Beena Ammanath is the Executive Director for Data Science at General Electric and Board Director at ChickTech. We caught up with her last week to talk career decisions, learning to fly, and the importance of getting girls involved in tech.
First off, tell us a little bit about yourself.
BA: I started my career in tech at a small company after getting my MS in Computer Science. Throughout my career, I have worked for many companies and have really enjoyed it. I am now the mother of two and managing a large global data science team at GE. In a lot of ways, it is what I always wanted. I am happy with my career path.
Can you tell us how you became interested in software engineering? Did you love coding when you were a teenager?
BA: Honestly, I didn’t even realize I was interested in it, I was just always very good at math and science. When I started learning how to code in school, I realized I was very good at “getting it”, I could code very quickly. Because of my math and science base, I was able to succeed in school, and was a gold medalist at every stage of my education. I also found myself doing projects on top of my school work, which helped me learn more about the nature of software engineering.
What was your favorite course you took in computer science?
BA: My favorite course I took at university was Compiler Construction – I loved it! This class focused on teaching us how to write compilers, which is primarily concerned with syntax, grammar and semantics of different programming languages.
What is a favorite project that you’ve built?
BA: When I was 18 years old and just starting college, I was in the Aeromodelling Club, which was a team of all boys, aside from myself. The model aircrafts we built in this club were some of my favorites, especially when I would remotely fly them.
On your Twitter profile, you say you’re an “aviator by heart”. What does that mean to you?
BA: I read a lot when I was young and I remember loving reading anything about flying. And I could sit and watch birds flying for hours together – they looked so elegant and peaceful. All I wanted to do was fly. Amelia Earhart was and is my hero for being a woman pioneer in this area. Flying for me is like my peace – some women do yoga or mediate – I am at complete peace, my nirvana state, when I fly.
What advice would you give girls who are interested in learning to code and have a career in Computer Science?
By changing my image and embracing being a woman, I gave off a sense of confidence that my male peers noticed.
BA: I would say it’s very important to value the perspective you bring. If you truly enjoy coding, you should continue down this path. I would also add that it is crucial to embrace your difference. For example, when I first started my career I wore a lot of dark pant suits to fit in. They were professional, modest, and helped me blend in with my majority-male coworkers.
However, I found that I rarely spoke up in meetings and my opinion wasn’t taken seriously – I was even asked to serve coffee once. Soon I realized that I needed to embrace my diversity, instead of trying to subdue it. So, I changed my wardrobe. I bought colorful dresses and started wearing dangling earrings and bangles, I made it impossible for anyone to ignore me in a meeting.
I have this set of glass bangles (which I love) that make an amazing clinking noise when I move my hands. By changing my image and embracing being a woman, I gave off a sense of confidence that my male peers noticed. From then on, I didn’t have as much difficulty sharing my voice – it seems like a trivial change but gave me a huge boost of confidence.
As a woman, once you start speaking up, people hear that your perspective is unique and you bring a lot of value to the discussion. It’s not easy – you have to find your confidence booster, and don’t ever forget to bring your voice.
Working at an established company like GE is a dream come true for anyone working in tech. Can you speak to your experience working for such an established company specifically as a woman?
BA: I became interested in GE after seeing their job description, which primarily works with aviation data, jet engine data, etc. It is my dream job come true – a data set that I just love! Over the years, it has obviously expanded to all other large machine datasets like locomotives, turbines.
I am in a role where I can truly make a difference by making machines smarter, which impacts all our daily lives. While my day-to-day routine as an executive may not be relatable to young women starting their careers in STEM, I will say that one of my duties is to hire great team members.
I’ve found that there are few young women in data science and I have made it a professional focus to reduce this gap. In addition to my involvement at ChickTech, I speak at a number of technology events and women in STEM events. I also started a series of meet-ups for women in software and analytics, where women can network and learn from each other. It’s been an effective recruiting tool. Also, the logo is a pink high heel with gears!
Speaking of networking, do you have any female role models that inspired you at the beginning of your career?
It is unrealistic to have a single role model, so I encourage young women to find many.
BA: Absolutely. They don’t know it, but I call them my personal “Board of Directors.” They are a collection of women that I’ve met over the years whom I can turn to for advice in different parts of my life. For example, I know a woman I respect for her incredible skills as a mother, another woman who is an amazing chef, then there are others that I turn to for career coaching, and I even have a woman friend who I turn to for fashion advice.
It is unrealistic to have a single role model, so I encourage young women to find many. They should be people who believe in you, and more importantly, who can see potential in you that you can’t see yourself. Surround yourself with positive people because being a girl in this space is tough. You will need mentors to call when things get difficult – people who will tell you not to quit!
If there is one piece of advice you could give your 16-year-old self, what would it be?
BA: I would say this to myself, as well as any other 16-year-old girl out there considering computer science, STEM is not the inhuman, sterile field people believe it is. That’s simply not true! In this age of science, it is everywhere. No matter what you do with your life, you will end up touching technology in one way or another. It’s a myth that it’s a loner, geek profession. I’ve met so many amazing people working in this field and have been thoroughly fulfilled by it. STEM is a place for sharing unique perspectives and innovation.
At Metiza, we are challenging everybody to do one act of kindness a day, 365 days a year. What would you say was your act of kindness today?
BA: It was pouring down rain this morning in the bay area, which is a somewhat rare occurrence at this time of the year. As I entered my office building, I gave my umbrella to someone leaving with just a hand on their head as protection. It was a small gesture, but I believe that qualifies.
Interview sponsored by ChickTech.
Also published on Medium.