Are Women Reaching For the Stars?

On a recent visit to Bryce Canyon Park’s Astronomy & Night Sky Program, I was pleasantly surprised to witness four women astrophysicists presenting the wonders of the galaxy to the audience—Jupiter, Saturn, the moon, the M-13 Globular Cluster, and even a white dwarf star. It was like seeing an Astronomy book come to life!

And it made me think: As these ladies can reach for the stars as astrophysicists, so can we in the Big Data space reach out and excel in our chosen fields of data engineering and data science.

In that spirit, below are some tips about how to move ahead in Big Data. I have been receiving many questions about to how to get into the field; it’s so easy to be daunted by the size and complexity of Big Data and confused as to where to start from. Here are some techniques drawn from my own journey into the discipline.

  • Attend Meetups and Technical Training Sessions

If you’re in the Silicon Valley/San Francisco Bay area, attend as many meetups, technical discussions and training as you can. They’re available from a wide variety of companies and startups. And other geographical areas have their own industry groups and meetings.

As a part of Women in Big data (WiBD) I’ve found that attending free Big Data technical training sessions and soft skills sessions has been useful and inspiring. It’s easy to relate when an attendee talks about the personal tug of war she went through when deciding which path to choose in Big Data space. (Visit womeninbigdata.org to learn more.)

Identify a couple of different topics, look for related events or meetups available in your area, and attend them to get exposure and clarity about different areas of Big Data space.

  • Try Out Skills Using Online Environments

Practice using virtual environments such as LeetCode.com, HackerRank and others. You can also find tons of online courses using Google search, and watching tutorials or past conference talks on YouTube can help convey the basics of the field. Plus, WiBD has a section for Training Resources on their website; anyone can access training materials from blogs on past events for free.

Take part in online hackathons and contests like Kaggle to check out the industry and peer performance to identify areas of improvement.

  • Talking and Networking

Staying up to date on current trends in Big Data is important, as is seeking advice and mentorship in areas you’re unsure of. Events aimed at women (such as those offered by WiBD) can be very helpful, as it can be daunting to go to a meetup where women are outnumbered by up to 10 to 1. Whatever the event, though, if you’re shy about asking questions during the session, make a point to introduce yourself to the speaker afterwards to get advice or ask questions. Remember that until your reach out with your questions, no one can read your mind. Practice makes perfect eventually.

  • Identify and work on your weaknesses

Once you decide which path to choose – data engineering, data science, or the management side of Big Data—it’s important to identify the gaps you need to fill in your skill set and experience. Keep working to fill those gaps by gaining the appropriate training and eventually you’ll get better at the topic AND at answering audience questions at meetups. Once you’re able to field questions confidently, you’ll realize you are getting the hang of it and are improving over time.

  • Certifications & Self Marketing

Certifications are feathers in your cap and help you establish your credibility. Self-marketing yourself can be a big challenge. Observe your peers and learn the tricks of the trade they use to communicate effectively. And don’t give up; think of failures as merely stepping stones you can learn from—as mistakes that don’t need to be repeated.

As the women astrophysicists at Bryce Canyon brought home to me, we have a lot to learn from Nature. For instance, beautiful Zion National Park is in middle of a desert, but even there cactus flowers bloom in abundance. There’s a lesson there for all of us: Our individual environments might be harsh, but we can always work to make the best out our situation, as Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi has eloquently made clear when talking about balancing life and work*. In the end, it’s up to each of us to decide what we want to dream AND achieve. “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going”.

Finally, thanks to all the mentors who are helping women in the Big Data space! We have millions of women who you are looking to DREAM BIG, to ACHIEVE, and to make the world a better place. Keep helping uplift others who might not be as lucky as you!

* The best part starts at 22:55.

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