Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech: Madalina Tanasie of Collibra On The 5 Leadership Lessons She Learned From Her Experience

Early in my career a manager said to me, “your hard work is worth half if it’s not seen.” I remember I was encouraged to set a goal that someone on the executive team knew who I was and what I did, and that nudge helped me build visibility and boost my confidence with people more senior to me. I think it’s important to help your team’s work shine through and encourage individuals to have ownership over their work at all levels.

As Chief Technology Officer, Madalina leads Engineering, Architecture, Production Engineering, Security, Excellence Enablement and Quality Assurance for Collibra. She brings over 15 years of leadership expertise in software engineering, cloud-native distributed systems and process management to the company. Previously Madalina was the Vice President of Operations & Excellence at Collibra, where she led organizational transformation for Product Operations and Engineering, with a focus on engineering practices, scale and operational excellence. Prior to joining Collibra, she served as the Vice President of Engineering for Unified Platform at Medidata Solutions, a SaaS provider for clinical research in life sciences, where she held several prior engineering leadership positions. Before Medidata, she worked in software engineering roles at the NYC Department of Education and TotalSoft. Madalina has a master’s and BS in Computer Science from University POLITEHNICA of Bucharest.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’m originally from Romania, and the education system there is such that one has to select their career path at the end of high school. I don’t know many people who knew with certainty, at 16, what career they wanted to follow and I can’t say that I had a grand vision or master plan that got me to where I am. I was a precocious child and grew up with full awareness of my potential and with a determination to use my time and skills wisely and to make a positive impact. I knew that in order to do that I had to be very good at whatever career I chose. I initially considered architecture but soon realized that drawing is not my strong suit and went back and thought about what I was really good at. For me, that was math — my mom was a math teacher and I grew up with a big appreciation for it. I decided I wanted to do applied math, and from there I found computer science. I liked that it was new and emerging, and that it allowed me to build on my strengths. Luckily, computer science stuck and I loved it.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

Collibra has a highly collaborative and fast paced culture and most days are full of interesting stories. At a macro level it’s been quite interesting for me to observe the evolution of that culture after being forced by the pandemic into a year long fully-remote reality. I joined Collibra in March 2020, right as lockdowns started in Europe and US and I’ve been impressed at how quickly the engineering organization has pivoted from a fully in-person, hub-centric setup to functioning as a global organization. Remote work and virtual meetings have made it easy to break silos and barriers and right now most engineering teams have team members across multiple locations, something that makes us better and stronger but that we wouldn’t have even considered trying two years ago.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Starting out as an engineer I still remember a silly code syntax bug that caused me so much trouble. I knew there was an error, but I couldn’t figure it out and spent way too much time trying to find it myself. I eventually asked for help, and a colleague found the issue super quickly. I learned that one of the biggest rookie mistakes is not asking for help when stuck.

What do you think makes your company stand out?

I decided to join Collibra because I wanted to work for a software company with a product and product vision that will stand the test of time but also with an excellent culture and smart people I could learn from. I’m happy to say that Collibra has over delivered on both. Collibra is very successful in a market it has largely created and some of the biggest companies in the world use Collibra’s platform for data intelligence. Also, as a Belgian company with a large presence in the US, Collibra has nailed the fusion of European and American cultures. There’s the strong entrepreneurial spirit of the U.S. combined with the people-centric approach that you find in Europe, which I really appreciate.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’m excited about our multi-cloud journey. We are one of the few companies pursuing it, and it makes us stand out ahead of the pack. We also recently launched an initiative we’re calling “March to a Billion,” which is designed to enable organizations to load, discover, understand and use up to one billion assets with Collibra. We’re enabling the enterprise’s data infrastructure to handle billions of pieces of information in production in a cloud-based environment, while ensuring the usability of that information. It’s complex and multifaceted, but a really exciting challenge that will help our customers do their jobs better and faster.

Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I don’t really believe in the status quo. I grew up in a large family with strong women role models. Many of these women had careers in STEM and, in my family, gender equality was the norm. Growing up around these role models meant that I had examples to follow and women I could gain key insight from.

As I progressed through my career, I soon realized that I was not surrounded by many women peers and it got lonelier with every promotion. The real wakeup call for me was when my then 9 year old daughter came home from school and told me that she can not be good at math because “math is for boys.” This made me realize that I took my privileged position for granted. It’s spurred me to become more active with my allyship and to dedicate a fair amount of my time to mentoring and D&I activities. We all have so many more stories like these to tell. We all have women in our lives — mothers, sisters, daughters, cousins, and so on, and we can collectively make a difference by getting educated and getting involved.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

We’ve seen that there is a steep decline in gender diversity in leadership roles in general, but especially in technology functions. Despite a lot of research proving the contrary, there is still unconscious bias around the technical and the leadership abilities of women and women have to work extra hard to overcome it. Leadership and executive presence is often associated with confidence and a certain communication style that is more often found in men. In lieu of that, ideas presented by women are often subjected to a different level of scrutiny and the barrier of entry is higher. If we are aware of this bias, we can make an effort to eliminate it.

What is a “myth” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech?

When we talk about increasing gender diversity in tech, there is often a focus on the diversity of the pipeline at the entry level. While that is important, there are also a lot of women who maybe didn’t start their career in computer science, but they have a STEM background and are brilliant and fast learners. I’ve had great success when giving opportunities to women from different backgrounds and at different stages in their careers who were interested in switching to software engineering. We can attract more women to the industry if we are open minded and look for talent in the places that are less obvious.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Early in my career a manager said to me, “your hard work is worth half if it’s not seen.” I remember I was encouraged to set a goal that someone on the executive team knew who I was and what I did, and that nudge helped me build visibility and boost my confidence with people more senior to me. I think it’s important to help your team’s work shine through and encourage individuals to have ownership over their work at all levels.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Another piece of advice I love is “give ugly ideas a chance to live.” Great ideas can come from anyone and they might not look great at the inception point. As a leader it is important to be humble and open minded. Step outside of your circle of trust and listen to the people closest to the action.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

I have been very privileged that many people have recognized my potential and invested in me throughout my career. I’ve had many mentors who helped create opportunities for me and made sure that nothing held me back. My leadership style and approach to solving technical problems was formed under the guidance and influence of Isaac Wong who now leads Engineering at Cockroach Labs. Isaac is a brilliant technologist, a true visionary and a fantastic human being. The clarity of his vision and his ability to not waiver when his ideas were ahead of the times and not understood continues to inspire me.

Since I recently took on the CTO role at Collibra I’ve thought a lot about another one of my mentors, Julie Iskow, the COO at Workiva. Julie was the CTO when I was at Medidata and she’s all around impressive. It has been a privilege to watch her in action and to learn from her. She started the women in tech program there, and she has been a fantastic sponsor and mentor who has had a big impact on me. She keeps herself and the leaders around her to very high standards and she has taught me to think about leadership, influence and responsibility in a different way.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

In the last decade we’ve observed in the US and across the world an increase in extreme views and societal division. As a result progress has slowed down and in many aspects we’ve actually regressed. As a technologist, I’m troubled by the realization that technologies that were meant to bring us closer have contributed to and accelerated this division. I believe that technology can help reverse this trend but I am also aware that “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”. I hope that some of the many brilliant technologists I had the opportunity to work with and mentor will draw inspiration from our interactions and choose to think and act differently.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“I didn’t save anything for the swim back.” It’s a quote from the movie Gattaca and it reminds me that, with determination, persistence and focus, one can overcome challenges that might seem insurmountable. It also aligns with who I am fundamentally. When I decide to do something I’m all-in and I only look forward.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

I would love to meet Michelle Obama. I’ve often been asked throughout my career where I see myself in 5 or 10 years and my answer has been consistent: I want to go as far as I can go while staying true to my values. For me, Michelle Obama’s story and her achievements illustrate just how much is possible and that the common wisdom that moral flexibility is a prerequisite to success is not true. I’d love to chat about how she’s managed to balance the various aspects of her busy life and to “have it all” and also learn more about what fuels her ability to “go high when they go low”.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!



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