Sacramento State alumna Preet Didbal ’98 (Physical Education) is making history and making headlines: The current Yuba City vice mayor will become the first female Sikh mayor in the United States when she is elevated to the position tomorrow night.
Didbal also was the first Sikh woman elected to a U.S. city council when she originally won her council seat in 2014, following eight years on the city’s planning commission.
In addition to political leaders at the state and federal level, Sacramento State has produced several of the region’s mayors. They include Christopher Cabaldon MPPA ’94, the sitting mayor of West Sacramento; Edward Chavez B.S. ’72 (Criminal Justice), mayor of Stockton from 2005-2009; Karen Humphrey M.A. ’03 (Social Science/Interdisciplinary Studies), mayor of Fresno from 1989-1993; and two Sacramento mayors, Phil Isenberg ’61 (Social Science) from 1975-1982 and Joe Serna ’66 (Social Science/Ethnic Studies) from 1992-1999.
If you think dealing with technology issues at home or at the office is a big job, imagine doing it for the entire state of California.
Running the state’s Department of Technology – keeping computers and other technology up and running for more than 130 government agencies, as well as providing strategic guidance for California’s IT programs and policy – are two Sacramento State alumni: Amy Tong ’94 (Management Information Systems), MBA ’98, and Chris Cruz ’88 (Business Administration). Tong is the department director as well as the statewide chief information officer; Cruz serves as chief deputy director and deputy state CIO.
Both grew up in Sacramento – Tong immigrated to the United States from China with her family when she was 12 – and came to Sac State in large part because it offered an affordable, quality education close to home. Both also have spent nearly their entire careers working in the public sector and say they enjoy their current roles because of the ability to take a wide view of the state’s technology infrastructure and propose solutions to make it more efficient and effective.
Below, they answer a few questions about their time at Sac State and their current jobs with the Department of Technology.
Why did you decide to attend Sacramento State?
Cruz: It was an easy decision for me because, for one, my parents were helping me pay for college, and I found out that I could actually live at home. I also liked the fact that Sac State has a strong business administration program, and that’s where my degree is, in business administration and management. So I really enjoyed my time there, and the fact that it was easy for me to live at home and go to school.
Tong: I’m actually very, very similar. I was able to live at home, and I worked throughout college to help (pay for) my tuition as well as help my family. Staying close to my family was important, and Sac State has a great reputation. One other thing that attracted me was the difference between the Cal State and the (University of California) systems. My brother actually went to UC Davis, so we have this debate all day long at home that the UCs are more research-oriented and Cal State is more practical. I’m a practical person, so I liked the Cal State system.
When did you become interested in working in the IT field?
Tong: My major (management information systems) was in either its first or second year when I started at Sac State. It’s computer science but inside business administration, and that’s kind of the uniqueness that attracted me. How do you apply computer science into business?
Cruz: I always had an understanding that I would get into the IT field, but I actually started in business and went through understanding policy and business before I transitioned into information technology, which I did at the midpoint of my state career. That served me well in terms of having the business sense to communicate technology to business folks, because it can be quite frustrating if you’re very technical in your approach and you’re not able to break things down into what I call “bricks and mortar” for them.
How has what you learned at Sac State helped you throughout your career?
Cruz: I graduated in 1989, and six months after, I applied for state jobs and was able to get a state position at the Department of Justice. Sac State gave me the foundation to get into an analytical position as opposed to starting in an entry-level position. It prepared me for what I would learn in business, the economics of things, looking at the fiscal perspective of how government works and operates, and being able to have that big-picture thinking.
Tong: After my bachelor’s degree, I came directly to work for the state, but I had the opportunity to work during the daytime and go to night school for my master’s. It really helped me appreciate more of what I learned in college and then immediately apply it to what I needed to do at work. That back-and-forth makes the whole learning experience much more meaningful. That’s one thing I really enjoyed about Sac State. Even through my bachelor’s degree, (for) a lot of the items that were taught in the classroom, my professors always talked about how they would apply to real-world experience.
What’s your favorite part about your job?
Tong: Problem solving. My favorite part is that we have a broad perspective and can realize that Department A has a solution that can be used for Department B. We’re in the unique position to facilitate a lot of this collaboration and look for ways to share resources and streamline efforts for the state as a whole. Having a more enterprise-wide view, a statewide view, a holistic view helps drive efficiency within government.
Cruz: Having the opportunity to come in and work with Amy and all the fine people here to help transform the way government works from a technology perspective. That has been something that I enjoy waking up in the morning and knowing, that we are making a difference as a technology organization, and that we’re making things more efficient and effective for government through strategic change, through a collaborative government. It’s not an army of one. It’s an army of many.
What’s your advice to current Sac State students?
Tong: Get a job while you’re going to school. That work experience is invaluable. I know when we’re hiring, we always look for a good balance of education and practical on-the-job training.
Cruz: Learn that life is a privilege and not an entitlement. When you come into a job, a degree doesn’t guarantee a certain amount of success. What it does is get your foot into the door, but what you do after that, you’ve got to earn and work hard.
At some point during her first year at Sacramento State, Sadie St. Lawrence ’13 (Psychology) realized she was sick of taking care of rodents.
She was working in a lab called “The Neurobiology of Emotional Learning and Memory” and loving the opportunity to learn about science and conduct research. Working with animals? Not so much.
“It was another kind of life crisis where I said, ‘OK, how do I keep the things in my life that I love but get rid of things that don’t bring me joy?’ ” St. Lawrence says. “I honestly don’t even know how I came across data science, but as I read more about it I realized I had some of the core competencies, and then the other ones I thought I could develop.”
Just four years after graduating from Sac State and a little more than a year after earning her master’s degree online from Villanova University, St. Lawrence is the lead data scientist at Rancho Cordova-based VSP, heading up efforts at the United States’ largest vision insurance company to develop data-driven solutions to a variety of business challenges.
When she’s not working, St. Lawrence runs the nonprofit she founded two years ago, Women in Data. The organization – which is focused on raising awareness about the field of data science, educating businesses on how they can use data, and helping to advance women in the field – is borne out of her experience both as a woman in a male-dominated industry and as someone who did not realize until later in her education that the career was an option in the first place.
“The only way the field is going to continue to progress is if we continue to create diversity,” she says. “Any time we shut that off, we’re going to see things slow down. I love my work, I love what I do, so I’m just taking my two passions, data and women, and combining them to make them more diverse and make a better work environment for everyone.”
The lab “life crisis,” was actually the second of its kind along what St. Lawrence calls the “winding way” to her career. An Iowa native, she initially attended Casper College in Wyoming on a piano scholarship before transferring to Sacramento State, which had an exchange program with Casper that allowed her to receive in-state tuition. At the same time, she fulfilled her dream of moving to California.
By the time she came to campus for orientation, however, she realized she didn’t want her hobby to become her job. She had become interested in studying how the mind functions after reading a book about music disorders of the brain, which is how she ended up switching her major to psychology – and how she ended up working in labs like Evolutionary Ecology of Fishes and, yes, Emotional Learning of Memory.
“Sac State was great because I was able to explore so many different ideas with excellent teachers to guide me along the way,” St. Lawrence says. “I meet a lot of people who say, ‘I don’t know what I want to do with my life,’ and my stance is, sometimes figuring out what you don’t like to do is the best way to figure out what you do like to do. Sac State gave me a lot of options to figure out who I really am and what my passion is.”
While concurrently starting her career at VSP and taking graduate courses, she became dismayed that the only opportunities for women data scientists to network seemingly were only in the Bay Area. Drawing on her involvement with the American Association of University Women’s Sacramento State chapter as a student, she decided to take matters into her own hands, founding Women in Data in 2015.
The first meet-up drew just four people. But two years later, it’s an entirely different story. The organization now boasts nearly 600 members, just received tax-exempt status, and is looking to expand to other cities. Events include data science presentations that are open to the community, technical training, and other networking opportunities.
St. Lawrence’s hope is that Sacramento’s data science community becomes as strong as or even stronger than that of the Bay Area or Silicon Valley, especially as she has grown to love the region. In her spare time, she’s a dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioner as well as an avid outdoors enthusiast – paddleboarding in the summer, skiing in the winter. And she continues to play piano, a thread that leads back to the start of the sometimes-meandering road to her present.
“At the end of the day, we’re all trying to just find our path,” she says. “You may take a different route to get there, but if you know your end goal and what you want to accomplish, you’ll find a way.”