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Tech Innovators Shailvi Wakhlu Strava.jpg

Tech Innovators: Shailvi Wakhlu, Senior Director of Data, Strava

Linsey Knerl
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If you’ve ever run a 5K or trained for a triathlon, you may have shared your training tips and victories with other athletes through Strava, the leading social platform for athletes. Shailvi Wakhlu is the Senior Director of Data for this massive online sports community, which boasts 85 million athletes across 195 different countries.
Each athlete creates data when they track their athletic activity, which means Strava is tasked with making that data actionable, meaningful, and a way to connect with others through shared passions and goals.
Here’s how one of the leading women in tech is helping athletes share their fitness journeys and the advice she has for anyone seeking meaningful careers in data science.

An 8-year-old who codes

While Shailvi didn’t start her career in data, she embraced technology at an early age. “My mother taught me how to code when I was very young,” she says. “I really enjoyed it. It was something I stayed with, so by the time I was nearing high school, I was very clear that I wanted to be coding.”
Tech Innovator Stem wooden blocks
She went on to study computer engineering, and her first entry into the job market was as a software engineer. Her transition to data came after a stint as a full-stack engineer when her employer asked if she would consider moving into analytics.
“To be candid, I actually had no idea what analytics meant at that point, but my boss at that time made it sound fun,” she admits. “I'd worked with the company for a long time, and I trusted them. I think it was a very good decision for me.”
Because Shailvi appreciated the coding and creative aspects of the data industry, while being close to the product, it was a natural fit for her. “I enjoyed trying to make sense of the world through data,” she says.

A different approach to data

Every time someone uses the Strava app, either by doing an activity or simply to congratulate another athlete on their activities, they are generating pieces of data. What does the company do with it?
“My team's job is to sort of stitch that together to figure out how people are using our platform and what is working for them,” Shailvi explains. The team also looks at what isn’t working and tries to find new ways to solve problems and build more value into the platform.
“We see it as individual data points that we look at in aggregate to get an understanding of what we should continue to build out in our platform,” she says. “That is going to tell us a story about an athlete's journey that we can help support in some way.”
Strava athelete dirty cycling gloves holding device
Is this different than the way any social app works? The answer may lie in the vision Shailvi brings to the Strava mission. She coined the term “thoughtful analytics” many years ago to describe her philosophy of effectively collecting and using data. She explains that it requires having a good understanding of the product, the priorities of the stakeholders being served, the biggest needs of the business, and the underlying data itself.
It also requires being truthful about what data represents – and what it doesn’t represent. By embracing all of these elements, it’s possible to come up with solutions through data that can help people solve actual problems.
This approach bears fruit in the way Strava empowers users to share their goals and accomplishments. It’s also apparent that the team is listening to users, both within and outside of the app.
While the bulk of the data collected comes from app usage, it compiles data from other sources, too. Community forums, for example, help Strava teams tune into what people think about their product, and some of the most passionate users have shared their requests.
From giving suggestions for new features to inquiring about upgrade timelines, the community is invested in seeing the app grow to meet the needs of all users in new and responsive ways.

Finding mentors along the way

Not everyone can recall a single, impactful relationship that helped guide them to career success. But for Shailvi, she was fortunate to have a string of managers and mentors who helped influence and shape her goals and path. She also notes that it was common for her to be the only woman in the room at various points in her career, and that being a woman of color meant she was noticeably different from her peers.
Still, she credits those who took time to mentor her. “I feel like there were a lot of people in my career who supported me during some of those stretch opportunities that allowed me to learn and grow,” she says. “I'm extremely grateful for that.”
She also sees how paying that leadership forward can influence the tech community. Shailvi mentored 200 people over the last year and stresses that mentoring is a way to counter some of the roadblocks that up-and-coming professionals may experience when starting out.
“I’ve seen how some people have made me feel unwelcome or imply that I didn’t belong,” she says. “Since I’ve seen both sides, I appreciate the people who were supportive of my growth.”
What is her advice to those trying to get into the data industry? She admits that it can be hard to find mentors, especially when the inclination is to look toward management for mentorship. “If you're not getting that mentorship at work, it is completely fine to look outside that world to get resources and support. You may find mentors through professional organizations, or even through networking. If you are clear about your goals and your challenges, the mentor could benefit from the professional relationship as well,” she says.

Look for your chance to grow

Shailvi Wakhlu speaking about thoughtful analytics
It can be hard for professionals to know when it’s time to look elsewhere, and Shailvi recommends that if you’re in the early stages of your career, try to be aware of signals that it’s time to look for growth opportunities.
One big signal is doing the same thing day in and day out, without learning any new skills. If there are no new challenges or opportunities, this should be a prompt to start a conversation with a boss or others in more senior positions who can offer guidance on the next skill or opportunity to work toward.
“There are situations where people can be stuck in a position for a very long time, and they're not actually growing,” Shailvi explains. “They're not in a position where anybody else will hire them. It can be a very unfortunate situation in those cases.”
Since Shailvi has experience as a hiring manager in her field, she also has advice for those who have decided to take their skills elsewhere. While applicants should be able to meet the basic qualifications of a new job, she says that it’s essential to aim higher with each job search. Your passion for a project can be the most important asset you bring to a company.
“A lot of hiring managers would prefer a candidate who is excited about the role and the possible impact that they can have – someone who is willing to learn and ‘upskill’ themselves to actually make a difference.”
She adds, “Today’s leading companies can benefit from people who take ownership and are accountable. And as long as you are open to being wrong and acknowledging that you don't know everything, but you learn from it, I think that’s a very, very important sort of skill to have.”
Shailvi’s philosophy has led to her own success, and helped others along the way as well. Whether it’s someone just beginning their tech career, or a seasoned pro, the approach is the same. “Keep learning, keep stretching your knowledge, and keep looking for others who you can help, too.”
About the Author: Linsey Knerl is a contributing writer for HP Tech@Work. Linsey is a Midwest-based author, public speaker, and member of the ASJA. She has a passion for helping consumers and small business owners do more with their resources via the latest tech solutions.
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