Iron Mountain data center in Manassas, Virginia Iron Mountain
Iron Mountain data center in Manassas, Virginia

Women Warriors: Cindy Choboian's Journey from the TV Studio to the Data Center

VP of business development for FORTRUST and Data Center World panelist Cindy Choboian talks about starting her technology career as a broadcasting major at Penn State and explains why she's not just another pretty face in this second in a series on women in data centers.

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of articles by women who have successfully navigated careers in the data center industry about their professional journeys.

Currently VP of business development for Iron Mountain Data Centers, which recently acquired her previous employer FORTRUST, Cindy Choboian has more than 15 years of experience in technology and data center account management, with a strong background in healthcare and government markets. Before joining FORTRUST, Cindy was a global strategic account manager for CommScope/TE Connectivity, managing some of the largest hyper-scale data center clients in the world. She’s also coordinated the successful design and implementation of the Layer 1 infrastructure of two major new data centers for a national satellite service provider. Later, Cindy won a North American Data Center Strategic Initiative Sales Award. In her personal time, she enjoys spending time with her son and her dog, hiking, biking and snowboarding. At Data Center World Global 2017, she spoke on the "Women in Data Centers" panel, providing valuable advice for those entering a career in data centers.

Here is her journey, in her own words:

FORTRUST CINDY

According to a CareerBuilder study, approximately 50 percent of college grads are not working in a field related to their majors.  The Washington Post reports even lower numbers, closer to a mere 27 percent. I am one of the many college graduates not working in a career related to their major.

I studied broadcasting at Penn State with minors in French, business, and sociology.  During my last year, I studied abroad, in England, doing an internship at BBC Television.  The stars aligned, and they offered me a paid position as a co-host of the show The 8:15 from Manchester.  It was a children’s show seen in six different countries, three hours live every Saturday.  It was hands-down one of the coolest experiences of my life. 

I got to go backstage at Wembley Arena in London and learn dance moves from MC Hammer.  I traveled throughout the country to cast young performers for our teen drama.  I literally ran to work every day, because I loved it so much.  But alas, all good things must come to an end, and the Department of Employment refused to convert my student visa to a working visa, because they said the BBC needed to demonstrate that there was no one in the European Union who could perform that job prior to hiring an American.  Can you say, bummer?  It was definitely one of the most discouraging experiences of my life. 

I had opportunities to work at MTV in New York and met the producer, Carmen Finestra, for the show Home Improvement in Los Angeles.  Both options would likely have required another year of free work for no pay, likely waitressing at night and having many roommates to make ends meet.  I had done internships in radio and television since I was 15 years old.  With student loans coming due, I decided it was time to get a “real job.”

Finding a Real Job

During the summers, I worked for a temp agency in order to save money for college.  My computer skills got me in the door with Computer Resource Management on a contract it had at the Naval Ship Parts Control Center in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.  There was a creepy, leering guy there, so I transferred to Universal Video, a corporate video production company.  They had a contract with AMP Inc., the world's largest manufacturer of electrical and electronic systems and devices.  It was a bigger company with more opportunities to move up, and I was offered a paid full-time position as a Marketing Secretary.

It was not my TV dream, but it was a full-time gig with great benefits.  It allowed me to dabble in its corporate TV production department as a reporter and afforded me the opportunity to learn desktop publishing.  I worked for a very enlightened group of product managers and development engineers who included me in their tradeshows, etc.  During one of those shows, I happened to be speaking French with a contingency from France, when it just so happened that the international marketing director walked by.   He was looking for a French-speaking liaison for his department, and I was it.

It was a very interesting job.  I was able to meet people from all over the world as they came to tour our US headquarters.  I was learning Spanish at night and using my French during the day.  The next language I was going to learn was Mandarin.  There was a tremendous variety of responsibilities that came with the job.  I worked closely with the product management and engineering teams answering technical questions for our customers outside the US in 52 countries.  I created product launch kits, catalogs, conducted factory tours, entertained, etc.

My Time as Sales Engineer

As much as I loved the job, I wanted to advance my pay grade.  The company valued two things: either engineering or sales.  Since I wasn't an engineer, I pursued the sales path.   At that time, I did not view myself as a salesperson but was encouraged by trusted upper management to give it a try.  After graduation from their training program, they shipped me off to Chicago, where I was a district distributor specialist covering a 14-state region.  It sounded less scary to me than “sales engineer,” and it gave me an opportunity to learn about the reseller channel.  Traveling to Green Bay in February on a puddle-jumper got old, so I accepted the role of sales engineer in Chicago.  I was worried about my lack of technical experience.  One of my first calls was at a large national bank downtown, where they were experiencing a problem with fiber infrastructure in one of their data centers.  It was apparent that there was a quality problem that no one before me had bothered to fix.  By simply doing the right thing, I became a hero to this customer.  I learned through that experience that showing up and caring a lot can go a long way, and that I loved helping customers solve problems.

During this time, Tyco International acquired my company.  Later they had an IPO, which split the company into three divisions; mine became Tyco Electronics, later known as TE Connectivity, then TE Broadband Network Solutions, which eventually acquired ADC.

Down the road, I realized that being technical made me better able to help customers, so I embraced it.  There was an opening in Colorado for a systems specification engineer, and I decided to go for it.  I became a BICSI Registered Communications Distribution Designer (R.C.D.D.), which helps show my commitment to the industry.  After many years in that role, I was ready for a new challenge.  I decided to join the data center/hyper-scale team as a strategic account manager.  While I was in that role, TE was acquired by Commscope.  During that time, FORTRUST was one of my accounts; and -- you guessed it -- Iron Mountain acquired it, leading to my current role as VP of business development for Iron Mountain Data Centers.

Finally, VP of Business Development

As the VP of business development, I am responsible for a wide variety of activities including finding new potential customers, working trade shows and events, and developing our channel partner program.  It is not a 9-to-5 job.  It requires a lot of networking.  There are many nights and weekends and travel, but it is always interesting.  The colocation data center market was new to me, but having a formal onboarding program and extensive processes and procedures in place really helped me get up to speed.

Of course, there were certain challenges along the way being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field.  For example, there were men who assumed I was just a pretty face, especially when I was in my 20s.  I learned that the best way to deal with that misconception was to let them assume that I was, then wait for the right moment to demonstrate my technical expertise. That worked every time.

I owe so much to the mentors I've had along the way.  Some were managers, some were parental figures, executive sponsors.  Mentors can come in all shapes and sizes.  The one commonality was that they believed in me and wanted to help me succeed.

To all the young women out there who may not consider themselves a techie, let me tell you that with the right training and desire to learn, you absolutely can be one.  If you have good people skills and communications skills, the IT world needs people like you to listen and translate.

I would encourage readers to support STEM programs like Kidstek, which creates technology literacy for school-age kids, so more boys and girls can gain the exposure to IT early on.

And finally a BIG thank you to the following mentors:  Martyn Day, Charlie Fox, Sally Kurtz, Vicky Youtz, Steve Mitchell, Dick Schwob, Jacquie Boyer, Kathy Roberts, Doug Thelen, John Burke, John Schmidt, and Rob McClary.  I would not be where I am today without your guidance and support.

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