Herbert the Syncsort Big Data mascot on a cup

Coffee Cups, Women in Tech, and Rampant Competence

This marks my nineteenth year in the field of data integration, ETL, data translation, data transformation, data preparation for analytics, whatever you want to call it. I’m a data wrangler. Yee haw. (I’m from Texas. I am allowed to say “Yee haw.”) January also marks my first year, my first week in fact, at my new job at Syncsort. I flew up to the company headquarters in New Jersey and spent the first week of the year getting to know the new team and the new technology. Certain things jumped out at me as signs that I had made the right decision. It started with a coffee cup.

When I flew up for my final interview a while back, I requested some tea, and was provided with my own Syncsort coffee cup. Apparently, Syncsort is very green and they prefer to avoid disposable cups in favor of the real deal. The cute little blue eco-conscious elephant is Herbert, the Syncsort big data mascot. I went home from my interview with my own cup, and a t-shirt that says “Hadoop Wizard.” Hey, it may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I’ve got a t-shirt with Captain America’s shield, too, and I have punched a lot fewer Nazis than I have worked on Hadoop projects.

When I got home, my husband pointed out that most of my career can be tracked by my coffee cups. That black one on the far left is from Data Junction Corp. and is nearly 2 decades old, so it can be forgiven for looking a bit worn. I don’t have a CSC, Activant Solutions or Hortonworks cup, but I swear I really did work there, too. It almost feels like it doesn’t count if I didn’t get a cup.

Career Cups

So, armed with my new coffee cup, I started my first week at Syncsort. And discovered some rather marvelous things about the tech, which I don’t really want to talk about yet. I will undoubtedly be bragging about the tech a lot in the future. For now, I’d like to talk about the things that impressed me even more than the tech.

I sat in on a sprint demo to find out what interesting techie tidbits the engineers had come up with lately. (Okay, I’ll give hints: ODO, Spark, Kafka. That’s all I’m saying.) There were about 27 people in the room: the big data engineers, of course, plus support, documentation, and professional services, the GM of the big data business unit and the CEO. Of those 27 people, 12 were women, including the documentation manager, an engineering director, and the GM of the division.

If that didn’t drop your jaw, then you’ve never done this simple little exercise that I do at nearly every technical gathering, event, meetup, etc. that I go to. Count the number of people. Then, count the number of women. I generally consider 1 woman out of 4 people to be a good turnout. If 25% of the people in the room are women, that’s a win. It’s a sign that the event, company, team, meetup or whatever environment is welcoming to women in technical fields. Yay, team.

(The opposite isn’t necessarily true, by the way. If the percentage is small, it doesn’t always imply a woman unfriendly environment. Women are still enough of a minority in these fields that even 1 in 4 is unusual. It’s not a red flag. It’s just depressing.)

The percentage in the Syncsort Big Data engineering and technical services departments was more than 40%, and there was no glass ceiling in evidence anywhere. Just to give you an idea of how rare that is, I have not seen that high a level of female representation in any company, event or meetup, other than a Women in Tech event, ever. Think about that. In nineteen years in the industry at 7 different companies and a ton of industry events, not ever.

Data Junction and Pervasive had female senior programmers, a manager of sales engineers, a director of engineering, and a VP of technical services. No glass ceiling lower than the C-Suite, and really, no blatant discrimination that I ever experienced. They were really great companies for me to get my start in. Even so, there was always at least a 3 to 1 ratio of men to women in the engineering and tech services areas. At Hortonworks, on an implementation team of about 20, there were 2 women, other than myself, pretty close to the 25% win level. On the other hand, at CSC, on an ETL team of about a dozen, I was the only woman.

I’ve heard lots of theories on why this is, but in many ways, and in many places, women are simply discouraged from tackling technical jobs, or staying with them if they’ve made it that far. If you’re a guy, you really have no idea. It’s not something you will see or notice, generally. There are exceptions, of course.

At one job, we had a professional services consultant come in from an ETL vendor to try to troubleshoot some scaling challenges with his tool. He did things like step in front of me when he was explaining things. He would turn his back to me, face to the guys on the team, deliberately cutting me out of the conversation. When I asked him to send me a copy of the write-up he was doing that explained the scaling challenges, and his suggestions for fixing them, his answer was, “Why? You wouldn’t understand it.” That kind of blatant crap was enough to blow the mind of my project manager, and seriously piss him off. But thank heavens, that level of blatant prejudiced jerkiness toward women in technical fields is rare nowadays.Syncsort Herbert Hadoop Cup

But instead of launching into a rant on a soapbox, what I wanted to talk about was the exact opposite of that kind of crap. One of the Syncsort engineers invited me to sit with her and her group during lunch. By the way, another thing that impressed me was how welcoming and friendly everyone I met was. I chit-chatted with her, and she mentioned that she’d been there 12 years. Syncsort was her first job out of college. I mentioned the count I had made, and how delighted I was to find a place that actually approached a 50/50 split in the technical fields. She gave me a completely blank look.

“It never occurred to me.”

Having worked only at Syncsort, it had NEVER even come up in twelve years. It was a complete non-issue. Now, that is impressive.

The GM, Tendu, a 15 year Syncsort veteran who was VP of Engineering before becoming GM, was sitting behind me when I mentioned that. She said that the discrepancy between the balance at Syncsort, and the imbalance everywhere else had really hit her hard the first time she attended a customer advisory board meeting. The CIO’s, IT Directors, Architects, etc from several of their key customers gathered in one room, 35 people. Tendu was one of only two women in the room. So, she was familiar with the problem, but it was something that affected other companies, not hers.

My next thought was, if breast ownership was considered irrelevant to engineering or management capability, I wondered if color or country of origin were considered relevant. Nope. Skin colors varied from dark black to pasty white, with all the shades in between, and the lady I was chatting with was Romanian. Tendu is from Turkey. There were folks from India, France, Japan, and undoubtedly a few other countries. I saw young folks right out of college and some folks with gray hair.

Age, color, country, sex, etc. were all irrelevant. So, you gotta wonder, what was the selection criteria for these folks? I quickly discovered exactly what the answer was to that question. Here’s a shocker. It was competence.

I still cringe remembering the day I had to explain to a direct marketing / lead gen “expert” what a lead nurturing program was, and how it worked. I once had a fellow programmer give me a blank look when I suggested it might be a good idea to separate the string text from the interface code. I have had the privilege of working with some truly brilliant folks who taught me a ton, but I have also been very frustrated trying to work with folks who just really didn’t know how to do their jobs. I’m delighted to say that I did not meet a single person at Syncsort who was not laser sharp on top of their job, in any department.

So, in short, I seem to have discovered a company where competence and friendliness are running rampant, unchecked, roaming the halls with no one to stop them but a blue elephant who wants you to remember to recycle.

Herbert the Syncsort Big Data mascot on a cup

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