RTC Conversation with Ming Waters: From Research Chemist to Engineering Manager

“RTC Conversations” is an interview series with mentors and advocates of Rewriting the Code. The series is spearheaded by two RTC alumnae: Lucy Zhang, a software engineer at Apple, and Alice Chen, a software engineer at Two Sigma.

Ming Waters is a data engineering director at Capital One. We spoke with Ming over Zoom about her experiences as a woman in technology.

L: Could you tell us about what you do at Capital One as a data engineering lead?

I lead a team of data engineers within Capital One’s PowerUp Tech Division. We are part of the Monitoring Intelligence team that provides monitoring platforms and solutions for tech teams. Our portfolio includes Machine Learning applications that predict or enhance monitoring of critical customer and data movement platforms as well as platforms that manage our monitoring data sets that are used for reporting, analytics, and ML model development. I am also responsible for developing the Monitoring Intelligence product management system that includes our broader monitoring and visualization platforms.

L: What kinds of apps do you monitor?

Our monitoring products scan critical internal and external facing applications — from the infrastructure to the client applications that our customers use to service their accounts. Our platforms monitor, visualize, and alert 24/7 to ensure all of our systems are performing as expected. This is important as we want to make sure our customers have access to their credit and bank accounts at all times.

L: Wow, that sounds like a lot.

What we do sounds like a lot, but at Capital One we have a you-build-you-own model. Engineering teams are responsible for monitoring their tech stack and ensuring their code and deployments are bug-free. Our team provides the tools, technology, and standards that other teams adopt. We are not this superpower that is running all the monitors across Capital One.

L: What does a typical day of work look like for you?

As a data engineer and product manager, I focus on the overall problems and themes across Capital One and how we should start thinking about solutions we need to build. While I’m not heavily engaged in the day-to-day tasks, I do analyze how we deliver against the commitments, if our solutions meet customer needs, and what new monitoring problems we need to tackle as we plan our next body of work. My day consists of lots of emails, meetings, Slack messages, reading, and brainstorming.

L: Has anything changed since COVID?

In a way, it has improved. Prior to COVID, my teams were scattered across multiple locations in Texas and Virginia so there was always a location bias for teams that had the face-to-face interactions versus the ones on the phone. The ones in the room had the advantage of the whiteboard sessions and the clarity of the discussions. But now that my teams all have the same medium to communicate, I feel like we’re actually much more collaborative because everyone is on a level playing field.

Admittedly, it is hard to whiteboard, which makes deep technical conversations challenging, but we’re an adaptive group and we’ve gotten really creative, so my meetings have been pretty effective. That said, I do miss the interactions in person: going out to lunch, having conversations in the hall that spark new projects and ideas, etc.

L: What’s your favorite work-from-home tip?

I didn’t come up with this, but one of my associates always comes into virtual meetings with a fun, “controversial” background image. It acts as an ice breaker. For example, she’s had a background with three types of eggs: soft, hard-boiled, and hard-hard-boiled. She’s also had a background with sandwiches: toast vs. non-toast, crust vs. non-crust. It’s a great way to use the technology and medium that we have to spark fun and lively conversation and creative thinking.

L: How did you get into your current position? How did you transition from chemistry into data engineering?

When I was in school, I always saw myself as a chemist. I loved science and was always curious, so naturally, I pursued jobs in chemistry. I took a year off after my undergraduate degree, worked for a year as a bench chemist in pharmaceutical testing, and then went back to school to pursue my masters in chemistry. From there I worked for Philip Morris as a research chemist and then moved on to DuPont. All were standard paths for a standard technical degree. But at DuPont, I was able to work in various roles that were outside the chemistry path. I was a Six Sigma Black Belt working on process improvements; I worked as a contract manufacturing manager and led the global Kevlar supply chain. This was not unusual since most DuPont roles were held by engineers or scientists, even the business roles. I loved learning and working on the business side and seeing my work yield customer-facing results.

Fifteen years into my professional career, a friend asked me if I wanted to apply for a role in Capital One. I thought she was nuts. A chemist working for a bank in IT? But I was up for a new challenge and I figured I would keep my interviewing skills fresh even if I did not land the job. I landed the job, and seven years later I am truly glad I took the leap to do something different. I believe I am successful as a data engineer because of my chemistry background. My chemistry training has made me very methodical with problem-solving and very comfortable with data. I had been modeling data before it was cool. Today, my unique background complements my team’s software engineering and data engineering skills.

A: It’s fascinating to learn about your journey in tech. What’s a big challenge you’ve encountered as a woman in tech?

That is a passion question for me. I finished my undergraduate education in 1993 and my graduate school education in 1997. My first jobs were in manufacturing and the ratio of men to women was probably 25 to 1. I was in hard hats and steel-toed shoes, climbing pipes, and working with toxic chemicals. It was a tough environment with an even tougher culture to crack. It was difficult to have your voice heard or taken seriously. In a lot of ways, I was so odd being the only woman wearing a hard hat that no one even knew what to say to me or how I could contribute.

It took a lot of time and effort to get a seat at the table; I had to be aggressive and work twice as hard, often sacrificing my family time. Today, I naturally find myself being vocally loud. I guess I have mutated from all the years of “demanding” a voice in the discussions.

My early careers were not easy and I am sure many women faced the same challenges, but for me, it was worth it. Being in tech continues to fuel my curiosity and excitement for innovation.

A: I want to be a mom at some point, and I hope to be a good one. How do you balance work and life?

I had some really impressive role models. One superstar PhD chemist at DuPont who had four kids once told me, “When you’re at work, be completely at work, and don’t have your mind anywhere else. When you’re at home, focus on being a wife and a mother.” There were some great female leaders that I could look to for examples and encouragement.

At work, I try to stay focused on work and at home, I focus on family. It is not perfect. Sometimes emails bleed into dinner time, and personal emergencies bleed into work hours, but I am extremely fortunate to have a wonderful husband who bears equal if not more of our family responsibilities and a great company and team that supports work-life balance.

I am encouraged by the evolution of corporate culture to support equality and balance for working women. I believe professional women in tech today will have a much better experience balancing work, motherhood, and family than I had early in my career.

A: Looking back, what do you wish you knew when you started your career?

Everything. I wish I knew to buy APPL, GOOG, and all the tech things (laugh).

Early on in your career, spend time observing and watching trends. One of the presidents of our retail banks said, “My career is successful not because I worked harder, but because I worked harder in the right spots.” Pay attention to emerging trends and decide if that’s the trend you want to invest your development in. For example, software engineering is a hot field, but what specifically in this field is emerging and will be the solution for future problems? If you are watching, reading, observing, and understanding the trends, you are going to stay relevant. Don’t blindly follow the path simply because it’s there. Don’t stop learning and being curious.

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