Ellen Gulachenski, City Year’s chief information officer, is not one to turn down a challenge. Whether it’s taking over a failed project or building new skills, Ellen approaches every challenge as a learning opportunity—an attitude that has served her well in the male-dominated tech industry.
Although the information, communications and technology (ICT) sector has grown rapidly in recent years, the percentage of women in computing jobs has declined over the last two decades, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. As of 2015, women held only 25% of all computing jobs and just 14% of chief Information officers (CIO), the top technology position, were women. In honor of Girls in ICT Day, we caught up with Ellen to hear how she became City Year’s CIO and what keeps her interested in technology.
Growing up in Boston in the 1970s, Ellen was drawn to science and math—in particular, she liked the certainty that came with knowing the clear and definite solution to a math or science problem. After high school, Ellen pursued electrical engineering at Yale University for her undergraduate degree and later, she studied electrical engineering at Notre Dame with a focus on improving satellite communication, receiving a master’s degree.
Ellen’s career—spanning the consulting, project management and IT strategy fields—can best be summed up by her determination to solve seemingly intractable problems. In the 1990s, Ellen was asked to help a clothing retailer create an online store—an idea that was almost unheard of at the time. Ellen and her team had to creatively problem solve by combining specific industry expertise with the technology to build the interface. Although Ellen didn’t have all the answers, her willingness to take on any project, regardless of how daunting it seemed, came to define her professional journey.
“My career was taking over failed projects or being handed projects that everyone said were impossible,” Ellen says. “Taking over these kinds of projects is often a great opportunity because you get the chance to do the right thing. Once you’ve turned around one or two projects, you start to realize there is probably nothing you can’t accomplish.”
“You might be the only woman in a room of 10 or 20 guys, and you have the confidence to say, ‘I can do this. I can turn this around.’”
Ellen says she has received her fair share of criticism throughout her career, but she’s used it to her advantage, using the feedback as an opportunity to get better—demonstrating a growth mindset, a skillset that City Year’s AmeriCorps members strive to develop in themselves and the students they serve. Often, she asks herself, “Okay, I’m not good at this right now, so how will I get better at it?” and seeks advice from experts to help her improve.
Ellen also uses a growth mindset to improve her non-technical skills. For example, the ability to work on teams, communicate with others and self-advocate are all social-emotional skills that are highly valued by employers and that Ellen has found she needs in order to succeed as a teammate and a leader. To build a strong and diverse team, Ellen needs to connect with people one-on-one and create a work environment where people can share ideas, listen to each other, and respectfully disagree in order to reach the best solutions. When it comes to being a leader, Ellen found that it’s important to be transparent and open, lead by example and provide support so the team can do its best work. These are all skills Ellen has practiced over the years and continues to hone.
“Being a leader is not something you are just born knowing how to do. A lot of my knowing how to do these things came from reading about leadership, taking classes, studying and putting it into practice,” Ellen says. “Leadership can be learned. It is not something you have or you don’t.”
When Ellen feels doubt creep in, she turns to her support network—the teachers, mentors and colleagues who have played a pivotal role in helping her get where she is today. “I think throughout my career there were always people who didn’t think I should be there; who think women are not technical enough. But there were also people who were really supportive of my being there,” she says. “What I very consciously did was seek out my supporters to get their help and turn to my female colleagues to get their advice.”
As City Year’s CIO, Ellen is responsible for all the tasks that typically go with the role: managing and protecting information for the organization, whether data, documents, organizational knowledge or intellectual property, and helping City Year leverage technology to be more efficient, effective and innovative.
“My number one responsibility is to provide the foundation and the tools that allow City Year AmeriCorps members and the staff to deliver on the mission to ensure all students are on track to graduate high school, ready for college and career success,” she says, “and to do their work more efficiently and effectively.”
One of her immediate priorities is spearheading an ambitious project on City Year’s Student Data Reporting—an initiative that focuses on delivering timely and accurate student data reports to track student progress at City Year’s 29 locations across the country. Tracking school district data is challenging because district data across the country is incredibly varied, in both the kind and quality of the data. To address this challenge, Ellen is developing a partnership with Schoolzilla, a company that provides a data intake and reporting platform specifically meant to collect data from school districts. The partnership offers an exciting opportunity to continue improving on City Year’s data-driven approach by increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of student data reports.
Ellen is excited about the growing influence of technology and the possibilities it presents to shape our world, but she says we need to ensure that people from all backgrounds are contributing to the field in order to ensure that the future isn’t determined by a privileged few.
“Technology has already significantly changed the way our society behaves, and it will continue to do so,” she says. “Without women and people of color at the table to make decisions about the future of technology, we have to wonder if those decisions are holistic and equitable for everyone,” she says.
Despite research that shows the numerous benefits of diverse technology teams: higher financial performance, increased innovation, better problem-solving and group performance, women and people of color are often sidelined in the ICT sector. This bears out in schools as well, where research shows that girls and boys enter middle school equally interested and capable in science and math, but by the time girls enter high school their interest has dramatically waned and interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers has dropped by 15%—a gap that is particularly pronounced for girls of color.
To keep girls engaged in math and science, Ellen advocates providing hands-on experience and real-life applications, noting that science and math are not just about test tubes in a lab, but also about the glue on Post-it notes, tires on race cars and cash registers in every store. Further, programs like Hour of Code, Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code can ensure girls are learning the technology skills they need to succeed. With almost 90% of all jobs in the U.S. requiring the use of digital technology, the future will be defined by those who know how to use it.
While some might view the transformative power of technology to change the way our society behaves with some trepidation, Ellen does not. In fact, she views this change like others in her life—another learning opportunity.
“Technology just keeps changing and innovating,” she says. “You can start out in one place, and by knowing the principles and behaviors, you can then move to something else. There are always new things to learn and new directions to go in. That innovation is what continues to keep me in tech.”