Women of color prove themselves in software and IT
“Because I’ve had the opportunity to change some minds, the door has opened for other minorities.” – Vanessa Nnaji, CA
“We will keep working hard and future generations will benefit from our efforts.”
– Veronica Salinas, Compuware
By Arthur Schurr
Nearly forty years ago Shirley Malcom, now head of the education directorate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (aaas.org), crafted her groundbreaking study, The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science, outlining the predicament women of color faced in technical areas including information technology. It brought to the fore a dramatic inequity that few realized except for those who experienced it directly. Since then much has changed, and advances have been made. But the issue is by no means resolved.
A 2011 AAAS report notes that “many of the overt prejudices and obstacles that once blocked minority women from science and engineering careers have ended or significantly eroded. Now they must navigate more subtle obstacles that endure at many U.S. colleges and universities: an undercurrent of questions about their skill, a lack of support at their institutions, a sense of professional isolation.”
Rosario Robinson shares these beliefs. She is engagement manager for communities at the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology (ABI, Palo Alto, CA).
“Women of color are just as knowledgeable, innovative and technical as the next person. But being a double minority we still have a ways to go in terms of raising awareness and gaining visibility within the industry. And those are the main two elements we’re trying to tackle,” she says.
Robinson cites ABI’s efforts to raise awareness within communities of color as key to long-term change. “A lot of us within our community, specifically within the black community, don’t understand the opportunities available to us: what the excitements are, what type of role you can work toward, what the careers are. We’re trying to improve that by going into the communities. We want to make sure our women know what’s available and that they can move into the technical fields. We have a lot of K-12 initiatives to raise awareness.
“There is a big economic component. These technology jobs pay very well. We’re doing a lot to support each other through career workshops and professional development. And women of color, particularly, are really leading a lot of our initiatives in social media and changing the world through technology. We have to do a great deal of work to make sure the next generation sees us in these roles. It’s not going to happen overnight. But it will happen.”
Here are some women of color who are making it happen today.
Vanessa Nnaji supports the professional development of CA Technologies engineers
Technical support manager Vanessa B. Nnaji works in the Plano, TX office of IT management software company CA Technologies (New York, NY). Her job is to help the company’s engineers increase their job satisfaction and performance.
“I most enjoy the opportunity to influence the development, growth and careers of my direct and indirect reports. I love to see the face of an engineer when there is moment of truth about CA – the corporate programs, the company’s focus on diversity and inclusion, and its diverse workforce.”
Nnaji joined CA in late 2013. She earned her bachelors degree in 1979 from Portland State University (OR). She has held tech roles at a variety of large and small organizations, including ten years with HP.
Proud of who she is and what she can do
Nnaji says that being a double minority has actually helped her career by opening doors. Now she uses her position to change perceptions.
“Most of the time I enjoy the challenges, obstacles and ultimate successes of being a woman of color. Because I have had the opportunity to influence and change some minds, the door has opened for other minorities.”
Nnaji informally mentors younger people at work. She also coaches and mentors first-generation Nigerian immigrants and their children. But her practical and prudent advice applies across the board.
“Acquire the required education and skills. Develop relationships and network. Constantly challenge yourself and don’t remain in your comfort zone. Share your knowledge. Understand your strengths and play to them,” she says.
“Finally, never forget you’re a role model and people are always watching. Your actions can open or close the door for the next person.”
Veronica Salinas develops multimillion-dollar products for Compuware
Software development manager Veronica Salinas develops and maintains data management software solutions for IT services and solutions company Compuware (Detroit, MI), a technology performance company. “My work enables our enterprise customers to take advantage of the power of mainframe computers,” she says.
Salinas joined Compuware in 2006 as a technical support representative. She moved through a variety of positions, and has been in her current job since 2011.
Born and raised in Chihuahua, Mexico, Salinas earned a BS in engineering and computer science from the Instituto Tecnologico de Chihuahua II in 1997. She traveled to British Columbia in 1998 and spent six months perfecting her English. She held a variety of software development and applications management positions in Mexico, and worked for a company with U.S. connections from 2003 to 2006. She eventually brought her skills to the U.S. But it was not an easy road.
“I have faced some level of discrimination in my life, but the key for me has always been not to give up,” she reflects. “Even if situations are not completely fair, you keep on fighting, you keep on working hard. I am not looking for special treatment because I am a woman of color. All I want is to be given an equal opportunity in the full extent of that phrase,” she adds.
Hard work pays off
“Previous generations kept working hard and made it better for us. We will keep working hard and future generations will benefit from our efforts,” she emphasizes. “It is my good fortune that Compuware is a company that focuses solely on the skills that you have to offer and how you perform.”
Salinas believes that determination does eventually win out, no matter what your circumstances may be, but education is essential. “My grandfather was an intelligent man, but he was illiterate, so I know firsthand how limiting a lack of education can be. Education expands your mind and it helps you see possibilities that otherwise would not even be imaginable. Education transforms you as a human being.”
Infrastructure architect Mary Dianne Simmons helps keep FedEx’s data moving
Mary Dianne Simmons is IT enterprise infrastructure services director at global courier delivery service FedEx (Memphis, TN). Based in Collierville, TN, she provides strategic leadership and direction for teams that deploy and allocate computer resources across many data center locations.
“FedEx has a rich, people-oriented culture. I thoroughly enjoy the technical side of the work, but having the opportunity to interface with individuals at every level is the most enjoyable aspect of this position,” she says.
Simmons joined FedEx in 1996 as a senior technical specialist and has risen through the ranks, holding several IT management positions. She started with a 1984 BS in computer science from the University of Mississippi (Oxford). In 2007, she completed the FedEx leadership development program, and she holds many professional certifications.
Driven by the possibilities
For Simmons, being a double minority never factored into her work. “I have not faced any obstacles due to my race or gender while working at FedEx in IT. I am internally driven and view any potential challenge as an opportunity for me to achieve a positive result.”
She was born in a small, predominantly white town of about 5,000 people. “At the age of nineteen, I was asked to become the first woman of color to work as a teller for a local bank. When I visit now, I am excited to see numerous women of color as tellers, serving the community. It is hard to believe I played a role in paving that path.”
Simmons gives back to her profession and her community, from mentoring and coaching an inner-city youth basketball team to teaching community teens to mentoring University of Mississippi MBA students. She also helped the Magic Johnson Empowerment Center re-establish its computer labs for inner-city children, all with the support of FedEx. She provides inspiring advice to women of color just starting out in the profession.
“Build an executable plan to achieve your goals,” she tells them. “Take advantage of any IT or personal development programs. And stay focused! Winners never quit and quitters never win!”
Diversity and giving back at FedEx
Memphis-based diversity and affinity group advisor Janas Jackson shares Simmons’s enthusiasm for giving back and FedEx’s dedication to equality.
“The three things in our FedEx DNA that have always differentiated us are our people, our strategy, and our commitment to service. Our diverse team members have helped build a legacy that has kept the marketplace moving, thriving, and connected across continents and cultures. And it has always been our belief that we are here not just to make a dollar, but to make a difference.”
Beena Ammanath leads the big data and analytics team at GE
At General Electric (GE, Fairfield, CT), Beena Ammanath is the informatics leader at the San Ramon, CA Software Center of Excellence, GE’s new hub for innovative software, analytics and user-experience development.
She leads the big data and analytics team, a group that enables the consumption and application of big data in different forms, converting raw data into business intelligence and data science. The team “uses the power of big data and analytics to help solve some of its customers’ toughest challenges,” she says, including making airline flights safer. “It’s very motivating to be working on solutions that impact our daily lives.”
Ammanath is a pilot with a love of Cessna aircraft. She joined GE at the beginning of 2013, “when a dream opportunity allowed me to marry my life’s passion for aviation with my technical strengths.” Before GE, she worked in tech and leadership roles at multinationals including British Telecom, Bank of America and Thompson Reuters, as well as several Silicon Valley startups. She’s been a data analyst, BI manager, data architect and more.
A promising start
She began her technical training at the University of Pune (India), earning a BS and an MS in computer science in 1993 and 1995, respectively. Ammanath was the top ranking student across the entire 1,000-student population every semester. But even with such achievements, being a woman of color affected her career.
“In the early stages of my career, the dynamic was very noticeable. But over time I have gotten so used to it that I don’t even realize it,” she says.
“I feel that being a woman of color in a white male-dominated field has brought a new, positive perspective for all the people I work with. It has definitely helped us all work more effectively and build better products together. I feel that I bring a different emotional intelligence to my work,” she believes.
“It takes some time to establish credibility, but once you do, there is no difference. At the end of the day, it’s the work you deliver that really matters.”
With that in mind, Ammanath advises young women of color to leave their “gender and color at the door. If you consider yourself an equal, you will work better and overcome any negative impacts. We, as women, bring a lot of value to the table. Never forget that.”
Ursula Cottone is SVP for enterprise data management and analytics at KeyBank
Ursula Cottone is blazing a trail as an SVP and KeyBank’s chief data officer, a relatively new position in the financial industry.
With KeyBank (a subsidiary of KeyCorp, Cleveland, OH) for sixteen years, Cottone has served the financial services firm in many capacities: senior consultant in strategic consulting services, chief administrative officer for KeyBank Capital Services, and retail bank leader. As chief data officer, she leads the enterprise data and analytic capabilities office, providing guidance for data acquisition, usage and management.
“Every day is a new adventure for sure. There’s always something to learn, which I enjoy most. I’ve had a lot of different roles here, and I’ve always embraced the opportunity to learn new things.”
Cottone began her career after earning a BS in accounting from Bowling Green State University (OH) in 1992. She followed that with an MBA from Cleveland State University (OH) in 1993. After a brief stint at the American Greetings Corporation, Cottone found “exactly what I was looking for” at KeyBank.
Putting a positive spin on her work
She feels that neither her gender nor her Asian-Indian heritage has played a big role in her career advancement. Her positive attitude might be the reason.
“I don’t think about being a double minority. There are challenges as you move up the corporate ladder as a woman, but it’s been more about being a woman than a minority.”
In an evolving IT landscape, Cottone feels she is adaptable and a good leader, both traits that have been central to her advancement. She now uses those skills to help others. She volunteers in Cleveland with the Centers for Families and Children, the Junior League, and Cleveland Bridge Builders.
She also informally mentors a “handful of folks within the company.” She advises them to “Take chances. Take chances. Take chances. And be hungry to learn.”
Cynthia Izzo builds relationships, solves problems and protects data at KPMG
Cynthia Izzo is a principal in charge of the New England region information protection and business resiliency group for KPMG LLP, a professional and financial services firm.
Based in Boston, MA, she is one of fifteen partners and leads a team of more than 190 professionals across the country. Her team helps KPMG clients protect their information and data systems and establish robust continuity and data recovery services. She also helps ensure compliance with security regulations.
“We’re the techie part of the firm. My favorite thing about this job is that I get to go to different clients, build relationships, solve problems and protect their data. I really enjoy being out in the community.”
Originally from Arizona, Izzo attended Arizona State University (Tempe) and earned a bachelor of science in business administration in finance with a minor in accounting. She is certified in RSA Archer risk management administration.
She started her career with Arthur Andersen and joined the Orange County office of KPMG eleven years ago. She transferred to Boston in 2004. Though Izzo feels that her status as a double minority didn’t really shape her career, she did notice something missing as she advanced.
Everyone needs a role model
“I grew up in a border town in Arizona, and ninety percent of the town was Mexican American. I wasn’t a minority there. It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized there was diversity in the world. But I don’t think it affected me either way. I noticed it more when I started managing IT projects and there weren’t a lot of female role models. There was no one to look up to, no one who was a wife, mother and a professional.”
For that reason, Izzo is acutely aware of her position and the image it projects. “I’ve always tried to mentor and sponsor younger women, giving them a role model. In my industry, we have a lot of work to do. And as a mother of four girls, I take a personal, passionate interest in organizations that support young girls and women.”
In addition to mentoring ten women at KPMG, Izzo serves as a board member on the corporate advisory board of the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting (ALPFA), and has been the VP of Women of ALPFA.
Yohanna N. Vasquez works in cybersecurity for the U.S. Navy
Yohanna N. Vasquez is an IT specialist at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC, Newport, RI), the U.S. Navy’s research, development and testing facility for undersea warfare, part of the Naval Sea System Command (NAVSEA, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, DC).
Vasquez assesses and implements Department of Defense-mandated security guidelines. “My work requires me to be detail oriented and to be well rounded in other areas of IT,” she notes.
“But there is always something new: development of an application, a security risk, a configuration change. You have to be proactive in learning what’s new in the IT world.”
Vasquez joined NUWC as a contractor in 2012, and became a formal civilian employee in 2018. She earned her BS in 2011 in accounting from Virginia State University (Petersburg, VA). But her IT career started in 2005 when she finished an associates degree in accounting at the Community College of Rhode Island and joined the Rhode Island Air National Guard. She still serves in the guard as a staff sergeant. “The ANG was a good fit for me,” she explains. She wanted to serve, but also wanted to spend time with her son. Part-time service with the ANG provided training, paid for further education, and allowed her to have a civilian career.
Don’t let society dictate your future
For Vasquez, the road to her career was not easy, but she would not be deterred. “I have encountered individuals who felt that because I am a woman and a woman of color, I was not capable of working in this field,” she reflects. “But I worked even harder to ensure that I could do the job and do it well.”
Vasquez sees that mindset as key for other women of color. “Do not allow society to dictate who and what you can become in the IT field,” she advises. “Do your homework and find out what IT certifications and training are available for the career path you want.” Vasquez herself has CompTia Advanced Security Practitioner certification, plus several Microsoft and DISA credentials.
Diana Gray is “never bored” working to optimize mobile apps for Oracle
Diana Gray is the product strategy director in the application development organization at Oracle Corporation (Redwood City, CA), a multinational computer technology firm. Gray works in Pleasanton, CA, and focuses primarily on mobile applications for Oracle human capital management suite HCM Cloud customers. She helps her customers use HCM Cloud mobile solutions on smartphones and tablets.
“My work is varied and exciting,” she says. “I work with Oracle identity management gurus in Oracle Fusion middleware to troubleshoot configuration issues, or I meet with customers to understand the business challenges that drive our mobile roadmap. I’m never bored.”
Gray joined Oracle through its acquisition of PeopleSoft, where she rose in less than five years to senior project manager. Gray received a BA from the University of California-Santa Barbara in 2005. In 2007 she got a certificate in CS from Mills College (Oakland, CA), which in her estimation “has paid off handsomely.”
Mentoring and networks help Gray make up for being outnumbered.
“I’m often asked what it’s like to work in technology, a predominantly male industry. My reply is, ‘I don’t know anything different.’ I’ve worked in technology most of my professional career,” she says.
“What’s served me well is finding mentors to guide and help me navigate areas where I may have had limited experience, especially right out of college. I’ve found mentors and built strong professional relationships with my peers, managers and other executives. These are effective ways of finding and being recommended for new projects and opportunities.”
Gray returns the favor by mentoring young women and encouraging colleagues, friends and family to do the same.
Oracle’s Gilda Garretón pushes the edge of the software envelope
Based in Oracle’s Redwood City, CA headquarters, principal software engineer Gilda Garretón is a principal investigator and senior software engineer in the very large scale integration (VLSI) research group at Oracle Labs. Garretón’s group focuses on hardware research. Her own research centers on VLSI CAD algorithms and parallel programming.
“My work might not be a typical position for a software engineer, but it is amazingly rewarding, as I have the chance to experiment with state-of-the-art software development technologies and apply them in our research environment,” she says.
Garretón became an Oracle employee four years ago, when Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems. She joined Sun in 2004 after responding to a post on the Systers website (anitaborg.org/get-involved/systers) of the Anita Borg Institute, where Garretón serves today as an advisory board member.
In 1990 Garretón earned her BS and MS, with a major in computing and industry, from the Catholic University of Chile, School of Engineering (Santiago, Chile). She was encouraged to go to Europe for her doctorate, and in 1998, she earned her PhD in science from the Swiss Institute of Technology, Institute of Integrated Circuits (Zurich, Switzerland). She worked as a systems analyst for a large Swiss bank and moved to the U.S. with her husband a few years later.
Reflecting on roadblocks
Garretón’s experience in the IT industry is both typical and unique. “I have been in a male-dominated field since I was an undergrad student. So you don’t realize how hard things might have been for you until you have a chance to listen to other women,” she says.
“It’s hard to confirm if all the roadblocks in my career have been due to my being a Latina or just because I haven’t had the same opportunities due to my background. I didn’t study in the U.S., and I am the first college generation in my family. It’s been hard, no questions about it, but how hard compared with other Latinas with the same goals? This is not a trivial answer as my career path is not a traditional one, which might have added extra roadblocks for career advancements,” she says.
“I only started thinking about being a double minority when I came to the U.S., as the U.S. is more diverse. I have always been the only Latino in my group. It has been difficult to deal with assumptions that people have about certain communities if you are the first one they meet. Sometimes all they know about Latino culture is its pop aspect, and it can be a battle to prove that you are as qualified in technology as anyone else in the room.”
Garretón believes strongly in giving back. In addition to her ABI involvement, she co-founded grassroots community organization Latinas in Computing (latinasincomputing.org) to promote Latinas and help them succeed in computer-related fields.
Oracle: a level playing field
Diversity and inclusion director Barbara Williams believes that Oracle provides a level playing field for professionals like Gray and Garretón.
“Diversity and inclusion is a driving force for creativity, innovation and productivity at Oracle. It is part of who we are. An inclusive environment optimizes our employees’ engagement and performance and helps us recruit, hire and retain top talent around the world.”
Pamela Dyson leads and strategizes technology efforts at the SEC
At Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC, Washington, DC) headquarters, Pamela Dyson is deputy chief information officer and chief technology officer. She provides senior IT leadership and strategic direction for the SEC, the federal commission charged with ensuring the integrity of U.S. financial markets. She also manages the implementation of innovative technology.
“I have overall management responsibility for application maintenance and support, infrastructure operations and engineering, end-user services and enterprise architecture,” she says.
Dyson joined the SEC in 2010 as assistant director for enterprise operations. She was named CTO in 2011 and deputy CIO in 2012. Before the SEC, she was deputy chief information officer at the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC). She joined the ITC in 1987 and held several management positions in information technology, then was named deputy CIO of the ITC in 2005.
She earned a 1984 BS in applied design from the University of Maryland (College Park), then started as a graphic designer at management consulting firm ICF International (Fairfax, VA). There she implemented the firm’s first electronic publishing system. She moved to Westinghouse Corp as an engineering assistant, then joined the ITC.
A mixed experience leads to mentorship
Dyson is at the top of her field. But as a woman of color, the climb has been a varied experience.
“Over the course of my career, being a double minority has had advantages as well as disadvantages,” she believes. “While some organizations were hindered by biases and stereotypes in facilitating the progression of careers for women of color, there have been far more that have embraced a culture of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. As a result, they have reaped the benefits that a wide range of perspectives and experiences brings to the organization.”
Dyson mentors others, particularly in STEM programs. She advises that in addition to technical competence, women should “build the self-confidence and self-assurance required to take on any challenges that may thwart their progression to success.”
Archana Gahlot: moving enterprise systems to production at the SEC
Also based at SEC headquarters, transition management branch chief Archana Gahlot manages the lifecycle migration process for all SEC systems. She also manages the quality control test center lab of the office of information technology (OIT). The lab conducts functional, compliance, usability, load and stress testing of all the software applications going into production. “My job requires leadership, people and program management skills and technical skills,” she says.
Gahlot joined the SEC in 2009, working in OIT’s Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis and Retrieval (EDGAR) development branch. She eventually rose to head the branch. EDGAR is the SEC’s database of public company filings.
Gahlot has a 1995 BS in computer science from the University of Maryland (College Park). She began her career as a software developer on large federal programs, and was a technical manager in the telecom sector and in commercial product development.
A positive experience
Gahlot considers the SEC a diverse and supportive organization. “There are women of color in several different leadership positions. I have always been valued because of my skills, education and experience. I have received a lot of support and mentorship from everyone across the board.”
Now a manager herself, Gahlot mentors people under her. But she feels that IT work is rarely about the individual. “Individual achievements don’t define success. It is the ability to be part of a team that delivers consistently. You must be aligned with your organization’s strategy and objectives.”
Ngoc Vu implements new technology solutions for the SEC
Washington, DC-based Ngoc Vu is the solutions delivery assistant director for the SEC. She’s part of the OIT and is responsible for the strategic implementation of tech solutions and analytical tools to improve business efficiency.
“I enjoy working with a wide variety of groups, learning about their roles, and jointly coming up with ways to improve how they operate or interact. As new solutions are put in place, the agency is transforming, and it’s exciting to be part of that change,” she says.
Vu joined the SEC in 2008 as an IT specialist in the capital planning and investment control section. She has a 1996 BS in decision science/MIS from George Mason University (Fairfax, VA).
Vu started her career in the private sector, then became a consultant for the U.S. Army Security Assistance Command, where she worked in web and application development.
Sharing her experience
In her experience, the IT arena presents its own unique challenges for women of color. Vu mentors several other minority women, and advises them to believe in themselves.
“Proving that you have earned the right to be where you are can be a challenge, especially in the IT field. I’ve lost count of the number of meetings I’ve been in where I am the only double minority, but you need to get over that quickly,” she advises. “You need to adapt, blend in with the team, and allow yourself to be known by others. Recognizing that you are just as good as everyone else will allow you to overcome any obstacles.”
The SEC values all diverse groups
Pamela Gibbs is director of the office of minority and women inclusion at the SEC. “As of fiscal year 2013, women were 46.5 percent of the SEC’s workforce,” she reports. “At the SEC, diversity goes beyond race and gender. It also encompasses an individual’s experiences, backgrounds and thoughts. We believe a diverse workforce and inclusive culture enhance the performance of the SEC in fulfilling its mission.”
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