This year, Fire Tech is interviewing people in the tech industry to get an insight into their career. We want to make sure our families are aware of all the great things happening in tech and the different career paths there are in emerging technologies. To kick things off we’re starting with LaDawn.
Can you walk me through your career in tech? How did you get started, and what opportunities did it give you?
I was born in the 70’s in New York. At the time there was a lot of funding to schools from corporate companies. For example, I had an Apple computer in the science room at my school and we had access to the latest technologies — this is a stark difference to what the UK’s best schools have to offer today.
Interestingly, at the school there were no grades. Everyone was judged on their efforts. After that, I went to a secondary school closer to home because my mum wanted to keep me near home.
My teacher encouraged me to join an engineering society but I rejected it because I thought it was nerdy! In the end, my teacher cornered me and said I must try it – and it was the breakthrough I needed. It was a progressive society that had speakers come in to explain what engineers did and what type of jobs they had.
At 16 I got an internship at the Rochester Telephone Company for 8 weeks. This was my first big break because I saw what a massive technology company looked like. It was a life-changing experience.
As prep for going to university, my teacher challenged me to think about different careers.
I started to research being a lawyer, an engineer and a pilot. I decided to study engineering because I wanted to be considered a professional as soon as possible.
I had to pick my destiny for myself. I picked engineering because it ticked all the boxes I needed to be successful for life. This is the key message I want parents to know — if their children have a high aptitude for science and maths it affords them the opportunity in technology to have success in their life.
I’ve always had a job, I’ve always been able to provide. And this has given me the opportunity to work when I had kids.
Technology gives you different paths to success.
What do you wish young people knew about the STEM industry?
I wish young people knew how many choices there are in the STEM industry compared to traditional sectors. The beauty is that you can work in small, medium and large companies. You can work in incubators, for governments and enterprise companies. Your skills are in demand. And you can move between companies easily.
It’s also fun. You are introduced to ideas and concepts before other people. In 1993, I was working as an electrical design engineer and I designed mobile phones that were only used by governments. I would carry eight phones in a suitcase around North Carolina for different customers to use.
How did you encourage your own kids to get involved in STEM?
I wanted my daughter to have an interest in STEM. This was a challenge because, at the time, her school didn’t have a computer science teacher. My daughter didn’t know what to do and so I encouraged her to look at summer programmes.
My daughter applied for Computer Science and Art, she got a place but was the only girl on the programme. This was a new experience, especially as she goes to an all-girls school.
After that summer course, my daughter decided to take computer science at school, and she excelled. Now she wants to study engineering at university and become a programmer. This was the spark that got her curious. If she didn’t do that course she’d have no interest in STEM; it lit a fire inside her.
What advice would you give a young person looking to enter a degree/ career in tech?
In order to have the right building blocks to study tech or engineering at university level, or pursue them as a career, you need to understand how things work, how things are connected.
Children need exposure before they get to university. Children aren’t exposed to this at school for a variety of reasons so they should consider an out of school programme that teaches them this. I don’t believe in giving children a choice, you put a few things in front of them and you ask them to pick something.
How is the UK’s current approach to tech education failing young people?
It’s failing young people because it’s technology sector is not understood at the school well enough. The schools are wedded to traditional subjects. I think the work Fire Tech is doing is extremely important. It offers a wide variety of courses and if offers young people early exposure! And that’s the key thing for young children.