Alumni who keep the city moving

Siu Ling Ko & Rafail Portnoy

Siu Ling Ko (‘87), Vice President and Chief Mechanical Officer of Subway Car Equipment and Rafail Portnoy (‘98), Chief Technology Officer — MTA

Thanks to the whirlwind of news surrounding the recently signed bipartisan bill, infrastructure seems to be on everyone’s mind — both traditional physical infrastructure like bridges, tunnels, and roads, and other vital components like cybersecurity and urban resilience. In New York, however, it’s long been a topic of conversation (and sometimes lively debate), since living in the city means relying on a complex web of infrastructure systems and services.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is the largest transportation network in North America, serving more than 15 million people across a 5,000-square-mile area that encompasses the five boroughs of New York City, through Long Island, southeastern New York State, and Connecticut. While some 85% of the commuters in the U.S. drive to their jobs, New York City flips that number on its head: four-fifths of all rush-hour commuters to the city’s central business districts use public transportation, helping prevent an estimated 17 million metric tons of greenhouse gases.

Keeping such a massive infrastructure system running smoothly is a major undertaking, and Siu Ling Ko (‘87) and Rafail Portnoy (‘98) are doing their part. 


The first woman ever to head subway car maintenance at the MTA

New York City Transit, an important component of the MTA, maintains some 7,000 subway cars — more than all other U.S. transit systems combined. That makes perfect sense when you consider that about 5.5 million commuters head through the subway turnstiles every weekday, and annual ridership is estimated at 1.7 billion. Other stats are equally mind-boggling: Those cars collectively travel 365 million miles per year over 665 miles of track to 472 subway stations.

It’s hard to imagine what maintaining a fleet of that size entails, but Siu Ling Ko doesn’t have to imagine. In 2021, she became the first woman ever to hold the post of Vice President and Chief Mechanical Officer of Subway Car Equipment at NYC Transit.


Q: Can you tell us a little about your academic journey and your time at NYU Tandon?

A: I attended high school at Brooklyn Tech, and one of my teachers encouraged me to explore electrical engineering; I loved math, so it seemed like a good fit. I started researching engineering programs, and NYU Tandon, then known as Polytechnic Institute of Technology, was not only close to home but had a very good reputation, so it was an easy decision to apply and then enroll when I was accepted. At the time, the school consisted of about two buildings, but the physical facilities weren’t the main difference between then and now.

Well under 10 percent of the students were women at that time; it wasn’t unusual at all for me to be the only female student in any given class or lab. I held my own academically, and I took it in stride. It was good preparation for an engineering career, since I knew I was likely to be among the only women engineers wherever I ended up working. I was happy to see that the situation had changed the last time I visited the school, and the gender balance is much, much better now. 


Q: What was your career journey like? 

A: I joined the MTA more than 30 years ago as an Associate Engineering Technician working with Subway Car Equipment, and I was given regular opportunities to advance in my career. Before ascending to my current post, I was Assistant Chief Mechanical Officer, overseeing maintenance, audits of the overhaul shop and new car procurement, all new car contract warranty programs, and technology services that report key statistics on subway car performance, maintenance, and repair.


Q: What do your current duties entail?

A: I’m now in charge of the maintenance, repair, and overhaul of our entire fleet of subway cars and the 24/7 operations of our shops. I spent much of my time right after the promotion going out into the field to meet every member of the staff, and while I always knew they were talented and dedicated, getting to know them face-to-face that became even more evident. They band together to do the very best they can for commuters, and they’ve worked to keep the system going as smoothly as possible as we slowly emerge from the pandemic.


Q: Was it difficult to be a woman in a male-dominated industry?

A: There have been challenges. When I first started, I was one of only two female engineers in the entire system for car equipment, and early on I discovered when I went out to troubleshoot a problem that there was no women’s bathroom at one of the shops. We worked that out though. 

I’m proud now that I can serve as a role model for young women engineers. I was asked how I felt about all the reporting focused on my becoming the first woman Chief Mechanical Officer; I hope that one day the glass ceiling will be totally gone, and it won’t be that big of a deal, but right now I think it’s an important thing to publicize. Representation definitely matters.  


Q: How might the new infrastructure bill affect your day-to-day job?

A: My job involves the quotidian: In my world, immediate needs take precedence: are the cars we have in good repair? What needs fixing right now? The infrastructure bill is aimed more at future, big-picture projects. One day that might include entirely new classes of cars, and if so, I’ll be involved in those decisions.


Overseeing a massive agency’s massive IT needs

As the MTA’s Chief Technology Officer since 2020, Portnoy is at the helm of a drive to modernize the organization’s technology ecosystem, strengthen cybersecurity practices, and support the MTA’s more than 75,000 employees.


Q: Can you tell us a little about your academic journey and your time at NYU Tandon?

A: I grew up in Russia and attended the Rostov State Transport University, known by the acronym RGUPS and run under the auspices of the Ministry of Transportation. I studied microprocessor devices and electrical engineering, with a focus telecommunications and computer engineering. After we moved to the U.S., I earned a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) degree from Pace, and in 1998 I earned a master’s degree in Information Systems Engineering at what was affectionately called Brooklyn Poly back then. I studied with Robert Flynn, who is now a professor emeritus, and I’ll be forever grateful for everything I learned. 


Q: Have you remained involved with the school?

A: Several years after I had graduated and embarked on a career, I began thinking about getting a doctoral degree in computer science and perhaps teaching one day. I approached some of my former professors, and they explained that given my industry experience, I didn’t actually need a Ph.D. in order to teach. In fact, Nasir Memon, now head of NYU Tandon Online, suggested that I give it a try right here at my alma mater, so I’ve been an adjunct professor since 2014. Additionally, I’ve gotten active in programs like Cyber Fellows, which is a master’s program in cybersecurity with a strong emphasis on getting input from government and industry partners in order to keep up with the constantly evolving threat landscape


Q: What was your career trajectory like?

A: I joined IBM in 1993 and remained there almost a dozen years. It’s a great company, and I had a lot of room for growth and advancement, but I started wondering what it would be like to put my IT skills to use in an organization more involved in public service. In 2006 I accepted a post as Chief Information Officer at the Levin Institute, a think tank of the State University of New York dedicated to issues of globalization, entrepreneurship, and workplace development, and I then held a similar position at a nonprofit called Safe Horizon, devoted to helping victims of crime and abuse through their crises. In 2016 I became the Senior Vice President of Technology for the Anti-Defamation League, a global civil rights organization that has been combatting hate and anti-Semitism for more than a century. 

I feel that we all have an obligation to try to make the world a better place. That’s especially true if you’ve had the benefit of a good education; you should be using the skills and knowledge you’ve gained not merely to make a living but to move society forward.


Q:  Why join the MTA?

A:  I realize that there’s a large segment of the regional population that requires public transportation to get to work. My position gives me a chance to do something with the potential to make the lives of millions of New Yorkers a little easier, because when the subways, buses, and trains run smoothly, everyone’s day goes better.

I’m particularly proud that during the pandemic, we kept the city moving. There were many, many nurses, delivery people, and other essential service providers who were able to do their jobs thanks to the MTA.


Q: How might the new infrastructure bill affect your day-to-day job?

A: While it's impossible to predict how funds will be allocated, we do know the current administration takes cybersecurity very seriously, and already several directives have emerged from various governmental agencies. The other thing we know is that information technology changes every few years, and on the cybersecurity front, the threat landscape is constantly evolving. It takes significant investment to keep up, but the MTA is fully dedicated to doing so, in order to keep our riders safe and informed.