On May 5, IGNITE Worldwide hosted a virtual panel with Microsoft, focused on Engineering Careers for the Non-Programmer. It was a popular topic, with more than 50 girls and non-binary students attending! Liz Bander, a Senior Program Manager with Skype for Business/Microsoft Teams, kicked off the event by giving some insight on why IGNITE’s mission matters so much – STEM careers are the fastest growing & some of the highest paying careers in the world, yet only a small percentage of its workforce is women!
The first panelist was Cathy Moya, a Senior Program Manager who works with Microsoft Endpoint Manager. She said that as a kid she read every manual and knew how to work every part of her home appliances, though she thought she didn’t like math! It was when she taught herself DOS (a computer operating system) that she discovered her love of making computers talk to each other. She shared that she’s never written a line of code in her 18 years at Microsoft, with her roles evolving from writing mouse manuals to now connecting engineers with customers so they understand the need. Whatever you love, she said, there is tech in it! “Find the Tech, Do the Tech, Stay in the Tech”!
Kat Ronay is an Interconnection Specialist working with Data Centers/Network Engineering, which means she not only makes computers talk, she also helps build the internet by finding fiber optic cables in the ground to connect to their data centers. Kat took lots of different classes in school and got a Liberal Arts degree, but minored in Computer Studies because she wanted to fix her own software. She’s been at Microsoft for 4 years, with her role now more involved on the business side, as she was curious to learn about the whys behind network configuration. Kat said you never know what a class will inspire or lead to, and she advised students to keep asking questions and learning!
Ishani Gupta, a Software Engineer with the Azure Firewall team, was always interested in STEM because her dad was a Mechanical Engineer. In college she kept up good grades and attended many networking events, which is when she was truly inspired by technology. Ishani admitted she experienced self-doubt while obtaining a Masters in Computer Science because she was surrounded by students who were more experienced. She gained confidence by discovering her unique skill set and knowing those skills are boundaryless!
Next was Pepsy Wirth, Chief of Staff for Xbox Compliance. Pepsy grew up in LA without a lot of resources and faced some significant hardships in school and her personal life. As an adult she wasn’t sure what her career path looked like but wanted her children to grow up with security and opportunities, so she went back to college. She went on to get 3 Networking degrees in 3 years! She’s now in Xbox Compliance and loves her job! She told the students that they have many years ahead of them and they all have the opportunity to succeed: “If I can do it, you can too!”
Sufen Fong is a Senior Program Manager in charge of hardware that maintains cloud infrastructure. Growing up in Singapore, she wanted to use Science and Technology to make a difference in the world. She worked in the Singapore defense industry as an engineer designing hardware systems, then earned her MBA and got a job at Microsoft as a Supply Chain Manager, a function that gets products to the right place at the right time. One piece of advice she shared is that anything worth doing may not be easy but will be worth it in the long run. Be open to change and always pursue your passions!
Katie Stone Perez is an Inclusion Strategist for Gaming for Everyone, where she gets to help make products more inclusive for the 2.6 billion gamers in the world! It was a chance encounter with a Microsoft Recruiter at a hockey game that inspired her to apply and become a Tester for Xbox! She was part of a team that tested a 3D Skeletal Tracking program, and as the only woman tester, when she got in front of the product it didn’t recognize her body type. That was an obvious lesson in why it’s important to have more diverse teams! Even though Katie has never written code, she holds more than 60 patents through Microsoft!
After sharing their stories, the panelists answered questions from the audience. Students asked lots of insightful questions about education and experiences in the workplace. When asked about favorite classes, the speakers’ common theme was that classes of any variety can have important value. Katie noted that taking many different classes helped her try new things and become good at problem solving and communicating with people, which she does frequently in her job now.
The girls were interested to know the panelists’ most rewarding projects at work. Pepsy’s most rewarding project was helping successfully launch Xbox 1 all around the world! Kat worked in a network center when everyone thought computers would crash in the year 2000. Being part of a global team that made sure the internet didn’t break was really exciting!
The panelists were also honest about challenges they have faced, but stressed that you are never alone and there are always people who want to help and support you. They shared that it’s important to speak up and report discrimination or bullying and advised having a group of people you can rely on will help you resolve issues and get support. A big takeaway was to not be afraid to ask for help!
Students left the panel with a greater understanding of engineering career opportunities as well as inspiration and advice for finding and pursuing their interests! Thank you to Liz Bander, Cathy Moya, Kat Roney, Ishani Gupta, Pepsy Wirth, Sufen Fong, and Katie Stone Perez for sharing your stories to inspire girls in STEM!
After attending this event:
Here’s what the students thought of the event:
“I enjoyed how enthusiastic the panelists were about their current careers – it inspires me and gives me hope that I’ll find a career either in STEM or in something else that I will love just as much as they do.” – 8th grade
“Today I enjoyed hearing everyone’s stories, and what specifically stood out was when one woman described her journey to where she was, and how she took a class on religion. I am not personally religious, and I had actually been debating whether I should take a religious studies class next year. My dilemma was that I did not believe it had any real-world application in a career, so I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to pursue it. After hearing her story I realized that there is nothing stopping me!” – 10th grade
“I loved hearing people’s stories on how they got their jobs. I loved everything about this event! Thank you so much for inspiring me to do something I haven’t thought about!” – 7th grade
“This panel was a much needed perspective for all the girls who did not see themselves working in the tech field because of their different interests and passions. I know this panel helped the girls who would be great program managers, researchers, designers, testers, etc. in seeing themselves contribute to STEM and inclusiveness in their own way. As someone who is pursuing a STEM degree, it was also a valuable perspective for me to see the many different paths and options STEM has to offer.” – IGNITE Alum
“I enjoyed getting to hear everyone’s backgrounds before they got into STEM because it shows me that anyone could be in STEM.” – 7th grade
“The diversity in women and the different stories is what I enjoyed. Pepsy’s story inspired me because I see myself in her, not completely but I can relate to aspects of her life.” – College
“I thought it was very cool how they were making a difference and inspiring others. You guys were great!” – 7th grade
“You don’t have to like Math or Science, you choose what you want to do.” – 7th grade
“I really loved hearing the backstory of how everyone got where they are.”
“It inspired me to further my education. 100% perfection!” – 9th grade
“I liked when the shared stories about themselves. It was inspiring.” – 6th grade
“Hearing everyone’s journey and how they got into technology.” – 11th grade
“Love the diversity!”
“The stories were inspiring.” – 8th grade
“The speakers discussing their favorite teacher and classes.”