Interviews, North America

Celeste Fralick – Senior Principal Engineer and Chief Data Scientist for McAfee

Data Scientist Celeste Fralick, one of Forbes’ Top 50 Technical Women in America: What comes to mind is the continued lack of women in technology, but those that are in it have made incredible strides as well as laid a foundation for others to follow.

Dr. Celeste Fralick, Senior Principal Engineer and Chief Data Scientist for McAfee in the Office of the CTO, is responsible for innovating advanced analytics at McAfee.  She was recently named one of Forbes’ “Top 50 Technical Women in America”, SC Media’s “Women in IT Security”, Industry Leaders “5 Influential Leaders in Cybersecurity” and Insights Success’ “2020’s Most Successful Business Women to Watch.” She has applied machine learning, deep learning, and artificial intelligence to 10 different markets, spanning a 40-year career in quality, reliability, engineering, and data science.  Celeste holds a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from Arizona State University, concentrating in Deep Learning, Design of Experiments, and neuroscience.

In a Nutshell: Tell us a bit about your job and what role technology plays in it?

My job as Chief Data Scientist and Senior Principal Engineer is two-fold: for the first, I am leading the McAfee journey to more robust analytics, and, for the second, leading research for innovative security analytics.  Our security solutions rely on technology, and data is the lifeblood of that technology.  We embrace technology wholly at the cloud as well as at the client (end-user).  And I could not do my job without technology.

Where did your professional journey start and how did you get to where you are now?

My professional journey started 40 years ago as a Quality & Reliability Engineer at Texas Instruments.  Since my first project was Statistical Process Control, I embraced data from the beginning of my career.  Fast-forward through Fairchild Semiconductor, Medtronic, and Intel (where I spent most of my career).  Intel purchased McAfee as “Intel Security”, and, when it was spun-out of Intel, I continued with the stand-alone McAfee. It’s been an interesting career; yet, everything I worked on revolved around data.

What is the greatest transformation in technology you’ve witnessed in your career?

Great question!  I asked my 98-year-old grandma that, and she said “airplanes”!  Sadly, I am not as worldly as she because I’m biased here – even with Moore’s Law, cloud, connectivity, cell phones – data becoming democratized is the greatest transformation.  Without identifying, capturing, manipulating (through statistics, machine learning, deep learning, and AI), and gaining intelligence from data, the other four wouldn’t have occurred.

When you think about ‘women’ and ‘technology’ what comes to your mind first?

What comes to mind is the continued lack of women in technology, but those that are in it have made incredible strides as well as laid a foundation for others to follow.  I take that very seriously but had no idea that it would be important to my journey – or others’.  Most importantly, we have very few women in cybersecurity – few probably realize that endless opportunities exist (and not just for software engineers)!

We always hear there are not enough women working in Tech. What needs to happen to change that, which steps should be done to achieve gender equality in tech?

First, start looking outside of typical degrees to fill positions.  50% of biomedical engineering students are women, and they can code!  I am profoundly grateful to the Texas Instruments manager who took a chance on me and my microbiology/chemistry degree, but I certainly didn’t fit his typical profile.  What I DID possess was an analytical competency that I highlighted to him with specific examples. Second, have HR departments periodically compare the same job between genders – and do it often. McAfee does this extremely well. Third, if you see something, say something.  I had a manager at a company in the ‘80’s who quietly changed the job description of my two male peers for them to be promoted and leave me in the dust.  It wasn’t pleasant, but I called foul and was promoted as well.  While I hope this type of trickery doesn’t occur in the 2020’s, it is always best to speak up if you observe inequality.  We, as women, are the first line of defense against inequality.

It is always best to speak up if you observe inequality.  We, as women, are the first line of defense against inequality.

How different would our world be if more women worked in STEM?

With more women, any solution would be faster, better, and cheaper.  The diversity of thought is critical to creating evolution at a higher rate of velocity.  

Which was the best decision in your career?

I’ll give you two since my career has been so long!! The first best decision was to get my Biomedical Engineering Ph.D. in an area (neural networks) that 1) still met my career needs (engineering) but 2) satisfied my inner passion (data).  Doing just one of those can make for a torturous journey, and, since I did my studies part-time, I had to satisfy both.  The other best decision was to take a six-month leadership course.  It revealed blind spots I didn’t realize I had. On both decisions, I wish I had done them earlier in my career.

What advice would you give to women who want a tech career?

The great advice I received from my very first mentor:  know as much about your area of expertise as you possibly can, especially the fundamentals.

Per the previous question, get all your studies done as soon as you can.  It’s amazing how much you forget, even after only a year out of school.  I will also pass on the great advice I received from my very first mentor:  know as much about your area of expertise as you possibly can, especially the fundamentals.  Your expertise (and promotions) will evolve, but the fundamentals usually stay the same – and it’s surprising how few people have all the fundamentals!

Dr. Celeste Fralick, Senior Principal Engineer and Chief Data Scientist for McAfee in the Office of the CTO, is responsible for innovating advanced analytics at McAfee.  She was recently named one of Forbes’ “Top 50 Technical Women in America”, SC Media’s “Women in IT Security”, Industry Leaders “5 Influential Leaders in Cybersecurity” and Insights Success’ “2020’s Most Successful Business Women to Watch.” She has applied machine learning, deep learning, and artificial intelligence to 10 different markets, spanning a 40-year career in quality, reliability, engineering, and data science.  Celeste holds a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from Arizona State University, concentrating in Deep Learning, Design of Experiments, and neuroscience.

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