March 17, 2010, 12:17 PM — This interview is part of ITworld's regular "How I Got Here" series which focuses on the career path of successful IT professionals.
It's not a man's world, it just looks like it sometimes. With only two other women in her graduating class, Galina Datskovsky earned the respect of her classmates early on, and went on to create her own start-up, which was later acquired by CA. She offers insight into how a woman can succeed in a male-dominated field.
Galina also reflects on the difference between running her own consulting and software development company and working for a much larger organization, and the different challenges that exist in each path.
What is your educational background?
My undergraduate degree is from Barnard College at Columbia. I have a master's degree from the engineering school, a master's from the graduate school of arts and science, and a doctorate from the graduate school of arts and sciences. That's all, I was just a perpetual student. I always say that in the doctoral program, after five years, they parole us.
What was the college experience like studying IT in a male-dominated environment?
Barnard College at Columbia University is a women's college, it's part of the larger university. Up until 1983, men went to Columbia College and women went to Barnard College, and applied to Columbia University. It didn't really matter, because it's just separate colleges of the same university, so people took classes in any part of the university. However, the Computer Science Department, which was very new then, had just been formed out of other areas of the engineering school and became its own entity. I think there may have been two other women in the entire graduating class of 500 plus at Barnard who majored in Computer Science, just to give you an idea of how prevalent it was.
That must have been a big challenge.
It was interesting. I took a lot of math and computer science courses. It was certainly very clear that women just didn't go into science in general, and certainly not into mathematics and computer science in particular. And so we were a bit pioneering in that sense. I became very used to working with and competing against a male population, but I think there's a lot of women who don't have that comfort zone.
Were you well accepted in that environment?
We were well accepted and respected. People in the technical profession tend to judge you on the quality of your work. And our work was good or better than most of the others. The faculty was very encouraging, and Columbia was pretty progressive. At the end of my undergraduate career they actually brought two women professors into the Computer Science Department, which was really amazing, because a lot of departments didn't have a single woman professor.
Why do you think it is that so few women study IT in universities even today?
I think to begin with, it starts in the schools. In general, education and perhaps society as a whole doesn't place a whole lot of emphasis on educating girls in exact sciences and mathematics. I don't know why that is, but that's my impression. It starts at the school level. It's just not common, even though you would think it would be, but it just isn't. And then when you get into a college environment, their perception of various disciplines have already been shaped. And certainly the colleges don't make a concerted effort that I could see to interest young women post-high school, who maybe have not already gotten interested in going in a science direction.
Where did you get your inspiration to go into IT?
I come from a family where my mother had a Master's degree in Mathematics. I don't think it was the high school education, it was more watching my own family dynamic, and I said, this is actually interesting. So women mentoring other women, even if it's just being role models, tends to work.
When you were still in high school, what were your interests?
The IT field didn't exist quite the same way as it does today back in those days. I graduated high school in 1980, so there were no PCs. But there was no doubt in my mind that I was going into a scientific field, but I vacillated between chemistry, biology, I wanted to study veterinary science at one point, to saying I want more of a mathematics orientation, but I didn't want to do applied mathematics. But there's this interesting field coming up around computer science, and I said maybe I'll give that a try.
At that time, universities were only just starting to come out with Computer Science programs. What made you decide to go in that direction rather than another scientific field?
I found that it allowed me to utilize my mathematical and logic abilities without putting me in a field that was already well established. I wanted a field that was new and growing, and would be continuously exciting. And talking about role models, my mother, as I mentioned, who is a mathematician by education, had started working in the IT industry in the late ‘70s, and so I was very exposed to what she was doing, and all the new technologies. In those days, new technologies were analog dial-up terminals and thermal paper. I remember her bringing that home, and I said my goodness, that is cool. I kind of like this.
What was your most unusual job in college?
One of my most unusual and most rewarding jobs was when I did tutoring, particularly in math. I had signed up to tutor a special needs student, so I ended up tutoring a girl who was deaf. She was a Barnard student and was an extraordinarily bright and talented person, but she needed the math tutoring. She could read lips, but was having a hard time keeping up with the class. It was very challenging for me, because you have to constantly remember to look at them and speak clearly so they can understand what you're saying. It was amazingly challenging, because you're not used to it. And because she could read lips so well, I would forget.
What was your first career job?
My first real career job was twofold. First, we formed a loose partnership. I formed a business with a couple of partners while still in graduate school, and we were carrying it forward. I taught at the Fordham School of Business at the same time, because when you're doing a startup, you need to supplement your income.
Tell me about the startup.
That also evolved over time. At first, it was a consulting company, and we were doing technology consulting. In the first couple years of that business, we wrote a software package having to do with records management for a client, and then we realized that there was a need in the marketplace, and we decided to give it a go and started selling and developing software. It took off from there and became a software company.
So how did the transition happen between running your own software company and being the senior vice president of architecture at CA?
That transition happened through an acquisition. CA acquired our business, and that's how I ended up at CA.
Now as VP of Architecture, what's your favorite part of that job?
That's a hard question. There are many interesting aspects to the job, but I think my favorite part is the opportunity to learn about a lot of technology and how it interacts, and to build a cohesive architectural plan that hopefully will help the business. I like looking at the big technology picture, having a new challenge is always a good thing.
What's your least favorite part of the job?
I would like things to run with a little less of a fire drill urgency. I like things very well planned, and I like to plan them, and sometimes when you work across multiple units and businesses and people, you can't always do that. For a very well-organized person who likes projects to go in a methodical fashion from beginning to end, that's disconcerting.
It must be very different, going from running your own company to being part of a very large corporation.
There are vast differences. When you're in a small company you have the ability to be very nimble, you have the ability to make quick decisions and to act on them. You're not bogged down in process and budgets. I liken it to a boat, and imagine a speed boat and a cruise ship. I can turn a speed boat on a dime, but the cruise ship is going to crash if I don't start turning it way in advance. The big company wants to be nimble but it can't, so it has to be very smart about planning long term, which it isn't. And a small company has a little more leeway. At the end of the day, as CEO of my own company, I could have consensus and strategy sessions, but the buck stopped with me. Not so in a big company. On the other hand, when you run a small company you're not just in technology. You have to be part of sales, you have to worry about your numbers, and you have to worry that there are 70 families depending on you being right for their livelihood.
In addressing our female readers, what advice would you give for those who want to go into the IT field?
First of all, for the women who want to go into the IT business, I would say that it is absolutely a wonderful place to be, and not to be intimidated by the appearance of male domination of that business. There is a nice network of women, and we try to find each other and help each other out, and there are those of us who are quite willing and eager to mentor others. Second, for women who are already in the IT career path who are worried about advancement, they have to really take the bull by the horns and decide if that's what they want. It's quite doable, but they have to speak up for themselves. It is a male dominated world and self promotion is an expected way of doing things. Balance other responsibilities in life when possible. You know, you never hear of a man speaking of work-family balance, but you always hear women talking about it. Make your decision, decide what's important to you, and go for it. That's the important thing.