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Expert Interview (Part 2): Senior Software Engineer Yolanda Davis on Women in Technology

In the first part of this interview with Hortonworks Senior Software Engineer, Yolanda Davis, we discussed the power of the Hortonworks DataFlow platform powered by Apache Nifi, and how it can help with streaming data ingestion challenges. Next, we’ll talk about some of the barriers she and other women in technology have faced when trying to enter Big Data-related fields, and what can be done about it.

Paige: I want to ask some more Yolanda specific questions, as opposed to Nifi questions, okay?

Yolanda: Okay. I don’t mind Yolanda questions.

You stood up at the Women in Big Data lunch yesterday.

I did.

And you were talking about the culture of “Oh.” As in, “Oh, you’re an engineer?”


How did that affect you in your career?

I have to say I’ve been fortunate. I don’t feel in any way that I have been stymied from what I wanted to do. However, I know that walking in the door, I have to assert myself probably more than my colleagues in demonstrating what I know.

That is, not only as a woman, but also as a black woman. Just to put the numbers out there, between 1% and 3% of computer science degrees are awarded to African-American women. That’s really specific. So, I know that I am rare, but at the same time, my work speaks for itself.

Even fewer women are entering engineering and data fields now than in the 80’s. There are so many hurdles. Of all those Hadoop committers that got up on stage yesterday, only two were women.

I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had people who helped me along the way, our CEO included. [Rob Bearden]


Yes. I’m going to cite him specifically because he has spoken to me and said, “We value you being here.” I’m appreciative of him acknowledging that. There are people who have supported me along the way always in my career, and helped and guided me, who did not look like me at all. That has been important for me. That is, unfortunately, not a shared experience for many women in technology.

The one thing that I do, on the personal Yolanda side, is I have worked with a lot of organizations that work with kids, to help girls who look like me, to tell them that they are welcome in this field too.  And to help change that culture of “Oh!”

You worked with Black Girls Code in Atlanta, right?

I did. Yes. It’s a great organization. Girls Who Code is making a big difference for people, too, I think. Anything that encourages more young women to get into the field, and doesn’t leave them feeling isolated, like the only ones doing this, is a good thing.

I’m sorry, I’ve got to run to the keynote. My boss is presenting.

No problem. I want to catch that, too. Thanks for taking the time.

Good seeing you again.

Where are the women in technology -- a lone few in the crowd

Seeing More Women in the Tech Crowd

During that keynote, all the Apache committers in the audience were asked to come up on-stage to celebrate Hadoop’s 10th birthday. I had to nudge Ryan Merriman to get up there. Many programmers are not into being on stage, but one thing that stood out like a spotlight when all those open source contributors stepped up, was the maybe two women in the whole crowd. Talk about lonely. It really makes you wonder why open source, and software engineering in general, seems like such a men’s club.

During the Women in Big Data lunch, a young intern working on Apache Ambari credited Girls Who Code with getting her started in programming. One of the things she stood up and said during that lunch was, “If you want to get girls involved, don’t just include one girl.” Being the only one who looks like you in any crowd can be intimidating. Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code are great organizations for helping create the next generation of women in technology, and also helping them not feel alone.

Great organizations like that are a good start, but it takes a lot of support over time to counteract the barriers that nearly every woman faces as she progresses in the field. Some articles that give a good idea of the obstacles women face are When Women Stopped Coding and Report: Disturbing drop in women in computing field.

I have been told that “Women can’t really program. Their brains aren’t built for that kind of logic,” by a close friend. I had a new co-worker I shared an office with mansplain how to do the job I’d been doing for over a year, and insist that code I had written must have been written by my male predecessor. If I get going on the discouragement I’ve received over the years, I could go all day. The simple truth is that nearly every women in technology encounters discrimination, whether it’s overt or subtle. It is a rare woman who hasn’t, at the very minimum, had that experience of looking around a room filled with people in her field, and realizing she’s the only woman there.

Encouraging Women in Technology

My own experience has been similar to Yolanda’s, in that I have been given opportunities, help and encouragement all along the way by people who didn’t look like me. From the man who gave me an entry-level software engineer position because he believed in my ability, despite not having a computer-related degree, to the man who groomed me for my first management position, to the man who fought to get me a 25% raise so that I was paid an equivalent salary for my position, I owe a lot to men in this field who believed in me and gave me a chance.

Any man working with a woman can make her job worse or better, just by following Wheaton’s Law, or not. But if you are the manager of women, you may be the one person with the most power to make a difference in a smart woman’s career, either good or bad. He might make the difference between a rockstar like Yolanda kicking technical butt on his team, or encouraging her and her talents to leave for another company, or even another field

The other people in a position to make a huge difference are other women already in the field. From the woman who hired me when I made the jump from teaching to tech, to the woman who mentored me when I first started as an engineer, to my current boss at Syncsort who gave me a shot at yet another new level of challenge, women in technology can make a huge difference for each other. At the very minimum, you can make sure that the other women working with you don’t have to feel alone in a crowd.

Hadoop and the open source community have accomplished a lot in the last 10 years, with women largely excluded. I’d love to see what they could accomplish, if when the number says 20 on that big slide, half those folks on stage are brilliant women like Yolanda.

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