Inspirational Woman: Ana Gillan | Senior Solutions Engineer, Cloudera

Ana GillanAna Gillan is a Senior Solutions Engineer at Cloudera who works with organisations across industry verticals to guide them through the complexities of big data and streaming technologies, both on premises and on their inevitable journeys into the cloud.

Ana has spent the last five years stressing the importance of comprehensive security and governance when implementing technology in the enterprise, so she knows how much value data platforms can offer when organisations know their data is good quality and safely managed.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I don’t have a particularly traditional tech background, but have spent the last 7 years very much immersed in the tech world nonetheless. I’ve always loved languages which led me to my undergraduate degree in German and French, but technology was always something I was curious about. My dad was a ‘computer guy’ and so tech was a part of our lives: as a 12 year old, whilst other kids were playing outside, my friends and I were in the IT room at school, building websites from scratch! So it was an area that was always buzzing around in the back of my mind. Then when I came to graduate, I discovered it was also a sector which had some of the best jobs. I am a big fan of self-improvement through education and having completed some online courses and dabbling in a bit of self teaching, I decided to pursue a Masters Degree in Data Science in 2013.

After that I joined Hortonworks (now Cloudera). That’s six years ago and I’m now part of the Solutions Engineering team. I work closely with customers across different industries to help them solve the complex data challenges facing their organisation. The area I specialise in is around data security and governance and in the last twelve months I’ve taken over the leadership of our security Subject Matter Expert group. This is an important role within Cloudera, as we’re passionate about helping our enterprise clients handle their customers’ data safely. It’s a role that’s given me wider exposure within the organisation talking to people I wouldn’t otherwise have connected with, which in turn has broadened my own knowledge.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I can’t say I ever did a big “career planning” session or anything, but I have had several instances where I’ve taken a pause in order to think about what I want to achieve next. It’s easy when things are busy to get swept away, but taking the time to refocus on what you want from your career is invaluable. In my first years within the company I took the time to speak with people working across multiple different roles in order to reach the conclusion that Solutions Engineering was a role for me. Definitely no regrets there, as I’ve had such a great time. It’s a job I didn’t even know existed until I saw people doing it around me, so it shows how you don’t always know what might be around the corner for you! I also have an extremely supportive line manager who has taken the time to understand what it is I’m looking to achieve and has connected me with senior members of the exec team, such as our CTO and CISO. These conversations really helped me learn more about the skills I need to have in order to achieve my goals.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

A lot of people who work in IT have degrees and masters in the field and are techies through and through. In that sense I can sometimes feel like a bit of an outlier. Whereas they can have the answer on the tip of their tongue, due to their long experience, I don’t always know the answer. That used to knock my confidence in the early days and imposter syndrome has often set in! I’ve had to reconcile myself with my non-traditional background throughout the years and I’ve realised that that having a different background has a good upside - by asking more questions or seeking to clarify, we often get to understand more about our customers, the challenges they are facing and so get to the root cause of the problem much faster than by just assuming we know the answer. I’ve since had plenty of my own experience, so my confidence continues to grow by the year!

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I’m very proud and grateful to have been the first female Solutions Engineer outside the United States in the early days of Hortonworks and when I joined, I was actually the first woman in any technical role in the UK! It can sometimes feel a bit daunting and challenging to be a trailblazer, but I’m trying to turn what i’ve learnt in these past six years into inspiration and advice for other women who want to pursue a career in tech. I take every chance I can get to speak at events and share my experience. Last December, for example, I attended theEuropean Women in Technology conference in Amsterdam and wrote a piece about what I learned there, spoke on a Women in Big Data panel at Dataworks Summit Barcelona, and I am currently mentoring another Solutions Engineer in Europe. I want to show to people that IT is also a place for women, and that it can be an exciting place to be, whichever route into tech we choose.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

Without a doubt my education. I had great teachers throughout my life that taught me to express my opinion, ask questions and didn’t make doubting myself an option! This gifted me with a great sense of curiosity and also resilience. When I got to Uni, I couldn’t understand why people weren’t asking more questions or taking part in discussions. It was then that I realised how lucky I had been. This, and the fact that I’ve always had technology around me growing up, helped build the foundation for me to grow my way into tech. I’ve also been lucky to work in a team with both female and male allies, who never treated me differently because I was a woman.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

It’s very important to take time to do some regular introspection and think about what you’re good at and where you want to be. This way you’ll identify the gaps that you need to work on to get there. Just as important, is not being afraid to ask questions, to reach out to people and learn with and from them. I follow a lot of business leaders on Twitter and Linkedin, and have been speaking to Cloudera leaders to learn more about the different areas I’m interested in. Creating this network of people that aligns with those gaps that you’ve identified goes a long way to gain confidence and grow your career.  It’s hard to have the courage to ask people to speak to you, but I’ve learnt that leaders are happy to share their learnings and take pleasure in doing so. If you have someone you’d like to speak with, my advice would be to message them being clear about why you’d like to speak with them and see what happens. The worst thing that can happen is getting a “no” but in my experience it’s very rare someone would come back and say this. It’s also important to recognise that your peers are often trying to find out and understand the same things you are, so you should feel comfortable working with your technical community to solve problems you can’t grasp on your own. My experience has been that people are always happy to help, especially if they know you’d help them too!

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Unfortunately there are still barriers for success for women in tech. I still hear assumptions all the time that women aren’t as good at working in tech, or that they don’t have the same level of interest in it. This also impacts how women are treated in education systems and in job applications, and there’s even a real risk of these human biases impacting automated hiring.

One fundamental thing we can do to address this, is by making sure women’s work in tech is more visible. I often find it frustrating that when talking about women in tech, we default to the well known examples like Ada Lovelace. Don’t get me wrong, what a brilliant woman, but we have a responsibility to tell more varied stories if we’re going to showcase the profound impact women have had on this industry. What about Mary Lee Berners-Lee? She was Tim Berners Lee's mother, but was an amazing IT pioneer in her own right! She set up one of the world’s first software consultancies, worked from home and campaigned for equal pay for male and female programmers. When I read her obituary after her death I couldn’t believe this was the first time I was reading about her as a professional, as opposed to being Tim Berners Lee’s mum. Dame Steve Shirley is another great example of a software entrepreneur and pioneer who doesn’t get mentioned as much as she should. We have to do better at getting these stories out into the wider world and show what a varied industry tech is.

What do you think companies can do to support / progress the careers of women working in technology?

Visibility is absolutely key in encouraging more women to succeed in technology. Companies can nurture this with online courses and panels that make female workers visible in the organisation.

They should also take action to bring more women into tech. Cloudera for example just appointed a Chief Diversity Officer, and created an equality committee with some really incredible people. Making women in tech more visible, both internally and externally, is key to supporting people to progress their careers and to bringing new young women into the field as well.

There are currently only 17% of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

The key aspect to bring more women into tech is education. For younger generations, technology has been a part of their lives since birth. It’s a second nature to them, yet girls in particular still don’t see it as a career option. Subjects such as coding and logic need to become part of school curriculums, and be incorporated in a fun and interesting way. The options are out there, there’s a Code.org website, for example, that teaches kids to code with Anna and Elsa, but we need to make them accessible for parents/schools  and interesting to younger generations. So if I had a magic wand to accelerate the pace of change for women in tech, I would make sure that every girl has access to these kinds of tools, and is taught that they’re welcome in whatever field they decide to pursue. If I hadn’t learned this growing up, I would probably not be where I am today.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

In my early tech days, I used to feel a bit weird going to tech meetups or conferences, as I was super conscious of being one of maybe a handful of women in the room and I know not everyone is confident to go out of their comfort zone and attend in person events. Oddly enough, I think the COVID era brings an unforeseen benefit where all events going virtual means women will have more access to the big tech events, and won’t feel out of place since it’s all online. So I’d say first to check out the major conferences and MeetUp groups for the particular tech field you’re interested in and just attend!

For those women wishing to read a little more into issues of diversity and find like-minded women to help guide their path, there are plenty of resources too. SheCanCode, for example, have an excellent blog and host great events on subjects from leadership through to industry-specific challenges. I’d also recommend attending events by the Women in Tech World Series (online and in person when we can again!), as last year’s European conference was a wonderful experience. Different fields within tech also have specific groups, like Women in Big Data, for example.

I suppose the biggest recommendation I can give is to start following content from one or two industry influencers you admire and then see who they repost or recommend. For example, I have recently taken a huge interest in the ethics of artificial intelligence, so I followed some key thinkers on Twitter (e.g. Shannon Vallor and Dr. Rumman Chowdhury) and have taken it from there!


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