‘Always Be True to Yourself, and Don’t Change for Someone Else’ — Advice for My Fellow Women in Tech

Sponsored by Northrop Grumman

Veldesta E.

Photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman.

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April 21, 2024 at 1:18AM UTC

Several years ago, Veldesta E. was working at an insurance company that received their first computer intended to manage total loss for vehicles. “Everyone was afraid to learn how to work it, so I volunteered,” Veldesta recalls. This turned out to be a pivotal moment in her career.

“I not only learned about working on the computer and the software that it ran, but I also started teaching others how to manage the software,” says Veldesta. “I next landed a job supporting the computer services department at a consumer banking company, which then led me to working at an aircraft manufacturer where I landed into the contracts management field in manufacturing aircraft.”

Her career journey eventually took her into an Assistant Program Manager role at a small company that was building classified software and hardware. “This was a major change in my professional life,” shares Veldesta. “This is where I fell in love with being technical but in a leadership role.”

And this love of mixing technical roles and leadership led her to her current position as the Cyber Systems Engineering Manager at Northrop Grumman, a company that solves the toughest problems in space, aeronautics, defense and cyberspace to meet the ever-evolving needs of their customers worldwide.

To learn more about her role and best advice for other women in tech, we reached out to  Veldesta. Here’s what she had to say!

Tell us a bit about your job. What’s your current role and how long have you been in this role?

In my nearly 15 years at Northrop Grumman, I’ve had the opportunity to do many amazing things — including traveling to Japan to brief their government and consulate on behalf of Northrop Grumman!

And, currently, I have the pleasure of leading an Engineering and Sciences team to help address complex customer needs related to artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), cybersecurity and more.

More specifically, my team (with two managers and 19 direct reports) consists of a group of unique and specialized engineers, including data scientists, cyber engineers, Human Factors, AI/ML engineers, systems and software engineers and senior-level architects. I oversee the execution of engineering in support of several business functions that address customer complex needs — ensuring that we adhere to best practices in all aspects of projects, Independent Research and Development (IRAD) and programs. My role is an integral part of numerous, distinct technological programs, including cybersecurity utilizing a cloud computing platform, intelligence, software, AI, ML and hardware development.

I also mentor several engineers, both internally and externally to Northrop Grumman.

What has been the biggest challenge or obstacle you’ve faced working as a woman in tech?

Interesting question. First and foremost, the typical “not being heard or seen” and the lack of promotions has been a challenge especially earlier in my career. I have to admit, initially, I thought that if I worked hard and did all the right things, then I would be heard when speaking and promotions would come. Well, they didn’t — not until I started to figure out how to rise above being told no. I started asking why, and that’s when I started to figure out how to get around the “no” and obtain a “yes”.

Being told that I probably wouldn’t be good at managing high-functioning technical engineers because I didn’t have a degree that warranted that has ultimately become a thing of the past.

The tech industry was also very homogenous when I started, but we have improved. As a Black woman, I had a different set of life experiences and perspectives than my colleagues and was able to offer out-of-the-box ideas. That is one of the reasons that, over the years, I have spent so much time teaching young people about the possibilities of science, technology, engineering and math careers. I know diversity makes us better and more successful.

Does your company provide any resources or programs to support women in your field?

Northrop Grumman has Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) with 270 local chapters, and the company also provides opportunities for women to attend the Women Conference every other year. There is also an opportunity for women to join the Society of Women Engineers (SWE).

Recently, because of my outreach and philanthropic work, I was awarded the Black Engineer of the Year Award (BEYA) for community service. It really is an honor.

What is something at work you’re especially good at?

Knowing people! I know my team. I can and have been able to realign teams to meet missions and make employees happy. Understanding people is a difficult and complex thing to do, but I’ve been blessed to have a keen eye. 

The bottom line is to connect people and realign teams to get the job done effectively and efficiently as well as to meet personal and professional goals and aspirations. How to motivate people and gain their trust, be transparent and get people to be their best is what I strive for with every team I have led.

What is the most memorable piece of career advice you’ve received?

The most memorable piece of advice received was from a former VP of HR: always be true to yourself, and don’t change for someone else. If you want to change or feel it's in your best interest, then do it. But don’t become a chameleon and lose yourself in the process. Listening to this advice has proved well for me. Don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t been easy sometimes; but, in the end, I sleep well at night and can always look at myself in the mirror with no regrets.

What advice do you have for other women who are beginning a career in tech?

Know who you are and what you want. Believe in yourself, and do not be afraid to go after it — whatever “it” is! Go with your heart or gut.

There are so many areas of technology one can pursue. STEM is wide open — analytics, systems, software, technical leaders, scientists, human factors — there are so many paths you can take. Don’t get rushed or pushed into one area or another based on economics or finances. Instead, take the time to get all your questions answered. 

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