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My Journey into Engineering - Erin Donovan

by Reem Jaghlit


I am so excited to share my interview with Erin.
I hope her story inspires you and gives you insight into what it is like to be an engineer!

Reem Jaghlit

Engineering Leader, Are Jei Founder

Erin Donovan

Security Engineering Manager, Are Jei Model


Thank you for joining me, Erin! One of Are Jei's goals is to celebrate women in tech and highlight their inspiring stories. That is why our models, like yourself, are also engineers. I, personally, can not wait to share all your inspiring stories with the world.
Ok, Let's start with this question: Did you always know you wanted to become an Engineer?

Not at all! I actually started off my undergrad in Elementary Education. My mom was a teacher and I always thought I wanted to be a teacher. I also thought there were only four jobs in the world: A teacher, lawyer, doctor and business person. I went into teaching but I later realized I didn’t enjoy it. Unfortunately too, there were massive teachers’ layoffs in Chicago and I knew I wasn’t going to get a teaching job right out of school.

I chose to become a nanny instead and I loved it. I bounced around a few families and finally found one I loved. I was with them for six years but as their kids got older I realized that I can't be with them forever and I didn't want to look for another family. So I thought back and remembered a coding class I took in college to get out of a science lab. It was probably just HTML but I remember that I loved how you can create something out of nothing.

I started looking into going back for either a bootcamp or a Computer Science (CS) degree, and decided to do the CS degree. I wanted to become a front end developer but then fell into security. I loved the creation aspect of it but I was worried about the math part. I was never good at math. Luckily I discovered that coding is all logic, which I'm actually pretty good at. So it worked out all around!

Did you go back to school for a Masters in Computer Science?

Yes, DePaul University has this really cool program where you take prerequisite computer classes to get you ready for your Masters. So even if your undergrad is in something totally different, they'll speed get you ready. It's like a mini boot camp, basically. 


Do you remember what was your first programming class?

That's a funny story. The first class I took was all about proofs and logic, which terrified me. Thank goodness for my mom who was a statistics professor at the time. I called her crying, how did they let me in? I'm never going to finish this degree. She told me, relax, I do this all the time, let's talk through it. We then broke it down to multiple steps, I was able to figure it out and I was fine after that. Once we got into coding, it all made a lot more sense. Thank goodness for my mom. She got me through that class. I give her all the credit!

I love that story. I often think of people who leave tech because they don’t have support in their lives, especially at the beginning. Do you think you would have persisted had your mom not been able to help out?

Hopefully I would have found someone else. I know DePaul has a lot of resources. I will say I was embarrassed to ask the teacher for help, especially because it was the first class. But I got better at asking for support as it went on.


You mentioned you “Fell into security engineering”, can you tell us more about that?

When I got to my last six months of grad school, everyone was getting internships so I started applying. I received a call from TransUnion. They told me that they will be at DePaul’s internship job fair. They asked me to bring a bunch of resumes, and to make sure I speak with the security VP at their booth.

I almost didn't go because it was freezing cold and I was nervous. I also bombed my two other interviews before that. But I went and met with different companies. I also met with the VP of security. I told him, I'm a developer, I build stuff and I don't really know much about security. He said, we will teach you about security and pay for you to get certified. We want you to build automations for us, can you code in Python? I said, I can and I can also build microservices. He said: Great. He gave me an offer and I ended up working in the security operation center. I liked all the people I worked with and I loved automating stuff. I didn’t want to be just a security person. I like coding and developing too much to just do security. They were doing so many things manually and I was always looking for processes to automate. I would say, this thing that takes you hours to do, I can do it in minutes. I also got two certifications while I was there. It was really fun!


Did you go back to work at TransUnion after you graduated?

Yes, I spent a year and a half there after I graduated. It was really fun. I loved it. I left to join ActiveCampaign because I wanted to experience the startup feeling. TransUnion is so big. It started to feel like, am I even doing anything here? I was also missing the real developer experience because I was the only developer on the security team there. I wasn't really being mentored and people were just trusting me, probably way too much.

When I initially came to ActiveCampaign, I was on the security product engineering team and I remember saying during my interview that I wanted to be a real developer and that I wanted to be mentored. After six months of joining ActiveCampaign I thought how silly! I was already a real developer!

I believe that each job teaches us something about ourselves, what we like, what we don't like and what might like. You discovered after your first job that you wanted to be in the startup space. In your second role, you realized that you are a real developer no matter where you go. You also discovered how much you valued mentorship. That’s all great and I’m so happy for you.

Definitely. It helped me grow a lot!


Tell us about your current role.

As of a couple months ago, I was promoted to the manager of the fraud team and I'm super excited about it. I went through the aspiring leaders program at ActiveCampaign to prepare because I'm very passionate about people.

My day to day is different every single day. I’m always working with the team and making sure everyone has what they need, that their expectations are clear, they're on a clear career path and that they're happy. The other big half of my job is communication, within the team and outside the team, and then putting out all the fires. In security, there's always something that's coming up. So making sure that I triage the fires or handle them myself so that the team stays focussed and doesn't get pulled in a million directions. It's a lot of stuff and a lot of meetings, but I like that. I like communicating with people. I like being with people. It’s really fun for me.

Congratulations on your promotion. I love that you love what you do which leads me to my next question. There's a misconception that engineers are always working alone. What do you say to that misconception?

You have to work with people. No successful engineer works completely alone. I really like the conversations and the meetings that we have. We need more engineers who know coding and are also empathetic and care about people. I think part of why I do well in a manager role is that I can listen to all sides and not get super worked up. So I hope this is a misconception we can start to clear up and get more people in the field.

Can you tell us more about what a fraud team does?

What my team does is actively work to make sure that everything leaving our platform is safe for our customer's customers. If you receive an email from ActiveCampaign, we make sure it's free from any phishing threats. We also handle any and all customers' security concerns and make sure that they feel safe using our platform.


What do you enjoy the most and what do you enjoy the least about being an engineer?

The best part of being an engineer is that moment when you get something to work. Engineering is all about doing something wrong a million times, and then finally it works. I love, love that feeling.
As an engineering manager. I love having a team that works well together and I love that even when we get frustrated, the team eventually gets it and figures it all out. I just love those moments!
My least favorite thing is when people freak out about something. When your initial reaction is, oh my God, this is broken. Then I have to say, all right, let’s take a step back, calm down and figure it out.


What advice do you have for someone who is interested in becoming an engineer?

First and foremost, talk to people, find a mentor, find someone who is really passionate about what they do, who you feel comfortable asking questions to. Don't be afraid to ask for their time. It's always scary to ask, but the people you ask are probably so excited to help you. Second, and especially for women, don't be afraid to apply for jobs. I honestly gave my mom that advice recently. She was afraid to apply because she doesn't fit all the job requirements. I told her, mom, men apply if they have 30% of the qualifications. No one writes a job description thinking they’re going to find a candidate who fits everything. Just apply! The worst that can happen is they say no. It will hurt for a second and then you move on with your day. So apply for anything that you might be interested in.


What is it like to be a woman engineer?

It honestly depends where you work. When I worked at TransUnion, I was one of two or three women on a 60-person security team. I do think security is a little different than engineering. I think engineering is probably a little further along than security, but I'll just speak to security because that's where I've worked. It was super male dominated with a lot of ex-military men, which is fine. It's just a whole different animal than anywhere else. It was very intimidating and it felt difficult to have my voice be heard. That's nothing to say against any single person. I think they were all trying.
I didn't realize how alone I felt until I came to ActiveCampaign. We had multiple women on the team and then there was a women's resource group that I could join. To be fair, I'm sure TransUnion had one. I just don't think I knew about it because it was such a large company. Now we have four people on the fraud team, three of us are women. Our new VP of security is also a woman and I’m constantly in meetings where it's mostly women. It's a feeling I hadn't felt before. Some days, it's still hard to have my voice heard, but it feels so empowering when you're in these meetings thinking, yeah, look at this group of women. So my advice is to find that resource group. I didn't know how much I needed it until I had it. And then I was like, oh wait, this is awesome!

From Engineering to modeling. Can you tell us more about your experience modeling for Are Jei?

I love being able to support others, especially women who are following their dreams. When you originally reached out to me I thought why not, this could be a fun day! I had no idea how hard modeling is, but I ended up having a great time and supporting someone following their dreams. I’m so inspired by everything that you’re doing. I doubt I’ll be making the jump from engineering to modeling anytime soon, lol. 

Thank you so much Erin! I loved having you as one of Are Jei's models and it was an absolute pleasure talking to you and learning about your journey!

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