Most kids who grow up near the ocean delight in playing in the sand and diving in the waves. For Kelly Gilbert, who always loved math and science, her true joy was collecting data about the boats she saw passing through on the water.
“I kept a childhood notebook of the names of boats and home ports,” she recalls. “I had so much fun creating charts and maps of the ports and finding common words in the boats’ names.”
Based on Gilbert’s childhood hobby, it’s no wonder she grew up to pursue—and succeed at—a career as a data engineer. Today, she’s a principal data engineer on the Enterprise Analytics Data Services team at Chick-fil-A Inc.
“I still think that working with data is fun!” she says. “I use more sophisticated tools now, but that process of taking raw, messy data and turning it into insights is so exciting to me.”
Here, Gilbert shares what’s kept her at Chick-fil-A for almost 10 years, why curiosity is necessary to succeed as a data analyst, and the importance of cheering on your coworkers.
Tell us about your career journey, and what led to your role at Chick-fil-A?
With a degree in industrial engineering, I spent the first half of my career in retail supply chain analytics, including roles supporting distribution, transportation, inventory management, and business intelligence. That diverse experience gave me a holistic view of the supply chain, which helped make me a competitive candidate when a supply chain analyst role opened at Chick-fil-A.
After supporting supply chain as an analyst, I had the opportunity to join the Enterprise Analytics Data Services team, which exists to build and scale analytic capabilities that enable business strategies. That focus on business strategy provides a clear tie between my day-to-day work and real outcomes that impact customers and franchisees. It’s so satisfying to see how data that I’ve unlocked helps users gain insights faster.
How did you know Chick-fil-A would be a good fit? And what’s kept you at the company for nearly a decade?
I had always heard good things about working at the Chick-fil-A corporate support center from people who worked there, and even Chick-fil-A vendors talked about their positive experiences. During my interview process, I met female leaders in analytics and on technical teams. Coming from a supply chain analytics background, I was used to being the only woman in the room, so seeing women represented in department leadership was important to me. At Chick-fil-A, I saw women who were successful in their careers, and who also supported and encouraged each other.
I was also impressed with the way Chick-fil-A values innovation and pursues what is next, while honoring the company’s heritage. We have a clear understanding of who we are, why we’re here, and where we’ve been (concepts that are timeless), while relentlessly pursuing new solutions to serve customers and franchisees.
Chick-fil-A’s culture is rooted in care and generosity. I feel cared for personally in both my strengths and weaknesses. We all have ups and downs in our careers and our personal lives, and in my time at Chick-fil-A, I’ve seen my coworkers encourage each other through both rock-star moments and adversity. I’m immersed in an environment filled with people who are kind and generous, which challenges me to be better and to find ways to pass on that kindness and generosity.
You’ve consistently progressed during your time at Chick-fil-A. How does your experience exemplify the opportunity for growth at the company?
I’ve had three key experiences that have helped me grow at Chick-fil-A. First, I’ve had managers who were invested in my career, helping me prepare for the next step and making sure that my work and growth were visible and recognized. Second, we’re constantly encouraged to pursue the next step in our careers, whether that is applying for a different position or taking a short-term cross-functional “gig” assignment to learn a new area of the business. We encourage building talent that is valuable to Chick-fil-A as a whole. Exporting talent rather than hoarding it is visibly celebrated and viewed as a success. Third, I have the support to get myself ready for the next step. I can build a detailed development plan with my manager, and then I have the resources to pursue it, such as internal learning systems and a budget for courses and conferences.
What is one accomplishment that stands out?
One of my favorite stories is helping an analyst get a “wow!” from stakeholders. The analyst was struggling to visualize some data because it was in a static spreadsheet and not organized well for identifying patterns. I helped set up a pipeline to move the data straight to the visualization software, and I suggested a new way to transform the data for easier analysis. I got to be in the room when the analyst presented the results, and the audience audibly gasped when the slide went up. They had been trying to make sense of that data for a long time, but now the meaningful insight just popped off the page. I love that I was able to contribute to that moment.
What skills does it take to succeed as a data engineer?
On the technical side, common expectations of a data engineer are an understanding of cloud services, database concepts, SQL, ELT/ETL tools, and some experience with a programming language such as Python. The technology landscape is always changing, so an aspiring data engineer needs to be a continuous learner.
The most important traits for anyone in analytics are curiosity and knowing how to ask good questions. As data engineers, we need to understand how our clients want to use the data and what types of questions they need to answer so we can give them a solution that gets them to insights faster. Digging in, learning the business context, and being curious about the underlying data are the foundations of any analytics role.
What is a Chick-fil-A perk or benefit that has impacted you personally or professionally?
Chick-fil-A provides generous time-off benefits that allow me to pursue volunteer work that is important to me. I volunteer with girls + data, an organization that provides hands-on STEM experiences in data analytics for middle school girls. It’s energizing to see a new generation of girls exercise their curiosity and learn new skills.
What challenges have you faced as a woman in the analytics space, and how have you overcome them?
Women are often perceived as less competent than men in technical roles. I’ve experienced that from my earliest university classes, and it still happens sometimes. I’ve felt the need to work twice as hard to prove that I’m skilled, while my male colleagues are just assumed to be competent. The constant pressure to work twice as hard as the guys, not being able to make a mistake, and practicing and training until my knowledge is unassailable is exhausting and a recipe for burnout and self-doubt.
I’m grateful to have found allies along the way who were willing to vouch for my skills, give me visibility, recommend me for projects, or encourage me privately. I’ve learned that we can all be allies, regardless of gender identity. When your colleague does a good job, let them and others know! If you see a colleague who doesn’t get recognition for their expertise, stand up for them. Even if you don’t feel comfortable speaking up publicly in the moment, let your coworker know that you see them and you think they’re awesome.
Personally, I’ve found that certification can be helpful, too. It can be an objective way to prove your knowledge to others. However, when you’ve been persistently undervalued, you sometimes need a way to prove it to yourself.
What is the best career advice you’ve ever received?
Never stop learning.