When I was growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, there was not much of an IT industry in Russia, especially in my tiny hometown which most people have never heard of. I didn’t have a computer nor had I heard of the Internet back then. I was already in university when I got my first email address. I would never have considered that my future career would be in IT.
The original idea was very different.
Family career legacy
Both my parents were physicists, so I did not have a choice, really. My first books were children’s books of physics questions: “Why don’t vampires have reflections?” That’s easy – they just emit p-polarized electromagnetic waves and face the mirror at Brewster’s angle) “Can people fly without a plane?” Without a doubt. If they wear clothing made of a superconductor and jump over a magnet, the repulsive force will make them levitate. “Can you see three rainbows at once?” There have only been five scientific reports of them in the last 250 years, but never stop believing.
Growing up in that environment, I logically gravitated towards the natural sciences. It was the only thing I was good at in school and a fascinating world that I really wanted to be part of. Looking back, there was no question about my future career. As you can probably guess, I attended Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, and in 2003, obtained a master’s degree in Applied Physics.
Making the switch
Upon graduation, I realized that it was not the best time to be a full-time research scientist in Russia. Fraught with a turbulent political climate and an unstable economy, Russia’s scientific research was a low priority in the national budget. So purely for practical reasons, I decided to try my luck in a related industry.
Networking is of a somewhat similar nature to science – very harmonious laws of how everything is built, new technical theories, protocols, etc. I started small, as an operator in a small ISP, and over time, worked my way up to leading engineer in large projects. During this time, I also completed the full cycle of Cisco certifications and became a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE). At the time, I was one of just three women who possessed the CCIE certification in all of Russia. It was a great credential that granted me an invitation from Cisco to come work in Canada out of their Calgary office. But I didn’t get to this pivotal moment in my career without facing adversity.
Overcoming cultural barriers
I grew up in a patriarchal, conservative country, where female scientists, engineers, business, and political leaders were rare and still are. My mother was my only female role model as a child. It was extremely hard for an inexperienced young woman to start a career in Russia. My applications were rejected – and I cannot possibly overstate this – a lot.
After many rejections, I was lucky to find someone willing to take a chance on me, and from there, I never looked back. I am forever grateful to my mentors and managers, who believed in me from the very beginning and created a professional and nurturing atmosphere for me to grow and learn.
In Canada, I’ve had the rare opportunity to work only with companies with the best organizational cultures. I have never experienced serious gender-based discrimination or offensive behaviour from my male colleagues. Everybody is incredibly nice, so I do not really think a lot about who is male or who is female here. Whoever or whatever they are, they’re my gang and we work great together. That’s all that matters.
Finding home: The Compugen chapter
As a Principal Consultant in Compugen’s ENS practice, I have a hybrid role, comprised of equal parts customer-facing and technical components. Customers come to Compugen with business challenges and want us to use innovative approaches to address them – primarily with hybrid/on-prem intent-based systems. We review the technology and then map their business drivers to specific architectures (Cisco ACI, Cisco DNA, SASE, SD-WAN, etc).
I am usually involved in every stage of this process as a technical advisor and a primary subject matter expert (SME). I design the solution, show the benefits of the proposed solution to the customer, sell it, and then deploy if required. No customer is too large or too small. Sometimes I design large multi-site enterprise architectures, other times I go re-cable one tiny wireless access point with a lost password. It doesn’t matter to me as long as it solves the customer’s problem. It is one of the most rewarding feelings, when, thanks to you, something works better, faster, is more secure, more automated, more agile than before.
The best part
There’s a lot to love about my profession, but I’ll zero in on two things. The first is the never-ending learning process. This industry never stops; it keeps me on my toes - always providing something new for me to learn and inspire my curiosity. As someone with a very low threshold for boredom, being a network engineer is a guarantee that I’ll never get bored.
And the second is the community. Working alongside technical folks means I’m surrounded by like-minded individuals who understand me, share my passions, inspire me every day and have my back in difficult situations. When I get stuck with a problem, there’s no shortage of brilliant engineers to consult, or even people to understand my nerdy jokes. My favourite activity in life is learning from smart people, this is why at Compugen, I feel at home.
It Is this same community that inspired me and encouraged me as I was named All-Star Engineer at the Cisco Systems Canada Partner Summit Awards in 2021. I must say it was completely unexpected, but I am deeply honoured for the recognition. This award reflects the dedication, commitment, and hard work our Compugen team has put into the day-to-day support of our customers. I think everyone on our team deserves this award – it was just my turn to receive It this time.
Paying it forward to women in STEM
Reflecting on my own journey, I wish more women would choose STEM for a career. When I interview females for positions at Compugen, I keep in mind how I got my own start and make sure that I show them the kindness that for a long time I didn’t get to experience.
More than skill, I’m looking for a good attitude. We can teach always skills when the attitude to learn is there. I only understand from personal experience how important it is to meet just one person who would give you this long-awaited opportunity after multiple rejections. Oftentimes, they come along right when you’re about to give up. That one friendly face who knows you’ll do your best if given the opportunity. I hope to be that face for someone.