “I want to keep leading my current project in addition to taking on the new project.” Explained why I am the best person for the job, “No I haven’t managed people in tech, but I have over six years of management experience in the nonprofit sector.” The position was mine a few days later. When you have a sober view of yourself, you will have the confidence and skill to position yourself in the role best suited for you. My breaking glass moment can be summarized in the spirit of Shirley Chisholm. If they refuse you a seat at the table, make your own damn table.
LE: What's your daily routine?
BS: I think it’s like Rihanna said, “Work, work, work, work, work.” Lol, actually yes, I do work too much. Do you want to help me? Please, I’m hiring and looking for an experienced product manager interested in supply chain technology and operations. Ping me on LinkedIn ASAP if you’re interested. Once I get this headcount filled I can do normal people stuff like dance and yoga, visit my neglected family members, oh, and I also do volunteer work with a youth-at-risk mentoring service in San Jose. I also take elaborate bubble baths with essential oils and expensive candles. It’s like my only chill time all day.
LE: What is the best piece of advice you've received?
BS: I’ve been blessed to have many mentors at work. But the best advice I ever received came from my Zen teacher, Les Kaye, during our first dokusan (private interview), a few years ago. He told me, “Watch people. The more you watch other people, the more you will understand yourself.” And then he said, “And watch yourself. The more you watch yourself, the more you will understand other people.” My undergrad at UC Berkeley prepared me for all things technical: data structures, algorithms, programming, UX, etc. It didn’t prepare me for the complex human dynamics that I would encounter in the workplace. Throughout history, Zen masters have been thought to have supernatural powers, to be psychic, to be able to tell the future. The truth is they are just good at paying attention. People, especially adults, behave in very predictable patterns. At work, I pay attention. Who keeps their word, and who doesn’t. Who shares the credit, and who takes credit for other's work. Who has the power to make any given decision? Who is detail oriented? Who holds the vision? Who acts differently in private than in public? Who acts the same? Just by watching people and observing my emotional responses, I am often able to foresee what will happen before it happens. I can also foresee the consequences of different actions I could take. This level of awareness helps me to respond appropriately in very complex situations.
LE: What is your favorite quote and why?
BS: “Life is too short for bullshit.” I want this on my tombstone. People go through life like they are going to live forever. Stop for a moment and think, “I’m going to die. Is this worth my time?” If not, cut through to what matters. You have this one life to learn something. This one life to make a difference. Don’t waste it.
LE: What advice would you give to a Girl on the Rise?
BS: Find people who lift you up, who respect you, and remind you of who you truly are. Value them more than gold.
LE: What's your favorite thing to do when you're off the clock?
BS: I love to dance, and meditation keeps me sane. In my free time, you’ll find me either on the dance floor or in the meditation hall.
Thank you, Bonnie! Your passion for your career is inspiring. Sharing your experiences of navigating not only your industry but the politics that occur in a corporate work environment is moving because you’ve faced a lot and still see the positive and succeeded. Thank you for sharing your story and being raw — as what you’ve shared will help other Girls on the Rise break glass.