When Donna Capraro graduated from UCLA in 1982, a communications degree in hand, she envisioned her future self tending to movie stars in the world of public relations in Hollywood.

Today, 35 years later, she spends her days working alongside powerful people of a different sort — chief information officers and top University of California officials — in her role as senior director of information and strategy in UCLA’s IT Services Department. Capraro is responsible for teams that work on enterprise data warehousing, business intelligence, and database architecture and engineering.

Her path from public relations to database management wasn’t linear. “I had to wear many hats, especially at UCLA, before I settled into my current role,” Capraro said.

She describes her unlikely path as a result of both chance and self-determination. Three years after graduating, she was working at a public relations firm. But she felt like something was lacking.

“I love working with students and I knew that I wanted to work for the university,” Capraro said. 

Capraro found herself applying for a marketing position for UCLA’s Community Service Officer program, the campus safety escort service. She moved up the ranks to assistant director of administrative services but found herself without a job following campuswide layoffs in 1994.

However, three weeks later, she was rehired at UCLA by the information services department to act as a business administrator. And while Capraro found that job satisfying, an offer from a colleague to act as communications coordinator for newly created data warehouses was more than enticing.

“They needed someone to translate the technical language of the database architect to the general public and I was the person for the job,” she said.

Capraro’s role quickly expanded to include serving as acting manager of the data warehouse. “They essentially created a position for me and by the end of 1994 I was doing essentially two jobs, the one I was hired for and this new one,” she said.

Eventually, Capraro was able to focus on her job working with databases. While she was dabbling in all the facets of the business end of database management — human resources, finance and public relations — she still wanted to learn more about the technical side. Pulled by a desire to try something interesting, she taught herself SQL code, the most commonly used database language.

“I would experiment by running test queries and analyze the code along with the structure. I took a class and read plenty of books on how to write queries,” Capraro said.

Above all, Capraro credits more her helpful, more experienced colleagues for her success picking up the technical skills required to design, build and manage a database.

“I’m not afraid of surrounding myself with people who know more than me,” she said. “The best way to learn is to be around people who know more than you.”

Now, Capraro is arguably one of the most knowledgeable staff members in her department.

In the almost 30 years she’s been with IT services, she cites her favorite project as UCPath, a UC-wide initiative started by the office of the president a few years ago. This project, according to Capraro, will save the UC system a projected $3.5 million. Working on the project combined her two favorite aspects of her role: collaborating with other teams and working with customers to achieve results.

In the near future, her projects include the creation of a UC-system– wide analytic platform prior to her retirement that’s planned for 2018.

While Capraro has enjoyed a non-traditional path to her senior role today, there were still a few bumps along the road. While she says that she was lucky enough that her technical skills weren’t doubted, she says that men and women in leadership roles are looked at differently.

“Men can get away with a management style that’s much more brash and intimidating,” she said. “And women have to self-advocate for themselves much more than men; you have to ask for the raise and job because it’ll never be handed to you.”

According to Deloitte, in 2016, fewer than 25 percent of information technology jobs are held by women. Capraro points to this discrepancy between men and women as the reason behind this statistic.

Still, Capraro is optimistic that women can succeed in IT. “Every woman I know doesn’t just sit and complain,” she says. “We all try to move the needle and mentor each other.”

This story first appeared on the website for the UCLA Women in Technology initiative, which is led by the Office of Information Technology and focuses on key issues that women and minorities face in the technology sector. You can find more features that showcase the women and research within the UCLA community in the fields of entrepreneurship and STEM.