Lessons Learned Building a Career in STEM
Growing up in the 1970s, STEM – in my case engineering and computer science – wasn’t a field women typically pursued. So when I showed up at Virginia Tech it was no surprise that I was one of the only women in my mechanical engineering class. Later on, at Boston University working on my Master’s Degree in computer science, the picture wasn’t much different. Although things have changed over the past decades, there’s certainly room for improvement. Today, even though roughly 20 percent of today’s computer science graduates are women, the amount of female computer scientists is actually declining: from 37 percent in 1995 to 24 percent in 2017, according to Girls Who Code.
What I didn’t know as a college freshman, is that my college experience, early education, and childhood would prepare me to eventually lead one of the largest IT projects for the U.S. telecom industry.
I literally grew up around STEM. My father, grandfather and the rest of my family worked in STEM fields, and from a young age, they all encouraged me to explore my interest in engineering. When I attended Virginia Tech in the mid-1980s, I was among the eight percent of women taking engineering classes. After Virginia Tech, I received a Master of Computer Science degree from Boston University. At every stage in my academic and professional pursuits, the fact that I’m a woman was never an issue in my mind.
Encouragement and inspiration from family and educators is particularly important between ages 9 to 12. Research by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement and others show that after age 12, girls start losing interest in science and math. When they reach high school, they choose not to take electives in chemistry, physics and calculus, effectively closing the door on admissions to college programs or scholarships in STEM—ultimately eliminating the chance for a STEM career.
There’s a lot that businesses, governments and schools can do—and are doing—to encourage girls to consider a career in computer science and other STEM fields. But it’s equally important that girls also receive encouragement and inspiration from their family. In fact, I am proof of that.
Lead by Example
Young girls who are confident in their ability to learn and master complex topics go on to inspire others to follow suit.
Case in point: I recently led the multi-year transition of the North American Number Portability Administration Center (NPAC) from the long-standing incumbent to iconectiv, where I am an executive vice president and head of my business unit. The NPAC enables consumers to keep their phone number (home or cell) and change telecom service providers for any reason at all—such as better service or a better price. The NPAC plays a critical role in both the U.S. economy and everyday life. Over a million times each day, the NPAC ensures that the roughly 650 million U.S. phone numbers managed by 1,500-plus telecom service providers always have the correct, updated information they need to route, rate and bill for calls.
The NPAC is the world’s largest and most complex number portability system. In order to make the transition successful, we had to build our own system from scratch, while meeting strict industry requirements and government security and performance standards.
The confidence in both my STEM skills and myself was crucial to success. For example, I had to keep nearly 300 coders, testers, project managers, system engineers and other experts motivated, focused and working as a team over the project’s three-year span.
In my more than 25 years of cultivating my operational and technical skills, and managing complex projects at iconectiv, Canoe Ventures and IDT Telecom, I’ve found that although every participant wants a voice, they all still want and need a leader who then decides and acts. They have to trust their leader to make the right decisions at the right time, every time, to keep the project on time and on budget. Part of this comes down to respecting their leader’s technical know-how. In my case, it came down to my engineering and coding experience developing and testing millions of lines of code, operating large-scale systems and fundamentally leading talented individuals and teams to solve multi-dimensional problems.
But it’s time that people outside the room—particularly girls—hear about it. There’s a lot that they can learn from the role that women play in this and other major STEM projects:
- Be a self-starter instead of waiting for someone else to tell you what to do. That way, you create opportunities to lead and make a difference.
- Have a voice and make it heard. I encourage every one of my team members to share their input and opinion, no matter how insignificant it may seem. Don’t be a note taker—participate.
- I also tell my team members that they’re expected to sweat the details. In any engineering or science field, understanding and paying attention to the details is often the difference between something working and something not.
The bottom line: Successful projects require great leadership and the skillsets to execute. Closing the STEM gender gap also requires leadership—including by example.