Cat Gurinsky is hard to miss — even at a crowded NANOG conference. With her vibrant hair, welcoming smile, and a willingness to share her wealth of knowledge, she's the kind of person you immediately notice, and think, "That's someone I definitely want to know."
And once you do, you'll find both her professional experience and personal passions equally impressive (she not only teaches martial arts, but is also conversationally fluent in Japanese). Now a Senior Network Engineer at Apple, Cat's career path has been filled with mentors and advocates who were instrumental in helping her get to where she is today. In turn, Cat is paying those positive experiences forward — through mentorship, teaching, and community service — by helping ensure more women in tech have their voices heard.
You currently work as a Senior Network Engineer at Apple. When did your career path in technology begin, and how did you get to where you are now?
I was around computers before most others my age, since my dad was the computer lab teacher at the elementary school I attended. We were on the early-adopter side for getting a dial-up connection at home, and always had computers in the house that he (and later I) had built. My junior year of high school, I figured out how to cram all my AP/honors classes into the first half of my day so I could go to technical school in the afternoon and learn computer repair. Most kids went to technical school to get that full-time job after high school, but I convinced my parents I wanted to do it so I could have a better part-time job in college.
Throughout college, I did exactly that. I worked for the university as a student employee doing computer repair, while majoring in Japanese. When I graduated with my BA, I began my MA and got a full-time job at Geek Squad. A year later, I was hired back to the university’s IT staff as a full-time Network Engineer. It was practically an apprenticeship, though. At the time of my hire, I had minimal networking experience beyond helping to set up and install Cisco Clean Access. My new boss took me under his wing, and taught me everything I needed to do actual networking once I was hired. At the same time, he never held my hand. If he thought it was better for me to learn the hard way, I learned trial by fire. It was challenging, but incredibly rewarding.
Through that same boss at the university, I met Chris Malayter; a NANOG regular most of the other NANOG regulars know. And when that boss left to work elsewhere, Chris brought me into the Switch and Data network-engineering family. I was present for the acquisition by Equinix, which allowed me to relocate to the Bay Area. Eventually, I left to work for Apple, where I have now been for the past eight years.
That’s quite a path! You seem to have had some great mentors and advocates along the way. Are there any challenges you’ve faced as a woman working tech?
Anyone who knows me, knows I’m rather outspoken and have no filter. I think these traits usually help me fit right in with “the guys”. But honestly, I’ve rarely paid much attention to most of my colleagues being male. As a martial artist of 20+ years in my personal life, I’ve also been active in a discipline traditionally filled with more men than women. I love mentorship, so my women-in-tech goals have been focused on helping others figure out how to better relate with their male counterparts, and how to help make their voices heard. Because I’ve been lucky to not face many challenges, I work hard to help others overcome any they might encounter.
“I love mentorship, so my women-in-tech goals have been focused on helping others figure out how to better relate with their male counterparts, and how to help make their voices heard."
It’s so great that you’re able to pay your own positive experiences forward in that way. What specific advice would you give a woman who’s currently studying in the field of technology, or at the very beginning of her career?
Find a good mentor. An expert, or senior person in the field, who has the patience and time to help you understand things as you learn them, and show you how the real world operates.
That’s definitely sage advice. You mentioned meeting Chris Malayter through your boss at the university. Is that how you were first introduced to NANOG?
Chris brought me to my first NANOG conference while we were both at Switch and Data. He was also pivotal in introducing me to so many of the regulars that became my “family” at NANOG, such as Louie Lee, and Ren and Joe Provo. I was very lucky to have someone like him be my guide.
Speaking of being a regular who’s active in the community: you were recently voted Vice Chair of the NANOG Program Committee (PC), and have also served as the Secretary. What prompted you to run for office, and what do you hope to achieve through the PC?
NANOG has been a big part of my professional life. I’ve always appreciated the amazing people and numerous learning opportunities it has introduced me to. I originally served NANOG from 2011-2012 as the Membership Chair of the Development Committee, but then gradually decreased my participation on the committee as my job at Apple became increasingly busy and demanding. A few years ago, I began going to local NANOG conferences again, and at one of those, I was approached by several members who suggested I run for the PC. That suggestion was exactly what I needed to get re-energized to give back to the community again.
The NANOG conference after I was appointed to the PC, the secretary position opened up, and I decided to run for it. Through that role, which has been more hands-on because of the pandemic, my hope has been to help further streamline the PC’s work, and continue to help them achieve great things. Being part of the leadership team has given me additional experience, such as meeting scheduling and logistics planning, which goes beyond the normal peer-reviewing responsibilities of regular membership on the committee.
The leadership team has also been at the forefront of suggesting and brainstorming the solutions we’ve come up with for NANOG 79 Virtual (our first fully-virtual conference), NANOG 80 Virtual, and the upcoming NANOG 81 Virtual conference. After NANOG 80, our PC Chair was appointed to the board, and I had the honor of being voted into the Vice-Chair position when that opened up. Being a part of the PC has been a fantastic learning experience, and I look forward to continued involvement.
I can imagine! In what other ways has being a part of the NANOG community impacted your day-to-day work?
From early on, it has been a blessing to have the NANOG community so close at hand. I know that any time I get stumped on something networking related, there are a wealth of engineers I can reach out to for advice on how to tackle the problem. I've always believed one should never reinvent the wheel; knowing the right people to ask questions helps prevent that.
So true. You touched on the pandemic earlier, and how working remotely has allowed you to take on a more hands-on role with the PC. What kinds of interesting problems have you been a part of tackling at Apple during this time?
Living in Austin, but supporting data centers globally, has meant that most of my work was already done remotely (despite sitting in an office). So thankfully, most of my day-to-day work has not changed, except that I now have no commute, and most days, I get to have lunch with my kids. I’ve been able to follow other teams, however, who’ve faced changing priorities during COVID, such as the team that manages the VPN. For obvious reasons, it has seen huge spikes in active VPN users beyond what used to be normal. I suspect this is the same at all companies, though, and not unique to ours. While I don’t manage the VPNs, I’ve gotten to follow along in their work to expand, improve, and maintain them during this time of heightened use.
“From early on, it has been a blessing to have the NANOG community so close at hand.”
On personal note, one of your hobbies throughout the pandemic has been making face masks to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Can you tell us about your Etsy shop, and why you decided to open it?
I’ve been a sewer since high school, and still own the sewing machine I purchased during college. So at the beginning of the pandemic, I started making masks for our family. Then some nurse friends who were about to return to work asked me if I could make them masks with filter pockets. And then other friends and family started asking, and it quickly grew to a point where at least 1-4 people were asking me to make masks for them every week.
I originally decided to set up the Etsy shop so I could show people what the final products looked like, instead of just sharing an iCloud album of the fabrics I had in my house. Within the first week, I had 3 orders, so it turned out to be more than just a glorified gallery. As of the beginning of November, I’ve made almost 500 masks. About one third of those have been from Etsy orders, and the rest from people that reached out to me directly (or that I donated masks to, such as fellow martial artists and their schools).
500! That’s amazing. You mentioned your fellow martial artists, and I know you’re also conversationally fluent in Japanese. How do those things impact your life, or even complement your work as a network engineer?
A foreign language is very similar to the ideas of learning a network operating system or programming language; you’re learning new ways to communicate with others that speak differently from your native tongue.
Martial arts has been my passion since I first began studying in the summer of 2000. My martial-arts career was varied, in that I attained black belt in Karate on Long Island, black belt in Tae Kwon Do when living in Indiana, and black belt in Shaolin Kenpo Karate while living in California. My Iaido was also varied, in that I first trained MSR (Muso Shinden Ryu), but began training in MJER (Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu) when I moved to Texas. I have always taught as an assistant at the schools I trained at. When I moved from California to Texas in 2016, my kenpo instructor encouraged me to start teaching, which I did in the summer of 2017 when I founded Immortal Tiger Kenpo Karate. It has been a truly incredible experience to watch my own students grow from white belt to an accomplished martial artist. I have always loved sharing the art, and nothing is more rewarding than getting to teach it.
This carries over to my work in network engineering in several ways. Martial arts teaches you perseverance, and to always think about all sides of the “battle”. With work, this would be all sides of a problem. Teaching martial arts also mirrors the mentoring I do in my work life. Most importantly, though, black belt is not the end of one’s martial-arts training. This is a good life lesson, which also serves as a reminder at work that you’ll never know everything. We must always seek to continually learn and better ourselves, and remain humble in the process.
“A foreign language is very similar to the ideas of learning a network operating system or programming language; you’re learning new ways to communicate with others that speak differently from your native tongue."
Continuously learning in one’s career is so important. What other women in tech inspire you most, and why?
The first person that always comes to mind is Ren Provo, as she was the first person I met and grew close to during my early days at NANOG. She was not only a mentor, but also very protective of me, and still is to this day. Ren was always the person who knew all the right people to get the job done, and if she wasn’t able to answer something, she would find the person who could. That’s a definite inspiration to me, and I’ve aspired to mimic those same traits in my own professional life. Learn what you can, and know where to go to find the solutions you don’t yet have.
Photos courtesy of Cat Gurinsky
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