The woman who led data engineering at a trillion dollar firm

Veronica Xu
Jun 24, 2019 · 7 min read
Harini Janakiraman during her year working abroad in the Netherlands.

Harini Janakiraman (Twitter) is currently the Head of Technology at Antler Australia. Antler is a global early-stage VC and a startup generator. Prior to Antler, she spent 9 years at BlackRock®, the world’s largest asset management firm (+$US6 trillion in assets), eventually becoming the VP of Data Engineering. Harini has also worked as a software engineer with Intel and holds a Masters degree in Computer Engineering from The University of Texas at Austin.

With data engineers, data analysts & data scientists becoming the most sought after roles in tech (according to Forbes), we sat down with Harini Janakiraman, who led data engineering teams at the world’s largest asset manager, to understand the basics of data engineering. We also chatted to her about what it was like being a female leader in a male-dominated field.

Data engineers build software to collect, validate, store, and access data

Data engineering is about building the framework and software architecture to allow people to access data in a meaningful way. Raw data is often pretty messy and hard to derive information or insights from (think of a messy excel sheet). Data engineers help build systems that make the process of collecting, validating, storing, and accessing data easier.

At BlackRock, portfolio managers were constantly making critical trading decisions based on the best market data insights and information. After all, asset management is driven by powerful and informed trading decisions, especially at a global firm like BlackRock.

Crucial data came from financial information services such as Bloomberg and Reuters — which monitor global markets 24/7. But a lot of this data is still raw (unsorted and just a bunch of stats), and it needed to be cleaned, modelled, and reorganised in a format that’s useful for end-user applications on Aladdin (trading platform) or for BlackRock’s data scientists to interpret and create insights to pass on to portfolio managers.

The data engineering team created software systems to package and enrich this data for applications used by portfolio managers — including trading simulations, portfolio analytics/reports and curated financial news reports that portfolio and data managers read every morning.

When I joined BlackRock in 2010, they were using a lot of archaic systems which needed updates. For example, one of the data pipelines used manual scripts extracting data from a single source. If there were errors in the pipeline you had to manually dig through the logs (not fun!).

I built a real-time streaming pipeline for BlackRock which eliminated a lot of manual work as it had a visual UI to allow you to visualise the data pipeline end-to-end to see any errors. It was an ETL (extract, transform, and load) system which was able to retrieve data from numerous sources, assess, sanitise (remove unwanted data), apply any machine learning models on top and load it into data storage as a neat data set.

Apart from that, I’m really proud to have led a global team of engineers across multiple regions (New York, Singapore, India, Sydney) with a team of 15.

Running a workshop for building early dev stacks during the Antler program

I didn’t struggle as a woman at the VP level but faced some adversity at the beginning. When I started, all my teammates were men. It’s not that they were necessarily rude or unwelcoming, but as the only woman, it was really hard to relate to the team on a personal level.

Lunchtime chats or team meetings were often around things I didn’t care about, and they didn’t seem to know anything about my interests. It took some time to break out of my shell and to have better conversations, feel part of the team, and connect.

The cultural differences were even more obvious being a woman of colour — I was born and brought up in India. When I first started working in the US, most of my team members were white men, it was a clash of cultures. Over time I developed two personalities, a home personality and a work personality that was more polished.

As time went on, I realised that if you really want to enjoy your work you just have to be your complete self and you can’t mould yourself into something you’re not.

It was a slow process no doubt. As you get older and more experienced you develop a thick skin of sorts and you don’t let things bother you.

Importantly though, as you become more capable and valuable to the team, you have more leverage. When you work well, you can gain more leverage by acting the way you want to and bringing more of your true self into work.

I was really fortunate that BlackRock saw the benefits of diversity. They took a top-down approach and wanted to get more people of colour and more women in teams to avoid a unidimensional way of thinking. This was something that was happening across the wider finance industry.

I also began organising more Meetups for women in tech to build a stronger community of tech-savvy women in New York.

Before I left BlackRock, they had a pretty good gender ratio — about 40% of the company was female. Tech and computer science is, fortunately, an industry that attracts a lot of talented people from different social groups.

Perseverance would be my biggest driver. In life, it’s really easy to give up, but you just have to keep pushing and hustle.

You need to accept that to get to where you want to be, there are lots of learning processes. Often when I work with junior team members who come across problems, they tend to easily give up and ask for help. It’s important to persevere and put in the effort to find the solution.

Goofing in Cambodia

I like to walk by the beach and listen to podcasts, especially tech focused ones as they’re a easier to consume format. Reading books can be a bit more involved when you are in a time-crunch and they tend to convey one or two main points that are reiterated in different stories and anecdotes

My favourite podcast right now is The Twenty Minute VC, which revolves around stories of people creating stuff and becoming an entrepreneur. They reduce all the “uhs’ to get it down to 20 minutes which I love!

Antler is helping create the next wave of tech startups in Australia+NZ via a startup generator program that helps remove some of the main pain-points that aspiring founders have. From helping them find ideas, the right cofounder, to providing access to expert advisors that can help validate their ideas quickly, Antler provides the ecosystem a clear path to funding for startups. This vision really resonated with me and one of my main motivations behind switching career path from Engineering to VC.

I have always been passionate about building things ground up and enjoy the process of innovation to create products that people love. With my current role as Director of Technology at Antler, I advise founders on the right tech architecture for their product and assess the tech viability for the startups being created to evaluate the investment opportunity for the fund. The process of seeing ideation and startup creation across various sectors and to be actively involved in the tech startup ecosystem of Australia has been a great learning experience for me personally.

Curd rice (thayir sadam) with potatoes, which is a popular dish in Southern India, where I’m from. It’s the ultimate comfort food and when I worked in New York it would remind me of home when I ate it.

This piece was written by Veronica Xu of Textbook Ventures — we organise startup events, write newsletters and cater exciting activities for student entrepreneurs across NSW (sign up to our weekly newsletter and check out our Facebook to stay in the loop!)

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