Celebrating the STEMinists of NetApp: Mekka Williams
In a world that’s always changing, it’s our adaptability and our attitude that help us turn problems into opportunities and empower the communities around us.
I’m a software engineer at heart, so I approach problems the same way I approach debugging: Instead of focusing on symptoms, the first thing I do is clearly define the actual problem. Because if you ask the right questions, you can whittle away the noise of symptoms and opinions and focus on the facts. And by defining the problem itself, you can break it down to its most basic components.
After you understand what you have control of, and where you need collaboration to move forward, you can address the smaller pieces and push on until you get to a resolution.
To me, a problem is any obstacle that lies between your intention and your goal. A solution removes that obstacle. There can be many solutions to a problem, but the solution you want is the one that’s the most resilient, the most comprehensive, and the least sensitive to changes in requirements and complexities.
Today, more than ever before, innovation moves at light speed. So, as you address problems and create solutions, it’s important that you communicate with your team so that everyone understands the changes being introduced. If you adapt for change and communicate well, then everyone keeps moving forward—together.
Adaptability is the most valuable skill you can learn—especially in software development and engineering. Innovation, technology, your environment, and your projects—they’re always changing. Having an adaptable and flexible attitude will present you with more opportunities than getting too comfortable in a space.
The best part is that attitude and adaptability build on each other in a feedback loop. If you allow yourself to have a more flexible attitude, you learn more and you grow more, which in turn makes you more adaptable.
The pandemic has been a real test of our adaptability.
In many of our engineering environments, there was already a cross-geo collaborative effort in place, with some teams in person and others remote. But the move to full virtual has been a real shock to the system.
Before the pandemic, we took being in person for granted. Then, when we all went remote, for months, none of us put our cameras on. Finally, someone said, “I miss your faces,” and it reminded us how much the synergy changes when you can see someone’s face. Engineering culture can be very “camera off,” so being more comfortable on camera changes the collaboration, which can be helpful.
Being in a virtual environment means exercising communication muscles we didn’t know we had! When we interact virtually, we don’t have the physical cues we usually rely on, so we have to be clearer and more intentional if we’re going to help folks feel more at ease.
This lack of in-person interaction especially affects junior engineers and those just starting their careers, so we’re doing more to help support and connect with these groups regularly.
I’m incredibly passionate about providing this kind of mentorship to junior engineers and early career folks entering an engineering workforce—even if it’s just as a friend or an ear or shoulder. And it’s especially important for women coming into engineering, who often find that they’re the only woman, not just in their immediate team, but at any level.
So, I work with a couple of mentees. We meet over Zoom (with our cameras on!) or, since the pandemic has relaxed a little bit, we meet in person when we can. We talk about work, about their careers, about what’s going on in their lives. We build a connection.
My passion for mentorship extends beyond my role at NetApp® and out into the communities where we live and work. For me, this means working with students and schools to support STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) initiatives.
The pandemic has made this work challenging, because even though we know that the students benefit most from being in person, there’s reluctance to go into schools. Also, we have to consider privacy concerns around virtual mentorship and tutoring, especially with very young children.
But although I’ve been unable to do a lot of the traditional work that I did pre-pandemic, new opportunities have emerged. For example, I’m working with the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, helping to fortify its computer science curriculum, and I visit as a guest speaker. It’s a “computer science for all”-type program, so it was always virtual anyway, and it reaches students in rural communities who wouldn’t otherwise have access to the computer science curriculum. It’s something that might not have crossed my path if not for the pandemic.
That being said, I’m looking forward to the day when we can go back in the classroom and be with those students again, especially the middle-school-aged kids.
Middle school is the best age to teach and encourage underrepresented groups, particularly young girls, toward STEM careers. It’s important to reach the girls before they’re influenced by the stigma that STEM isn’t for girls and start to doubt their own intellectual ability for STEM fields.
In engineering, as in life, the only constant is change, so there will always be new problems to debug.
First of all, always bring your A-game. Always do your best work. It will set the tone of your reputation and create opportunities for you.
Second, understand that your A-game on its own isn’t enough. Your attitude, your ability to communicate, the relationships you build—these are all vital, no matter what your path is.
Third, know what that path is. What are your goals? Spend the time to figure out what it is you want. And don’t just do this once and consider it done. Your goals will change as you mature and grow and as your interests develop, so check in regularly.
When you combine your best work, your flexible, adaptable attitude, and your relationships, you’ll reach every goal you set for yourself—on any path you choose.
Learn more about NetApp’s team of cloud storage specialists and how they can help you reach your A-game by unleashing the power of your data.
Mekka is a software engineer with experience across multiple industries and many iterations of technological advancement. She presently works for the Office of the CTO (Chief Technology Officer) for Public Cloud Services. Her current responsibilities include evaluating emerging technologies for partnership and integration with NetApp solutions as well as architecting innovative solutions using NetApp’s robust cloud portfolio. Mekka is currently focused on innovation and development, in 5G and DevOps/DevSecOps. Mekka has a passion for inclusion and diversity in STEM professions and serves as a mentor to young, underrepresented students in the community, young women professionals, and junior engineers.
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