Women Lead Data Podcast Episode 6: Embracing Leadership with Colleen Tartow of VAST Data

May 2, 2024

About the episode

In our sixth episode, Lindsay sits down with Colleen Tartow (Field CTO, Head of Strategy at VAST Data) to learn more about her leadership journey in the data industry. Colleen has a breadth of experience in the data industry, from leading data teams through hyperscaling, to moving into engineering leadership roles focused on building data products. She gives us the low-down on what a Field CTO does day-to-day, and we spend some time talking about how to make big leaps forward in your career (hint: sometimes it just takes getting out of your own way!).

From Astrophysics to Data: A Seamless Transition

Colleen began her academic journey in physics, with a concentration in astronomy, a path that unknowingly laid the foundation for her future in data science. Her early work in observational astronomy, collecting and analyzing vast amounts of data to decipher the cosmos, mirrored the core activities of a data scientist. Reflecting on her transition from academia to the tech industry, Colleen underscores the importance of adaptability and the transferability of skills across disciplines.

The Role of a Field CTO at Vast Data

At Vast Data, Colleen operates at the intersection of technology, strategy, and customer engagement. She elaborates on the company's innovative approach to rethinking data storage and analysis, aiming to streamline and enhance the efficiency of data operations. Her day-to-day responsibilities are as varied as they are impactful, ranging from engaging with customers to understand their data needs to collaborating with R&D and marketing teams to shape the product's future.

Embracing Leadership and Navigating Career Shifts

Leadership for Colleen has evolved significantly over her career. From managing analytics teams to steering strategic directions at Vast Data, she emphasizes the non-linear nature of career growth and the criticality of continuous learning. Colleen shares anecdotes of personal doubt and breakthroughs, providing a candid look at the uncertainties that accompany each career leap and the resilience required to overcome them.

The Importance of Networking and Mentorship

Throughout her career, Colleen has benefited immensely from networking and mentorship. She advocates for the power of connections, not just for job opportunities but for learning and growth. Colleen's story exemplifies how staying curious and open to conversations can unexpectedly shape one's career trajectory.

Work-Life Integration: A Balancing Act

With the pandemic bringing about a shift to remote work, Colleen discusses the challenges and strategies of balancing a demanding career with family life. The transition has necessitated a reevaluation of work-life boundaries, emphasizing the need for physical and temporal separation between professional and personal spaces.

Advice for Aspiring Leaders in Data

Colleen's journey is a testament to the value of perseverance, curiosity, and the willingness to step out of one's comfort zone. Her advice to aspiring data professionals and leaders is straightforward: keep learning, ask for what you want, and remember that career paths are rarely linear. Embrace every opportunity to expand your knowledge and skills, and don't shy away from advocating for your career aspirations.

Here are 10 tips from Colleen:

  1. Embrace Continuous Learning: The data field is constantly evolving, with new technologies, methodologies, and challenges emerging regularly. Aspiring leaders should stay curious, embrace continuous learning, and remain adaptable to keep up with the industry's pace.
  2. Leverage Your Unique Background: Colleen's transition from astrophysics to data science underscores the value of diverse backgrounds. Your unique experiences and skills can provide a fresh perspective and innovative approaches to data challenges.
  3. Cultivate a Strong Network: Networking and mentorship are invaluable for career growth. Building relationships within the industry can open doors to opportunities, offer guidance, and provide support throughout your career journey.
  4. Ask for What You Want: Don't hesitate to advocate for yourself, whether it's seeking new responsibilities, roles, or projects that align with your career aspirations. Understanding your goals and communicating them effectively is crucial for advancement.
  5. Be Open to Opportunities: Sometimes, the best opportunities come from unexpected places. Being open to discussions, even when you're not actively looking for a job, can lead to exciting career developments.
  6. Work-Life Integration: Balancing a demanding career in data with personal life requires setting clear boundaries and finding a work setup that allows for both professional growth and personal fulfillment.
  7. Face Challenges with Courage: It's natural to experience self-doubt when stepping into new roles or taking on bigger challenges. Remember that growth often comes from stepping out of your comfort zone, and it's okay to feel nervous as long as you push forward.
  8. Emphasize Communication and Leadership Skills: Technical skills are essential in data, but strong communication and leadership skills are equally important for aspiring leaders. Being able to articulate complex data concepts to non-technical stakeholders and lead a team effectively are key competencies.
  9. Be Resilient and Adaptable: The path to leadership in data can be nonlinear and unpredictable. Resilience in the face of setbacks and adaptability to change are critical traits for long-term success.
  10. Recognize the Importance of Writing: Colleen highlighted writing as a "secret superpower." Effective writing can enhance your ability to communicate ideas clearly, persuade stakeholders, and document your work for broader impact.


Colleen Tartow's story is not just about the transition from astrophysics to leading a cutting-edge data company. It's about the journey of self-discovery, embracing change, and the relentless pursuit of growth. For women in data, her narrative offers inspiration and practical advice on navigating the complexities of STEM careers while forging paths of leadership.

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