Interview with Helen Altshuler: alumna, Googler, woman in technology, Seidenberg Advisory Board member, overall star

Helen Altshuler is a Seidenberg alumna (BS in Computer Science ’97) of whom we are particularly proud. Not only does she have a fascinating life story, but years of hard work have enabled her to progress to a position of thought leader today. Recent articles have described her as one of the top female “engineering leaders closing the gender gap in NYC tech” (builtinnyc.com), despite her status as a noteworthy woman in tech being quite unintentional and unexpected on Helen’s part! She’s also a member of the Seidenberg Advisory Board, so we get to enjoy her presence frequently.

As a senior engineering leader at Google, Helen is responsible for managing a multi-year transformation program in Google Cloud, and an Open Source platform called Bazel. Prior to Google, Helen was the CTO at the fintech startup PeerIQ, where she built data and engineering teams, created a cloud based analytics platform for peer to peer lending, and sold it to key institutional clients. She started her career as a software engineer at JP Morgan, after obtaining a CS degree at Pace University. She grew into technical leadership and Executive Director roles, becoming responsible for technology delivery in Credit Risk, Big Data and Analytics.

Helen is passionate about talent development and is a frequent hackathon mentor/judge, women in tech guest speaker, and Girls Who Code facilitator. She actively promotes diversity and STEM initiatives at Pace University as a member of Pace Women in Business Steering Committee.

I visited Helen at Google the day after a snowstorm in NYC. When I emailed her to check we were still on, she responded that, yes, “the city is open and so are we” – my first glimpse of a woman with extraordinary work ethic.

Not long after we sat down, Helen began to describe her life. Born in the former Soviet Union (now Ukraine), Helen didn’t experience the same societal norms concerning gender as in the USA. “Women leaders were everywhere!” she said, listing the Russian astronaut Valentina Tereshkova, India’s first and only female prime minister Indira Gandhi, and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

She moved with her family to the United States following the collapse of the Soviet Union, where limited opportunities and discrimination caused them to come to America as refugees.

“I came here for the opportunities that weren’t available to me in my country – nothing was going to stop me from doing that,” Helen says. “I also came here as a woman, from somewhere where I wasn’t restricted by anything.”

One would expect that coming from a background of gender equality to a place where society treats the sexes with discrepancies ranging from subtle to outrageous would be quite the culture shock. However, Helen’s experience was different. Her background had escalated her to the point where her interactions with people were based on them as individual personalities. “I feel like I had blinders on; those blinders helped me. I never saw men and women at work – I saw people and colleagues who were there to work together.”

In fact, Helen never even thought of herself as a “woman in tech” until, 10 years into her tech career, she was invited to speak at a women in tech panel for the first time. Technology was just something she did, like everybody else she worked with. It was something she had always done.

“Since I was the only child, my father wanted to raise me to be as technical as I could be,” Helen explains. That said, when she first moved here she was interested in doing art but a swift reality check made her change her mind. “I walked down Broadway seeing artists selling their work for nothing and I couldn’t do that as an immigrant. I needed a make a living!”

Helen reunited with one of her past Pace professors, Carol Wolf.

She started the Bachelor of Science in Computer Science here at Pace University in 1993. This was around the time the world wide web was really becoming worldwide, and the internet was rolling out and developing faster than ever. What was it like being in the middle of that frenzy?

“Everything was moving so fast at that point that I didn’t have time to stop and think about it. I was an intern at Marsh & McLennan (insurance company) through Pace’s co-op program, and HTML and CGI had just become popular. My boss bought a book called HTML for Dummies and put it on my
desk and said ‘hey, we need an intranet site’ – it was a continuation from my studies at Pace. It was pretty organic; my job was all about building technology and this was a new thing to build.

“Pace had IRC chat before the world wide web. The amazing thing was that only the computer science students at other universities had access at the time. We had mainframes that allowed us to connect with CS students across the world; I chatted with students in Canada, Israel, Russia – it’s how I met my husband who was at Polytech. It brought us together through our curiosity about technology. It was a way to get perspective from different tech students. Later on, more students from other disciplines got on, but for a while it was just us tech students.”

After she graduated, Helen started out as a software engineer and grew her career from there. She learned that progress was good and that taking opportunities was a way to move on to bigger and better things. “But don’t move up so quickly that you have to play catch up for the rest of your career,” she warns. Even in her senior position now, Helen is an advocate of gaining and maintaining technical knowledge. It isn’t fun moving into a new position where you feel lacking in the knowledge department – in the long run, progressing too soon can hold you back.

One should never shy away from progress, on the other hand. Helen’s list of recommendations for corporate career growth is short and simple:

  •       Become a domain expert
  •       Align yourself to your manager’s success
  •       If you see an opportunity, raise your hand
  •       If you’re tapped on the shoulder, go for it
  •       … but resist the temptation to move up too quickly before building your domain expertise

But what if opportunities don’t seem to come your way? Women in particular can find it difficult to say yes to progress, even when offered to them – and when it’s not? Many struggle to start conversations and end up waiting for a promotion that either won’t come or comes much later than it should, whereas if they had asked for it they could have received it sooner.

“Sometimes women rely on their managers to appreciate them,” Helen says, echoing a sentiment expressed by another of our alumna, Kim Perdikou.

Kim, who graduated in 1993, said in a previous interview: “I had this very wrong belief that if you worked really hard your boss would recognize it and you’d eventually get a job doing what you really should be doing. That is utter rubbish.”

Interestingly, another Seidenberg friend who recently spoke at our LST Honoree Speaker Series (which Helen introduced), Judy Spitz, told a story about advancement as a woman: “Once, early in my career, I got called into the senior executive’s office and he said ‘I want to give you this job’. I said to him ‘I’m not sure that I’m qualified for that job’. He looked at me like I had three heads. I’m not sure he’d ever had anyone in that office he’d offered a promotion to who said no, thanks.”

Imposter syndrome and plain societal conditioning are big problems for many women in technology – and in other fields. As someone with experience having these conversations and self-advocating, Helen has some advice.

“Bring your data with you,” she says. Your manager can’t deny your good work if you bring along proof. “Sometimes, you need to put your foot forward, show your data, and negotiate.”

Negotiating doesn’t have to be confrontational, either. “You don’t want to go too aggressive; it can affect your self-worth. When I came to Google, I took a leap of faith – I did not negotiate aggressively, because I looked at this opportunity as a longer term career path rather than just the next job.”

The notion of women in technology being a movement and of being a woman in technology herself took a hold on Helen. It was also what spurred her interest in board memberships. When I asked her why she joined the Seidenberg advisory board, she replied that she’d always been curious about it.

“I attended a women’s leadership panel where they stressed the importance of being on boards. It’s important to establish yourself as a thought leader – that helps with a broader perspective and gets you recognized within your industry. Women on boards is kind of the same thing as women CEOs and other high positions – there just needs to be more of it!”

Being on the board means bringing unique ideas with her to the Seidenberg School. “I started teaching through my son’s school Girls Who Code program, and started thinking about when I first came to New York, wanting to be an artist. I want to create a web design & developmente program at Pace. There is a benefit to combining the arts and sciences school and the computer science school. There are coding boot camps for Web Design and Development, but they fall short in giving CS fundamentals, impacting the quality of front end engineers on the market.  Pace is uniquely positioned to do it, with the perfect combination of art and computing.”

Working with Girls Who Code (GWC), a national not-for-profit organization that aims to close the gender gap in technology, has created a reciprocal relationship for Helen. She started working with GWC around the same time she started at Google – late summer, 2016. “That’s usually how it is for me: when you start something new, you try to put yourself on a path that’s going to change your life to some extent.”

Helen teaches web design and development, which was what inspired her thought process about potentially combining art and computing in a program at Pace. In fact, her participation with GWC, Seidenberg, and her work at Google are mutually beneficial: “The logical connection between Google, GWC, and Seidenberg, is that learning one helps the other. I had to re-learn some HTML and CSS for GWC, then one of the first things I had to do at Google was update a roadmap page on our website using those same skills.”

“Similarly, I bring suitable Google concepts, like material design and design sprints, to GWC and other programs. What I learn here, I apply in class, and what I learn in class I can sometimes apply at Google as well!”

Despite having been with Google for less than a year, Helen has, as she put it, “drank the Kool-Aid.” The company’s focus on community meant a focus on integration at the beginning. “I learned that newcomers to Google get to wear a stylish hat complete with a propeller on top and are referred to as “Nooglers” for the first six months.”

Working at the coveted Google company means Helen knows a thing or two about career paths. So what’s her best advice for tech students? And what about getting beyond the infamous Google interview?

“You need to build your domain expertise. In technology, that expertise manifests itself in two areas. One, which is the most important in interviews, is hardcore tech skills. You need to know your algorithms, etc, and it helps you do well in interviews. The second one is, I meet a lot of students who want to be managers. They should be more thoughtful about their longer-term career plans. You can’t manage until you understand your domain well. A lot of women are drawn to technical leadership – you need to be a domain expert first, which could take 4+ years of coding before you can move on.”

“Camille Fournier [a technical thought leader and former chief technology officer of Rent the Runway], said that she worked as a software engineer for 10 years and achieved mastery; at that point, she could apply herself to any technology, even if she was out of practice.

“At Google, you are constantly pushed in technical directions. Even as a leader, I’m expected to code – and I welcome that extra reinforcement. On the other hand, where I achieved mastery is in systems design and scalability, and understanding how to process data and work with data at scale. That’s what Google is all about and that’s what you learn, and it’s also important in the fintech sector. You want to keep your systems working under different conditions. Those are the skills that help you get a job in any industry. No matter what systems you work on, they need to scale and they need to be reliable.

“A lot of my interview at Google had to do with understanding of scaling large and complex systems. Google has billions of users; how do you keep that data usable? When you click on an email, how do you get it to load instantly instead of in 10 minutes? I may not achieve mastery on the pure coding front, but I certainly achieved it on systems design/scalability front.”

Having domain expertise is something that can only be achieved after years of practice. Anyone can get into casual coding, but it’s the hours you put in that really count. Helen is clearly someone who has put the hours in. “I try to tie in everything extracurricular that I do directly to work or to family,” she says. “I do hackathons with my son, coding camps with my daughter.”

And all of that is against the backdrop of NYC. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I like having lots of options to explore with my kids. When the kids were little, I took them to celebrate every international holiday – Chinatown for Chinese New Year, Little India for Independence Day, so we could celebrate international culture.”

Diversity is one of the things that makes New York great. It’s a city of hard workers, a landscape that is reflected within the walls of the Seidenberg School as students rush from class to internship to workshop to co-op job to networking event.

Recently, the New York Times ranked Pace University #2 nationwide for the upward mobility of our students. Students who come through our doors from less privileged backgrounds end up graduating and going on to great things. When Helen moved here in 1993 with $3000 to her name and the determination to make a good life for herself and family, she exemplified that quintessentially New York attitude – and ours.

Using business to battle human trafficking: an interview with alumna Kim Perdikou

Kim Perdikou graduated from Pace with an MS in Information Systems in 1993. She has held positions with companies like Dun & Bradstreet, Reader’s Digest and was the CIO then Executive Vice President at Juniper Networks. She has been the Chairwoman of the Board of Directors of iPhotonix, an Optical and SDN company, since April 2015. She is also an Investor and Chairwoman of the Board of REBBL, an herbal beverage company. Kim additionally serves as a Board Director of CyberArk, a technology cyber security company. She is also a member of the Advisory Board for Trunomi, a financial technology company.

She’s also an incredible human rights advocate. As an incredibly accomplished alumna, Kim has had a lot of experience which helped her uncover one of her strongest passions: fighting the global problem of human trafficking. We spoke with Kim about her experiences and unique perspective.

What was your journey to your current position as Chairwoman of the Board of Directors at iPhotonix like?

I had been invited to dinner with a friend in Bermuda and met a young couple who were on holiday. The guy was in a startup and was friends with the CEO of iPhotonix. When the CEO was looking for a new board member, he reached out to me. I joined the board and, when the chairman left (his company was acquired and there was a conflict of interest), the shareholders asked me to be chairwoman. I did say no for about an hour and then they congratulated me! Case closed.

Did you come across unique challenges as a woman in technology?

When I was 5 my mother saw a program on TV about mathematical children who are different and she tried to contain me in that ‘different’ box because I was very into math.  What happened was I thought if I am different I am going to be different on my terms!

So I was. One time when my father sold a car at work and came home, he brought a new record player – the first we ever had. My brother and sister sat and watched the record go round and sang to the songs and I sat at the other end of the table, aged 5, counting the money. I did the taxes for my dad’s business when I was 12.

When I discovered there was a glass ceiling, I realized “I’m never going to be a director.” My husband didn’t understand because he’d started his own businesses and done everything he’d wanted. “Don’t be ridiculous, it’s all in your head,” he told me, and even though it isn’t all in your head, he was right: my own behavior was stopping some of my progress, so I had to change my behavior.

I had this very wrong belief that if you worked really hard your boss would recognize it and you’d eventually get a job doing what you really should be doing. That is utter rubbish. You need to know where you want to go, picture it in your head, and talk to people to find out how to get there. Men know exactly where they want to be. Part of the behavior is our own behavior – if you go along with what’s expected of you, you won’t ever break free of those expectations.

I started taking steps to change my behavior. Here’s an example: men talk to each other about sports, so I learned to play golf so I could have a conversation with them. I ended up loving golf so much I didn’t allow business on the golf course! And the men enjoyed playing with me so much it normalized our relationships. That allowed me to be seen as a person, rather than a woman who they couldn’t relate to.

How else did you change your behavior?

I would do things to be helpful that weren’t necessarily part of my job, which would benefit others but not me. For example, a software group was going to be moved to another executive but they didn’t want to move it yet because it was so ‘delicate’. Even though it wasn’t my job, I ended up running it, putting out fires every day, but the other executive was the one getting paid and promoted.

One night, I was complaining about it to my friend and I’ll never forget what she said to me. She told me I was the problem. Because I was the one doing it. I had not set any boundaries. I was the one who was doing work outside my job that someone else was getting rewarded for. I wasn’t very happy to hear it, but she was right. Once I got past how I felt about her ‘advice’, I went into work and asked for a conversation where I told them that, with all the extra work, I’m not focused on the things I should be, and so I’d like to move the software group – and the date I’m going to do it is April X. They said “we can’t do that to this guy!” and I replied “they are moving the only decision to be made is who they will report to.”

Breaking the mold is key

Everybody who is not happy in their careers blames “my boss, my this, my that,” but it’s up to them to change their situations.

You will not change what other people do, but you can change how you behave, how you react, and where you want to go.

If you want a job, you have to ask for it. Don’t sit back and wait for someone to recognize your talents. Ask for promotions in a non-confrontational way without time pressure. And don’t start doing the job until it’s actually yours.

When going for a promotion or new job, I learned that talented executives would outline a plan of what they were going to do and wouldn’t actually do it until they had the job and budget to accomplish it. Once I started to learn how people did things at the executive level I became a lot more prepared. I would have a list of things I would do and things I would not do. And I would stick with it.

Tell us about your work with REBBL and Slavery is Over? Why is it important to you?

Juniper Foundation built a relationship with Not for Sale (NFS), which is an innovative not-for-profit to re-abolish slavery. When I learned that there are more slaves in the world today than when slavery was first abolished I knew something different had to be done to solve it.

My friend Dave Batstone, Founder of NFS, had the idea of creating companies in the most economically challenged areas, where people who are the most vulnerable to slavery live, in order to address the supply chain and change the economics of the area.

There are so many vulnerable people in the world. They are vulnerable because they are so poor: there are no jobs, no money to be made, so when somebody shows up in their village promising them jobs and money overseas they jump at the chance.

They are told they will be given passports and work visas and that they can work in the USA or UK and make enough to send back home to support their families. Of course they jump at that. But when they arrive in a foreign country with only the person who brought them, they are threatened and told they have to pay everything back at an extortionate price. They are also told they are in the new country illegally, so they are forced into prostitution and other slavery and have to work 24/7 to pay off debts that will never get paid.

Dave’s idea was to disrupt the whole supply chain so that people never got into the position where they were so desperate that they would agree to leave their villages, with these people, in the first place. So several companies that were mainly dependent on labor in those villages were created. We wanted to create jobs with dignity, so looked for reasons and valuable commodities a company could use from the area to create business in specific locations.

Dave had a Montara Circle meeting of business, sports and government people to brainstorm ideas in 24 hours. They looked at the Peruvian Amazon where there are villages where whole families are indentured to collecting minerals used in the U.S. car industry. So we looked for something indigenous to the area that was also unique to the area and could be used for business.  We discovered an herb called cat’s claw. We ended up creating REBBL, a beverage company that creates drinks from cat’s claw and other indigenous ingredients. The product is very good – and that is important for financially successful businesses. But the true difference is the impact of a clean dignified supply chain created which can give back to fund the next set of businesses. 2.5% of REBBL’s revenue is donated to creating new businesses, so the whole network feeds itself.

You can change the world. The way to do it in any sustainable fashion is the same as anywhere else: through economics.

An Interview with New Seidenberg Advisory Board Member and Pace Alumnus Matthew Knell, VP of Social Media and Platform Partnerships at About.com

Matt Knell headshotMatthew Knell is one of our favorite alumni for various reasons. A hardworking student who went on to an exciting career in social media and digital marketing, Matt is a thought leader in the industry, having spoken at conferences including SXSW Interactive, Social Media Week and SocialFresh, and having been featured by leading publications including Fast Company, CNBC, PR Week, TechCrunch, AllThingsD, and Advertising Age.  He also contributes regularly to publications and maintains a thriving site discussing digital media trends on Medium.

Even while leaping from success to success, Matt has never forgotten his experience at the Seidenberg School. He is always happy to attend events and lend his support – which is why we asked him to bring his expertise to the Seidenberg Advisory board (spoiler alert: he accepted).

We recently had a chance to sit down with Matt, shortly after his appointment to the board – giving us a unique chance to learn about Matt’s career, inspirations, and very particular selections for making a PB&J. Enjoy!

What motivates you to support the Seidenberg School in so many ways?

I was the first in my family to go to college, and Pace has a soft spot in my heart because of that. Scholarships and great instructors gave me a great way to get out of what could have been a very ordinary and average life. Not a bad life, but ordinary. When you have the opportunity to learn from great staff, people who really care, the community, you want to give back to that and help other people so they can have the same chances you did.

How would someone get to where you are now?

The way I’ve built my career is about being open to different things and trying things that are interesting. I was an Information Systems major, which gave me a fundamental understanding of how systems work. Learning how things are put together helps because you learn in time that everything in life has a system. Understanding the core frameworks of systems helps you figure them out. If you can understand how a system works, you can master it.

I’ve learned to be open to new ideas and, as much as possible, to be flexible in work environments. I  try to be the nicest person in the room. Relationships help you get far in life, and having a core group of people who you help and who help you is never a bad thing. I try to make the world a better place and to do the right thing by people. I don’t always get it right –  I don’t think anyone does. But, don’t let that make you afraid to make mistakes, because you’re going to. If your heart’s in the right place and your motives are pure and genuine – then you’re probably going to be alright.

For fun I took a personality test, and found out my personality type is “virtuoso”.  I think it describes me well.

Who has inspired you in life and why?

All people I know have inspired me a little bit at a time. This industry (digital media) allows people to be creative and it’s inspiring to see people problem solve when presented with new things that have never been seen before.  Each job I’ve had, I’ve been lucky enough to have a mentor to help me through things.  In terms of outside of work, I’d have to rank  Jim Henson as an absolute genius. What he built with the Muppets was genuinely amazing. I’ve always thought Kermit the Frog was very pragmatic and you see a lot of Jim in him.

Would you rather be liked or respected?

Probably respected. Treating people fair and equitably means you’re always going to do things that people don’t like. You can be kind and thoughtful in horrible moments of life, and people remember that, even if you’re doing a difficult thing.

Do you think you’d be in your position if you were a jerk?

No, definitely not. The CEO talked to a lot of people who know me and this is where being the nicest guy in the room really matters. I think good hires are a strong blend of character and talent. No one likes working with a jerk.

What do you think about when you’re driving alone in your car?

Typically what I’m gonna do next, make next, how can I make my job better – it’s forward thinking.  But you’re just as often likely to find i’m thinking about the next Mets game and where I can get a great sandwich.   

How do you make a PB&J?

Generic Wonder Bread (though I do love Trader Joe’s Texas Toast when I can get it), creamy not crunchy PB. It has to be grape or strawberry jelly, and if it’s grape, it has to be concord. Cut the crusts.

What would you do if you won $10 million in the lottery?

Besides buying a house and paying all the debts, give to animal relief organizations. They gave us all our pets; we’d like to give back. Invest in tech businesses – giving start-ups like Codapillar a chance to grow.

Matthew Knell sneakersBest gift you’ve received?

When I was a kid, I wanted a pair of Ken Griffey Jr sneakers so badly I got a job to save for them, but I didn’t end up getting them. A few years ago, they made a retro version and my wife got them for me. Getting them was a culmination of 12-year-old Matt’s delight and glee.

What were your experiences when the internet first started to roll out?

I was a junior in high school. I remember being one of the first to get on Staten Island’s internet provider. My first experience with the internet was Compuserve and I remember vividly playing text-based trivia games you’d play for $4 an hour. Email addresses were all numbers @compuserve.com

I remember AOL being the hot thing because it has pictures. Old AOL chatrooms, followed by IRC, which was the next wave of ‘how do you get on the internet?’ Then the web browser came along. When I was a junior in high school I taught myself HTML, then I started going to Pace. Having the experience of watching the internet grow was really cool.

If you were stranded on a desert island, what three items would you have to have?

Food, obviously! My wife, of course, somebody to talk to. Then probably my iPad because I can do so much, even if it doesn’t have connectivity.

You’re still on that desert island, but you now have all the items in this room: what would you build?

(In the room: a long conference table with 12 chairs. A TV, lots of snacks)

Does the island have internet access? A superentertainment system. Plus, I have Chips Ahoy!

You wouldn’t try to get off the island?

Not if I have everything I need!

Tell me about one of the items on your work desk

I have a bunch of things. A picture of my wife. A little plastic Wall-E toy, and a Wall-E and Eva, which reminds me of my wife and I. I have a LEGO business card holder – a reminder that you can always keep building on things, and if things aren’t working out you can always build them again. them. And, of course, a Pace t-shirt.

What’s the best advice you can give to technology students?

Talk to people – especially people who aren’t technology students. Get out and learn from people who are not technologists.  The number one personality type I hire is a technologist who can actually communicate. It’s wonderful to be smart and be able to build the most awesome things, but if you can’t communicate it to others, it’s just not going to happen. Go to conferences. Go to hackathons. Meet people – your 20s are for building a life.

This is New York: invent a pizza topping

Chopped up Nathan’s Fries. They get just gooshy enough that if you cook them they get soft, and they’d go great with the cheese.


Thank you, Matthew, for a wonderful conversation and we are looking forward to having you as a member of the Seidenberg School Advisory Board!

Read Matt’s Medium post about his Pace University experience.