Katharina Probst speaks on leadership and change from Silicon Valley experience

Katharina Probst on the lecture. Photo by Matt Hembree (C’20).

By Anna Mann

Katharina Probst (C’00) combined leadership, literature, and lecture in her PowerPoint titled: “Sewanee to Silicon Valley: Lessons in Leadership and Change.” On February 18, Probst spoke to the gathered crowd about her work as Director of Engineering at Netflix and the Engineering Leader for Google Kubernetes Engine.

As one of the first female computer science majors to graduate from the University of the South, Probst went on receive a M.S. and Ph.D. in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University in 2002 and 2005 respectively.

The Sewanee grad began by telling her story, which started in a small town in Southern Germany called Wemding. As a college student, Probst knew that she wanted to travel and study abroad. However, she didn’t know that her one year exchange program with Sewanee would turn into three.

“I always wanted to experience the world,” she explained. “Coming here, it’s a small place but it’s so different from where I came from. I was taking classes and meeting all these new people and I just wanted more of it.”

In her lecture, Probst focused on the importance of empathetic leadership. Stating that she maintains her interest in her work through connecting with people, learning from them, and empowering them in equal measure.

“I think people are endlessly fascinating,” Probst said. “I like technology and I think it’s interesting, it engages my mind, but I find people even more fascinating. Studying what motivates people and how different groups interact with each other is great.”

To help find what drives her team, Probst uses the information gained in her psychology studies at Sewanee nearly every day. She stated that people come at problems in very different ways due to the way they were raised, their background, and past experiences. In order for a team to be high- functioning, a leader must find what motivates each person on their team and then communicate in a way that inspires them.

Regarding this, she referenced the Amazon leadership principles where the company insists that each worker is a leader. The speaker highly recommended the list, which includes the phrase “Have backbone; disagree and commit.” The principle focuses on the importance of active debates when in the decision-making process, which Probst said she encourages in any meeting.

As to finding her team, the Silicon Valley computer engineer looks for several characteristics during the hiring process: ownership, empathy, and critical thinking skills. She wants each member of her team to act as if they were an owner of the company, going above and beyond in their work and mindset. Additionally, members should engage with their peers in debate while showing a willingness to hear another’s viewpoint.

In an exclusive interview with The Purple earlier that day, Probst elaborated on her experiences after her graduation from Sewanee. She worked three years in applied research for Accenture, an information and technology services company, before moving to California to work for Google. While working for Accenture, Probst fostered her technical skills in hopes to one day become a manager and work more closely with people.

When asked about her status as a woman in a predominantly male field Probst said: “[At Sewanee] there were very few students and my advisor and mentor was female, Dr. Lankewicz, I think it didn’t quite sink in. Somebody told me yesterday that I was one of the first women to graduate with a computer science degree, I didn’t even know… Now I work in the tech industry and it’s very obvious that women are in the minority.”

However, Probst stressed that her gender doesn’t come up every day. It primarily occurs when she gives lectures or interviews prospective hires. Though she explains that women in the computer science field deal with the assumptions in different ways, personally, she doesn’t become angry.

“I understand that we all have conscious and unconscious biases,” she said. “Those are driven in part by the numbers that people see. If people simply assume that I’m not a computer scientist because I’m a woman, that assumption alone doesn’t make me mad because based on everything they’ve seen in their lives that’s an assumption you might make,” she said.

Probst clarified that any initial surprise regarding her status as a computer engineer is no big deal. She understands the tendency of the human brain to make assumptions; however, she cares how people treat her after the initial shock. “Do they treat me with respect?” she asked.

As to making the trip back to the Mountain, Probst concluded that: “It’s so nice to come back here and see people that remember me from many years ago. You drive up and take this deep breath and the stress just falls off of you. That’s Sewanee for me I think.”