Twenty-two libraries. More than 200 research institutes and centers. Ninety Pulitzer Prize- and 84 Nobel Prize-winning alumni, faculty and former faculty.
The scope of research and quality of thought leadership happening at Columbia University is, without a doubt, among the world’s best. And what keeps the university squarely at the forefront of these arenas, connecting and powering its many groundbreakers, are the folks at Columbia University Information Technology (CUIT).
Supporting mission-critical technology for over 40,000 students, faculty and staff, CUIT oversees everything from the university’s central computing and communications services to its high-speed campus Ethernet and wireless networks and the management of multimedia classrooms. And much like the university as a whole — where 49 percent of undergraduates studying engineering are women — CUIT sees diversity of thought and talent as an integral component of its IT leadership.
Recently, Fairygodboss spoke to three of those leaders: Diana Kherdaji, Senior Manager at CUIT Service Desk; Halayn Hescock, Sr. Director of Research Services; and Jessica Eaton, Communications Manager. They shared what exactly makes CUIT such an exceptional place for women to work, as well as their No. 1 piece of advice to female job seekers.
How long have you been in your current role, and what were you doing previously?
Kherdaji: “I have been with Columbia for three years, and in this role since June 2017. I worked for a Tech startup before and a Business Intelligence software company before that.”
Hescock: “I’ve been at Columbia University for 20 years. I started as a programmer for research administration applications. Prior to my career at Columbia, I was a director for development for a company that developed software for the oil and gas industry.”
Eaton: “I’ve been in my role for two years. Previously, I worked in the same department as the executive assistant to the CIO, and prior to that, I managed operations at an international real estate agency.”
What’s the first (and/or last) thing you do at work every day?
Kherdaji: “The first thing I do at work in the morning is to grab a cup of coffee and plan for the day. I like to get to work early so I have some uninterrupted time. The last thing (or one of the last things) I try to do every day is walk around the service desk where my team is located.”
Hescock: “The first thing I do in the morning is to check my calendar to see how much walking I will have to do in my day. I often have meetings that span three campuses. That dictates what shoes I will need to wear, which dictates the rest of my outfit. I try to wrap up my day by writing a to-do list for the next one.”
Eaton: “I start and end my day by clearing my inbox: most emails are filed into ‘By today,’ ‘By tomorrow,’ and ‘Pending Reply’ folders that I work my way through during the day.”
What’s the most unique or interesting aspect of your job or company?
Kherdaji: “There is no one day that is like another day.”
Hescock: “Supporting research at the university can be very challenging and exciting. It gives us a glimpse of some of the amazing research going on here. Our goal is to help researchers get their research done.”
Eaton: “IT is an extremely dynamic field, and as a communications manager, I get a bird’s eye view of it. It's fun to see a new solution tested on a small scale within our department and watch it work its way through all the checks and balances that allow it to become part of daily university operations.”
What’s something you think most people (perhaps even current employees) don’t know about your company that you think they should?
Hescock: “When I first came to Columbia University, I had been changing jobs every two to four years. After a few months here, I said, ‘I think I’m going to stay here a while.’ And here I am, 20 years later. During my tenure here, there have been ups and downs, but overall, I believe Columbia believes in its people. I am consistently challenged and am never bored. I also believe that working at Columbia provides me with a better work-life balance than I see in other places and industries.”
Eaton: “IT innovation isn’t only done in startups — there is a hearty appetite for smart, new ideas in a university setting. The challenge, as in any large organization, is having your ideas heard, but the benefit of working in a collegiate environment is that there is a shared mission of enabling our world-class students, researchers and faculty to learn and discover at the highest level.”
What’s your favorite mistake?
Kherdaji: “The mistake that I don’t repeat; the mistake that makes me learn from it and improve.”
Eaton: “Fail fast! I like to tackle rough drafts and projects while they are fresh, so I can find out if I've misunderstood the assignment or if it’s not possible to move forward on the agreed timeline without certain resources. Colleagues and supervisors are much more understanding of mistakes when they’re found soon enough to not impact deadlines.”
What’s the most memorable piece of career advice you’ve received?
Hescock: “When my boss tried to promote me — but was hampered by company policies because he had already promoted me twice in two years — he told me that I was being held back and it was in my best interest to move on. With his support, I quickly found a job at a great company, with a huge increase. That move really changed my trajectory.”
What was the best quality of the best boss you’ve ever had?
Kherdaji: “Trust and courage.”
Eaton: “Approachability. I strive not to waste my boss’ time, but I’ve learned so much from being able to drop into his office and run ideas by him, and then hear what that idea sounds like when put in perspective from his executive-level experience.”
What’s your #1 piece of advice for women who are looking for jobs right now?
Hescock: “Be confident, be positive, take initiative.”
Kherdaji: “The same advice I gave my daughter written on a T-shirt when she turned 18: ‘Girls can do anything!’”
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