Women in Digital: Robin Sutara

From repairing Apache helicopters near the Korean DMZ to the corporate battlefield, Robin Sutara, field chief technology officer at Databricks, has demonstrated success in navigating the high stress, and sometimes combative, complexities of data-led transformations. Here she shares her experience as a woman in digital.

Posted 27 March 2023 by Christine Horton

Databricks’ Robin Sutara has consulted with hundreds of organisations on data strategy, data culture, and building diverse data teams.

Robin has had an eclectic career path in technical and business functions with more than two decades in tech companies, including Microsoft and Databricks. She also has achieved multiple academic accomplishments from her undergraduate to a juris doctorate to a masters in law to engineering leadership certification – perpetually on a journey of learning.

From her first technical role as an entry-level consumer support engineer to her current role in the C-Suite, Robin supports creating an inclusive workplace. A domestic violence survivor, Robin often shares the criticality of allies in creating diverse teams and how to build community within your teams and organisations.

Did you enjoy school?

I actually did enjoy most of my schooling. In the US, it is a completely different system than here in the UK. As a result, I was able to have a variety of topics that I enjoyed from Maths to Art. I also enjoy learning. So there have been various times in my adult life where I have gone back to school to learn a new skill or capability. For example, I attended law school to learn the skills of negotiation and executive presentations. I received a Masters of Law in Intellectual property to gain experience in contract interpretation and translating complex ideas into business terminology. I later went on to obtain a graduate certification in technical leadership and management to better connect with my engineering teams. I think there are always ways to learn on the job, self-study, and continued formal education.

What qualifications do you have?

This would vary depending on how you define qualifications. For my formal education, I have a BS in Business – Information Systems, a juris doctorate, and a Masters of Law. For certifications, I have a graduate certificate in Technology and Engineering Management and various technical certifications from A+ to MCSE, as well as Data and AI certifications from Microsoft and Databricks. However, I would look more toward my life experiences when I think about my qualifications. I am the mother of four girls so managing chaos, mediation and collaboration are a necessity. I have had pets in the past, so patience, care, and understanding. I have held various roles in my career – all of which have helped me build qualifications such as leadership, mentoring, coaching, and empathy. 

Has your career path been a smooth transition, a rocky road or a combination of both?

Definitely a rocky road. I view my career as two halves with a winding road in each. For the first half of my career, I had large aspirations, but I focused more on family and life when I think of my work-life balance. With a pending layoff between the two phases, I used this as an opportunity to reset and recreate where I wanted to go. And I have been so fortunate to have a strong set of allies, mentors, and champions that helped me navigate the second half of my career to achieve a bigger impact for organisations and teams globally.

What is the best career advice you can give to others?

Know your superpower. In hindsight, when I look across my career, I spent too much time waiting for others to define my role and value. Be confident in the fact that you are unique. You bring a novel perspective and experiences. And this is invaluable for the right team and right organisation. Think about the things that excite you to come to work every day, and use every chance to create opportunities to do what makes you your best.

If you had to pick one mentor that had the biggest influence on you, who would it be?

One of the people I most admired growing up was my grandmother. She was truly the family matriarch. She commanded authority in the most respectful way. And she gave much of her life to benefit others, constantly donating her time and talents. I try to apply these same skills and attributes in every role – particularly when I think of how I can leverage my skills to impact society for the betterment of others.

From where do you draw inspiration?

The data community is my biggest source of inspiration. I am constantly amazed at the phenomenal work being done using data to solve big complex issues such as gender discrimination, racial inequity, human trafficking, environmental problems, and many others. When I get frustrated around the slowness of a process, or feel like we are not progressing like we should, I just listen to the amazing stories of those in the data community that are changing the world, and I feel inspired to continue.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced to date?

Without question, it would be being a domestic violence survivor. Trying to maintain a career, while relocating every few days with two young children was very difficult. I relied on a small group of family and friends. And I also had an amazing manager and ally that helped me navigate that challenging situation. The beneficial outcome is that this often makes me consider outside influences when looking at someone’s career path. When they have spent a longer than expected period of time in one role or one place, I never assume it is a result of not being ambitious or motivated. It has helped me understand that there are external factors that impact everyone, and we should be empathetic and supportive as leaders and peers.

What qualities do you feel makes a good leader?

Microsoft had an amazing framework for managers centered on model, coach, care. Model the behaviors you want others to emulate. Learn to coach to help others develop and grow. Don’t just give answers. And demonstrate empathy and caring. We all want leaders that we can connect with in some way. And I aspire to be that type of leader.

From a work viewpoint what has the last 12 months been like?

Transitioning into a new role and organisation after 23+ years at Microsoft has been an incredible learning journey. I am having to learn new processes, new teams, new structures. It is very exciting, and I am looking forward to having even more impact in the next 12 months.

What would you say are the biggest tech-based challenges we face today?

Today, there is some amazing technology. For example, I came to Databricks because of the unique value that the Lakehouse solves to break down data silos across multiple clouds with an open ecosystem. But I often find that organisations forget about people and process. Change management to bring people along on the journey to use technology is a big challenge that I am excited to see what we can do to help solve.

What can be done to encourage more women into the industry?

We all need to encourage teams that are a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Particularly in data, where it is easy to overlook or inadvertently create biases, we need to facilitate inclusive environments and teams. One recommendation is to opt in on your hiring. Don’t overcomplicate your job descriptions. Look beyond only technology skills and think about the other skills and abilities that round out your teams and organisation.

Give us a fact about you that most other people wouldn’t know.

If I had not gotten into technology, I would have been an artist specialising in oil paintings. Look out Monet!