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January 8, 2018updated 23 Jun 2022 12:08pm

Tech=Icon: Hilary Mason, Cloudera

Cloudera's Hilary Mason lends her experience to the latest installment of CBR’s Tech=Icon series.

By Ellie Burns

Talking with CBR’s Ellie Burns, the VP of Research at Cloudera talks about the need to think for yourself, as well as the need for businesses to prioritise diversity in all its dimensions.

EB: Why did you choose a career in tech/STEM?

HM: I’ve been fascinated by science and technology since I was a little kid. I wrote my first program in BASIC when I was barely able to read, and I haven’t looked back!

I have always loved reading non-fiction science and science fiction and fantasy, and imagining the future that we could be living in. As an adult, I still love to read, and now I choose to do work that aims to create the future that we’ll all want to live in.

EB: What were the main challenges you faced at the start of your career and how did you overcome them?

HM: When you look back at the progression of work that I’ve done, it may seem like it was a planned career, but the reality is that nothing was planned! I’ve followed the most interesting thing at each step and been lucky enough to have opportunities to continue to pursue work that I’m excited about.

There have certainly been plenty of challenges. I used to despair that not having one job in mind was a weakness and meant I would never do anything interesting. I dealt with (and still deal with) plenty of people who think I can’t possibly work in tech, just because of how I look.

I also started my career imagining that computer science was a wonderful thing to pursue to minimise having to work with people. It took a few painful years to learn that the opposite is true – if you want to succeed in doing anything impactful in computer science, you need to learn to communicate, collaborate with, and inspire, other people. It turns out technology is the easy part.

EB: Tell us about your current role. What motivates you? What has been the driving force behind your career strategy?

HM: I’m the VP of Research for Cloudera, running the Fast Forward Labs applied research group, where we help enterprises use machine learning to solve impactful problems. We’re a unique group in that we do both our own self-directed program of research, as well as work with clients in many industries on helping them solve their most interesting machine learning challenges. I love the depth of our research work and the breadth of our customer work, and seeing both of these efforts lead to significant impact. I love hard problems and challenges, and I really enjoy working with wonderful, smart, and creative people on solving them.

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EB: What have been your most significant achievements in the IT industry in the past year?

HM: In 2017, I sold the company I had founded and built over the previous three years. Our team did impactful research work as well as work directly for clients, in some cases making them millions of dollars. I’m most proud of the people on my team – that they are willing and excited to come to work with me on these challenges.

EB: What is your proudest achievement to date?

HM: I’m very proud of being part of the small group who really worked to establish data science as a new professional role about a decade ago. It’s been amazing to watch this new field converge and grow.

EB: What is the biggest lesson you have learned in your career?

HM: There’s only one piece of advice worth sharing, and that’s: think for yourself. The more experience I have, the more I realise that having my own point of view on the industry has saved me time and opened up new opportunities. You can’t just follow someone else’s rules, or pay attention to what other people think is important or interesting. Follow what you find interesting as much as you can, and opportunity will come.

EB: How would you encourage more women into the IT sector?

HM: Tech is a great industry to work in, as you actually get to be part of building the tools that will shape our future. Beyond that, tech needs you, because it needs your perspective to be part of that work.

Look for opportunities where you have a clear career path and growth opportunities with people whom you admire and are excited to work with. If a role doesn’t exist to do what you want to do, try to do that work anyway.

EB: How do you think businesses should approach diversity and inclusion?

HM: Businesses should absolutely prioritise diversity and inclusion. This means diversity in all dimensions (race, gender, and more) and at all levels of the company, including leadership and board-level positions.

Diversity isn’t just about hiring a diverse set of people, it’s about retaining them and giving them opportunities to grow and succeed in their careers. If you aren’t monitoring retention, start now.

This also means tying executive compensation and rewards to success in diversity and inclusion initiatives. If you care about it, pay for it. This is solvable if it’s prioritised.

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