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Samantha Ortiz headshot

Diversity and Inclusion in Tech

As a Latina software engineer without a four-year degree in computer science, I’ve been tuned into the divide between what’s considered a “typical” software engineer and myself.
Samantha Ortiz

I was fortunate enough to find a path into programming via the immersive bootcamp, Hack Reactor, which opened me up to a fulfilling career at Lifion, by ADP. I have experienced firsthand the benefits of having balanced representation, and have also seen opportunities where a diverse team would bring more value. Most tech companies face the challenge of finding new ways to approach true inclusivity despite corporate Business Resource Groups, training, and continued discussion around the subject.
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Lifion, by ADP Software Engineers, Jenny Eckstein and Samantha Ortiz, at WECode 2019
WECode 2019
I had the opportunity to attend the Women Engineers Code (WECode) 2019 Conference at Harvard this February, which brought together hundreds of female engineers with leaders in the tech sector. WECode’s goal is to leave attendees with a broadened awareness of new areas within tech, a greater understanding of social impact, and the confidence to influence the communities we are a part of.
Opening the Door
Throughout the keynotes, panels, and talks, there was a common thread of addressing diversity and inclusion, whether within the workplace, the classroom, or beyond. Dara Treseder, CMO of Carbon and previously CMO of GE Ventures and GE Business Innovations, delivered a keynote that walked us through the path to her success. Along her journey, she was blessed with female mentors that lifted her up. Yet, she made a point that although there may be a woman in the room, it does not mean that she will open the door for other women. Although it is an unfortunate, defensive instinct, it does not always stem from a place of malice… it comes from a place of fear. A place that senses the ingrained disparity between female and male representation in the industry, which drives an innate reaction for women to maintain their position and voice. Dara encouraged us to be aware of this, and inspired us to always open the door for fellow women, as it will not drown out our voice; it will drive forward our success, power, and diversity in the workplace.
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Photo by NESA by Makers on Unsplash
Finding the Power Within
A particularly enlightening group of panelists shared how they are able to tackle inclusivity and encourage diversity in their everyday roles. Tiana Davis Kara, Executive Director of Built By Girls, addressed the challenge many women face of who to look up to as they maneuver through their career within the tech industry. Her illuminating perspective flipped this idea on its head, insisting that WE are the ones we have been waiting for. We are the individuals the tech industry wants to step in; as women and minorities, we need to become our own role models. Often, women experience a sense of inadequacy. Tiana encouraged us to channel into our own successes, whether that means giving yourself a pat on the back, or even keeping a book of pride outlining your own achievements to look back on when your confidence isn’t quite there.
Handing Back the Mic
Tiana also shared her approach of “handing back the mic” when we feel a marginalized member of our community has been overlooked. For instance, if we witness someone brazenly interrupted, we should make a concerted effort to give their voice back to them. An effective way to practice this can be along the lines of stating, “Sally, you were saying something?” after the interrupter completes their thought. Being aware of these situations and giving a voice back to people that have it stolen or ignored is a key component to addressing commonplace destructive behaviors in our everyday lives. Kwame Henderson, Product Manager at Tumblr, encouraged us to maintain an optimistic, growth mindset if ever addressing microaggressions, which can run rampant through conversations and can be difficult to address. Knowing you can help evolve a person’s mindset with one conversation is an encouraging place to start.
Culture Fit?
As the panel discussed how to encourage broader diversity during the hiring process, it was noted that many companies interview for a “culture fit” from candidates. However, Kwame illustrated that this is potentially preventing us from including a broader array of candidates. Instead, he suggested rather than asking “does this person FIT our culture,” we ask “does this person ADD to our culture.” This simple, yet powerful shift in thinking can revitalize a company’s hiring practices and inspire the inclusion of a diverse set of individuals to join a team.
Mind of a Programmer === Mind of an Activist
WECode wrapped up with a final keynote by Jessica McKellar, founder and CTO of Pilot, a bookkeeping service, and director of the Python Software Foundation. She focused on how the mind of a programmer actually encompasses the mind of an activist. Having a system and knowing you can change it stimulates a unique way of approaching ingrained problems. Jessica saw a huge opportunity for change within the United States prison system, and she chose to make a lasting impact by teaching incarcerated people how to code through a program at the San Quentin State Prison, building the skill set and hire-ability of her students for a smoother reentry into society after completing their sentences. She also works to reduce the stigma of existing criminal records by encouraging companies to consider graduates of her program for employment. Jessica actively practices what she preaches by hiring people after their sentences for numerous roles at Pilot.
Changing the System
WECode’s inspirational lineup highlighted new ways to consider systemic issues and provided effective approaches to tackling those problems. Whether the system we want to change is within the application we are building, or a societal system that has room for improvement, we can each use our powerful, dynamic perspectives to drive forward impactful change.

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Paper boats in a triangular pattern

Being a first-time Engineering Leader

“You did a great job as a senior engineer. You are now promoted to a manager to lead the new team that we just formed. Congratulations on your new role!”
It is something on these lines that most people get promoted or at least that is how I remember when I was promoted to a manager. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with promotions such as this. The key though is in recognising that the expectations change when this happens. As we moved up the individual contributor (IC) ladder we learnt to solve harder technical problems. This change in role, though changes the operating field a little. It is in this context that I am listing out a few things that would have helped me transition into my role as a manager better, when I started out.
Transition from a maker to manager schedule
Staying hands on — in other words writing production quality code is a reality for most first time managers making this transition. It is also likely the first time where you end up navigating both kinds of schedules on a daily basis and it is a hard thing to do. Learn to be protective of your calendar. You could do this by:
Blocking your time in the calendar where you need to stay heads down. I’d suggest at least 3 hours at a time and then adjust up or down depending on what is an ideal chunk of uninterrupted time for you to get something meaningful done
Being ever more mindful of how you now schedule time with your direct reports. Just because you have moved onto a different schedule does not mean they should have to. If you are conscious of how you set up these meetings, that is one more thing you are doing for your team
Doing what you can to string your meetings into one contiguous block. Better yet, define your meeting times and agree with your peers. With a little back and forth, this usually works well for everyone and is another barrier for folks who gatecrash into your time with unplanned meetings
If you want to know more about different types of schedules, Paul Graham’s article explains it quite well.
Stay hands on
You are most likely a manager of a team with highly opinionated ICs. You need to be able to have a conversation with them, ask the right questions, pressure test their approach.
Pressure on your time as an IC will only increase as you grow and if you don’t strive to stay hands on, very soon you will find yourself too far from where the action is. You don’t necessarily have to pick up the most critical problem to solve but do what you must to stay relevant and make a meaningful contribution.
Impediment remover, not always a problem solver
After years of being an IC where you are used to solving problems yourself, it can be hard to take a step back.
Be the person who helps your teams get over the hump even if you are not the one who identified the problem or fixed it. Serve the team in the capacity that is best needed at the time and avoid being a seagull manager. With a young team, it could mean leading with a solution while with more mature teams, it could just be about asking the right questions. And in some other cases, maybe it is just carrying pizza!!
Carve out time for career development
A key reason you choose to be a manager is that you genuinely believe that you can have a greater impact on your purpose by developing a strong team. Be interested in each member’s aspirations, be on the lookout for their strengths and biases. Provide timely feedback. Help identify opportunities that will help them hone their newly acquired skills. These are all things perhaps any standard course on “New Managers” will refer to. There are many talks and articles out there to drive home the point that when you can align aspirations with the organisational goals that is when you are likely to have the most impact, but also derive personal satisfaction. Do the most you can to make this a practice.
Bar raiser
You have to do this at every opportunity you get, not just when hiring someone into the team. You have to be the cheerleader during your team’s journey towards excellence. Raise the bar when it comes to technical excellence; be the torchbearer when it comes to upholding your organisations credos and values. Often in the quest for an organisation’s immediate imperatives culture takes a back seat. Protect, sustain and improve your organisation’s culture like your organisation’s life depends on it; because it actually does.
Manage upwards and sideways
Managing upwards or to the side is typically seen by engineers as an ugly part of organizational politics. Other than the typical activities that are required to manage information, the biggest reason to do this is because software development is a collaborative activity. Managing in its purest sense is about aligning priorities across teams. You will be able to achieve your goals better if you can influence your peers to row in the same direction and are aligned with the direction your manager has in mind. At the same time, this is also about course correcting if need be and ensuring people on the impacted teams understand why a correction is better for everyone.
Doing some or all of these things will not turn you into a super manager overnight. I like to compare this to going to the gym. You will not notice any change after your first day at the gym, but keep at it long enough and the results will be clear for all to see.

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Computer Screen

The Technology Helping Companies Embrace The Future of Work

To embrace the future of work, companies need technology that mimics how their organizations are structured and how their workers relate to one another.

Today’s work relationships, for example, are complex and fluid. Using highly structured relational databases, which organize data hierarchically in rows and columns to represent these relationships, no longer makes sense.

Instead, we need adaptable technology that models data based on contextual relationships. Enter graph databases, a revolutionary technology that Gartner predicts will grow 100% per year over the next couple of years.

Early Applications Of Graph Databases

Graph databases may now be leveraged by giants like Google and Amazon, but they weren’t always popular. In fact, their popularity grew with the rise of social media.

Consider the complex relationships between people, places and things stored in social networks like Facebook or LinkedIn. Organizing these relationships based on hierarchies is problematic, as it doesn’t align with the world’s natural order. That not only leads to inaccurate data models, but also dramatically increases the amount of effort it takes for a program to locate any given object.

Let me explain: Say you’re searching a social network for the CEO of Company X. When a software program searching a graph database reaches Company X, it finds the CEO right away. After all, the CEO works at Company X — they are directly related.

Putting People First To Rebuild A Stronger Economy: A Conversation With Ochsner Health
When a software program searching a relational database reaches Company X, on the other hand, it finds a hierarchy of people, divided into teams, which it must scan to locate the CEO. Teams are further divided into types of teams. The CEO is located on the executive leadership team, which sits within the broader leadership team. It’s not until the program finally reaches Company X’s team of executives that it locates the CEO.

This complicated structure — an information architecture with at least four levels (just within Company X) — slows a social network’s data retrieval, resulting in a less-than-effective user experience.

In response to this challenge, Facebook’s engineering team developed a proprietary database that they called The Associations and Objects (TAO). This innovative technology allowed them to model the multifaceted relationships between people, places and things based on context instead of hierarchies. In other words, they no longer had to follow long data chains to retrieve specific information, which significantly increased the speed at which content was presented to users.

Modeling Work Relationships: Challenge And Solution

Given the complexity of human relationships, graph databases are much better suited to modeling the way companies operate than their predecessors were. The thing is, work is now done in teams, not hierarchies. In fact, 64% of workers now belong to more than one team, according to our company’s 2019 Global Study of Engagement report. And while hierarchical teams continue to exist, cross-functional, dynamic teams focused on achieving specific goals are more prevalent than ever.

In addition, today’s workers often have multiple roles within an organization, and their relationships aren’t limited to those they have with their supervisor and/or direct reports. Companies thus need technology that models these structures and relationships, empowering them to embrace cutting-edge business models built for the future of work.

A graph database can help empower companies to leverage both traditional and alternative workers (i.e., full- and part-time employees, temporary contractors, gig workers, and freelancers) across multiple teams (both functional and cross-functional) within the organizational model that best suits them, including one based on hierarchies, teams or projects.

So when should organizations consider a graph database? In our experience, we have found graph databases to be very useful when the datasets are associative in nature, as they avoid the often-expensive join operations that a traditional relational database will have to undergo. This nondependency on join operations helps them scale better, especially when dealing with growing datasets with an evolving data schema. While there are multiple vendors out there in the market, our company uses AWS Neptune for our managed graph database needs to conform to our overarching approach of going cloud-native.

Embracing The Future of Work

Innovative leaders at companies across the globe are already reimagining work with an eye to the future. HR technology powered by graph databases can empower these organizations to achieve their visions, enhancing performance and productivity along the way.

Based on what we’ve seen so far, it pays off: Deloitte’s 2019 Human Capital Trends (page 54) report found that over half of surveyed companies that make the shift to a team-based organizational model see significant improvements in performance. Moreover, because technology that leverages graph databases to represent a company’s workforce is more aligned with reality, the insights derived provide more accurate and actionable learnings, which is equally important to succeeding in the future of work.

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Women in STEM

From Horses and Manatees to Coding

Best advice Samantha ever received? “If you are the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.”

Samantha Ortiz started out as a zookeeper. Then she went into marketing. Now she’s a software engineer at ADP’s Innovation Lab working on its NextGen Platform. Her ever-present curiosity, creativity, and passion for understanding behavior and solving problems have been common threads throughout her varied life experiences.

From Horses to Manatees …

Samantha was born and raised in the Bronx and was comfortable in the city, but she always had an interest in the natural world around her. Her older brother raised tropical poison dart frogs at home, and she was mesmerized as a child while observing them in their terrariums. She also spent most of her free time riding and training horses at Riverdale Riding Center in the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park, expanding the interest she had in animals.

After spending most of her life in the city, her family moved to Florida, and she was suddenly surrounded by agriculture. She made the most of her new journey in life. Sam joined the local Future Farmers of America, becoming the chapter’s student advisor and showing a pig at the county fair. Sam also continued her love of riding horses by finally fulfilling her dream of owning a horse and practicing dressage. “My mother was always so supportive of my adventures with animals,” she says. “Even if she felt a little out of place on the farm – she is a New York native, after all – she was there for me every step I took.”

Her passion for understanding living things continued in college as she studied psychology at New College of Florida, focusing on animal behavior and conservation. She spent her undergraduate years working with a wide range of animals, from studying manatee sensory behavior to handedness preferences in lemurs. Sam also conducted research on numerous species of fish, including Indian Mudskippers (an amphibious fish), and Stoplight Parrotfish. She spent several summers in Panama working on her thesis research on Parrotfish’s feeding behavior and its effects on coral reefs. She was also introduced to design, exploring zoo and aquarium design, its effects on animals, and how it fosters conservation behaviors in visitors.

… and from Reptiles to Coding

After college, she worked as a zookeeper in Florida, caring for animals and presenting reptile educational programs to visitors. “So many people were curious about alligator behavior, especially since we were in Florida,” Samantha says. “I shared with them how human actions, particularly humans feeding wildlife, would contribute negatively to the animals’ natural behavior, making them more dangerous as they’d become acquainted to people. Everyone’s actions and behaviors affect something or someone else.”

Samantha’s natural interest in behavior took her down a winding path beyond the natural world and into technology.

A relationship took her to Texas, where she worked for a digital marketing consultancy. While she worked as a copywriter and copy editor, Sam also started to combine her knowledge of behavior with the tools of technology. The marketing campaigns she ran combined multiple applications, and she realized she wanted a deeper understanding of the software she was using. How did it target specific demographics? What data did it use to determine which campaigns would trigger actionable behavior in users? “Where I went to college, they encourage you to be an independent thinker and deeply analyze things,” she says. “That’s how I have always approached everything.”

Samantha started to explore coding by teaching herself web development through an online program. After relocating back to New York, she applied to Hack Reactor, an intensive, full-time coding boot camp

“At first, I was telling myself I’m not ready, maybe it’s too late, I don’t know if I can do this,” she remembers. “So, I started with some prep classes before deciding that software engineering was what I wanted to do.”

Coming to ADP

While Samantha was at Hack Reactor, she built applications with classmates, and two of them went on to work at ADP. She was invited to a networking night at the ADP Innovation Lab, where “I met lots of fun, intelligent people who love what they do. I started talking to Yaara (Katz) and we just clicked. It was so great to meet another female software engineer with a passion for her work. We laughed and I really felt comfortable. I knew I was home.”

Samantha loves software engineering, noting, “It’s such a creative process. I have loved writing my whole life, and designing programs and coding is similar. We notice the audience, figure out how to present the information and design the task, and focus on the user. Building software is writing; refactoring code is editing.”

Continuous learning is another part of the job Samantha loves. “Every day is a different challenge,” she says. “I get to work with new technologies, learning more every step of the way. I am part of a team with great people, and I always feel valued. I started around Christmas a few years ago, and they invited me to their holiday party before I even started. Any idea I have is considered by my team. That’s been true from the first day I walked in the door.”

The best advice Samantha has received was from one of her software engineering instructors, she says: “If you are the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. Keep learning. Stay open — even if you’re scared or not feeling confident.”

Samantha’s advice to people considering a career shift is, “I wished I had jumped into coding earlier, when I was first drawn to it. Making a change doesn’t have to be a scary obstacle. Take it in steps, and know that everyone is learning all the time.”