Engineer to Engineer: What Leaders Need to Be Successful in Business & Tech

Written by Naomi Freeman

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Left: Naomi Freeman | Right: Natasha Malik

In this edition of Engineer to Engineer, Natasha Malik, Senior Manager at Ernst & Young LLP (EY), was gracious enough to sit down with WWCode Leadership Fellow Naomi Freeman to discuss navigating a struggling job market, leadership, and staying present.

How long have you been with EY, and what does your role entail?

I’ve worked at Ernst & Young for 12 years as part of the data and analytics division. I lead data transformation programs and have helped financial services clients modernize their data ecosystem in order to achieve business objectives.

How did you get involved with EY?

I earned my undergraduate degree in Computer Engineering when I lived in India. I graduated not long after the software bubble had burst, so the job market was not optimal. Layoffs were widespread. I landed a job during on-campus recruiting and spent a few years there, but I couldn’t help but think: what’s next? This isn’t what I want to do forever.

That’s when I applied for an MBA program in IT Management in New York. I moved to the U.S. and completed my Master’s degree, but I experienced an odd sense of déjà vu when the financial crisis hit in 2008. I was, once again, a fresh graduate trying to navigate a declining job market. Thankfully, EY was present on campus to host interviews. I joined the team as a Staff Analyst and have been here ever since.

I’m glad it panned out for you! I’m also currently working on my Master’s in Strategic Management Analytics. For people who are contemplating making the same jump, though, can you elaborate on why you decided to pursue an MBA instead of something more technical?

Absolutely. For me, there were two factors: one, the market condition. Tech wasn’t looking as promising as it did a few years prior. Secondly, I have always been interested in understanding how the finance industry works, so I wanted to do something that let me explore that yet stay technical. The State University of New York offered a robust MBA program in IT Management, so it was a perfect fit. In a way, it allowed me to reinvent my skill set.

I appreciate you sharing how the job market influenced your decisions. It’s a jungle gym, not a ladder. Regarding your work today, do you find that it’s an even balance between the business and tech aspects, or do you lean a particular way? How do they come together?

That’s an excellent question. I would say the balance is fairly even; my team’s objective is to solve business problems with technology. Digitization is big, so questions we ask include, how can digitization benefit the financial services industry? How can we deliver the best products to consumers at the right time?

An example of something my team does on a day-to-day basis is helping modernize a company’s Legacy infrastructure (such as migrating from more Legacy-type technology stacks to either the cloud or some other kind of on-premise modernization). We ultimately execute the company’s business strategy, so my role combines both the tech and business sides of the house nicely.

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That’s good to hear; I think business people often misunderstand the relationship between the two and assume one dominates the other.

I was reading a report from EY that you were featured in about analytics and automation. Can you talk more about where you think these fields are going and where engineers who are figuring out their next moves should pay attention?

Let’s look at the banking industry as an example. A few years ago, the big banks were questioning the push toward digitization. That’s when FinTech companies entered the scene: these were organizations that were not only moving toward digitization but were entirely digital. As an example, now we have digital brokers that occupy much of the market, especially amongst young investors. Consumers want everything faster, better customer service with hyper-personalization, thanks to automation and analytics. The larger organizations have tried to catch up because the industry recognizes it can’t continue what it’s been doing. Now, the question is how to balance the old with the new, specifically making the customer experience seamless while modernizing everything on the back end.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the need for digitization even more evident because everyone is now sitting at home behind screens and expects to have data at their fingertips. Banking and other services need to provide high-touch experiences while navigating this virtual environment.

In response, we have seen an approach toward new “financial ecosystems” that are, essentially, building blocks that you can compile in any form you want with the end goal of getting the right data to the right people. Real-time data was an aspirational target four or five years ago, but we’ve already moved beyond that to expecting optimized data streams with precise context. How the industry evolves to meet this expectation is what people should pay attention to. We have technologies like AI and blockchain to help, but it’s also critical to remember that it’s all about driving customer service and developing future-ready technology to support it.

I’ve noticed that trend in my own work. People were once excited to use as much data as possible because it was accessible and collectible at unprecedented levels, but now the industry is more focused on diving deep and identifying relationships between values. Preparation is essential for predictability.

That’s exactly right. I’ve seen published metrics about how much time is spent on data preparation compared to consuming analysis results, and it’s not a silver bullet. It’s a long, arduous journey — but we’ll get there.

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We’ll cross our fingers! I would also like to know more about your leadership style. What characteristics make a good leader in the tech space, especially amongst women?

First and foremost, lead by example. That’s what I try to do on a daily basis. If I want folks to emulate certain behaviors, then I need to demonstrate those myself. This principle became much more evident to me after I became a mother because with children, it’s all about what you do, not what you say, and it applies to adults as well.

I would also advise up-and-coming leaders to see the bigger picture. What impact are you and your team making? It’s easy to get caught up in the seemingly banal day-to-day activities instead of focusing on your bigger purpose, such as how you are impacting colleagues, peers, and even the environment positively. Emphasizing the impact you are making on the world is what keeps you motivated.

The third characteristic is being an attentive listener. It’s a trait I didn’t appreciate enough early in my career. I eventually noticed how much time my mentors spent listening to my perspective and how valued it made me feel, so I learned the importance of doing the same for everyone else. Listening to others’ points of view helps me understand where people are coming from, their strengths, and how best to help them with challenges.

Another piece of advice is to empathize. Empathy encompasses not just understanding someone’s problem, but what you will do to help them. It’s a critical element of leadership because people need to know that they can come to you, someone who is open-minded and willing to commit to taking action. That action might be improving the workplace social environment or increasing work flexibility to accommodate personal obligations.

For me, success is not only about my success; it’s about how many people I’ve helped become successful as well. Ultimately, good leaders — regardless of gender — should inspire people through their stories, examples, and behaviors. They should empower others to be successful in pursuing their goals. However, it is crucial for women, in particular, to support one another and provide each other with the right tools to be successful.

Those are some excellent points. Your last piece of advice reminds me of a cartoon I came across that emphasized the difference between empathy and sympathy. If you pass by someone sitting in a dark hole, sympathy is expressing how sorry you are to see them in that situation. Empathy, however, is taking a ladder and climbing down to sit with them.

Do you have any specific advice for women in technology who are trying to navigate the field or looking to make their next career move?

It has historically been challenging for women to make a footprint in this space, but we’ve made significant progress over the past few decades. Unfortunately, the pandemic has exacerbated women’s struggles disproportionately compared to men’s because we are expected to bear more housekeeping and child-rearing responsibilities.

What do we do about that? Women navigating the tech field should keep their skills up to date and be aware of gaps in their knowledge. If there is a class you can take, take it. If there are online training courses available to you, enroll in them. Continue improving your skill set so you can compete in a highly competitive job market.

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Don’t be shy to take risks, either. If it seems like a good idea to try something new, do it. Don’t box yourself based on your education, experience, or current position. Too often, we think that our current jobs are all we can do, so push yourself to go beyond.

My third piece of advice is to voice your opinion. Whether you’re in a conference room, an office, or at the dinner table, share what you have to say — even if you end up being wrong. Relinquish the pressure to be perfect and stop questioning if you have the right answer or comment.

I’ll give you a personal example. My sister and I grew up in India. We were fortunate to live in a household where we were completely oblivious to the world’s gender bias because no one treated us any differently and I had a role model in my mother, a strong independent woman.

However, I became more aware of social prejudices as I grew older, so there were challenges and opportunities I had to learn to navigate. I worked harder to assert my voice, but I couldn’t let the fear of not having all the answers hold me back. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be heard at all.

Keep sharpening your skills. Push your boundaries. I have two daughters who are five and three years old, and I hope that we won’t need organizations like Women Who Code by the time they grow up. As valuable as it is now, women engineers, astronauts, and government officials shouldn’t be outliers. We should be the norm. It might be wishful thinking, but I’m hopeful we get to that place within my lifetime. That will only happen, though, if women are confident in their opinions, ask for help when they need it, lean on available support organizations like Women Who Code, and learn to be fearlessly vocal.

I agree; I believe any good social impact organization aspires to see itself become obsolete one day. For now, Women Who Code is a safe community that supports people of all genders checking out new technologies, learning new skills, and exploring all the tech world has to offer.

My last question is, what are you most excited to learn about or explore next?

I have a laundry list! Obviously, I want to keep growing my technical repertoire, but I want to mention a different sort of skill I’ve been taking more seriously: mindfulness. If you’re not already aware, mindfulness concerns being present. I want to improve at focusing on what’s in front of me and not thinking about the countless items on my to-do list. I’ve been reading more books and even taking courses on implementing mindfulness into my life, which is very exciting because it provides me with a way to stay grounded and appreciate little joys with everything going on in the world.

It’s challenging for women to navigate the workplace and a fluctuating job market, but they can become exceptional leaders with the right guidance, support, and mentality.

We are a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring women to excel in technology careers. https://www.womenwhocode.com/

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