Women's History Month at Oath: Speaking up in tech
When we meet with Alison Sonderegger, two words come to mind—high energy. The co-lead of Oath's women-focused employee resource group, WIN (Women's Inclusion Network), Alison unquestionably is passionate about her work, the tech space, and bringing more diversity into it. It's Women's History Month so we wanted to learn more about what drives her.
Name: Alison Sonderegger
Title: Senior Engineering Manager, Rendering and Mediation Platforms, Ads
Location: Sunnyvale, CA
Years at Oath: 3
Previous employers: Comprehend Systems, BrightRoll, Nextag/WizeCommerce, Danger, Inc./Microsoft, NameProtect, WEA Trust, GrandCentral Networks, NBCi/Snap.com, Excite@Home
Education: UC Santa Barbara
Major: Computer Science (BS) and Religious Studies (BA)
Hometown: San Rafael, California
Outside of work: SCUBA, motorcycles, video games, masses and masses of kid stuff
Oath: Question the norm
Thanks for speaking with us. You're an engineering manager and we know really passionate about bringing more diversity into tech. How did you get interested in the space yourself?
My dad was super into gadgetry when I was a kid, and he'd buy everything from The Sharper Image and we'd figure out how it all worked. My parents were less concerned about doing things that "girls" liked, we'd just do things that were fun—like run a CB radio out of the garage to talk to truckers on the road. Then my dad got into personal computing and we eventually got an Apple IIe and I wrote a couple of BASIC programs for it. I became a computer hobbyist and spent my elementary and high school years—I graduated in 1995—doing that, building computers, websites, running online forums and mailing lists for my favorite band (Del Amitri), and the like. My sister and I were the only kids we knew who had exposure to computers at all and people thought we were geeky—which is totally true—but it wasn't a bad thing. It was just, "Alison knows a lot about computers."
I went to college and didn't know what I wanted to study. My favorite hobbies in high school were, obviously, computers, but also being active in my Jewish youth group. I realized those were both the things I wanted to learn more about, and the aspect of religious studies I enjoyed was the bent of studying history through the eyes of what people believed. So that's what made me double major in Computer Science and Religious Studies.
Every summer I had internships trying to figure out what I wanted to focus on. I did QA in a game company, then an internship doing IT at a different game company, then program management at Microsoft, then a software engineering internship at Excite@Home, which is one of the early portals, and I loved it. I knew that was what I wanted to do.
You've bounced around to a lot of different jobs since graduating from college. What drives you to do that?
I think this is typical of folk with a start-up bent—I like the "wear many hats" aspect of startup life, as well as the high level of impact each person has. At larger companies, I've seen more career engineers, but when I was at a company acquired by Microsoft, I quickly grew tired of the low level of impact I could have on the overall product or company vision.
Six months to a year into a company is when you see where things are broken, and you can either be motivated to change them, recognize they are unchangeable, or say, "It's fine and I don't care." I've been in all of those situations, but I'm the kind of person who generally is motivated to fix things until I can't, and then I move on. Plus, startups are riskier businesses, and many aren't sustainable in the long-term—unless they're acquired.
How did you end up at Oath?
I came in through the BrightRoll acquisition, which was in 2015. I jointly managed the DSP there and then Yahoo acquired the company. After we migrated the DSP, I left, but came back 9 months later when Verizon announced they were buying Yahoo. I realized I would have an opportunity to see how a company of that size would do an integration and it would be a huge learning opportunity for me.
So you've been here pretty much for three years total, which sounds like a long time for you. What makes you stay?
The number one thing that keeps me at Oath is the amount of influence we have—even deep into the layers of the organization, it's astronomical. There's a chance to lift your voice for things you care about.
We are at a company where leadership really wants to hear from people on the ground and, for a company at this scale, that's rare. It means that there is acknowledgement of the incredible talent we have at all levels, and that that talent isn't just people pigeonholed into one role, but instead people who are good at many things and should have many ways of influencing the organization. It's very start-up-like for such a large company.
Plus, for anyone who wants access to a huge amount of data, is interested in machine learning, research, AI or any big-data-centric tech—our brands serve so many people, at a scale you don't see at smaller companies, and the resulting data is massive.
You're one of the co-leads of the company's women-focused employee resource group, WIN. Why is this important to you?
It's important to have diversity in tech overall, and women are just one aspect of that. There's scientific proof that more diverse teams solve problems faster, but I also think that teams understand the global market better when they're more reflective of the global market themselves. It's easier to get into coding now that more accessible languages and frameworks have been developed, plus there are tons of free online courses and tools, so it's up to businesses to see the imperative to give more socioeconomic opportunity across the board, and reap the benefit of doing so.
I find that diverse teams are more self-motivated and, by extension, seem to enjoy their jobs more, and that happiness breeds a better performing team. It's easier to be a manager of a team that's self-motivated and finds value in working together.
It's clear this is a passion point for you and you're not shy about raising your voice. Where does that come from?
I am someone who no longer cares too much about how people perceive what I'm doing. I've got a ton of energy. I'm extremely social-justice oriented and pretty feminist. I care a lot about diverse hiring practices and equal opportunity. I also have a strong voice and have no fear about using it, which I realize is a privilege. If I don't use my privilege to help people who are hurting, then there's no point in having it.
To read more employee profiles, please see our Black History Month features on sales manager Jason Hawkins and recruiter LaShanti Jenkins.