Yesterday I attended the Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) Conference for the first time. When I first learned about the event, it didn’t even cross my mind that it could be for me, since I’m neither a scientist nor an engineer. But when I received a communication from the Human Centered Design and Engineering (HCDE) department at UW, where I’m currently enrolled, with a call for students to attend, I decided to check it out.
I’m so glad I did. Spending the day with a crowd of bright, determined, and inquisitive women was motivating and energizing. I came away from the event with concrete plans for moving forward in my career and a heavy dose of inspiration.
A few of my main takeaways:
- Keeping an organized digital archive can be beneficial for career development and protect against data-loss.
- Systematically seeking out and maintaining mentor relationships can have profound and unforeseeable career benefits.
- In order to communicate your strengths, you first have to understand them yourself.
- The excellent advice that the closing panelists gave to their past selves.
Conference Opening and Keynote
The conference opened with a presentation from Keynote Speaker Naria K. Santa Lucia, Executive Director of the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship (WSOS). She started by describing the boon that STEM careers had bestowed on her immigrant family, her father’s scientific education allowing him to give them the life he dreamed of. She went on to remember some of the often-overlooked women who have contributed to mathematical, scientific, and engineering achievement, including Stephanie Kwolek (inventor of Kevlar) and Olive Dennis (railroad engineer).
Charmingly, the tables were centerpieced with the biographies of influential women from STEM professions.
The point that probably made the biggest impression on me was the importance of mentors and sponsors to career progression. A mentor, she explained, may provide assistance and give advice from time to time. A sponsor, on the other hand, plays a much more active role and is invested in your career success. As her talk drew to a close, my eyes fell on a relevant workshop later in the day. I decided it would be worth my time to attend, selected two additional topics, and wandered toward the first session.
Plenary Session: Career Binders
The first session was entitled Creating Your Career Binder, and was presented by Katrina Jones of Boeing. The description had given me the impression that it would focus on career planning. It turned out that the topic was compiling and keeping an ongoing log of relevant career data to refer to later on. Although it wasn’t what I expected, I got lots of excellent tips that I do plan to apply.
The career binder that Katrina described is a cloud-based and continuously updated directory of folders and files relating to goal setting, self promotion, record-keeping, networking, and learning. There have certainly been times where I had to scramble to dig up contact information for an old supervisor, or wrack my brain for the details of long-past projects. Both experiences could easily be avoided with a fully-fleshed out career binder.
My favorite two inclusions were “Leadership Learning Notes,” a list of quotes, ideas stories or concepts distilled from trainings, and the “Politically Correct Phrase List,” a quick reference of phrases for use in tense workplace interactions. For example, when faced with a sudden offensive opinion, one might respond with a pre-prepared, “You don’t really believe that, do you?” I can definitely see the value of having a stockpile of phrases on the ready to de-escalate sticky situations.
Career Resource Fair & Lunch
Next was a small career and education fair on the first floor of the HUB. There were tables set up for various STEM departments at UW, which I passed by (very happy in HCDE, thank you!). I did inquire at several company tables (Pinterest, Zillow, Microsoft) about upcoming UX design internships, got some good leads, and picked up some satisfying swag. Once I’d made the rounds there, I entered a raffle, had some lunch, and caught up on some reading for class before heading to the next workshop.
Session #1: STEM Mentoring
The workshop was entitled Started From the Bottom, Now She’s Here: How STEM Mentoring Can Change Your Life. Drake’s similarly named song set the mood as we waited for the session to begin. Janet Phan, Global Technology Program manager for PwC, went on to describe her underprivileged background. She was the first in her immigrant family to go to college, where she worked her way through on minimum wage jobs and scholarships. She talked about all the mentors who have influenced her career and contributed to her success over the years.
The second segment of her presentation went into concrete, step-by-step detail about how to cultivate a mentor relationship. Janet described what to look for in a mentor, how to approach them for an initial meeting, and even what makes a good meeting location (not in the office!). In preparing for the first meeting, she emphasized the importance of thorough research. Be familiar with their achievements, community activity, and any other publicly available information.
She advised that during the meeting, you should mainly ask about them and their experience, but also take note of the level of interest they show in you. After all, some level of mutual interest is necessary for a successful mentoring relationship. Afterwards, reflect on the conversation and send a thank you note, being sure suggest another meeting in the future if the connection seems promising. Be sure to check in between meetings with updates on actions they suggested or relevant follow up. Finally, repeat this process until you feel comfortable asking them to be your mentor.
As someone who is in the process of moving from a career in graphic design to user experience design, I look forward to use these steps to reach out to people whose work and careers I admire. A Q&A at the end revealed some additional words of wisdom from Ms. Phan:
- Even if someone seems like they’re very busy, there’s no harm in requesting a meeting.
- The more people you broadcast your career intentions to, the more connections will come your way.
- Ask for what you want, even if it doesn’t seem to fit with the rules. People are often happy to go above and beyond to help if you make a good case for it.
- Get comfortable with being told “no.”
Session #2: Articulating Your Strengths
The final session of the day, titled Tell Me About Yourself: Know Your Strengths and How to Articulate Them, was probably my favorite. Christina Sciabarra and Lindi Mujugira, Phd of Bellevue College adapted the hour-long workshop from a 2-day seminar developed by Drs. Bernard and Jean Haldane, founders of the Dependable Strengths Center.
In response to the question, “Tell me about yourself,” most people give a short, chronological retelling of their most recent career accomplishments. But, the speakers argued, this typically doesn’t give a very good idea of who a person is and what their capabilities are. Instead it’s better to respond with your strengths, and to do that you first have to know what they are. This exploration begins by recalling “good experiences.” A good experience is something that you feel you did well, enjoyed doing, and are proud of.
For example, I recalled a project I did as Art Director at ESD & Associates. A financial services client wanted to redesign their website, and quickly. Provided with only basic direction and a rough wireframe, I designed and prototyped an initial design within a one week timeframe. The client loved it, and I felt proud of a job well-done. From this anecdote, my fellow attendees were able to distill a few strengths: calm, creative, determined, organized. I recognized these qualities, and was amazed that they came through in such a short anecdote.
Obviously, an hour was only enough time to get a brief overview of the Dependable Strengths curriculum. The full program is offered quarterly at UW, and I intend to sign up for the next one.
The conference closed with a panel discussion which included prominent professionals in science and engineering. One of the panelists was Dr. Linda Boyle, Professor of Transportation Engineering at UW, who I recently met with to discuss UX opportunities in self-driving cars. It was great to get more insight into her career path and hear about the outreach she has done to get young women involved in STEM fields.
A sage piece of advice came from Uzma Siddiqi, Technology Innovation Principal Engineer at Seattle City Lights. She told of her experience balancing the demands of work and family. For 9 years, she was a stay-at-home mom, a decision which she has no regrets about because it was right for her and her family. When she was ready, she found that her skills were still valuable and relevant. Within two months of deciding to re-enter the workforce, she had found a job at Seattle City Lights. In the end, she said, “We all take different paths. Take the path that works for you, and don’t worry about what anyone else is doing.”
When asked about whether women need to act like men to be successful in STEM fields, Colleen Aubrey, Director of Self Service Performance Advertising at Amazon vehemently disagreed. She urged the women in the audience to develop their genuine communication style and find a workplace where that communication style is valued. “You need to find a way to be heard,” she said.
Preparation and Confidence
Shiela Edwards Lange, President of Seattle Central College, emphasized the importance of preparation. As a young professional, she attended a talk on impostor syndrome by expert Valerie Young, and recognized the tendency in herself. In addition to the popular “fake it till you make it” advice, Lange found that her confidence was greatly bolstered by planning and structured preparation. Before her first large public speaking engagement, she was extremely nervous. So she worked with a speech coach and practiced until she was comfortable. Now she has no trouble spontaneously addressing large crowds.
Advice to Past Selves
In the final question, the moderator asked the panelists what advice they would give to their pre-professional selves. To paraphrase their answers:
- Colleen Aubrey (Amazon): Rather than focusing on outputs, focus on the inputs you can control. Be persistent, courageous and patient.
- Linda Boyle (UW): Take advantage of conferences, clubs, and all the things you can experience at a university. After your first job, no one cares about GPA.
- Uzma Siddiqi (Seattle City Lights): Make lemonade out of lemons, focus on problems in a positive way.
- Sheila Edwards Lange (Seattle Central College): Speak your dreams and be intentional about pursuing them.
- Jenna P. Carpenter (Campbell University): Ignore doubts, ignore naysayers.
Throughout the day, I contemplated my initial hesitance to attend an event targeted at scientists and engineers, and was reminded of an acronym I discovered recently. STEAM, which nestles an “A” for Art + Design between the highly in-demand fields of science, technology, engineering and math, is a movement being championed by the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). In recognition of the widespread integration of design thinking into numerous fields, the initiative makes the case that “Art + Design are poised to transform our economy in the 21st century just as science and technology did in the last century.” As someone who until recently thought of myself primarily as a creative professional, this is a powerful message.
Today’s conference was inclusive of this new framework. My perception of my role in the field of technology was altered, and I left feeling like I have a truly valuable role to play in the innovations of the future. I’m more excited that ever to delve deeper into UX, and greatly look forward to next year’s WiSE Conference.