Women in Data Management: Interview with Karen Lopez

by Shannon Kempe

Inspired to write an article on women in data management, we interviewed several women to compile an article on the topic. This interview is with Karen Lopez, Senior Project Manager for InfoAdvisors.

DATAVERSITY (DV): How long have you been in the data management / technology industry

Karen Lopez (KL): I have officially stopped counting at twenty years.  All my bio slides now say “20+ years”.  At this point, I’m thinking of starting to count backwards to gain more credibility with my younger team members.

DV: How did you get into the industry?

KL: My undergraduate degree is in computer information systems, so I’d say I took a very traditional route.  On Women in Technology panels, I’m sometimes the only female that got here via a direct computing academic path.  I think women are more likely to say they “fell into” the IT profession than men, although many from both sexes come through non-traditional paths.

I specialized in database systems those 20 plus years ago, so maybe I wasn’t that traditional, though.

DV: What do you consider your career specialty to be?

KL: Data.  Specifically database design and data modeling.  I’ve been doing that for my entire career and still learning every day. I also have interests in the social implications of data: open data, data protection, privacy, government policies on data and data sharing.

DV: Do you consider yourself as having been a geek in school? Growing up? Today?

KL: Geek? Maybe.  I wasn’t a popular girl in school, although I was voted at some point as likely to be the first female President of the United States.  Since that hasn’t panned out, I’d like to think I could be second best as a geek.

Today I’m definitely a gadget geek and love thinking about how technology can change the world.  Is that geekdom?  Perhaps.

DV: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career so far?

KL: That’s a great question. The biggest challenge on most of my projects is that I’m responsible for defending data quality and integrity, which the organization wants, but fails to fund properly.  I attribute that mostly to not understanding the data management function.  They fund one or two data architects, but dozens of developers, business analysts and DBAs because they think that building code faster is how they are going to solve their data problems.  And they are wrong about that.  Optimizing the code over the data means that they are amplifying their data woes instead of fixing them.

So the challenge lies in advocating for customer data to be treated with respect while working within a system that tends to reward the opposite behavior.

DV: Were you ever told you couldn’t do it because you’re a woman? Whether it’s in relation to your career in general, career in technology, or otherwise?

KL: I have been told that as a woman I wasn’t suitable for certain roles.  Earlier on in my career it was managers who said they were fine with me being on the team, but they couldn’t put me in front of clients because they would not accept a female as a key team member.  So they’d assign a male from the team to perform client-facing demos and support.

I’ve also been told that it will be difficult for me to manage an all-male team because they might not accept my role as a project manager.  Good project managers know how to deal with that sort of issue, regardless of the reason it’s there.

Things have become much better over the years.  I rarely see overt acts of gender bias.  When I do, it’s in rare pockets of old boys’ school organizations.  Thankfully, most of those are dying off.

DV: Have you faced adversity being a woman in technology? If yes, how did you overcome it? (can be general or state a specific example)

KL: Yes.  And unfortunately lately it has been from other females, often younger ones, who don’t understand why I want to continue speaking out for Women in IT issues.  My volunteer focus has primarily been around removing obstacles from girls’ paths to taking more science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) courses in school.  But I do often speak on subjects like work-life balance, negotiations, salaries, promotions, respect, authority…all subjects that apply to everyone, but sometimes are of interest to women who have to deal with them differently.

I recently received a scathing e-mail from a young female IT professional who felt that these presentations and discussions were harming women because “if you work hard, you get what you deserve”.  I think sometimes that people who have benefited from decades of work that went on in the workforce before them don’t understand why their day-to-day work life is free from bosses telling them that they can’t possibly be a project manager, that they can’t attend a conference because it’s not safe for a female or that they can’t be paid more because they have a husband with a nice job.

I’m happy they can be ignorant of what goes on, but they should understand that this was not something that the workforce just gave them because they worked hard.  Their lives are more equal in the office because people, men and women, stood up and said that all those prior approaches were wrong – for the employees and for the company.

DV: Let’s talk @data_model. How did you start this campaign? What was the inspiration?

KL: Data Model ( @data_model) Is a Computer Engineer Barbie who travels with IT professionals and me to events.  She tweets about the interesting things she gets to do and people she meets. Recently she met some Nobel Laureates at an international science fair.  She’s met CIOs of countries, academics, IT celebrities and more. Originally she was a prop for discussing STEM topics with girls and their parents. Barbie gets a variety of reactions from people.  Role model, anti-role model, toy, action figure. I think it depends on what she is wearing and what accessories she has.  But the each has a story, just like the rest of us.

The great thing about using a Barbie as a discussion point is that people have strong feelings for her, often contentious ones. She is also very photogenic, so people from all walks of life like to have their pictures taken with her.

Naming her @Data_Model is a play on both her roles: Model and Data Professional.

I’ve found that working with props like Barbie means that people who wouldn’t be open to chatting about these topics are happy to do so once they figure out I’m not too crazy and just want to talk about how we can change the world, one girl at a time.

DV: There are other Barbies you work with?

KL: Yes.  Astro Barbie ( @VenusBarbie ) travels with me to space agencies and events.  She’s been invited to NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), le Centre national d’études spatiales (CNES), the French national space center and will be visiting the Japanese Space Agency, JAXA, in the fall.  She’s visited with dozens of astronauts, celebrities, scientists and other STEM leaders.  Her role is helping me talk about space exploration and STEM.

I have some other special Barbies (and Kens and GI Joes) who also fill those roles, too.  One has even filmed shuttle and rocket launches from NASA.

People ask me if I’m a Barbie collector; I’m not.  All my Barbies are unboxed and no real collector would do that, especially with some of the vintage ones I have.

These girls and guys have a facebook page, too, where people can track their travels and adventures. http://www.facebook.com/technicalbarbies.

DV: How does one get involved with @data_model?

KL: Well, the first thing to do is to follow her and @VenusBarbie on Twitter, then follow their Facebook page.

But ideally people who want to support Women in Technology would help influence schools, conferences and events to have open discussions about the issue.  Is it an issue we need to address?  What can we do?  What has worked? What hasn’t worked?  I’ve been on enough panels over the years to know that just having people speak from the stage isn’t enough.  The best WIT sessions at events are ones that engage the audience by sharing data on what the issue is and what people think should be done, then having a discussion that includes the audience as to what we can do.  We aren’t actually doing enough.

One of my favourite things to recommend is that audience members go talk to a girl about the great opportunities she can have if she pursues a career in IT or STEM.  A one-on-one conversation.  Not a huge event.  No a one day show. Just a discussion to let a girl know that there’s a spot for her, the jobs are great and pay well, relatively.  That she can change the world and doesn’t have to work alone typing code all day.  Unless she wants to. There are so many opportunities, such a variety of jobs in STEM, that there’s something for everyone.

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