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Vita Bortnikov, IBM Distinguished Engineer
Vita Bortnikov has had to cross quite a few bridges – from her childhood in Ukraine, to choosing a career path after only two years in Israel, and through her years at IBM. What seemed like a cut-and-dried choice to 18-year-old Vita – mathematics or computers – has led to a successful and satisfying professional career, and is proof that even though circumstance may guide your career choice, ultimately the outcome is what you make of it. In Vita’s experience, careers don’t necessarily have to be perfectly mapped out. Focus, flexibility, and being good at what she does have led Vita to where she is today, driving some of IBM’s most promising projects in the areas of blockchain and cloud.
Navigating toward success and fulfillment
Making a practical decision to focus on her strengths and choosing the field of computer science led to a career at IBM. Vita started out at IBM when she was a student at the Technion, and she left IBM to get a master’s degree in distributed systems. A few years working at a startup company taught Vita some life lessons on great teamwork, management, and the foundations of good work relationships – the importance of appreciation and trust between manager, team, and colleagues. Vita feels very strongly about the importance of teamwork, and that plays a significant role in how she views her life and career.
Circumstances changed, the startup was acquired and moved far from Haifa, and Vita started looking for her next job. That brought her back to IBM in 2005. Vita’s decision to return to IBM was largely based on the fact that she knew she’d be working with talented people that she could learn from. One of the great advantages of working at IBM Research-Haifa is the people, Vita emphasizes, and it’s also where she found a strong foundation on which she could develop her career. Building efficient distributed systems is very complex work, and the shift to even larger systems distributed on the cloud opened huge opportunities as well as challenges in her field, which Vita feels fortunate to be involved in.
Vita never gave any real thought to the way her own career developed. One of the things that led her to think about her career and her role as manager, was the book Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg , COO of Facebook, “Sandberg says that women have to learn to ‘sit at the table,’ not stay in the background.” That insight led Vita to understand how influential that position can be, and realized that she had to consider the careers of the people she managed. This also pushed her to think about consciously working toward balancing personal fulfillment together with professional success – for herself.
“I can’t say that my career went according to plan – because I didn’t really have one. I think sometimes inflexible goals can be stressful and frustrating – you might limit yourself to what you think you should achieve and the timeline, and that doesn’t always work. You have to strike a balance between being good at what you do and doing what’s right for you. But it’s also very important to be on the same page with your manager and have your manager’s support– and both sides should understand that while moving forward is important, it’s not everything.”
Vita’s technical and managerial leadership at IBM led her group to receive multiple corporate awards for outstanding achievements in the domain of scalable and highly available systems. In her current role she works on building the foundation for the IBM Cloud platform as well as building distributed platform parts for IBM Blockchain.
Vita feels that blockchain is the right platform to allow business across organizations. All peers keep the same ledger of the transactions, and a new transaction is added only by consensus between peers. Ledger records all the transactions and among other things can be leveraged for provenance. Vita’s team made a significant contribution to the Hyperledger fabric – an open source project under the Linux Foundation. Their specialty is ‘gossip-based dissemination framework’, which focuses on transmitting the messages to every peer and keeping track of the ledger replication. Naturally, this is key when it comes to keeping things working at scale and securely. As an active inventor, Vita also has multiple US patents in different areas of computer science.
Vita still leads a team, but her role has been expanded to a more global technical position. As IBM Distinguished Engineer, she is responsible for leading new directions in her field of cloud and blockchain scalability and availability. Another change that came about organically, at the right place and at the right time.
Focus and flexibility – finding the balance
Vita and family trekking the Tour de Mont Blanc
Vita’s work is demanding, and there’s not too much time for anything else, “In today’s reality, life is pretty crazy, and balancing your personal life with managing a home and career is no trivial matter.” She credits a large part of her growth and success to her husband’s support and encouragement, and to his partnership at home. Vita’s husband is in the same field, although he doesn’t work at IBM, and he understands the difficulties. They support one another, without which it would be impossible to create that balance alongside career development. “I will always have the inner conflict of what I want to accomplish at work and what I want to do at home–work and career can’t wait until the children grow up. So there is family on the one hand, and work, with its constant interruptions, on the other – like phone calls, including from the children.”
Yet Vita has managed to cross that bridge, too. She spends her free time with her family and doing the things she loves – trips in nature, skiing, and running. When it comes to reading preferences – Vita’s first choice will almost always be novels about people and relationships. You’ll never catch her reading fantasy or science fiction because for Vita – it’s all about real people, and real problems – in her personal choices, and in the solutions she finds in her work.
The flexibility she has at work is something Vita takes advantage of a lot. She can take her kids to the dentist in the middle of the day and then come back to work, or work from home, and sometimes she ends up taking calls and meetings until late. Vita says that the advantage of flexibility is also the disadvantage – you’re always connected to your work, “You have to be careful not to get carried away, and that easily happens, for example conference calls in different time zones all over the world. So it’s good to set some boundaries – like no calls after a certain hour. Even when you have a ton of work and take it home, you have to set limits, and say – it can wait until tomorrow. Ultimately, you do have to get things done, and it’s important to see results, so it’s a good idea to start the day with some idea of what you’d like to accomplish. But you don’t want to give up on spending time with your children, and you don’t have to.”