Office Hours: I'm the CEO & Co-Founder of Byteboard and previously a Google software engineer. I'm Sargun Kaur.Featured

Hey y’all! I’m the co-founder and CEO of Byteboard -- we’ve reinvented the engineering interview to more closely measure for on-the-job skills through an identity-blind, project-based assessment, currently used by Lyft, Robinhood, Betterment, Dropbox and many other teams! Byteboard is funded by Google’s internal incubator Area 120. My co-founder and I came up with the idea for Byteboard as we were venting about whiteboard interviews and how many of our brilliant friends, who come from underrepresented backgrounds in tech, would not pass or be hesitant of technical interviews (myself included). Prior to founding Byteboard, I was a software engineer on Google Photos Android and the Google Maps team. I studied Computer Science at UC Berkeley (not a pleasant memory) and dealt with huge amounts of imposter syndrome in tech. My co-founder and I were recently recognized in the Class of 2020 for Forbes 30 Under 30 for Enterprise Technology. As a first-time founder, going from being an IC engineer to a founder/manager/salesperson/all-the-hats has certainly not been easy, there are low lows and high highs, but the last two years have been some of the best and most rewarding times of my 27 years on this Earth so far! At Byteboard, we’ve built a really close-knit and diverse team (63% female, 50% POC) that I’m incredibly proud of. The last few weeks have certainly been really challenging as I think about being a startup founder in times of a looming recession and COVID. My incredible team keeps me in high spirits as we’ve implemented a number of changes to help with collaboration and productivity. We’ve also opened up access to Byteboard for free for the next three months to help out any companies who are moving to fully remote interviews (let me know if you want access!). I’m a Bay native who loves to travel, a chocolate chip cookie aficionado with no ability in a kitchen, a generalist who loves to dive deep, an introvert constantly craving community, or more simply put, a being of paradoxes still trying to figure out what life is all about. Ask me anything about building a B2B startup, Google’s incubator Area 120, adapting in the times of COVID, dealing with hard conversations, hiring and building a team, getting an exec coach and therapist, technical interviews, my favorite chocolate chip cookie spot in NYC, or anything else!
Thanks so much for joining us Sargun!Hey everyone – please share your questions for Sargun below before this Thursday. She may not have time to answer every question, so please emoji upvote the ones you'd most like her to answer.
Hello Sargun, thank you for spending time with us. I've heard that women look at job descriptions and if we don't fit all (or a few) of the job description bullet points, we tend not to apply. I know I do it.In your time looking at the data related to HR/hiring:1. Any advice to women at the beginning of their career who may not check off all of the bullet points, yet feel we could do an exceptional work while learning on the job? 2. Any advice on shifting our mindset out of 'imposter syndrome' feelings?Thank you in advance!
1. In the process of building out our skills interview for Byteboard, we did an intensive skills analysis where we interviewed many engineers across levels and companies on what were the core skills they valued in their peers that made them effective engineers. “The ability and willingness to learn” was the highest ranked skill of 33. This applies to any role even past engineering -- if the drive and ability to learn exists, you don’t need to have all the boxes checked. Additionally, if you find positions with a laundry list of “required” skills, it speaks more to the lack of understanding and insight of the employer than the candidate’s fit for the job. There should be no more than maybe 3-5 core skills, the rest should be “preferred”. If you fit the core skills, apply! The worst that can happen is you get put into their repository and they may reach out to you later! 2. An odd trick that really helped me gain confidence was actually becoming a mentor and speaking at more events. Speaking with others about my journey and helping rising engineering students made me recognize how I had grown and how much I had to share.
"Willingness to learn" was the highest ranked skills of 33 - very neat. Thank you very much for your time and insights.
Thanks for doing OH! My question is, I am trying to do something classified as hard or deep tech, yet I’m a non-tech founder. I aspire to your incredible Co ratios of women and POC! 💪🏿💪🏼 I feel like I need a monster tech/CTO cofounder like from Amazon or Google to pull off the reengineering I’m attempting. I would kill for a woman CTO! What tool/method would you recommend to reach out cold to see if deep talent is up for cofounding a company, given they’re not in my network?
Some advice I recently received when hiring for a senior position on my team was that passion always trumps expertise. I had two candidates that I really really liked, one who I knew had done and excelled in a similar role before and would know exactly what to do once they joined our team. The other candidate had never worked at a startup or done a role like this before, but had a personal story, background, and empathy for the problem we were solving that made their passion for Byteboard undeniable. This is the long way of answering, to find your CTO, I would recommend diving into networks related to your deep tech idea and see who feels the problem just as passionately as you do. They might not come from Amazon or Google, but will have the inherent drive to make your product work versus someone who is purely there because they are smart and/or have done this before. If you are going to reach out cold, start by asking their take on the problem space. Have a discussion first vs approaching them for the role and ultimately if the discussions go well, ask them who in their network they recommend you speak with for the CTO role--they might just put themselves up for the job. :) P.S. We hired the second person, and it’s proven to be the best decision. :)
This is such an insightful reply. Thank you. Guidance like this is invaluable to those of us who are incredibly passionate about an idea, have a deep well of knowledge that they want to impart and yet don’t have the technical know how to make this a reality Also, loved your vignette about your “hire.” Take good care.
Hi Sargun, thanks for doing this! I'm a SWE on Google Maps currently (cool to learn you worked there, too!) who is deeply interested in entrepreneurship. I want to know how you decided to take your idea to Area120 instead of leaving Google, and what adjustments & recommendations you'd make to someone pitching an idea to 120 vs external VCs since the bulk of the advice on the internet is for the general use case. Thank you!
For my co-founder and I, we never set out to start a startup together. The idea of Byteboard honestly came about as we were brainstorming for our portfolio for our Design School applications (that dream died quick!). Once we started digging into the impact and doing research on interviews, we quickly became convinced that some innovation needed to take place. We had a partner at Area 120 we floated the idea to who was really supportive and interested in our background, the approach, and the problem space. The low-risk environment of getting the full entrepreneurial experience without having to forgo the financial safety and job security that Google provides was definitely a big consideration for why I choose to pursue this inside of Area 120 instead of the outside, as I support my family. In retrospect, given Byteboard’s success and the knowledge we have now, I do think we could have raised external capital successfully. As first-time founders (and perhaps the priming of being women of color), we didn’t take that bet. In terms of adapting your pitch for Area 120, I do think much of the external advice holds. Some key things to consider are: - Value to and from Google: What’s the unique advantage you and your product will have by starting this at Google (beyond the brand)? For us, being at Google gave us access to a sales team and networks that got us our first clients. We also were able to work directly with internal product teams that provide some core functionality for our products. Other Area 120 teams are directly embedded within Google tools, which they couldn’t have done if they were external. - Team: Over 80% of our starting batch of teams didn’t make it past 6 months, a majority of them due to internal team collisions about product direction. From what I’ve found, building a founding team that has strong trust and that is nimble is really indicative of success. - Time to build a MVP: We got our first pilot customer, with zero lines of code written, and a scrappy product idea held together with little more than a fervent belief that a better way to interview had to exist. You initially have 6 months to build out a product and acquire your first user that expresses some willingness to pay. That time runs out fast. So considering what aspect of your idea can be validated in a 6 month period, with enough buffer time to pivot and iterate, is an important understanding to have in mind going into your pitch. Happy to discuss more offline too! Feel free to ping me. :)
Hi Sargun, thank you so much for the thorough response! It was especially helpful to think about the model of how the product idea might uniquely leverage what Google has to offer and the time to MVP.
If you go back in time to one year ago, what advice would you give yourself? How about 5?
Hi Jen :) Thanks for always coming through with the hard questions. <3 One year ago, the advice I would have given myself then was to be more active about asking for what I needed and taking up space. I think as women, particularly as an immigrant woman of color, I’ve been primed to take up as little space as possible and I found that mindset surfacing a lot in my leadership. By working with an exec coach over the last year, I’ve been able to practice taking up more space, asking hard questions, and expressing my needs. These changes have not only changed how I show up on my team and in my role, but also had really positive effects on how I show up in all my relationships!Five years ago, March 2015, I was still in my first year as an engineer at Google and thought I was going to be a Google lifer (I know, it’s wild!). For a long time, I accounted being at Google, getting promoted or doing well, having good mentors ALL to luck in my early years (hello, imposter syndrome!). This limited me from taking on risks or thinking I could be a builder / maker / founder. Thankfully, I’ve had incredible *incredible* people believe in me over the life of my career who always would push me towards opportunities or remind me it wasn’t all luck over and over and over again. I wish I had trusted them sooner. <3 But my long-winded journey through tech definitely built me up to now, so no complaints!
Love this thoughtful, introspective answer <3
Thank you for being here Sargun! Your background is so impressive. Can you share an experience/challenge that felt insurmountable looking ahead, yet after it was accomplished it felt like there was a path there all along? You mentioned imposter syndrome, which often pairs with negative self belief...something that can make challenges feel debilitating. I'd love to hear your mindset around moving past this.
Does launching a startup count? Ha :) Honestly, I never thought I had it in me to be a technical founder or “leader”. My perception of funded founders and startups was that they had it all figured out, that you had to be exceptionally smart with a novel idea. Building Byteboard over the last two years, and interacting with countless founders and startups -- I’ve seen how scrappy, messy, and sometimes directionless all founders are (even the ones I’ve looked up to for many years). They didn’t have “product market fit” or a special insight or power. They had a will (and the privilege) to just try. I admire my co-founder a lot for really pushing me / us to just try. We started with an idea, then a deck, then a scrappy tool, and now we have an 11 person team that I can fully imagine growing to 50 or 100+. Listen there are mediocre white men getting funded every day, with no business plan or intentionality. When we got our first client (a well-known logo) with little more than an idea, I realized how so often many of the barriers of not trying--I had created for myself (granted I do want to acknowledge that I had a lot of privileges that got me into the right rooms). With starting my own thing and watching it grow, I feel a third wall has been broken so to speak when it comes to my perception of “startups”. “Just start” might be cliche advice, but a reminder that’s been tremendous for me.
Having reported into 3 founders in the last few years, I can attest to the "I’ve seen how scrappy, messy, and sometimes directionless all founders are (even the ones I’ve looked up to for many years)"! Love the reply here! 👍
Hi Sargun,Thanks for the office hour! Glad to know there are others beings of paradoxes out there. I'm also working on an HR B2B start up and would love to pick your brain on your B2B experience!We want to improve employee retention for corporates wanting to engage talent and innovate. But it's difficult to access potential clients for quick prototype feedback. 1. How did you iterate and build out your product? 2. How did you approach B2B marketing? 3. What do you think makes an in-house incubator like Area120 successful? Thank you!
1. We built our initial MVP on app scripts (highly encourage it as a great prototyping tool), which allowed us to move fast and be nimble when it came to changes and feedback. 2. Still working on this. :) We haven’t done a lot or any marketing yet, but the practices we’ve tried to follow are always staying true to our voice and authentic to our brand. For now, we’ve really been focusing on letting the product tell the narrative instead of spending a lot on marketing. Now that we have a strong initial set of clients, we might start experimenting with more intentional marketing. I looked into billboards for fun and shut that idea down quickly. :) 3. If Area 120 didn’t exist, I don’t know if I would find myself on the entrepreneurial path or would have started Byteboard. I think Area 120 is uniquely positioned to enable a set of untapped founders who are parents / supporters / POC / minority founders to found some revolutionary companies.
Thank you Sargun for all the insight! I'll definitely test out app scripts and focus on organic growth!
Hello Sargun,It's awesome to hear all that you are doing for women and POC in the tech industry! I am currently experiencing just how difficult it can be to face tech interviews and the whole industry while not knowing much outside of classroom experience, especially when it seems like everyone else knows what they're doing.How did you decide to co-found a startup and what resources did you use along the way? What were your most memorable challenging moments? Fulfilling moments? Also what advice do you have for people just starting up in the field, tech interviews and general tips?Also, I love your description of yourself as a being of paradoxes. I really relate to being a generalist who loves to dive deep and an introvert constantly craving community. Also, please dish me the details on cookies in NYC!
- Memorable challenging moment: Getting our first deal signed was a trip! Enterprise sales is no joke as I’ve come to learn the hard way. There was a large company we had done a successful pilot with, but was going through many org changes and the paid deal had been delayed in the procurement process for months. Their new Engineering VP happened to be an ex-googler, so I cold emailed him to ask him to push the deal through but didn’t get a response. Then a few months later, he turned up in my HIIT school workout class. So after the workout I approached him to “put a face to the name” from the email. In my sweaty, short-on-breath situation, he had me pitch him Byteboard and our success metrics from the pilot right then and there at the gym. The deal was signed a week later. :) - Tips for starting out in the field: Some questions and rules I came up with a little later in my career (as I was switching into my third team at Google) which I wish I had asked myself from the beginning, 1. Will I be working on consumer facing impactful projects? I realized, I like to be able to share with my friends and family what I had built and really work on products that I could see have visible impact amongst direct users. 2. Was the team large enough to have individuals of many different levels of expertise (senior members I could get sage advice and direction from, and junior members I could feel dumb with) and small enough to still maintain a tight-knit culture? 3. Was there at least more than one token female on the team? 4. Did I have a female mentor on the team? - Tips for interviewing: Don't give up! Research done by shows that women are 7x more likely to stop interviewing and switch fields than men after a bad interview. But interviews are in no way reflections of your skills! Keep at it, and try not to take rejections personally (I know it's much easier said than done). - My favorite cookie spot is Culture Espresso in NYC! I did a cookie tasting tour throughout the city, and they had by far the best cookies in terms of sugar/caramel ratios, crunch / chewy center, thickness, and flavor.
Thank you so much! All of your responses are so insightful.
Exciting work that you are doing and so glad that women are thriving. Take good care and thanks for making your expertise available!
Thanks Ellen, appreciate the kinds words!
Hi Sargun. Thanks for sharing your experience and Btyeboard history. Really excited to hear your past story.Just wondering are there any advises in early stage recruiting? A lot of startup founders like me have trouble with the recruitment process. There are just so many factors to take care such as personality, skills, vision, and self demand. Really appreciate to hear your story and experience!
Thanks for this question! Even with being in the “HR Tech / Recruiting space”, I definitely made a lot of mistakes in getting this right, including some wrong hires that I had to let go of within weeks of hiring. Some things I’ve learned from now building a team of 11 across six different roles:- Define your values: It’s really important to ensure your first hires share and prescribe to the same values. So we spent a lot of time building and defining our values before we started to grow our team. Byteboard’s team values are: 1. Focus on the why: Root every decision in the “why,” to ensure we are always building for our users’ needs and aligning our work with Byteboard’s mission.2. Be {selectively} scrappy: Prioritize, build, and iterate quickly with our users, balancing quality and speed.3. Go far, go together: Practice collective ownership, collaborate when possible, and divide and conquer when necessary under aligned goals.4. Engage authentically: With our team, customers, brand: authenticity and trust-building are foundational.5. Celebrate the journey: Celebrate and learn from each other in our wins and losses, big and small. Take responsibility for turning non-ideal outcomes into learnings.6. Be a little extra: Go the extra mile for our users and partners in a way that delights them and sets us apart.We evaluated all candidates against these values. Each person on the team that met with the candidate would use our values as a rubric for how that candidate may fit with our team. To quote one of my favorite podcast hosts, Reid Hoffman of Masters of Scale, “The only way you get an “A” company culture is by creating it at the beginning, and preserving it. Think of those early hires as your cultural co-founders. Their skills and capacities will not only determine what your company can do. They’ll also determine who your company can be.” - Take your time: There were roles on our team that we desperately needed to fill as our team was so strapped with the workload. In the few times we optimized for speed and hired one of the first good candidates we met without spending time to see how they fit with the rest of the team or understanding their motivations for joining, we were burned. It doesn’t matter if the person is really senior or comes highly recommended, take the time to put them through your full interview process, do sample work, and meet with the full team. A single poor hire can disrupt your team’s productivity and morale so quickly (learned the hard way). - Create a practical interview process: For engineering roles, it’s easy to assess the candidate’s skills by looking at code samples and having them take the Byteboard interview (yes we use it for our internal hires as well). :) For non-technical roles, it’s equally important to have some practical work be a part of the interview. For example, for our growth roles, we had candidates “sell” to us. How candidates responded to the feedback, approached the task, and communicated were key signals in helping us understand if they would be a good fit for our team. - Building a diverse pipeline is imperative: When hiring for a startup, speed comes directly at odds with diversity. It’s really easy to build an all white male team, even when you care and are cognizant of diversity being important. If you open up a position, white and asian men will apply first (because there’s a higher representation of them in the industry). You have to actively put in the work of building networks in other communities to market your role. At Byteboard, we’re building an interview that enables everyone to demonstrate their skills effectively and fairly. So it’s imperative to our product to have a team that comes from a different background building the product. It also influences our team culture heavily.
Congrats on starting Byteboard and getting funded. Now that you built the technical backbone and have customers, how do you plan (or have already) to build your marketing and business development teams? Are you a SaaS offering and/or using the Cloud? I'd be more than happy to chat with you about this if you are open to it. Also, have you tried Chip Cookies and Crumbl- both amazing!
Hi Sandhya! I recently built out our Growth team. Will certainly reach out if we need help!Thanks for the cookie rec. :)
@SargunHello,I hope you're doing well.Thanks for doing the Office Hours!2 Questions1 2 tips for managing imposter syndrome?1 Your go to motivational song?Thank you.Warm Regards,Ekua
1. I've started to keep a running list of small and big wins that happen every day / week. So when I feel like I haven't accomplished anything, I look back into the list to find a list of happy moments. I think mentally it's really easy for me to be stuck in the present and dig myself in a hole, so having a list of validated affirmations has been helpful. :) 2. Anything Latin pop gets me pumped up. Bad Bunny?