Friday, May 17, 2019

Does My Tech Career Count?

Happy Friday friends! I'm off today and know you'll enjoy this piece from my friend of nearly 20 years, Shelby. Shelby Cohen is a former food critic for the Watertown Daily Times and the blogger behind Big Hungry Shelby, an Upstate New York food blog that promotes mom and pop restaurants and the shunning of Red Lobster. She has a degree in communication from Geneseo State University and has worked in public relations for the defense industry for 20 years.

For the majority of my 20 year career in public relations, I have worked in the defense industry. But I’m no STEM whiz. Ironically, I failed my math final exam in the tenth grade, necessitating summer school to maintain my honor roll standing and grade point average. In college, the panic attacks triggered by math class were so severe, I would have to leave the room. I wasn’t what anyone would call a good STEM student.

STEM – or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – is a buzzy educational term these days, particularly for girls. Because young women typically begin to fall behind in these subjects in middle school – opting for fields of study in the softer disciplines of English, history, art, or music – a huge effort has been mounted in the last decade to encourage their participation in them.

The fact is, tech companies can’t hire enough women engineers and computing professionals because just not enough women stick with these subjects in school. That, in turn, means these companies struggle to meet diversity numbers, and wage gaps and gender bias persist over time due to a lack of female candidates in the talent pool. The issue is more complex even than all that, of course: don’t get me started on what happens to women when they begin families, and how that effects c-suite diversity metrics down the stream.

When I was in school in the 90s, there were no STEM programs; no corporations investing in my public school to inspire my interest in math or science, and even if there had been, I suspect I still would have gravitated towards those softer disciplines. Words have always made sense to me – numbers, not quite so much. So while I thrived in AP English and was thrilled to discover there was a career in which I could use words to change other peoples’ minds and influence consumers, I drifted further and further from interest in those STEM subjects.

Yet, at just 23, I began working for the largest defense contractor in the nation. I was writing articles about planes with enormous gun barrels mounted on their noses and electronic warfare systems that gave American soldiers the ability to distinguish friends from foes on modern battlefields, and working with some of the most brilliant engineering minds on the planet. It was my job to understand what they did and turn the tech into digestible information for everyday folks. All these years later, and for another company, I work with reporters from outlets like Aviation Week to explain how advanced flight controls can ensure a pilot knows what commands his co-pilot is giving their aircraft and vice versa, and, yes, write and edit articles about how important STEM education is in our schools.

Most tech companies need people like me – non-technical professionals – to keep their doors open. We’re financial wizards, organizational nerds, human resources experts, and contracts nitpickers. In my company, they call what we do support functions, because the communications team, along with those other departments, enable the engineers to invent, develop, produce, and sell. But even though we’re not engineers, we’re completely steeped in the innovation taking place inside our walls. There are hundreds of people who work for my company who can’t figure out the tip at the end of a team dinner, but have high-paying jobs in one of the biggest high-tech organizations in the world.

You know Kristen Wiig’s character in The Martian, incredulous when her colleagues name a secret meeting after a scene in The Lord of the Rings? That kind of interaction is a regular occurrence for me. But despite the fact that I am not an engineer, I very much have a successful career in technology that has allowed me to meet presidential candidates, collaborate with Oscar-winning film directors, fly on helicopters, and travel the world.

My job requires me to understand our products enough to educate the masses about why they’re beneficial for our military. No, I don’t understand how the chip inside a single board computer is designed or built, but you better believe I have to know what it does once it’s orbiting earth in a satellite. This is not work the village idiot is qualified to accomplish. Still, by most peoples’ standards, I would not be considered a woman in technology. It’s time to change that perception, especially if we want to prepare our children for the workplace of the future.

Let’s open our apertures on what it means to work in the careers of tomorrow. Yes, we need more girls to follow STEM paths, if that’s where their talents lie. But let’s be careful not to deliver that message at the exclusion of the notion that literature, art, sociology, history, and music have value and a place in the job market.

That girl who always talks to her neighbor during the lesson could be Google’s vice president of human resources in 25 years, and that boy who flunks every bio lab experiment because giving his frog a funeral makes more sense to him than the scientific process may be the business development exec for whom Boeing will be searching in a decade or so. As a society, we tend to latch onto ideas like, “STEM = Good,” abandoning a wider view, such as that a student who excels in art could become the graphic designer who heads up the ad campaign that propels the next big social media giant into the hearts of consumers.

Of course educating our young people in these disciplines is important, but there always will be more than one path to success, and I worry than the predominance of STEM messaging makes kids who just aren’t meant for those subjects feel less than. It’s simply not true that science and math are the only keys to unlocking a career in tech.

I’m living proof: you can have a successful career in a thriving technology industry even if you failed your Math II final.


Shelby will check comments here and can also be reached via email

Happy weekend!

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