Dr. Celeste Fralick: Pursuing Her Passion for Data with Perseverance
Long before Data became the gold that it is today, there were people who were trying to mine it, process it and transform it into comprehensible content. It is their intense focus that the omnipresent data today is being utilized to develop solutions in almost every industry.
One of the Success Stories of Female Entrepreneurs is Dr. Celeste Fralick, Chief Data Scientist and Senior Principal Engineer, McAfee, is surely one of them. Her 40 years of professional journey began as a Quality & Reliability (Q&R) Engineer at Texas Instruments. Her first assignment was to develop statistical process control (SPC) where she became enamored with statistics and data. Additional Q&R positions at Fairchild Semiconductor and Medtronic continued to fuel her data-science on-the-job training. She then joined Intel, and stayed with the spin-out, McAfee, where she works today as Chief Data Scientist and Senior Principal Engineer.
McAfee LLC is a device-to-cloud security company that provides many state-of-the-art solutions in both enterprise and consumer segments. Our products can be mixed-and-matched to provide the right solution to any customer. With over a billion sensors across multiple threat vectors around the world there’s a LOT of data to move and analyze in milliseconds.
Read on as Dr. Celeste Fralick speaks her mind and heart out on matters that are close to her.
How do you keep yourself motivated? Please tell us about what inspires you and who do you look up to.
I am most impressed with our leadership team, including our CTO (Steve Grobman), and VP of Enterprise Engineering (Lynda Grindstaff) who were long-time Intel employees — it is not trite to say I followed them to McAfee! I was able to hire a wicked smart team that inspires me daily, and I am surrounded by techies who want to catch the bad guy and seamlessly protect us. It is a very mission-oriented market — like medical, where people feel driven to help and serve, and the air is electric with their passion. I keep myself motivated by learning daily from each of them.
Share with us the most memorable and remarkable moment of your life, in a professional scenario. Also share with us the lowest phase of your life or the toughest deal to crack.
There have been many! Being selected by Forbes in 2018 as one of the America’s Top 50 Women in Tech, presenting the keynote with McAfee CTO Steve Grobman at the 2019 RSA conference, creating a medical product group at Intel, leading a 150-member company technical engineering committee, and changing the culture for data and women at each company — well, every instance was incredibly memorable. As a lower-middle class kid from small-town Alaska, I consider myself quite lucky, but I have worked very hard to earn my stripes.
My toughest challenge was realizing I was blind to a particular leadership pillar (“enabling others to act” per the book “The Leadership Challenge” by Kouzes and Posner) that was limiting my success. You can’t fix what you don’t know is wrong. It was very difficult but, following my projects and “awakening”, I was not only awarded the “most improved” trophy, but my projects were so successful, I was promoted shortly thereafter.
State us your major achievements and your company’s achievements under your leadership.
Data is the lifeblood of our company and we are embracing its leading-edge science and positive impact to our customers’ experience. We lead our industry in the study of Adversarial Machine Learning (“Model Hacking”), Deep Fakes, and Explainable Artificial Intelligence, to name just a few. Our translational research in security analytics as well as the creation of an Analytic Center of Excellence enable our products to be innovative with a minimum of false positives and false negatives. I’d like to think we have enabled McAfee to be a data-driven company with industry-best security analytics, and it is reflected in our industry recognized high ratings.
How do you ensure that there’s a healthy culture at the workspace?
As a Stage 4 breast cancer patient, I emphasize to anyone who will listen to get a mammogram. It saved my life, as does the every-three-week chemo that I endure to stay alive. While I am in remission (beyond five years), the constant chemo does wear me out and I have unique side effects that are often debilitating. So, health comes first. No stress, no negativity — stay happy, stay healthy. Enjoy your work, live every day like it’s your last. I try to ensure that everyone I connect with — even though I work virtual — feels the same way.
What would you advise to the budding and aspiring entrepreneurs?
Never, EVER, believe anyone when they tell you that you can’t do something. Stay tenacious and focused, go after what you want. If you’ve failed, pull up your big-girl pants and go after it again.
What are the most important lessons you’ve learned throughout your career and would like to share?
Build your career on your strengths, not weaknesses. Lead — don’t manage: inspire, challenge, listen, encourage, and model the behaviour you expect. Don’t stop thinking your crazy ideas — just implement them. Be a duck — let the rain roll off your back, stay calm, but paddle like crazy to get to where you need to go. Don’t get your knickers twisted — there are more important things in life. Keep your body and mind healthy. And, for goodness sakes, enjoy the journey.
The Journey in a Nutshell
Dr. Fralick found herself engrossed with all things statistical as soon as she began her career. She considers herself fortunate to learn from the best (like the late Dr. Joseph Juran); however, in 1992 she became restless to formally learn. She began an MS in Biomedical Engineering, focused on statistics, Design of Experiments, and bioelectricity while still working full-time and raising two young boys.
She recalls her Intel interview as a ‘why-not?’, winging-it, unplanned interview. She was able to influence a much larger company while she finished her Biomedical Engineering Ph.D. focused on neuroscience, statistics, and neural networks (NN), a technology which had suffered a bad reputation for years but has become incredibly fashionable. Dr. Fralick was fortunate to be on the leading edge of their comeback and transfer her academic learning to her daily work. At McAfee, her role is to provide company-wide data strategy as well as lead the McAfee Advanced Analytics Team to translate research of state-of-the-art security analytics into products.