Meet Cornelia Davis: Pivotal’s Role Model For Women In Cloud

August 7, 2015 Stacey Schneider

sfeatured-cdavisPivotal, with its mission to transform how the world builds software, attracts some of the best and brightest talent across the world. This week, our own Cornelia Davis, director of platform engineering for Pivotal Cloud Foundry, was recognized as one of the “Top 10 Women in Cloud” by CloudNOW, a non-profit consortium of women in cloud computing. Not only is she at the top of her game in the industry, she is also a mother, a self described foodie, and in the past couple years has turned into a tremendous advocate for greater diversity and inclusion in software, a problem that the industry is growing to recognize with software leaders like Salesforce.com bravely sharing its surprise at the inequality in pay, and of course this week’s popular story about the sexist reactions to an ad that sparked the #ILookLikeAnEngineer campaign.

The tragic part of this current situation, where women are usually less than 15% of the workforce, is that it wasn’t always this way. In fact, women were some of the first pioneers of this industry. For example, Ada Lovelace is considered the first computer programmer, Grace Hopper invented the first compiler and made the term “bug” famous, and Dr. Erna Schneider Hoover invented a computerized telephone switching system at Bell Labs—her principles are still applied today.

At the beginning, the workforce reflected women’s abilities to contribute as well. As recently as 1984, 37% of U.S. computer science graduates were women, and the workforce was almost even. Today, women represent only 18% of computer science graduates—that is roughly half. A shocking statistic given in middle school, 74% of girls express interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). Yet, even with that level of interest, only 0.4% of high school girls select computer science when choosing a college major. That means only 1 out of every 185 girls with interest actually study in the field. Why is the U.S. facing this problem when the Department of Labor is already forecasting a huge shortage of qualified computer specialist jobs by U.S. University graduates? Simply put, it is because we have managed to systematically eliminate half of the potential workforce.

Cornelia Davis, who leads Pivotal’s engineering team tasked with exploring how far we can push the bleeding edge of cloud computing, is also an example of the kinds of leaders this industry needs to change the course of exclusion to one of inclusion, and to one where top talent, regardless of gender and race, are incented to make the next great contributions to technology. When she sat down with us to do this Q&A, we covered her career as a software engineer and her current role at Pivotal. We also showcase her mentorship and advisement to GirlsWhoCode.com, one of the most widely recognized movements addressing this problem and sponsored by Adobe, AT&T, GE, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, and Verizon, among others, and her work on the widely acclaimed documentary on the subject, Code: Debugging The Gender Gap. We are sharing her story to both recognize her achievements and in hopes that her example will breed other role models across the industry—because, in her words, “no one can do this alone.”

Could you tell us about how you grew up and got into programming?
I was born in San Francisco, and raised in southern California along with my brother. My parents are German immigrants, very traditional, and saw WWII first hand. They were also older parents so, I grew up in a really different environment from my friends.

I always loved math and puzzles—Sudoku wasn’t popular in the US then, but I loved those logic puzzles where you had to figure out the age and hobbies of people by knowing what color hair they had and who they were friends with. I spent every family road trip sitting quietly in the back seat, doing those puzzles.

As far as programming goes, I was really lucky to have a moment in high school where it just clicked for me. Most high schools did not have a programming class at the time, but mine did. That said, I never thought I’d have a job in computers—I thought I was just too cool for that. At the end of my sophomore year, I had to pick an elective for the following year and my mom suggested I might try programming. Only for lack of something better, I registered for it.

When the fall started, I still thought I was too cool for this and ditched class the first few days. When I showed up on the the 3rd day of school the teacher had a four line program written on the board, complete with line numbers and goto statements. The teacher asked if anyone wanted to try it and while I was still full of attitude, my curiosity got the best of me. I typed the program in and ran it and WHOA. It was just counting on the screen, but from that moment I was totally hooked! Somehow that I had the power to make this machine do things I dreamed up—that I could program it—just intrigued and inspired me. I went on to get Bachelor and Master degrees from my local state school, Cal State University, Northridge and did all but my dissertation in pursuit of a PhD at Indiana University.

What was it about computer science that really clicked?
I just thought it was amazing that I could make this machine do something. As I said, I always liked logic puzzles and programming is like solving puzzles for me. Now, I look at it as I get paid to solve puzzles, and that works for me.

But make no mistake about it, you don’t have to have a moment like I did, or love Sudoku to enter and have a rewarding career in computing. Many women, and men too, think programming is some black art. It isn’t. Anyone can learn to code.

So, how did your career journey land you on the Cloud Foundry team?
Great question. If you asked me 20 years ago, “Would you work on a data center project?” I would have told you to forget it. No way. I started my career at Hughes Aircraft doing image processing—detecting things in infrared (heat) images. When I made the move over the commercial it was doing image processing in health care; turns out looking for bridges in infrared images isn’t that different from looking for spinal columns in CT scans. Then I moved more in the direction of scientific data visualization—still graphics.

In 1999, I had an opportunity to work at eRoom—the hot web-based collaboration tool that Microsoft later modeled (more successfully) for Sharepoint. As I was making that transition I did have a moment where I panicked at the thought of leaving cool graphics, but honestly, there were other cool problems to solve in all fields. Even data center solutions!

eRoom was acquired by Documentum. Then, EMC acquired Documentum, and I landed in the CTO office doing architecture and emerging technology. We were there to evangelize new patterns and protocols for the product teams.

In August 2012, my manager asked me to start looking at Cloud Foundry. From right when I started, I believed the story—that Platform as a Service was all about developer productivity, though I had to suspend disbelief a bit as I thought companies wouldn’t want to spend that type of cash just to make my life easier. But after joining the Cloud Foundry team and engaging with customers I realized that the operational benefits of the platform were even greater. Stuff can be in production for decades. Cloud Foundry represents a tremendous opportunity to evolve how software is both made and managed. Its as big of a change in thinking from mainframes to client-server. So now my answer is definitively yes, I am working on a data center product now.

What made you fall in love with Cloud Foundry?
First of all, it is truly an extraordinary platform. It does so much. When I was in the CTO office at EMC, we were talking to groups about SOA and RESTful models. For example, we could make an excellent case for a loosely coupled architecture and its benefits, but couldn’t enforce it. A lot of our words fell on deaf ears it seemed. The benefits of following these patterns were just a bit too abstract and far off in the future.

What got me jazzed about Cloud Foundry is that the platform would incorporate all these best practices. It forces the developer to apply these best practices but in return rewards them immediately with greater automation and reduced risk, speeding up their time to deliver quality code. Finally, developers had a concrete reason to follow the patterns we had been evangelizing for ages.

In that regard, I love that we are unapologetically opinionated. We won’t let you do the things that you just shouldn’t be doing in a web-scale environment—in a truly Cloud Native architecture. For example, you just can’t store state locally because it makes scale and automated recovery impossible. Follow the patterns and you get a ton of benefits such as reduced or eliminated downtime, or scale is at the press of a button. It forces you to be a better programmer and immediately rewards you for your efforts. So, what I was trying to do for 7 years advocating for the software industry at EMC was all built in, and was much more effective at convincing developers than any words I could share. This solved a big puzzle.

I also really liked that among the platform options out there, that Cloud Foundry has the conviction to guide developers into the best decisions to achieve web scale. I talk to a lot of customers, and some say, “Well, I am leaning towards OpenShift because I have fewer constraints.” I don’t call them constraints. I just say, “Ya, they give you plenty of rope to hang yourself with.” We won’t let you hang yourself. As a long-time programmer, this just makes sense from a financial, risk, productivity, and operations perspective. Developers can still build any functionality they want, just in a way that is proven to work natively in the cloud.

Could you describe your role at Pivotal?
I am the senior director of the Platform Engineering team. My team a part of the product group, but not the core engineering. Rather than working from a carefully curated backlog and through a well understood process, as the core engineering group does, we work with customers on stuff that is typically ahead of the backlog. We are in the field doing experimental stuff like running Cloud Foundry on Google Compute Engine, or helping customers connect into their SOAP-based legacy services. We see common requirements across customers, or trends in the industry, and do POCs to flesh out the patterns. For example, a big bank wants us to hook into TIBCO and we are finding building out the key integration points to make that effective. Eventually, our work becomes formalized and developed by core engineers as part of the backlog.

Were you on board with agile approaches before Pivotal?
I thought so at one point, but now I know the answer is “no.” I had no idea what we do here at Pivotal was possible. It is very hard to explain what agile truly is—people just need to see it.

Then, it’s like, whoa.

People in traditional companies can’t believe we re-plan so much—when we say we continually re-plan, it is impossible to believe until you see it in action. It is that different. And the level of productivity is mindblowing. Clients cannot believe that we can ship product after two weeks. They say it would take them 2 months, or more. I have heard this conversation so many times in the hallways of our biggest customers.

How did you get involved in diversity programs like GirlsWhoCode?
I will admit to being someone who was interested and yet not involved for a long time. If I had the opportunity to talk to a young person in my personal network, I would jump all over it, but I was far from an advocate. Honestly, I really didn’t grok the magnitude of the problem.

Last year at Pivotal, we hosted a GirlsWhoCode field trip, and I had a chance to meet these amazing young ladies. Around that same time I was introduced to Robin Hauser Reynolds, the director of the CODE documentary, that covers the topic of the lack of women in tech in depth. When I spoke with Robin, I started to really understand the magnitude of the problem. It was a catalyst moment for me. I needed to get involved. And it’s not just me. Our CMO, Richard Snee jumped at the chance to have Pivotal sponsor the film and I thank him today for paving the way for me to help.

How is it that we have this problem when there are so many job openings?
There are many influences. One of the most interesting and problematic influences is the social circle. In primary and secondary schools, boys are into hacking and doing mods for video games. Girls tend to be less interested in video games so the circle of computer enthusiasts is already exclusionary. And in college and the workforce there is often a pretty strong “bro-grammer” culture—kind of a machismo, frat-boy vibe that further makes women uncomfortable. Unfortunately, the net result is that women are staying away because they don’t feel like they belong. We are all influenced in a major way by our social circles at work and at home.

What advice do you give to the upcoming generation of women?
First, I like to let all younger people know that programming and computers are really cool—the internet boom has made that more obvious, which helps. Every kid is hooked on technology.

I also let them know that the field pays well, which they definitely respond to—I mean, it can be right up there with doctors and lawyers. As well, you can really get a job anywhere you want, and in any industry. So, the younger generation doesn’t feel like they will be stuck.

Unfortunately women have to deal with discrimination that simply discourages all but the bravest, to the point where even if they establish their competency in tech, they end up leaving the industry. I know an extraordinarily talented young lady who gained entrance to a prestigious hackathon only to have her (male) friends tell her she only got in because she was a woman. Outrageous! That is like saying you got into the program because you are gay or black or Jewish or from India. She got it because she is talented. This type of stuff still happens way too much.

From personal experience, I’m all too frequently in rooms of 25+ where I am the only woman. Most of the time, I don’t think about it, which is probably how I survived. For some women, unfortunately this becomes tiring, and they eventually find a more balanced workplace outside of IT.

One of the things we can do to help change this destructive trend is simple: We need to provide greater support. And it’s not just women who need to support other women. Men need to support women as well. We have to work together to break down the stereotype, and not let people be bullied. We need to set people up to succeed—this is the only way for us all to succeed.

In University settings, kids need to find a support network. Perhaps it isn’t the most positive term, but women need a little mafia—supporters who “got your back.” Weathering it alone can be disastrous. Someone recently asked me what I thought, whose responsibility is it to provide this support? Is it the university’s? Is it the parent’s? Is it the student’s?

I actually think that the University shoulders a great deal of that responsibility. The University of Washington has done an outstanding job here with tremendous results; this year they can say that over a third of their computer science graduates are women—well over the national average.

But we shouldn’t stop there. Corporations should also look to this as a model. Why would we want such a large portion of our workforce disappearing from the most high-growth, high-value industries in the United States? It will create a huge weakness for the future generations in the global economy. Greater support now, will mean greater contributions and success later.

Could you tell us more about the CloudNow nomination?
I was blown away. I was so honored when Cathy Spence from Intel, a long time Cloud Foundry supporter and early adopter, nominated me. There is a fee to submit, and she convinced Intel to pay it on my behalf. I consider her part of my own personal support network. Part of my mafia. Cathy is a principal engineer and platform architect, and someone I have worked with for several years. And then I was actually at a Women Who Go meetup when I learned that I had made the top 10. I am totally humbled by this recognition, but this award is not done yet. In September, each of the 10 nominees selected will gather and present on the state of cloud technology. I am excited to speak to all of these women on the power of Cloud Foundry.

So, what about your personal life? What happens when you aren’t living Pivotal?
Ah, yes. I am happily married for 25 years. My husband is crazy-supportive of my passions. My son is 20 and starting his 3rd year of college in the fall as a math and computer science major. He is an athlete on the track and cross-country teams—a distance runner. My husband and I are track and cross country junkies, were always the parents who drove the school van to meets and chaperoned training camps. Now we go to every meet our son runs in. And I love to cook. This started because my son has an intolerance for certain foods, and I wanted him to eat yummy, healthy stuff growing up. So, I became a foodie, solving the puzzle of how to cook gluten and dairy free, and really found it fun. I am also into all types of exercise and like to mix it up with yoga, swimming, running, biking.

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