From a Love of Puzzles to Riot Games’ Head of Data: Natasha Julka’s Career Story
Natasha's dad used to ask her why she was opening up their VCR—and whether she was planning on putting it back together.
"I loved breaking and fixing things around the house," Natasha explains. "I couldn't wait to see what was inside!"
Her dad, who was one of the first people in his family to pursue higher education, always encouraged her, says Natasha. So did her mom, who wanted to see Natasha and her two siblings pursue STEM careers and get the best education possible.
"I really owe [my success] to her," says Natasha. "My parents were so supportive of all the experiments I did, and all the things I broke."
Her parents may have encouraged her love of hands-on problem-solving, but Natasha was the one who turned it into a successful engineering career, and now to a role as the Head of Data at video game company Riot Games. We sat down with her to hear more about that journey, as well as what advice she has for people like her who don't consider themselves big gamers, but who are interested in solving complicated problems with and for a passionate, talented community.
Natasha did her undergraduate degree in India, near where she's from, and she knew she wanted to go somewhere else for her master's.
"I wanted to go somewhere far but with a great program, and that was the U.S.," she says. "The independence you have here in terms of choosing your own curriculum, you don't have that in India."
She moved to L.A. not knowing anyone but an aunt's family, and has since built a full life of her own in California. And her siblings followed her example, too—her younger brother, who had sat with her for hours working on programming problems when they were young, ended up moving to Singapore, and her older sister now resides in Switzerland.
"Now my dad is like, 'Oh, you should totally not come back.' He's so proud and so excited that I'm here, that all his kids [have pursued opportunities abroad]. I used to call him and be like, 'What the hell? You're not missing me?! What is going on?'" says Natasha, laughing.
She made the most of her independence, though, and found fulfilling work as an engineer. "I loved that I got to experiment a whole lot, that I got to build things," she says.
Then a roadblock popped up: her manager asked her to take on a management role.
Solving People Puzzles
Natasha initially said no to the offer. But eventually her manager convinced her to give it a shot, even if just for a year. She signed up and immediately had one of the hardest years of her career.
"It was horrible," she remembers. "I was comfortable with being an engineer, so [as a manager] I was always one step back, still in that world [of being an engineer]."
But when her manager left, and then his manager left suddenly, too, Natasha found herself reporting directly to the CTO—and leaning into the challenge.
"If that hadn't happened, maybe I would've never really left engineering to give management a true investment from my side," she reflects. "But because it did, I knew I couldn't keep messing up. I had to grow up. I realized that I actually enjoyed aspects of management, especially how you can make an impact."
Eventually, some mid-level managers were hired, and Natasha got more coaching and mentoring versus just trial-by-fire experience. She realized that understanding the product, finance, and operations parts of an engineering business was just as vital as knowing how to code, and seeing the longer-term strategy of the business unfold allowed her to better manage her team and their own career goals.
"You start to position people so they can advance their careers. It's like putting a puzzle together, that same excitement. You feel really good when someone starts their career with you and then you help them grow, and when they leave, they're ready to own an entire org," she says. "That's when I feel successful."
Natasha was content with her scope of impact at her then-employer… but then she got an email from a Riot Games recruiter that she couldn't ignore.
Prioritizing Player Impact
"This might sound cheesy," starts Natasha, "but the email [the recruiter] wrote me was just so personal, so thoughtful, that it made me want to talk to him."
They talked, and though Natasha wasn't (and isn't) a big gamer, she loved what she learned about the problems Riot Games was trying to solve. As her interviews continued, she discussed issues like how to build a safe community and how to leverage data to create unique experiences, and she felt like she was being treated like a respected collaborator versus a candidate.
"I never felt like an outsider. All the amazing work, the people, how they kept me engaged throughout the entire process...at the end, I was like, 'Okay, I need to join this company,'" says Natasha.
She was particularly excited about her role as Head of Data because it came with a mandate to not just make a positive impact for her direct team, but to make a positive impact for the broader gaming community, including the millions of people who play Riot's games.
"I was really pleasantly surprised when I joined Riot to see how they think through the holistic experience. It's not just that you go into the game, you play, and you come out," she says. "It's how do you go in? Who do you get matched with? How do we make sure people are not being toxic on the chat with you? That you're having a good experience? That we're providing good recommendations for you for things to buy or champions to consider?"
Natasha herself has played League, and is fascinated by gaming and the community around it, but she's quick to point out that it's not her strong suit. "I just don't have the hand-eye coordination to play all of those crazy games where you really need to be precise!" she explains. "I'm a casual gamer."
4 Tips for Adjusting to a New Industry
Natasha was happy to learn about the world of gaming—and she wasn't afraid to ask the questions necessary to do it.
"I needed to understand every part of the gaming industry, from how we publish to how we do our esports, to provide ideas or even think through the strategy of what we're going to do next," she says. "When I started, it felt overwhelming, but I leaned heavily on my team."
She has advice for other people who are interested in working in an industry like gaming, but might not know where to start:
- Recognize what you bring to the table. Gaming, just like any other industry, is made better when it's led by a diverse set of people. "If everyone's thinking the same way, you're never going to see your game differently. We want diverse opinions and different ways of seeing," she says.
- Know you're not alone in being new. "If you're open to learning, people are there to help you," says Natasha. "You're not going to feel alone. There are a lot of people going through that same journey."
- Engage with the broader community. Natasha says that at Riot, she has direct access to the player community, and that's really helped her build a sense of who they are doing their work for. "Usually when you talk to customers, you get all formal; there's a protocol," she says. "But here, directly interacting with the players is huge."
- Don't be afraid to propose new ideas. Riot Games has a strong culture of open-mindedness and transparency, says Natasha—so strong that she was shocked by the direct and tough questions people asked the company's leadership at her first all-hands meeting. But what she's learned from that example is that pushing the envelope is required to make real progress on long-term problems, and that starts with having the space to propose new ideas. "Take risks!" implores Natasha. "Our players are dreaming of a new thing every day. So listen to them and take risks because that makes [your ideas] better."