Interview With Mrs. Pooja Sankar, CEO and Founder of Piazza

This week we interviewed Pooja Sankar, CEO and founder of Piazza!

 

Q: What were your early years like? How did you get the idea for starting Piazza?

I was born in North India and when I was 27 days old my dad had a very unique opportunity to get a PhD scholarship in Canada. We lived in Nova Scotia, Canada and then moved to Ohio when I was 6. At 11, my parents decided to move me and my brother back to Bihar, a small state in India. I remember being very confused when I moved there. The education system was so different and I was failing miserably I almost all my classes. It was a long time before I started thriving. I started to thrive because I started to feel like I belonged; everyone was my skin colour and growing up in Nova Scotia and growing up in Cleveland that wasn't the case.

I did my undergrad at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. I was enrolled in for engineering. I didn’t know what Computer Science was or if I was cut out for Computer Science. I simply stumbled into Computer Science. I remember being one of three girls in my Computer Science class, which had 50 guys. The two other girls had different hours. So the lab was like to look around like all guys and as lonely girl and I was terrified. I mean, I'd grown up in this high school and this region of India are girls and boys do not speak to each other and suddenly I only have guys in my class and I look around I'm like I don't know how to speak to them. And they were as terrified of me as I was of them. So basically every single night in my first year and second year. I'd be up till 6:00 a.m. trying to get code to compile. Trying to get code to compile by yourself is really frustrating. I guess that was where the idea of Piazza sub consciously generated in my mind: a platform to ask questions freely.

 

Q: How did you transition to America after finding where you belong in India?

A: I guess because of my early years in North America, I always felt a sense of familiarity with North America.

 

Q: What was the scariest moment while making Piazza?

A: I found a programmer from Craigslist. He’s still with us, he’s our lead engineer. So it’s July 30th. I have a prototype in Ruby and he doesn’t know Ruby, he knows PHP, so he decided to transfer the code to PHP. By August 8th, we have the code in PHP and we’re trying to get it to work. We need to submit the final prototype by September 1st. Another week goes by and it still doesn’t work. After another week, I decide to teach him Ruby. I teach him all that I know, which is not very much, over the weekend and we transfer the code to Ruby again. Somehow we’re able to launch it by September 1st for the next academic term.

 

Q: How did Piazza take off?

A: I literally went from professor to professor till one of them agreed to use Piazza for his class. A week goes by and no questions are asked. I ask the professor about it, and he says, on no, I forgot. Ten days go by, still no single question. Now we’re all just throwing ideas to attract students. So we ask the professor for a class list and send out emails: Dear student I will give you a 25 dollar amazon gift card. Still nothing. We realized that we had to change our approach, we had to get into their heads at the right time. So we reached out before their next homework. Then we started getting questions.

 

Q: How do you set your goals and how do you measure progress?

A: It ties back to impact: what’s the impact of what we’re trying to do? We’re trying to impact students, we’re trying to impact professors, we’re trying to impact organizations. As for progress, you can see progress when you see things growing, you see people saying great things, you see change in classrooms, and change in outcomes.

 

Q: We know that Piazza peaked at the same time that your son was born. It must have been really hard to juggle between both the aspects of your life. What advice would you have for women who are struggling with their personal and professional lives?

A: I think it's about building support and community. It's never easy, it’s always hard. It depends on how you maximize the support community and how you personally do that. How you nurture these relationships. For me, we recruited the grandparents - my husband’s parents. They moved in with us to help us out. You just have to find your community.

 

Q: Building on what you said earlier about being one of the only girls in your class, what advice would you have for girls back in India where there are still very few girls in tech?

A: There are others like them who have done great things and reached positions of power. As long as they believe in themselves, they can do great things.

 

Q: What advice would you have for women in tech specifically?

A: Tech is just a powerful enabler for you to pursue what you want to do later. It makes me feel so independent and in charge. It is a tool for you to be able to do anything.