For Qumulo’s Molly brown, graduating from an all-girls high school turned out to be a great preparation for studying and working in the male-dominated field of computer engineering.
“When I got into the engineering school and got into lecture halls where there weren’t many women, I did what I knew to do,” Brown said. “I raised my hand.”
In her high school, the girls “ran everything,” she said. They spoke up in class, were the student government leaders and never worried about appearing too smart – a perceived stigma that girls sometimes tried to avoid, particularly in the past.
Throughout her career, Brown has leaned into her minority status as a woman in tech.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of Virginia, she came to the University of Washington for a master’s in the same. She graduated, worked briefly at a startup, and then applied to Microsoft – a choice she made grudgingly. Brown had heard reports about obnoxiously esoteric questions during the interview process and an unpleasant workplace culture.
Her experience ended up being quite different. The interview was great and she took a role at Microsoft in 1999 working for the Windows file systems team. She clicked with her colleagues. And she made her dad proud. When Brown was growing up, her dad ran a small company training people to how to use Word and Excel.
Brown was a Microsoft engineer for more than 14 years. As one of few women in her workplace, she tried to represent her gender well. She presented her authentic self, not hesitating to ask questions when she didn’t understand a speaker.
“I realized that I was going to stand out in the room whether I wanted to or not,” Brown said. So why not ask for what she needed? Besides, she often discovered that most of the people around her were similarly confused, but unwilling to say so.
While Brown liked Microsoft, she wanted eventually to return to a startup. In 2012, a friend at Seattle-based Qumulo tried to recruit her to the newly launched cloud company, which was building a file data platform to help organizations store and manage digital files at massive scale. The business was interesting, but only numbered 10 workers. When it grew to 50 employees two years later, Brown felt the time and size was right. She took a role as technical staff member before moving quickly to Qumulo’s director of engineering position.
Brown is now Qumulo’s vice president of both engineering and customer success. While the pairing is less common, Brown thinks they’re a natural match – when a customer isn’t happy, that quickly becomes an issue for the engineering team. The customer service role also gives her insights into how customers are using the product and what their needs are.
The business is thriving. In July, Qumulo announced a $ 125 million funding round, driving its valuation to more than $ 1.2 billion and making it one of a handful of “unicorn” billion-dollar startups in the Seattle region.
Brown said the company has continued performing well despite the shift to work-from-home that was necessitated by COVID-19.
For her part, “my leadership style is really about making connections,” she said, emphasizing collaboration, trust and open communication. That foundation has made it easier to get work done, including the need to sometimes have hard conversations.
“Qumulo really does work together as a team to get the problems solved,” Brown said.
We caught up with Brown for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.
Current location: Seattle
Computer types: MacBook Pro (work) and Surface Studio (personal)
Mobile devices: iPhone XR
Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: Fantastical, Things, OneNote, G Suite (now Google Workspace)
Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? In the office, my workspace is everywhere – I’m rarely at my desk. I’m moving between meeting rooms, stopping by working areas to talk to the team, and sitting in common areas just listening to the hum of conversation going on around me as I work on my laptop. It helps me keep a pulse on what’s going on and engage in unplanned interactions throughout the day to talk about whatever comes up, whether it’s related to work or our personal lives. This is really a highlight of my day.
Now that we are home, I’ve been relegated to a loft room. It used to be my husband’s office, but it has become my workspace so that my non-stop talking day doesn’t interrupt my family members’ work. This work-from-home space works well enough for now, but I look forward to when I can see my co-workers face-to-face again!
Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? Find something that works for you: it’s got to be easy to maintain, get the job done and can vary. I use different techniques for different parts of my life because that’s proven most effective for me. I regularly experiment with new tools or techniques, permanently adopting something new when it makes something notably easier to manage.
Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business / work? I’m not that active on social media as I don’t find it to be a very satisfying way to exchange information. I lurk on Facebook and Twitter a little bit, mainly to get pointed to other sources of interesting information. I do use LinkedIn for recruiting and networking for business.
Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? 4000+. Once I had kids, I let go of the “0 unanswered emails in my inbox” as some marker of success. I still feel that I am able to keep up with what I need to without spending my time with that particular type of digital house cleaning.
Number of appointments / meetings on your calendar this week? 54 on Monday through Thursday because I’m taking Friday off to hang out with my younger son who has the day off school.
How do you run meetings? I don’t really have one way that I run a meeting. Agile principles and practices shape a lot of how we operate at Qumulo, so many of our daily and weekly “running the business” meetings follow a standard stand-up or sprint review agenda that we occasionally tweak. For one-on-one meetings, I like to keep them less formal and work in time to connect with the other person, which is especially important while working from home. I want to understand what is top of their mind and then I’ll make sure to cover the topics I need to bring up.
Everyday work uniform? I pick things that are comfortable and easy, so that means jeans, sweaters and comfortable shoes.
How do you make time for family? My family eats dinner together every night and we use that time to talk about our day. I have sons who are 12 and 14. I do what I can to get more than one word answers from them about what’s going on in their lives; some days are more successful than others. One of the real blessings from the quarantine has been life slowing down, and a couple times a week I can get one of them to take a walk around the neighborhood with me to get some fresh air at the end of the day.
Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? I read a book or listen to a podcast while taking a hot bath with lavender bath salts. I also like to work in my garden.
What are you listening to? For music, I listen to whatever my husband has put on the Sonos. Lately it’s been a lot of The Cowboy Junkies, David Francey and Neko Case. I also listen to a lot of podcasts. Recently, I’ve been particularly enjoying “It Was Said,” a limited documentary series by Jon Meacham.
Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? I skim headlines from The New York Times, Washington Post and The Atlantic, usually picking a few articles to read depending on how much time I have.
Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? I’m usually reading some non-fiction business or history book and something more lighthearted. I’m currently reading “Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson, which is an eye-opening reflection of race in America that is beautifully written. I’m between lighthearted reads right now, but my last one was “Death on Tap” by Ellie Alexander. It was a fun mystery set in Leavenworth, Wash.
Night owl or early riser? I’m an early riser, usually up by 5 am, and I try to be in bed by 10 pm I often feel that I get more done in those early morning hours than I accomplish the rest of the day. However, we got a puppy in June, so now my mornings include an early walk with him.
Where do you get your best ideas? They nearly always hit me right as I wake up. My subconscious definitely works while I’m sleeping and things just seem clearest to me first thing in the morning.
Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I’m fascinated to learn about how people find success when charting a non-traditional path for their time. I would love to know how she was able to persist despite the voices of doubt around her and not let the naysayers stop her from what she wanted to achieve.