Giselle Sitdykova – WiBD chats with an incredible woman with an amazing story.
WiBD: Giselle, let’s talk. Tell us a little about yourself.
Giselle: I am definitely a product of my parents, my grandma, teachers, books, the USSR system and instability that followed its breakdown. With friends, I believe I had more impact on them than they are on me. When I was an elementary school kid, I organized a group and produced a show for my neighborhood. I remember myself being always busy learning as much as I could across various disciplines, spending school recesses chatting with teachers and spending all weekends helping parents.
WiBD: Tell us about your career journey.
Giselle: I think my start in Russia was technically strong. I fell in love with coding during middle school, was accepted by two of the top three local colleges before I finished the high school, because I took top places in local competitions in math, physics, astronomy and coding. Winning a Gold medal after the high school opened doors to any college in the whole of Russia for me. I also completed two distance learning programs in Math and Physics at two of the top five colleges in Moscow with the highest marks. I got to these schools, because math and physics were fun for me and high school was not challenging me.
However, it was a tough time in Russia in the early 1990’s. My parents didn’t encourage me to go far from home and I was left with two choices: one college with a pure math major or another college specializing in tech plus a new program in a hot topic at that time (Market Economy). I was very interested to learn anything new and applied to major in Business Administration. It was taught by techies; the program was new and the existing professors had to learn it at the same time with students. For example, we studied a creative math model of optimizing air traffic schedules in our Basic Management class in the first year, because they had no idea what Basic Management was supposed to include, but the university professor developed this interesting model. It helped me set up a few models with a quite creative approach for my employers later. This, probably, set me up for a mix of business and tech throughout my the entire life.
While in Russia, I picked jobs based on availability, not necessarily my career vision. I was not accustomed to stability. I needed money, since I had become the breadwinner for the family after my dad passed away. Regardless of my primary job responsibilities, I came up with automation ideas, so I could still do what I loved.
WiBD: What were some of the things you worked on at this point in your life?
Giselle: While working as an accountant, I volunteered to set up a computer network, install new software and program all financial reports for that new software. While a real estate agent, I installed CRM software. While a Marketing Program manager, I created a warehouse inventory tracking software.
In 2002, my brother encouraged me to apply for a scholarship sponsored by the American government for one-year of an MBA program in Los Angeles—and I won. This was the start of my life in the US. I added a couple years on my own, graduated in 2005, and got a permanent residency in January 2007. I was driving home from the green card interview when a recruiter called me about a Financial Analyst position at Countrywide Bank, where they were looking to automate Accounting processes. I took the job and put all my energy and creativity into it. In the first three weeks, I was able to convert one very cumbersome process requiring a full-time employee (plus overtime into a 2-min push of a button.
After the housing crash, Bank of America acquired Countrywide and kept reducing the staff for years. I was able to escape layoffs by constantly moving between departments. Since I was on the business side, my technical skills stood out. I was filling the niche between business processes and tech solutions. Since I didn’t have a formal tech education, I was able to invent creative solutions that didn’t require big budgets. I often heard comments such as “I didn’t know it was possible!” from the employees at the IT.
WiBD: How long were you at Countrywide?
Giselle: After almost 10 years at the Bank of America, I moved to the much smaller, fast-growing PennyMac Financial Services company, where data and data processes looked very messy and inefficient to me. I experimented with data organization in 2016, created a data strategy in 2017, and implemented it for a third of the company by the end of 2018. Because I was able go achieve impressive results with extremely limited resources, I was promoted to a First VP. In 2019, I learned AWS Cloud, and then got AWS Solutions Architect Associate certification. I realized at that moment that I had experience in pretty much every aspect of a business (Sales, Marketing, Operations, HR, Accounting) and could create a whole SaaS product-based company. I spent 2020 looking for the right idea and getting financing. My product was named Dwellics in May 2021, My team of freelancers is still working on the product improvements, but our current focus is on SEO. I left PennyMac in June 2021 to focus on my company.
I cannot say that I always had a dream to be an entrepreneur. I was raised during difficult times in the USSR times, when entrepreneurs could end up in jail. But looking back at my career, I see that I’ve always been innovating processes and solutions, that I’ve enjoyed inspiring people, and that I didn’t mind taking risks. On the other hand, I was not good at the internal politics and competing for resources for my projects.
WiBD: Do you have advice to give to others who are thinking about a career in tech?
Giselle: I see many developers who are in tech because of the money, but who are having a hard time finding work. I see passionate developers who love what they do and get paid top dollar. Therefore, I suggest evaluating your interests very well before deciding on your direction.
And I hear that it’s hard to find the first job without prior experience. I keep thinking that if people love tech, there is no such thing as “no experience.” Developers and analysts can list any projects they do for fun. For example, if they are thinking about their first job as a data analyst, they can collect their own cell phone usage details and create a one-page infographic. They can join it with geo polygons or with manually collected data about the callers. I am sure attaching it to the resume may potentially impress the hiring managers, if done well
WiBD: How did you learn about Women in Big Data and what has been your engagement with the organization which led to leading a chapter now?
Giselle: In 2017-2018, I was getting bored at work and looked for inspiration, I attended various conferences and meetups in both Southern California and Northern California. I kept meeting the same people, and I enjoyed my conversations with them. One of them introduced me to WiBD thru USC (University of Southern California), and now I am the director of WiBD So Cal chapter.
WiBD: What motivates you?
Giselle: It’s hard to say what it is. It may be coming from my mom’s suggestion (at the age of 5) that I needed to be smart, since I was not pretty.
Or, it may come from my desire to inspire others.
When life gets tough, my grandma’s example keeps me going, because I saw her as the most optimistic person of all time; she lived for 91 years.
When I feel tired, I recall my dad, who had over 200 inventions in the petroleum industry and implemented them all.
When I feel lazy, I think of my mom, who was a full-time preschool teacher and led the whole family to grow vegetables and fruits on weekends and in the evenings every year. It was hard work with primitive tools in harsh conditions, such as the hot sun, mud or heavy rain. We had to take two buses, walk through corn fields for 45 minutes, take a boat over a river, then pass through more forest. The journey to get there took three hours, and we sometimes had to repeat it twice a day to bring in our harvest or protect the crops from the frost. During the fall and winter, we sorted vegetables and apples to remove overripe ones. In January-February, when it was snowing outside, we started growing tomatoes and bell pepper from seeds, then “trained” the sprouts by taking them to the balcony daily. Though my mom was exhausted from that physical work (she hurt her back multiple times), she still cheered and motivated me to keep going every step of the way.
WiBD: What bothers you?
Giselle: Many things: that I cannot go faster from one level to the next, that many managers are not leaders, that some parents hurt their kids, that there are unfair practices at companies toward women or minorities.
When a white male tells me that he doesn’t notice discrimination against women in the workplace, it bothers me a lot, because there is no way to explain to him how to see it, because he just doesn’t feel it.
WiBD: Any fun facts about you?
Giselle: I was trained as a professional figure skater early in my childhood and performed in the winter show four times a day for 14 days straight over the winter holidays. With free tickets distributed to every family, approximately 7-8.5k people attended every performance.
I spent four months in the US learning English a year prior to receiving my scholarship. I worked as a housekeeper at the Grand Teton National Park in 2001 and then brought my son and my mom to that place in 2019. Two people who still worked there treated me like a celebrity when they recognized me.
WiBD: Any quotes or inspirations that you live by?
Giselle: During my first week in the US, I visited a public library, looked around, and opened a random book on a random page. It was the poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. It described me well and I made it my motto:
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
I keep challenging myself and do something that not many people would do.
WiBD: Anything else you would like to share?
Giselle: When I was twelve years old, about a month before the school was supposed to start, I noticed a truck with people unloading computers. I helped the teacher to unwrap monitors and was waiting for the school’s first day to sign up for the coding class the teacher mentioned. However, the teacher gave preference to boys to sign up first, and there was no place left for me in this elective coding class. When something didn’t go my way, I was determined to find a solution, so I had my brother sign in and waited for him behind the often open door. In a couple months, boys started dropping off the class, and when the teacher left assistants to teach the class, they let me in. I was very scared I’d be kicked out of the class, so I had to be creative to appear that I knew how to code on my first day. It was hilarious, so they probably let me stay for the entertainment. The teacher later honored me by making an extra key for me so that I would have a way to practice at any time. I spent all evenings and holidays there.