Stories from the WIT Trenches: Erin Stellato

[This is the fourth in a series of posts exploring the personal stories of real women in technology. Every woman in tech overcame at the very least statistical odds to be here; this blog series aims to find out why, and what they found along the way. Those of you engaged in the virtual and IRL SQL communities may already know Erin Stellato from her active and informative presences at conferences and user groups, on Twitter and on her blog. Here, she talks Commodore 64s, nature vs. nuture and her evolution from Kinesiology major to Senior DBA. If reading her story inspires you to share yours, please feel free to email me.]

My name is Erin Stellato and I’m a Senior Database Engineer for a software company outside Cleveland, Ohio.  I have been working in technology for almost 11 years, and with SQL Server for over 8.  I’ve been involved in the SQL Community since 2010, and spend my time on Twitter, blogging and presenting at SQLSaturdays.  I am active in our local user group and will be presenting at my first PASS Summit this fall.

1)      Can you take us back to your “eureka!” moment—a particular instance or event that got you interested in technology?

I think it starts with my dad…he always had the latest electronics.  My dad loves watching TV, especially movies.  In our house this meant that we had a big TV, a satellite and a VCR.  We also had an Intellivision, which was a bummer for me because all my friends had Ataris, but I still played it.  A lot.  We also had a Commodore 64.  I remember my mom sitting down and typing out a “Hello World!” program.  I tried it as well, and figured out how to make it type different words.  I thought that was cool.  My mom worked in the radiology department of a hospital, and when I would tag along when she got called in.  I was able to see her use the Ultrasound or CT machines, which were pretty new at that time.  It was a lot of lights and buttons, but you could see inside a person on the fly.  It didn’t require the waiting of a normal x-ray…point, shoot, develop, wait, and then see.  Technology was pervasive in my life growing up, but it wasn’t something we discussed.  It was just there.

2)      Growing up, did you have any preconceived perceptions of the tech world and the kinds of people who lived in it?

I watched Tron and WarGames at an early age, and those are what come to mind when I think of my first “tech” perceptions.  Now, I never understood what Jeff Bridges was doing outside the computer, but when he was in it I thought it was pretty flippin’ cool.  I wanted to race that car (closest I ever got was the video game Sanfu).  When I watched WarGames I was impressed that David could get airline information by connecting to another computer, it never crossed my mind that he might be perceived as a dork or a geek.  I cannot remember when I realized that people who were technical might be considered nerds, but I know it wasn’t before junior high.

3)      You majored in Kinesiology at U.Michigan—do you think having a non-technical education has given you any advantages in your current field? 

Even though my education wasn’t technical, it was science-based.  I took calculus, physics, chemistry, organic chemistry, statistics, biochemistry and a bunch of other pre-med classes.  I believe the breadth of experience combined with the scientific approach and the different scientific disciplines fits well into technology.  And I believe that my non-technical work (writing my master’s thesis, managing patient studies, teaching undergraduates) provided experience that today shapes how I write documentation, interact with customers  and deliver training sessions to colleagues and users.

4)      When did you first consider a career in technology? What did you envision doing?

When I moved to Cleveland in 2000 I had no idea what I was going to do.  It was a turning point in my life.  I read “What Color Is Your Parachute” and “The Pathfinder” to understand more about myself – what I liked, what I did well.  I went back through different experiences I had and tried to pinpoint what I really liked doing.  I came up with three things: kids, medicine and computers.  Working with kids was appealing, but I didn’t have an education degree.  Working in the medical field was what I wanted to do, but I couldn’t do what I really wanted with my degree.  So that left computers.  In the Cleveland Plain Dealer I found a want ad for a software company – they were hiring technical support representatives.  I had never formatted a machine, or even taken one apart, but they hired me.  I had no idea where it would lead; I just figured I would start working with computers and see where it took me.

5)      Did you experience any personal or systemic setbacks at any point of your academic or professional career?

I didn’t get accepted to medical school, and that was a low for me.  I hate admitting it, because I feel like I failed.  Still.  It forced me to choose a path: continue to pursue medical school, or find something else.   I spent a long time thinking about what I would need to do to get into medical school, and in the end, I decided not to stop and set a new path.  It was a hard decision.  Sometimes I still wonder, but I have no regrets.

6)      Whom do you look at as mentors and/or sources of inspiration in your field?

There are a lot of individuals within the SQL Server Community that I know I could contact if I needed guidance or advice.  But there are two people that I’ve consistently reached out to since I became involved in the Community, and they are Allen White and Brent Ozar.  I was fortunate enough to win a free trip on SQLCruise in 2010, which is where I first met Brent.  He stated, at the beginning of the cruise, that he’s at the point in his career where he’s happy and wants to help others, and we should feel like we could ask him anything.  I haven’t asked everything, but I’ve asked a lot.  I don’t communicate with Brent on a regular basis, but I know I can reach out if I need anything.  Brent does a lot of things well, and I often agree with his approach and philosophies.  But I also know that if we ever disagree, we will simply agree to disagree and go on from there.

I first met Allen a year ago when I started to regularly attend the Ohio North user group meetings.  I don’t know if Allen just sensed I was a little lost, or if I just gravitated to him because he is so welcoming and generous.  Allen’s passion is contagious, but he is not rash and makes good decisions.  I know I can count on him for solid advice.

The person who provides the biggest inspiration, and I’ve stated this before, is Kimberly Tripp.  There are many reasons I hold her in such high regard, and the first ones that come to mind (in no particular order) are: renown expert in SQL Server, excellent presenter, strong female.   On top of that, she’s a really cool and funny person.

7)      How has your participation in both the on- and offline SQL communities changed the way you look at and work with SQL?  

I see so much more of the big picture.  Two years ago I was focused on how SQL Server worked and what were the right things to recommend to my company’s customers. Today I think about SQL Server functionality and how it can be utilized by our software, and I think about what knowledge I can share with customer DBAs.  So many DBAs are involuntary, and yet they are tasked with enormous responsibility when it comes to data.  It’s imperative that they understand not only the responsibility they have, but what they need to do.  I am in a position where I can reach a fair number of individuals, and as never before I feel it’s my duty to do as much as I can to help them and educate them.

8)      Why do you think the rate of attrition for women in IT is higher than that of women in other tech fields?

I don’t have a good answer for this one.  I really don’t know.  My guesses are hours (e.g. being on call), lack of female role models and lack of support/guidance for career development.

9)      Do you have any suggestions for how to get more girls interested in computers and computer science? Is this important to you?

I believe much of a child’s success depends upon the guidance of his or her parents.  Of course, children can overcome bad parenting or a lack thereof, but when parents are involved in a child’s education, it can make all the difference in the world.  It is easy to lay the responsibility of education and exposure to academics on the schools, but I believe it’s the job of the parents to not just ensure that their children are getting an excellent education, but also actively participate in that education.

It is important to me that girls (and boys) are interested in computers and computer science, but on a broader scope, I want them to be interested in learning.  I want them to love learning, and want to be challenged.  I think you have to cultivate that, and not let children get bored.  I’m not saying you have to make them do math problems every day, but it’s easy to be lazy.

To get any child interested in computers and computer science, or in any topic, you have to provide exposure.  Repeatedly.  You have to give them opportunity for hands on experience, you have to let them fail, and learn and succeed.  I doubt I would have been interested in medicine had I not spent much of my childhood in a hospital following my mom around.  I would have not have played golf in high school if my parents hadn’t taken us with them when they went and played 9 holes on the weekend.  Parents influence their children in positive and negative ways every single day, it’s almost scary.  So if you want to get girls interested in computers and computer science, start with getting their parents to buy into the importance of it, and give them ways to interact with their daughters to pique their interest in technology.

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