Women Leading Data-Driven Innovation: Echo Szeto, Morgan Stanley
For Echo Szeto, solving problems with data is the common thread that has run through her career—from her start on the trading floor as a programmer at brokerage firm Paine Webber, through her time as a DBA at UBS, a solution architect and technical product manager at Credit Suisse, and now executive director of data engineering at Morgan Stanley.
“It's actually worked out fantastically,” she says in a recent interview with Data Company Magazine, “because data is becoming more and more important. Whether it’s about developing solutions through context-aware automations, or identifying areas where you want to invest your marketing—data is driving all business these days.”
Today, Szeto drives the enterprise-wide data infrastructure strategy at Morgan Stanley, alongside senior management and technologists at the firm.
Having the chance to interview her was a tremendous privilege for us. Her role taps into her ability to manage multiple products across the lifecycle of data and allows her to take advantage of her greatest strength as a problem solver.
“I love a challenge,” she says. “When deciding on what project to focus on, don’t pick the easy problem. Pick the hard one. That is the one that will push you to grow the most.”
In many ways, Szeto's leadership and problem-solving qualities that she discussed in her interview reminded us of the technology leaders in Gene Kim's best-selling novel The Unicorn Project. Szeto is constantly looking for ways to put developers back in the driver’s seat. Her mission has been to combine the best technology, the best skills, and the best culture to deliver game-changing outcomes at breakneck speed.
The following are excerpts from our discussion with Szeto, who describes herself as a strategist and whose colleagues describe her as tenacious—in the best possible way.
What drew you to a career in tech?
When I graduated from college, the tech boom was in full force. What really excited me was using technology to solve problems. How can I use technology to automate manual tasks and build products that are more reliable and more affordable for a wide customer base? Ultimately, I wanted to be able to make a big impact on people’s lives through a career in tech. That idea is what drew me to IT.
How much has the financial industry changed since you joined?
In the past, there was a tremendous focus on building solutions that were proprietary, so you deliver a solution that is a second faster than your neighbors. Today, we’re seeing the commoditization of technology and information being much more readily accessible. As a result, the focus is now on personalization and delivering a unique customer experience through the applications that our customers engage with. Data of course is a foundational building block in those applications, and it is a fundamental ingredient for building and testing those applications.
What is an example of a challenge you’ve faced in your career, and in what ways did it make you stronger or inspire you?
Until I joined the SRE solution architecture team at Credit Suisse, my expertise was in providing database solutions. This new position forced me to expand my expertise outside of database management to cover all major technology infrastructure domains and tooling, including network, hardware, virtualization, web, application, caching, reporting, and more. I had to quickly learn these domains in depth, everything down to the exact speed, form factor, compatibility specifications of a piece of hardware or the cost, latency, and security profile of different network solutions.
In addition to that, I was the only woman on the team, and this was the first time this team had worked with a female infrastructure architect. I knew I had to build credibility very quickly, and I worked extremely hard to learn as fast I could. While this was a fairly challenging role for me, looking back, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my career because it stretched and honed my intellectual and leadership skills. It has opened up so many doors for me since then.
Tell us about a person who has inspired or mentored you. How did that person positively impact your career?
Tsvi Gal, the former CTO at Morgan Stanley has been a great mentor. He has great insight into the strengths of others and he is able to draw out their potentials in the best possible ways. With me, he had more faith in my ability than what I thought I was ready for. He had no problem putting me in front of CTOs and CEOs of other large firms to discuss our company’s strategy and direction.
It was so refreshing to have a person you respect so much be your advocate.
How important do you think a company’s culture is to ensure its growth and success?
It is incredibly important. I’ve been fortunate enough to work for companies with inclusive cultures. They foster a culture to make individuals feel they are part of a vision and are contributing to a bigger picture. This is contrary to other organizations that heavily focus on fierce competition amongst employees and teams. While these companies may be able to drive success in the short term, that isn’t something that is sustainable. If you’re able to build a culture that makes people feel comfortable, you’re able to retain great talent, avoid burnout, and build for the future.
What do you think are the top essential skills for working in tech?
Be open minded, gracefully accept new challenges, and stay curious. Build relationships up, down, and across the organization for continuous growth and a sustainable career. Lastly, never ever give up. Always stay positive—setbacks are often blessings in disguise.
What is your philosophy on building an effective team?
Inspiring your team toward a common goal and building trust. One can’t exist without the other.
What technology are you most excited about right now?
At the moment, we’re making significant investments in our public cloud strategy. We are evaluating innovative ways to leverage technologies such as messaging, data federation, and virtualization to build superior platform solutions. I’m excited to use these solutions to better serve our customers.
What is the one most important piece of advice you would want to give to young women who are considering careers in tech?
My advice is just go for it and believe in yourself. I’ve given quite a few talks to local high school students and oftentimes when you talk to young girls, you notice a lack of confidence. They’ll think to themselves: “Will I be able to succeed? Am I smart enough, especially in a field that’s dominated by men?” The answer is: absolutely. The important thing is for women to realize that they have a lot to bring to the table. There’s no reason to shortchange yourself.
Read more stories about data-driven innovation in the 2020 issue of Data Company Magazine.