"Making an Impact as a Senior Software Engineer and a Member of MongoDB’s Women and Trans Coders Group"
Maria van Keulen is a Senior Software Engineer on the Server Team at MongoDB. When she isn't working on challenging technical projects, she's developing initiatives for MongoDB's Women and Trans Coders employee resource group.
I sat down with Maria to learn more about her experiences and the impact she's had on the company over the last three years.
Jess Katz: Can you tell us a bit about why you joined MongoDB back in 2016, and what you love most about working here?
Maria van Keulen: I joined MongoDB full time after interning twice at the company during college. When I was an intern, I saw that MongoDB had a welcoming, collaborative, and talented community of engineers, and I knew that this was the kind of community I wanted to pursue after college. Additionally, the projects we got to work on as interns were technically challenging and addressed real company needs. I was very excited for the opportunity to do such high priority work.
As a full-time employee, I continue to see the same great qualities in MongoDB as I saw as an intern. In addition, my time since interning has given me an appreciation for MongoDB as a leading innovator in the world of database technology. I recall our "startup-y" nature from 2014, and it's amazing to see where we are today. Presently, we are not only becoming the new paradigm of database technology, but also occupy a valuable position in the database market and are expanding into new areas of data management. I am so excited to see where we will go next and be a part of shaping the company's future.
JK: Beyond your experiences as a Senior Software Engineer, what are some of your other passion projects at MongoDB?
MVK: I am involved in a few groups at MongoDB, one of which being our Women and Trans Coders group. MongoDB's Women and Trans Coders group is a group of technical individuals who identify as women and trans who provide a network and resources for one another to grow professionally and personally. The group meets regularly for various business and social events, including periodic dinners, which I assumed responsibility for organizing in 2017. These dinners foster team building and provide networking opportunities for the individuals in the WTC group. Most recently, I have been organizing themed discussions to take place during the dinners.
I have been reading several leadership books on my own time in the interest of growing myself as a leader, including Dare to Lead by Brené Brown, Leading Matters: Lessons From My Journey by John L. Hennessy, and Mindset: The New Psychology For Success by Dr. Carol S. Dweck. I have been taking key ideas I learned in these books and organizing discussions to brainstorm how we can grow our skills and further foster a nurturing company culture. For example, we had a discussion regarding how to promote an environment in which employees have the courage to be vulnerable, as Brené Brown describes in her well-known TED talk on vulnerability.
One exciting result of this discussion was the idea to introduce team social guidelines in order to promote productive collaboration and interactions, and these guidelines have since been rolled out by the Replication team (kudos to Pavi Vetriselvan and Tess Avitabile for spearheading those efforts). We are also in the process of having these guidelines adopted by our overarching team.
The MongoDB Women and Trans Coders Group is a valuable forum for fostering the growth of our members and enacting changes to make MongoDB an even more welcoming, collaborative place to work.
JK: How have you grown both professionally and personally as an engineer here?
MVK: I joined MongoDB fresh out of Columbia University three years ago. Over these past three years, I've spoken at MongoDB World, mentored two interns, and became a Senior Engineer. Each of these journeys has taught me valuable lessons and allowed me to better my technical abilities and communication skills.
My MongoDB World talk was my first professional experience presenting to a large group of people. The presentation discussed how our New Grad team rotation program teaches New Grads to embody MongoDB's core values. It entailed an interesting combination of technical and non-technical subject matter. I drew technical examples from the projects I worked on with each team I visited, and connected the big-picture lessons I learned to the company's core values, like "Make it Matter" and "Build Together."
My experience mentoring interns taught me valuable collaborative skills. Something interesting that I learned as a mentor was to be proactive in checking whether the interns have any questions. We were taught in our mentor training that new generations of interns have become much more autonomous in general than their predecessors, and are less likely to ask questions unless prompted. I learned to take a more hands-on approach when mentoring.
My promotion to Senior Software Engineer was the culmination of my efforts both as an engineer and as a leader on my various projects. Most importantly, it involved leading a complex, multi-stakeholder project called Replica Set Flow Control to completion. This project was my most challenging experience in task management; I had to adapt the project work and react swiftly to changes in project direction and shifting engineering resources as other higher priority tasks flowed in. My experience leading this project allowed me to demonstrate my autonomy in managing large tasks, and earn my position as Senior Engineer.
JK: Can you tell us a bit more about the Replica Set Flow Control project? What did it entail and what were some of the technical challenges you faced?
MVK: I am very proud of the work that my coworkers and I did to push this project to completion. The project tackles the ever-pervasive engineering problem of alleviating a system under heavy load by limiting the number of operations permitted to execute. As a result, the system is allowed more chances to process the existing load rather than continuing to attempt new operations and forcing itself into an unrecoverable state. The project took approximately nine months of engineering effort to be successfully finalized, and I think we should be very proud of the result.
We overcame a few engineering challenges while working on this project. Firstly, Flow Control itself is a complex engineering problem. It took us three separate implementations of proof of concept algorithms to find a viable solution. Additionally, since this was a groundbreaking project, the implementations necessitated a fair amount of new infrastructure. Furthermore, this project was a very performance-centric project. The manner in which the software performs both during periods of high load and periods of reprieve was important to document and evaluate. We not only needed to develop the testing necessary to measure these scenarios, but we also needed to come to conclusions regarding what constituted "acceptable" performance in each scenario.
The second class of challenges we tackled while working on this project was the challenge of collaborating with a large number of people. I worked directly with one other engineer during the project, but there were also many external stakeholders to the project with whom I regularly communicated. Through these experiences, I was able to manage the opinions of many people (sometimes 15 or more) during meetings, find solutions that satisfied a lot of diverse opinions, and still make sure my own voice was heard. I am proud that I was able to run and be part of such a complex project while coordinating the efforts of so many team members.
Lastly, this project was a great learning experience for me because it was the longest-running project I had ever managed. It really made me appreciate the "it's a marathon, not a sprint" mentality. Although it was a bit disappointing that our first two attempts at implementing this algorithm were not viable solutions, I knew it was important to take a step back and consider that we still laid valuable groundwork for the solution we eventually did choose. We gathered a set of test cases that we would eventually use to measure the success of our final solution, and we obtained key data points on what implementation paths we needed to eliminate for this particular algorithm.
JK: Based on your experiences, what is it like to work at MongoDB?
MVK: MongoDB allows me to develop exciting technologies, make a meaningful impact both during and outside of my daily work tasks, and grow as a person, an engineer, and a leader. I'm grateful for what I've learned thus far and am excited to continue my adventure here.
Interested in pursuing a career in engineering at MongoDB? We have several open roles on our teams across the globe, and would love for you to build your career with us!
On February 27th, PowerToFly presented an interactive webinar focusing on how to hire, attract and retain a diverse remote workforce.
Hosted by PowerToFly Co-Founder & CEO Milena Berry, our impressive panel included:
D&I Keys to Success with Greenhouse
We asked Ariana Moon, Recruiting Manager at Greenhouse, how she thinks we can create a better sense of belonging and truly inclusive workspaces.
Hear her tips for how you can use the "in-between spaces" to create a more engaged workplace yourself, no matter where you are.
Interested in joining their team? Check out Greenhouse's page on PowerToFly
On February 13th, PowerToFly partnered with Seen by Indeed to present a webinar where top talent leaders shared and discussed the tools and resources they use to practice inclusive sourcing.
Moderated by Dionna Smith-Keels, Strategic Global Enterprise D&I Executive, speakers included:
- Cyndi Cochran, Strategic Sourcing and Diversity Recruiting Assoc. Manager, Allstate
- Carol Mahoney, Chief People Officer at Gainsight
- Kirby Traynham - Consultant, Sales Recruiting Programs and Operations, Dell Technologies
February is Black History Month, a time to celebrate the achievements made by black men and women, the central role they play in American history, and a time to reflect on the struggles and adversity they faced and continue to combat today.
At Elastic, Black History Month is the perfect time to highlight our amazing black Elasticians, and to take a look at why diversity matters for a company like ours (and tech in general). Most importantly, it's a time to reflect on where we can do better.
Last year, we talked to Alyssa Hester and A.J. Angus about what Black History Month means to them. This year, we've expanded the conversation with four Elasticians — Karen Penn, Shantel Drew, Tanisha L. Turner, and Wadson Fleurigene — who shared their thoughts on the challenges they've faced in their career because of race, diversity (and the lack of it) in tech, and the importance of making Elastic a more accommodating place to work.
Karen Penn, People and Culture Guru
I got my start as a lawyer, and at first, didn't really know where I fit in. I didn't love the trial or litigation side of the law. I definitely wasn't interested in being a criminal defense lawyer. But what I really enjoyed about law school was employment law and that led me to the Justice Department where I spent 4 years as a civil rights lawyer. In that role I developed a keen understanding of what discrimination looked like.
In my career I've either been the only woman, or the only person of color, or the only woman and person of color in leadership. It was while I was working as employment counsel within the HR department that I truly gained an appreciation for what HR does: the corresponding influence on company policies and practices, the impact they can have on diversity and inclusion, and HR's role in the productivity, retention, and happiness of employees. Many companies treat diversity as something nice to have, and not as an integral part of the business. In my experience, diversity and inclusion efforts are most successful when the company is committed from the top down, bottom up, and middle out — and builds a concrete structure around the initiatives.
Throughout my career, I've been able to leverage my legal background to take on several roles within HR and dabble in various niche areas like corporate responsibility, equal employment opportunity and affirmative action, ethics and compliance, as well as the do-everything generalist responsibilities that come along with heading up HR in the tech startup environment.
What attracted me to Elastic was the opportunity to revisit some of my roots in diversity and inclusion. It's a passion of mine, and I think there's a great opportunity at Elastic to do something special. I believe I can really add value and help to take Elastic to the next level, reconstituting what diversity inclusion looks like at the global level.
As a company, we have to report on our numbers. That's something that we have to do because of US federal requirements. Compliance is always the easier way to start. But I think of diversity as a spectrum, beyond the numbers (like how many black employees you have). You need to understand all the different types of diversity that you have in order to leverage that diversity for creative and innovative advantage over competitors. We can do that by being the kind of unique company that's looking outside of the traditional norm, like, "oh, you have to have gone to school" or "you have to have X years of experience". We can look at things like coding boot camps, internships and incubator programs, and truly mentor rising talent and give them meaningful work while simultaneously increasing the diversity of our Elastic teams.
My enduring advice to youth of color I have the privilege of mentoring: Be confident and competent in whatever you do!
Karen was head of HR for Endgame before transitioning to Elastic. For more than 10 years she served on the Board of Directors of the Girl Scout Council of the Nation's Capital (GSCNC) as a member and an officer and currently serves as the co-chair of the Women's Advisory Board of GSCNC.
Shantel Drew, Recruiting Coordinator
I feel like my biggest mentor has been my brother. He's the one who made me want to move to California and pursue business and finance. He also introduced me to Silicon Valley and nurtured my love for tech and recruiting. More than that, he provided me with a mindset: that I have to set myself apart to rise above the rest. Especially as a black woman. He told me to never forget where I came from, and to extend my hand to help others as others have done for me.
When I was looking for new work, I was looking for a place where I could have a sense of belonging. I was a recruiting coordinator at my last company, and I just didn't fit in — both in terms of my work, and with my team. I didn't feel like I had a purpose or that I was contributing in a way that had significant value. When you don't really know anyone, and you're the only black person on your team, it's kind of hard to feel comfortable.
I've been with Elastic since May of 2019. When I first joined, I wanted to do something revolving around diversity because that's important to me as a black woman. And Elastic has provided those opportunities. I'm happy that I'm able to work on diversity projects and find diverse talent to bring into the company. I feel empowered to do that, because Elastic lets me be who I am.
To that end, we've started posting Elastic openings on diversity job boards and diversity sites so that people outside Silicon Valley and our normal channels know how to directly email us in recruiting. The people I grew up with didn't have the same resources. A lot of people I know from back home aren't on LinkedIn, or anything like that. As we continue to grow, I hope to do more recruiting in the field, like visiting Universities. I'd love to see more people of color, wherever I go.
Shantel graduated from San Jose State University in May 2018 where she received her degree in Business Finance. Shortly after, Shantel worked at Google as a recruiting coordinator for nine months until she joined Elastic.
Tanisha L. Turner, Elastic Stack Support Engineer II
In my past professional roles if I was too assertive, or appeared too knowledgeable, it was considered to be a threat and aggressive. I was labelled the "angry black woman". That was my challenge at other companies, especially in the cyber security field, which is comprised of predominantly white males — if I was knowledgeable, I was seen as arrogant, whereas a white male with the same knowledge base would be seen as intelligent. This was a huge hindrance when I was asked to train those same white males. Some even said that my kind of people shouldn't be there. However, I did not let the ignorance and the derogatory racial comments deter my passion and work in cyber security.
When I first came to Elastic, everyone was so open to who I was. I kept asking myself if everyone was being real, if their attitude towards me wasn't a facade. But over time I saw the consistency of the culture and a dedication towards maintaining our core values. You don't need masks to fit in, and that's true diversity. My teammates and my managers, they want me to be my authentic self. Be who you are. Don't try to fit in. I don't have to be tight, everyday, holding back who I am. That's important. I want to remind black people that you don't have to be quiet. We can embrace black culture in the workplace.
The message I want to get out there is that there are successful blacks here at Elastic. But beyond that, I want to emphasize that Elastic embraces all cultures. My experience here has been very warm, welcoming and nothing short of amazing. I'm not exactly the kind of person to be shy about who I am as a black woman. Here I don't have to worry about negative racial stereotypes getting in the way of my success.
My advice is if there's something that you want to achieve, have faith and determination and be strong. Work hard, stay focused, motivated, and dedicated. You will have obstacles along the way, but that's part of the road to success. Every successful person has had a story and a hardship. Your past and background does not dictate or define your present and future.
Remember, that not everyone is going to be happy for you and that's okay. Have the courage to walk your own path even if it's alone. Don't let anyone discourage you from accomplishing your goals and aspirations.
Tanisha L. Turner was the first Elastician recently added to the list of Epic Women in Cybersecurity. She is an experienced cyber security professional in security analysis, malware identification, and threat investigation. She participates in non-profit cyber security organizations and is active in information security communities.
Wadson Fleurigene, Elastic Security Consultant
Diversity in the tech industry has and continues to be overlooked and undervalued. There have been attempts to diversify the field by bringing diversity programs into our educational system, such as STEM, inter alia, in order to expose the need for diversity in the field of science. Despite those efforts, the industry continues to be predominantly driven by white males.
As astounding as that may sound, a vast majority of data has been collected proving continued racial disparity in technology. With the rapid evolution of technology and the need for innovation, diversity can benefit the industry by welcoming distinct ideas inspired by their respective cultures. So, as for what is often overlooked, I would say we need to refocus on the need and invaluable benefit that racial integration would bring to the world of technology.
Black History Month is not just about recalling historical oppression, it is rather a celebration of Black Excellence. We have created pioneering, ground-breaking and evolutionary inventions, from the creation of VoIP by Marian Croak to the world's first super computer by Philip Emeagwali, and so much more. The tech industry would benefit by recognizing our ability to contribute to a better society and welcoming diversity.
Wadson Fleurigene is a part of our Elastic Security Consulting team. He brings prior Law Enforcement and Senior Cyber Security expertise to our current Elastic Security offerings. Outside of Cyber Security, he has a passion for competitive gaming and teaches kids MEAN stack web development.