Women in Tech: The Architect Behind The AppExchange

This series highlights women in technology, to raise their visibility and break down some of the unconscious biases that block the path of women and underrepresented minorities in technology jobs. If you have searched for, or listed, an app in the AppExchange, you have salesforce.com's Pratima Nambiar to thank. Her passion for our customers and partners is infectious. Her ability to see the big picture, and also code the details, is what sets her apart. I asked her to share her story.

This series highlights women in technology, to raise their visibility and break down some of the unconscious biases that block the path of women and underrepresented minorities when it comes to technology jobs. I encourage you to share these stories, and your own, with someone who doesn’t “fit” the technologist stereotype. In this small way, we can change the ratio.

Have you searched for, or listed, an app in the AppExchange? Then you have Pratima Nambiar to thank. Working closely with old friend and Product Manager Ryan Ellis, Pratima built the Salesforce AppExchange site six years ago on the Salesforce Platform. As the team’s architect, she is still improving the site today – most recently adding collaboration and enhanced search capabilities. Her passion for our customers and partners is infectious. Her ability to see the big picture, and also code the details, is what sets her apart. I asked her to share her story.

When did you learn to code? What do you love about it?

I grew up in India, in Bangalore. I started learning to code in high school, taking some after-school classes in programming. Then, I went on to do my Bachelors in Computer Science. After that, I’ve been in the tech industry forever, I feel.

I’m very logical and structured in how I think, and I really like to build, which is why I like and enjoy building software. I enjoy the challenge of debugging complex code. I love to take hairy code, understand what it does, and refactor it to make it better. I love to learn. Learning is part of my job definition. Being a developer, you have to keep up with continually evolving technologies, so that works out well. I also enjoy the reaction our users have to the software we build, and I enjoy the process of making a product that is really usable.

How long have you been at Salesforce? What is your role?

I’ve been with salesforce.com for over six years (including two years as an independent consultant). I started as a developer on the AppExchange team, and now I am a PMTS (Principal Member of Technical Staff) and my role is the Architect of the AppExchange and the Success Community. I’m part of the larger R&D team that is responsible for all features that we build for our ISVs (Independent Software Vendors). Recently, I was a part of the team getting Dreamforce registration live in the Success Community.

I was here at the beginning, when we decided to build the AppExchange on the Salesforce Platform. There were challenges early on – Apex hadn’t evolved as much as it has today. You couldn’t do things in Apex that I was used to doing in Java. The platform has evolved a lot since then, and in the end, it was a good experience and we’ve been able to easily adopt new features on the Salesforce Platform and make the product better quickly.

You built the AppExchange from scratch. Which feature are you most proud of?

I’ve been involved with almost every feature of the AppExchange. The feature I am most proud of is a generic search engine built in 2009 or 2010, to search for applications. We built it on the Salesforce Platform, and it is still in use today. We built it to be generic. It is now used in the Success Community. It returns good results, and has been working well. That’s very satisfying.

What is it like being a woman in a technology field?

I don’t actually think about it much. My parents never differentiated the fact that I’m a girl and therefore I should do certain things. Certainly, they set very high expectations that we had to do well in school, and that included science and math. In fact, they encouraged me to go the after-school programming classes – my parents were the ones who signed me up. I went to an all-girls school until high school, so there was nothing that said, “You are a girl, therefore you can’t do something.” I had a good group of friends, and we were all very motivated to learn everything that interested us, and that included computers. I never thought of it as not being a girl’s job, or not something that a girl would do, growing up.

I know we are in the minority, but I just let my work speak for me. I really work hard to make a difference in whatever team I am a part of. I strive hard to understand the details of everything I own. That enables me to become a critical member of my team and make a valuable contribution.

Nobody thinks about who’s a woman or a man on the AppExchange team. We are like a family. We really enjoy working with each other. Oftentimes on teams, there is a friction between product owners and the development team, or a disconnect where they don’t understand each other’s worlds. On the AppExchange team, we work together to make the product.

Why is the AppExchange team such a great family?

Ryan Ellis was the original AppExchange product owner, and we had known each other before Salesforce. That helped us to bridge the gap – to bring the product and dev sides together and work as one team. It also helped that he knows a little of the technical side, and I understand the product and business side. Also, all the members of the team are passionate people who work really well together. We are all dedicated to the projects. We know each other’s strengths. We have a common goal. Over the years, we’ve become a family.

Tell me more about how understanding the business helps you as a developer.

Understanding both the development and the business side has contributed to my success as a dev leader. As a Principal dev, I need to think about how to deliver value to the users in the timeframe we have, without compromising longterm goals, without compromising our core value of trust, and while making sure code is maintainable, architecture-wise. The product owner might want the world, but I work closely with the product owner to not build exactly what s/he wants, but what s/he really needs to achieve the benefit for the users. That dialogue is very important. For that, you need to understand the business. If I do not understand the business side, I ask questions until I get the answers and it’s clear in my head. I never, ever, build anything without understanding the value our users are going to get.

What programming languages do you use? Do you ever write Apex/Visualforce?

I’ve coded in C, C++, and Java. The last six years have been in Apex and Visualforce. If you know Java, then Apex is pretty straightforward, you’ll be able to pick it up quickly. The lack of extensive tools you might be used to as a Java developer can be frustrating, but otherwise, the transition is quick and dealing with data is much easier in Apex than in Java and C++.

Did you attend Dreamforce ’13?

Yes! I love the energy at Dreamforce. I love to volunteer at the code consultations, helping developers with tricky problems. I try to do that as much as possible. I also presented at Dreamforce ’12 and ’13, which I was apprehensive about, but overcame my fear. If, like me, you are afraid of presenting, I think it’s actually better if the audience is people you don’t know. If you’ve done something different, a new way to code something, it’s great to share with other developers. I’m hoping to present again at Dreamforce ’14.

Do you have kids? Do they code? What is your advice to parents of young children who express an interest in technology?

Yes, I do. My 6-year-old does not code, but my 9-year-old was recently introduced to Scratch in Technology class at school. This summer we introduced him to Lego Mindstorms programming at home. The two of us are having a wonderful time learning simple programming concepts. Since they are so young, we haven’t given them a lot of exposure. We try to focus on other things. Developing problem solving skills is important in technology – so we encourage them to do things to build those skills. Legos are good for that. We want them to enjoy learning and follow their curiosity – that creates life-long learners.

We also talk a lot about science and technology at home, in the context of current events, something at school, or if they have a question about how something works. If we don’t know the answer, we do the research together. They also love biographies. We read science and technology biographies, and love the Who Was…/Who Is… series of kid-friendly biographies. That’s our way of encouraging science and technology at home.

What do you do in your free time (if you have any!)?

I like the outdoors, going hiking and biking with my family. I love to garden, and look forward to tending our vegetable garden in the backyard. I enjoy Indian classical music and dance, and I’m relearning that with my children. I started playing the violin as an adult, but had to stop with my second child because I had no time. Now, my 9-year-old is taking lessons, so I am learning again.

Author’s Notes

I’d like to congratulate Pratima on being a 2014 salesforce.com Technology All-Stars Award Winner. This is a peer-nominated award, and Pratima was recognized for embodying all of the values of a salesforce.com All-Star: Trust, Customer Success, Innovation, and Leadership. One nominee summed it up, saying simply, “Pratima Rocks!”

Wondering about the Private AppExchange? Watch Pratima’s Dreamforce ’13 presentation, How We Built the Private AppExchange – she joins at min 13.

Looking for me on Twitter? I’m @rockchick322004, and I tweet about the Salesforce1 Platform and Women in Tech.

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Women in Tech: The Architect Behind The AppExchange