Engineer to Engineer: Changing the Landscape of Tech
Written by Tiffany Thompson
Tiffany Thompson is a Software Engineer (Back End Applications) with Musicbed, as well as a Network Director for Women Who Code Dallas / Ft. Worth. In this edition of Engineer to Engineer, she sits down to interview Tia White, the Sr. Director at Capital One’s Center for Machine Learning. They discuss the importance of diversity in tech and machine learning, the value of volunteering, and ways to improve the tech industry.
Can you start by telling me about your current role with Capital One?
I work in the Center for Machine Learning, which serves as a leader for best practices and a center of excellence for machine learning product delivery, innovation, education, and partnership across the business. My team is directly accountable for machine learning strategy and engineering for the finance and risk organizations, both outward-facing and inward-facing, as well as certain credit organizations.
In your opinion, what traits make for a successful leader?
In short, integrity, respect, appreciation for individuals, the desire to get to know them, and an understanding of what people bring to the table. At Capital One, successful leaders have the ability to foster an inclusive and collaborative environment where everyone feels like they belong and can bring their whole selves to work. What grounds me as a leader is allowing my teams to feel psychologically safe, which means giving associates the space to feel comfortable asking questions and raising difficult issues.
As a leader, you also need to have expertise in the space in which you’re operating. That’s not necessarily knowing everything, but it is vital to be a continuous learner and willing to learn and grow and be passionate about a subject. If you’re not passionate, others will be less inclined to follow you.
How do you approach learning new things?
You have to find a curriculum and method that is conducive to your learning style because not everyone learns the same way. I’m a hands-on learner — I’m not someone who can read a 50-page whitepaper and glean everything I need to know. I prefer avenues like Coursera and other hands-on courses.
What’s nice is that Capital One is focused on building a culture of continued learning and development. We not only partner with innovative learning companies to provide internal educational opportunities, but we also created a “first of its kind” Tech College to give associates the tools and platform they need to gain and master deeper technical skills — so people can learn in their own style and at their own pace.
Additionally, as women, we try to be generalists that are experts at everything. I’ve learned in my career that doesn’t help. Instead, I try to focus on a specific area or discipline. My specialties were DevOps and CICD before working in machine learning. I spent three years immersing myself in the tools to be successful at engineering CICD pipelines. When I felt like I had done enough in that space, I took that education and applied it forward. Now, I’m in the machine learning space going through the same thing. Every day, I feel that I have the opportunity to be a learner, teacher, and mentor because we have that kind of peer-to-peer learning community at Capital One.
What aided in your decision to choose Machine Learning as a career path?
Machine Learning has been around for a long time, but we are just now embracing the power of ML and AI. My curiosity about what is next in the tech space is what piqued my interest originally.
But it is more than that: Being a Black woman with an understanding of how models are built, I understand that it’s possible to introduce bias when you don’t have diverse teams. While people focus on mitigating bias in the data, inclusive teams are just as critical. It’s essential for interpretability, bias avoidance, and inclusion that we have a diverse representation leading the strategic road-mapping and building models.
I see it as my duty to attract more diverse talent in this space as well. I have an appetite for learning, but I also want to change the landscape so that we can fix this and mitigate the risk of bias in our models. Companies with more diverse workforces are more attuned to build equitable products and tools that are reflective of our customers as well. Not only because people with different backgrounds bring new information — but simply interacting with individuals who are different, forces group members to prepare better, anticipate alternative viewpoints, and expect that reaching consensus will help mitigate those systemic biases.
Is there a specific way that you’re encouraging other women of color to take the path of Machine Learning or a leadership path?
I mentor a lot of people inside and outside the company. I’m also an Accountable Executive for key external partnerships within Capital One, where I share my work with non-profit organizations that focus on college-age women in tech. Those organizations include Rewriting the Code — a program that supports and empowers college, graduate and early career women in tech — and its Black Wings community.
Unfortunately, I meet a lot of women who earn a computer science-related degree, enter the workforce, and decide that it’s not the right career after two or three years. I always have a very pointed conversation with them before they leave the tech industry. I remember being in the same place around year two of my career. Everybody’s reasons are different, but it boils down to a lack of support, inclusion, and clarity about their futures. I try to be transparent about my own story and give them the tools and support they need.
Are there things you think that companies can do to encourage inclusion so that we can have more people of color — especially women of color — enter and stay in the tech space?
Recruitment, development, and retention are all different phases that companies have to target. Development means improving the pipeline and helping people to realize their potential. Recruitment refers to finding ways to attract that talent into an organization. Retention comes from building support, mentorship, and sponsorship programs to elevate and support women and people of color in tech.
You need to have courageous conversations, you need to have support programs, and you need to have development opportunities intended for diverse or minority populations. When you put all that together, you foster and build a pipeline, track the talent, develop and retain said talent, and create an inclusive environment where people can bring their whole selves to work.
Do you have any advice for women of color who may be feeling discouraged because of a lack of inclusion within the space?
Try to understand why you don’t feel included. Is it your peers? Is it your leadership? Is it your company culture?
Then I encourage people to get to know not only their managers but their manager’s manager, as well as their HR consultant, and have direct conversations with them about what’s going on. Remember to include examples and recommendations for solutions.
Have you ever had to overcome any obstacles being a person of color or a woman of color in the leadership space, and if so, what were those obstacles, and how did you overcome them?
Quite often throughout my career, I’ve been the only technical woman as well as the only Black person on a team. There may be other people of color, but in the situations I’ve seen, it’s very rare that they are Black. As the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics research bears out, Black women make up only three percent of the computing workforce. Additional research also finds that within the workplace, Black female accomplishments are more invisible compared to their peers. These are norms that everyone should continuously challenge.
I encountered one situation where a white male manager overlooked me in favor of other men when highly technical conversations took place. I went to my manager and his manager, shared what I had been experiencing, and gave them examples of where I could have contributed to those conversations. They both apologized and thanked me for bringing it to their attention, and from that point forward, they did a phenomenal job including me. Women often feel the need to have mentors, but we lack the necessary sponsorship.
What is the difference between a mentor and a sponsor?
Typically sponsorship occurs naturally and similarities exist. When there is limited to no representation at the top, it makes it hard for the sponsorship to organically take place. The difference is that mentors advise and sponsors act.
Mentors are people that will consult with you and provide their opinion on how to handle a situation. A sponsor acts. Their job is to pound the table for you, to bring you opportunities, and introduce your name when you don’t have a presence someplace important. They’re always thinking about ways to elevate you, and they take very assertive ownership of your career to help make sure you’re given the right opportunities at the right time.
I think it’s important to note that while women are more likely to have mentors than men, a Harvard Business Review study shows that women are also 54% less likely than men to have sponsors. This discrepancy is because sponsors typically gravitate towards sponsoring similar people to themselves.
Are there specific qualities you are looking for in a sponsor?
I have multiple sponsors and try to make sure that they are diverse across industry, gender, background, and level. Power comes from many places. Sometimes it’s the title, sometimes it’s connection and influence, and sometimes it can be responsibility and role. That’s why you must have powerful sponsors in different, diverse, and dimensional ways.
You also don’t want to only take from your sponsor: you want your relationship to be open enough that you can support them as well. To truly deepen and foster that relationship, both parties have to reciprocate.
How do you find a sponsor?
I don’t think you ask anyone to be your sponsor. It’s not like a mentor relationship. Sponsors choose you, and that’s intentional because sponsors are supposed to act and advocate on your behalf. Sponsors want to tie themselves to people with a positive brand, that are up and coming, and they know they’ll get a return on their investment from.
There was a white female Executive at Capital One, and we worked together on a lot of projects for Women in Tech. What I didn’t know was that she was a huge sponsor of mine. She would check in on me periodically and mention my name when opportunities arose, but I never knew that until she left the company. She dropped my name and helped me get opportunities because she saw something in me.
Networking is crucial in the professional world, but people in tech often struggle with being more introverted. Do you have any tips for people when it comes to networking successfully?
I think there is a preconceived notion that people in tech are introverted, and I don’t agree with it. In any profession, you’re going to have introverts, ambiverts, and extroverts. That’s just human nature. I think the bias that engineers are introverts arises because we’re often head-down and working on something.
My networking opportunities often arise through volunteering. I do a lot of work with Women in Tech, and Black Women in Tech. Outside of Capital One, I work with Black Girls Code, Girls Who Code, Susan G. Komen, and other non-profit organizations. My network explodes through my volunteerism. You never know when you may need someone, or someone may need you.
What keeps you motivated?
The main thing that motivates me is knowing that I have tomorrow to make a difference. Not everything is perfect, not everything has to be completed in a day, and I have tomorrow to make it right. So I’m not too hard on myself.
I have two young kids and a husband. They motivate me to be the best person I can be for them. They inspire me to change the landscape and fix the leaky pipe — and not just in the cases where women “leak” out of the tech industry — but for all underrepresented groups in the tech industry as well. How do I make sure that if my daughter decides to go into engineering, she’s not the only one? So, that drives me to make a difference, and even though I can’t solve everything in a day, there is always tomorrow.
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Through her wisdom, compassion, and strength, Tia White is a force for good in the world. An avid volunteer, an advocate for the rights of women, Black women, minorities, and diversity, she works to change the landscape and create a tomorrow that will be better for tech, and better for us all.