STEM @ Work: Best & Brightest

Two executives’ perspectives on STEM.

Every company seeks the best talent, but today, the “best” for many companies equates to individuals with clear understanding of both technology and business.

Take aerospace company Lockheed Martin. Its business is centered on technology so it obviously has a strong need for technical talent, especially in engineering and computer programming. But the business-technical mix has become more “crucial to long-term career success,” says Sondra Barbour, Lockheed Martin’s executive vice president, Information Systems & Global Solutions. Barbour herself has degrees in both computer and information sciences and accounting. “As I advanced in my career, I found that having a mixture of both skill sets became increasingly important,” she says. “We’ve found that some of our technical solutions—including those in our cybersecurity business—can be best developed with teams from different disciplines. For instance, sociology or psychology majors can provide great insight into the adversaries themselves. So, we look for the best candidates who we believe can provide the best solutions for our customers.”

Even companies that aren’t traditionally considered “high tech” are becoming more tech-oriented. At media company NBCUniversal, the pace of technological innovation has been accelerating since 2013, when cable company Comcast acquired a 100 percent stake in NBCU with its purchase of General Electric’s shares in the company. Like many other companies, NBCU has found itself competing for the same talent that once might have sought jobs only at high-tech firms such as Microsoft or Google, says Atish Banerjea, the company’s chief information officer. He holds a bachelor’s degree in commerce and a master’s in computer information systems.

“Technology increasingly has become the driver for how NBCU delivers products and services to its customers,” Banerjea explains. “That’s why we have architected the organization to have divisional CIOs for each of our different businesses in film, theme parks, broadcast and cable, sports, and news.” Each CIO makes sure that the people in his or her division understand how that business works, what the challenges are, and what solutions they’ll need to develop to reach their customers in the future, not just today.

“We need people with very strong technology skills and very strong business skills and very strong communication skills,” he says. “For us, hiring someone with skills in just STEM fields or just business has become largely irrelevant.”

On the following pages, Barbour and Banerjea speak further on how their industries are changing—and what skills their companies need from both sides of the STEM-business divide.

Sondra Barbour of Lockheed Martin

Does a lack of knowledge in either STEM fields or business slow career progression for some in your company?
I wouldn’t say it slows career progression, but business acumen becomes more important as people move forward into leadership roles. For instance, entry-level engineers would need to understand the technical aspects of a program to be successful. More experienced employees who manage large portfolios need to understand the financial, human resource, and operational aspects of their portfolios.

In addition, as a technology business, we think it’s important to create a customer-centric culture to ensure our scientists and engineers are always looking at how a solution will benefit our customers’ ultimate goals. We need to make sure we aren’t creating elegant technology for technology’s sake—we need to keep our customers’ business requirements in mind as well.

You made Forbes’ list of Most Powerful Women in Business in 2014, as well as STEMConnector’s Top 100 Women Leaders in STEM. What educational experiences were most valuable to you in bringing you to where you are today?
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of problem-solving and project management skills. When a company’s mission is to solve large-scale, complex problems, these are going to be critical skills in whatever role you may take on.

Many moments in my career helped me grow as a businesswoman and an engineer, but they all have something in common—they occurred when I took on assignments or positions that stretched me outside of my comfort zone. One example was my decision to lead our corporate internal audit team. That required my relocation from the place I started my career—Philadelphia—to our headquarters in Washington, D.C. But, that experience provided me valuable insight into both our business globally and myself personally.

Women are still underrepresented in both STEM and business. What do you think needs to happen to bring more women into both?
First, we need to make sure we are capturing the imagination of young people in the exciting world of STEM at an early age. We need positive societal role models in order to improve perceptions at the elementary and middle school levels. At Lockheed Martin, we’ve been focused on getting young girls excited about math and science through our sponsorship of the USA Science and Engineering Festival and through a US$6 million partnership with Project Lead the Way to expand STEM programs in urban school districts. We also are working with Girls Inc. in a program that connects some of our women engineers with girls ages nine to 12 to strengthen their interest and confidence in STEM.

Second, we need to tell women who are entering the workplace to say “yes” to opportunities. Any time I’ve checked back with those I have mentored and advised to take on new challenges, the feedback is the same. The scariest part was saying “yes”—they always learned a lot, grew personally and professionally, and ultimately are happy with the decisions they made. Uncertainty should never stop us from taking the next leap—that acknowledgement and support from others will allow more women to shine.

Atish Banerjea of NBCUniversal

What skills in STEM and business do you look for in new hires?
When GE was our parent company, we outsourced a lot of our intellectual property and engineering; in the process we lost a lot of our “engineering DNA.” We have been rebuilding that over the last two years. It’s important for us to have people with strong programming and engineering skills; people who know about servers, networking, and operating systems; and people with skills in user interface design. Most people in senior positions need technical degrees and MBAs on top of that.

What kinds of training opportunities does NBCU offer?
We have a strong mentoring program, and we send employees with business degrees to third-party providers for technical training. In addition, we partner with institutions such as Temple University, which sends in faculty to offer training. One of the courses they created for us taught our technical people to discuss technology in layman’s terms, so that businesspeople can understand them.

In February 2014, NBCU opened its new US$17 million Technology Center in New Jersey where employees, researchers, startups, and venture capitalists collaborate on new products. How does this center serve as a bridge between the tech-based and business- based aspects of NBCU?
One reason we built the Technology Center is to attract the type of people interested in working for a pure tech company. The center was designed after facilities in Silicon Valley, with open floor plans, next-generation technology, games, and lounges for relaxation.

It also houses Media Lab, which focuses on incubating new technologies from startups and established companies, and applying those technologies to our businesses. We’re playing with location-based technologies, 3-D printing, virtual worlds, gaming, mobile—technologies that our customers are now using to consume content in new and different ways.

What trends are affecting NBCU that business schools should be most aware of?
The way that people consume content today is very different from the way they consumed it five years ago and very different from how it will be five years from now. That’s why we now view ourselves as a technology company just as much as a media company. And technology is becoming one of the key business drivers—if not the main business driver—in many other industries. For that reason, business schools need to place technology at the front and center of their programs. Every faculty member, not just those teaching MIS or CIS, should have a solid understanding of technology. Every faculty member and student needs to take at least one course in programming— whether it’s Ruby on Rails, C++, Java, or even something as simple as HTML—so they understand how technology is evolving.

Every faculty member and student needs to take at least one course in programming—whether it’s Ruby on Rails, C++, Java, or even something as simple as HTML—so they understand how technology is evolving.

You recently were named one of Computerworld’s Premier 100 IT Leaders for 2015. What educational experiences have been most valuable to you in bringing you to where you are today?
I completed my master’s degree in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when it wasn’t as important to have both technical and business backgrounds. But I was fortunate enough to have taken an educational path that gave me that experience. More people need to make sure they pursue that blend of education.

or a programmer—she’s interested in writing. But I encourage her to develop other academic and technical skills, to build the left brain and right brain together. I think that blend of skills will enable her to be more well-rounded and successful in her career.