Tell us about your CTO role at Syncsort
Think of Syncsort as a 50-year-old start-up. We are a software company, and our products are focused in the data management space. We are helping enterprise customers by connecting their existing on-premise data infrastructure and making that data available with the next-generation analytics platforms and next-generation data platforms, such as cloud and blockchain.
As CTO, I lead the product innovation, research and development teams for the entire portfolio. I’m also responsible for the incubation of new products with emerging technologies and a centre of excellence for user experience.
What attracted you to the technology sector?
I love mathematics; it has always been my favourite topic – I still do bedtime maths with my son. My father was a mathematician, which had a very positive influence on me. Our house was filled with Lego sets, building blocks and puzzle type toys, so I was lucky to be exposed at a very early age.
I knew that I wanted to do something that used math and applied mathematics. Computer science – computer engineering at the time – was heavily dependent on an understanding of math. Also, I liked the problem-solving aspect of it. My Master of Science degree in industrial engineering, followed by a PhD focused heavily on applying computer science to solve business problems. And I just loved it. I always advise people to do something that they are passionate about. That’s the only way they can both excel in it and continue to enjoy what they do.
As a woman, was it a difficult environment in which to work – were you taken seriously?
As an undergraduate computer engineer, I was one of nine girls in a 46-people department. And that percentage, after all these years, remains the same. We didn’t think about being women in technology, we thought about being people in tech, studying computer engineering, and we happened to be women.
But, when I started looking for a job, I was asked questions about whether I planned to get married or have children. Why does that matter? I don’t think people can ask those questions today but, at the time, it was even more heavily male-dominated field.
How did you overcome that sort of sexism to get where you are today?
First, no matter which field you are in, you really must do your job well and make sure that you are part of creating an inclusive, accepting and fair culture. Fairness comes in many different flavours, and we all have a role to play in creating that fair environment, whether it’s gender, ethnicity, religion or political view, it doesn’t matter. People should be free to bring their ideas and not be afraid of being judged.
When you create that environment, innovation comes naturally, because you are creating an open-minded culture, an open-minded team, and that has a compounding effect over the years. You start by empowering a small team, and those team members become leaders, whether in your organisation or somewhere else. There’s a compound effect from creating fairness and inclusiveness, which also leads to a successful and innovative business.
Openness to a non-linear career path is also important. I started as an engineer, and I was in engineering leadership for many years. Then I became general manager for Syncsort’s big data business. I pioneered Syncsort’s entry to open source projects and joining the Linux Foundation and contributing to open source projects. This was necessary for entry into the big data market. I then became general manager for Syncsort’s big data business, with additional responsibilities for sales and marketing, business development and all engineering functions, including research and development. That broadened my perspective in terms of how you can contribute to the business with a deeper understanding of its financials, helping to qualify me for the next step. Going from General Manager to becoming CTO was a major milestone for me.
Did you ever feel the need to behave more like a man in order to succeed?
I wouldn’t say that. I never thought of myself as a woman in technology, but as a person in technology. A couple of years ago, when companies like Twitter and Google started publishing the percentages of women in their engineering departments, it made me think. We never paid attention intentionally, and I asked human resources about our percentages. At the time, we had about 40% women in our engineering function. And today, R&D alone is over 30%, and our leadership is over 40% women, which is a notable percentage compared to other technology companies.
As I climbed up the career ladder, I felt I had a responsibility to talk about the importance of STEM to advocate diversity, which is fuelling innovation. Also, with the digital revolution, STEM skills are becoming more important than ever. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills are going to make a difference. We have to pay attention and mentor young people in these skills, in particular, women because they are already underrepresented.
How did the company achieve that 40% female leadership?
That happened organically. I think when people start seeing women in management and leadership roles when they’re interviewing, it helps with recruitment. That’s one aspect. The fairness in the environment, paying attention to the compensation, the salaries, the bonuses and welcoming everyone to leadership roles is a big contributor to that. Our leadership pays a lot of attention to it, and you also need men in the executive team to be open-minded about diversity. Most of the time, the leadership, the board and the executive teams are male-dominated, but we have a CEO and executive team who are open to having diversity at the table. I think those are all contributors.
What can organisations do better to promote diversity and who should be the advocate?
Everybody has a role and especially the executive and leadership teams. Even the individual team leaders have a role because, in some organisations, you need to start with the small teams and start advocating it to get the mind share.
Promoting the company’s culture and talking about it in the recruitment process is important. And having a diverse representation during the interview process is important because the candidates also look for that. I’m not a believer in quotas. I think it should happen organically and it has to happen by also creating that truly fair environment and giving everyone a chance to become leaders or pursue the career path that they choose in the company and compensate everyone based on their skills, experience and accomplishments.
Do you think that unconscious bias is a problem in the tech industry, in terms of innovation and recruitment?
Yes, there is unconscious bias. In the United States, only 18% of computer science undergraduates are women. So, you are looking at a pool of people where women are underrepresented. Bias, combined with that fact, are major contributors to the underrepresentation of women in the technology field.
I am lucky because I can confidently say, we do not have that bias at Syncsort. However, even when we talk about, for example, the big expectation of how artificial intelligence and machine learning are going to change how we do things, you also hear about how our biases are going to impact the models. We can’t deny that bias does exist.
As someone who is involved in advocating innovation, the only way you can innovate is to knock down that bias. Innovation requires different perspectives and diversity in thinking and coming up with the best solutions. We have an incubation team; I started the incubation for emerging technologies at Syncsort a couple of years back. The incubation team have engineers and technology architects from many different backgrounds, both female and male. The entire R&D diversity is also a big contributor to the company’s innovation and success in business.
Can you tell us about the programmes you are involved in to get young people into the sector?
Besides being an advocate at Syncsort, I’ve been involved in three non-profit organizations. One is with the New York Academy of Sciences. That’s a standard mentorship programme. There’s usually one student or someone who just graduated in their early career, and you have an ongoing conversation about how you can influence and help them with that career.
Another is part of the Hamdi Ulukaya entrepreneurship programme. Hamdi Ulukaya is the CEO of Chobani. This programme brings together about 25 young people who have ideas for starting their own business. I have been a mentor for that, and the program is in its third year.
The third one is Bridge to Turkiye and is more focused on young girls. It’s a non-profit organisation, based in Washington DC, and I am one of the circle leaders. We work with multiple schools in the underdeveloped parts of Turkey and we fund-raise for and mentor young girls in those underdeveloped areas. The type of support we provide includes books for kids, Lego for kids, science kits for kids; so, we introduce them to STEM skills at a very early age.
Why is this work so important to you?
Work? I love what I’m doing. It’s important because not everybody is as lucky as I am and had that kind of influence or exposure at an early age. There is more and more research into how young people choose their careers, STEM versus non- STEM. Education at an early age is a big part of that. If I can influence one person’s life in that way, that will be a great impact. In order to have women represented in any field, we must advocate for them and mentor and support them from a very early age and share our experiences.
Finally, why do you love your job so much?
I work with great people, and I love learning. Technology is a field where there’s always something new to learn. We no longer talk about our 20 or 25-year experiences; it’s 25 one-year experiences because it’s such a dynamic and continuously evolving field.
The other side of it is that technology innovation impacts every aspect of life. In this digital age, in the last couple of decades, technology has had a huge influence on medicine, business and science in general. Even as we try to figure out how the brain functions with artificial intelligence and machine learning.
On the D&I side, having the ability to create a diverse and open-minded team, where everybody can feel comfortable bringing their own ideas forward, is critical. It’s the foundation for innovation, creativity and business success.