Job TItle: Director, Technical Program Management for Portal at Meta
Years at Meta: 5
Education: Bachelor of Technology, Electronics and Communication Engineering, Pondicherry University, India
Hometown: Los Gatos, Calif.
What most excites you about your job?
Akila Narain: The product that I’m working on — Portal. What keeps me going is thinking about how many people this product has helped. At the onset of COVID, when every country was locked down, we heard the story of a husband who was not allowed into the hospital to watch his wife deliver a baby. So he sent her in with a Portal. He actually watched the birth of his child through a Portal. People have used Portals to see their parents or grandparents in care facilities when they couldn’t visit due to COVID lockdowns. Marriages have happened on Portals. There are so many stories — heartwarming stories of real connections happening on Portal. It gives me goose bumps as I’m talking about it.
Tell us about your role at Meta.
AN: I lead the technical program management team for both hardware and software for the home and work product group at Reality Labs. Technical program managers are like a conductor in an orchestra. You have to understand the big picture and connect all the dots — working with the multitude of stakeholders in establishing the plan, understanding risks, coming up with mitigation plans, and then reporting on progress and eventually taking the entire project over the finish line. We’re the glue for the organization in running complex and cross-functional engineering programs.
It sounds like there’s a lot of diplomacy involved.
AN: You have to be able to work with people. It’s not just understanding the technicalities, but understanding how different people like to work and how different functions like to work, and being able to come up with frameworks and communication mechanisms that work for the entire gamut of teams and disciplines that need to collaborate with one another. You have to speak different languages with different audiences — technical jargon with an engineer and creative-speak with a designer.
Looking back over the course of your career, what is the most important risk that you took?
AN: I started my career as an engineer, but after about seven years, I moved into a sales role. I wanted to get out from behind the scenes and be on the forefront, understanding the business better and building relationships.
I worked really hard preparing for sales pitches. But when I went out on sales calls, I kind of felt like an uninvited guest. Like, people were looking at me and thinking, “Why are you here? Why do we need you or your product?” It was a stark difference from me being an engineer, where people — even company leaders — would come to me and say, “Hey, what do you think about this? How do we solve this problem? What should we do?” After about three years, I decided to switch back to engineering.
What did you learn from the experience?
AN: It helped me hone my influencing skills. I learned how to develop conviction about a thing that did not exist. We’re doing interesting work at Meta in building the metaverse, but we haven’t defined it fully; we don’t know how it will shape up. But I am able to paint a picture of the vision and talk with conviction about the future to get my teams excited and energized. These are things I learned when I was in sales.
What is like being a woman leader in tech today?
AN: While the tech industry in general, and Meta specifically, is more welcoming of women in leadership positions, women leaders still have to work extra hard to establish themselves and pull up other women. It takes intention and effort to ensure that women’s voices are heard. Sometimes in meetings, a woman is trying to share her point of view, and unless there’s someone actually saying, “Hey, this person has had her hand up for a while. Can we give her a chance to speak?” she will not get to speak. I’ve been in that position many times. The good thing is I’ve had allies. I have also sought out allies and said, “Do you see what’s happening? Can you please stand up for me?” So there have been people around me that have advocated for me or had trust in the decisions I’ve made and have spoken up to support me.
Education is also really important to change how women are treated in the workplace. People may not realize they’re ignoring someone who wants to contribute or discounting their opinion because they are not the loudest at the table. I’m really grateful for the coaching programs that we have here at Meta with respect to managing inclusion and being an ally. Fortunately, I think people are turning a corner and seeing that biases exist and that we must collectively make a change.
Your team has grown considerably in recent months. What qualities do you look for to make sure you’re bringing on the right people?
AN: There are two things that are key to me in establishing a team that is really top class and high performing. One is passion. I want people who truly love their work. I get questions from candidates like, “When can I get to the next level? What does my growth path look like on your team?” Those are valid questions. But when someone asks, “What customer pain points are you solving for? How do you think about product strategy over the next two years, five years, 10 years…?” Those are the kind of people I feel really good about, because it shows that they want to be part of creating a vision, effecting change, and building products that are truly valuable.
The second thing I look for in people is are they open to feedback and curious to learn? There are some people who just show up really closed. They come in with a perspective that they know everything. That is a red flag to me. It is really hard to coach and get the best out of them.
What qualities do you think leaders need to possess in order to remain successful and relevant?
AN: Vulnerability is very important to me — acknowledging that you don’t know everything, being open to diverse perspectives, and learning from people around you. It establishes trust and helps build a culture of transparency and a growth mindset. There is a saying: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” That really resonates with me.