Push Doubt Aside, Be Brave, and Don’t Wait! 3 Women Share Advice From Their Unique Career Journeys

Sponsored by Ansys

Photos courtesy of Ansys. From left to right: Dr. Harriet Parnell, Michele Sweeney, Alex Tan

Photos courtesy of Ansys. From left to right: Dr. Harriet Parnell, Michele Sweeney, Alex Tan

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Fairygodboss
May 21, 2024 at 7:52PM UTC

Dr. Harriet Parnell didn’t set out to be an engineer – she originally wanted to be a dentist. But after failing to make it into dental school, she soon learned a greater lesson, that of “building resilience.”

Parnell pushed through this time by pivoting to her backup career: biomedical materials science. There, she “unexpectedly fell in love with the materials-aspect of my degree, far more than the medicine,” Parnell tells us. “This theme seemed to continue as I transitioned from a BSc into a biophotonics Ph.D. and, finally, to my role at Ansys.”

Parnell joined Ansys directly after getting her Ph.D. to expand her network and gain industry experience, but she didn’t intend to stay. “A big part of me wanted to stay in research and pursue an academic career,” Parnell reveals. However, as she’d found out previously, career journeys often take us in unexpected directions. Parnell ended up staying at Ansys, where she now works in the Chief Technology Officer’s Academic Development team as a Senior Education Content Development Manager. Here, she supports universities using Ansys software and creates a wide variety of engaging teaching content.

“The progression I’ve experienced through my technical knowledge continues to remind me that I can adapt, grow, and exceed my expectations,” says Parnell. 

And Parnell is not alone in her unique journey to Ansys. An unexpected career path was also taken by her coworker, Michele Sweeney. When Ansys’ vice president (VP) of Sales first contacted Sweeney, she had no intention of leaving the semiconductor industry, in which she had worked for about 30 years. 

But, after speaking with the VP and visiting Ansys, Sweeney grew excited about Ansys, their mission, and the value they bring to customers. So, Sweeney decided to push aside her fear of moving from hardware to software later in her career, and she leaned into the change, pivoting into a role in a new industry as Ansys’ Senior Director of East Key Sales.

“Unlike my former job — working with semiconductor technology focused solely on the back-end storage of data centers — my current customer base is very eclectic,” Sweeney says. “One hour, I could be meeting with my team and a customer about a laundry detergent manufacturing line, and, the next day, an air conditioner design, and, the next day, an electronic sensor. I love the challenge of thinking about what Ansys can do to really help each customer meet the daunting market and technology challenges and hurdles they are facing.”

Sweeney is in a great position to help her customers answer these far-reaching questions, seeing as she’s had an interesting background herself. During her time at her previous industry, she held a number of roles — from being an application engineer at Fairchild Semiconductor and Texas Instruments, where she also served as a technical sales engineer, to being a product marketing manager at PictureTel and the director of sales, VP of Americas, and VP of the Global Data Center/Server/Storage Sales at PMC-Sierra's acquiring companies, Microsemi and then Microchip.

As we can see, there are many different paths that someone can take to Ansys. But what about career pivots within the company? Well, as Alexandra Tan found out, Ansys is extremely supportive of this as well.

Five years ago, Tan joined Ansys as an HR Generalist. However, after two years in this role, Tan discovered that she wanted to grow and expand her knowledge. “One of the leaders knew about my ambition,” Tan recalls, “and recommended me to the Talent Management (TM) team. They were planning to roll out a training program in the APAC region and looking for partnership.”

Not only was Tan recommended for this position, but Ansys’ culture of support also offered a variety of opportunities to prepare for this shift. Ansys “enrolled me in different certification sessions with my counterparts in the U.S. and Europe,” Tan says. “I remember being nervous because English is not my native language. But, my colleagues from the TM team were very supportive and helpful.” As a result, in only six months, she obtained three certifications. 

And the opportunities didn’t stop there! Ansys also supported Tan as she participated in trainer sessions, got to observe facilitation sessions from TM team members, and received one-on-one mentorship, coaching, and feedback. From these experiences, Tan notes that she learned a lot about resilience and courage and saw “how a courageous leader can persistently push through uncomfortable situations.”

As a result of this internal support, Tan quickly rose to become a Talent Management Manager for Ansys China, where she now focuses on facilitation, a 12-month Management Essentials program, leading diversity and inclusion initiatives, and more.

Here, we caught up with Parnell, Sweeney, and Tan to talk more about career pivots and their advice for other women looking to make changes in their own careers.

How did you make your industry switch, and how did Ansys support you in this process?

Parnell: With any switch from Ph.D. to first-time industrial employment, there’s an adjustment phase. Specifically, transitioning from an academic, curiosity-driven project approach to a wider stakeholder, business-need approach can be hard, at least it was for me; however, the team I joined were fantastic. Mostly everyone had made the same leap and had lots of guidance and tips to offer.

Sweeney: Initially, I was overwhelmed by the products, processes, and business model. However, the caliber of talent and portfolio, as well as Ansys sales' need to sell more strategically (my strength), kept me going even in the most challenging times during the transition.

Tan: My transition was supported by our HR leaders. We have a company culture that supports Ansys employees (and especially women) in advancing their career within the company. Employees are encouraged to apply for Ansys open positions that meet their personal career aspirations. Many times, I've seen colleagues in Application Engineer roles transition to Sales, HR to Finance, and Sales to Training roles. I am lucky enough to get the opportunity to further explore my HR functions as a talent management professional, and I am thrilled!

What are your favorite things about working at Ansys?

Parnell: The best thing about Ansys is working with my Academic Development team. I’m surrounded by talented colleagues day in and day out who are all making wonderful contributions to Ansys and the education community. They definitely bring out the best in me both professionally and personally.

Sweeney: The people, the vision, the leadership (our CEO is brilliant), the products, the culture, and the potential.

Tan: The nice people, inclusive culture, and growth mindset.

What do you find most rewarding and challenging about your current work?

Parnell: The aspect of my job that proves the most rewarding and challenging is the need to be adaptable. There is a lot of learning in our team — both building on our specific expertise (in my case bioengineering), but also expanding our knowledge to new areas of Ansys (e.g., Discovery). We also learn a lot on the job. For example, it wasn’t until I led a rebranding project that I gained professional publishing skills (i.e., competency in the Adobe Creative Suite.)

Sweeney: Working closely with customers' executives on strategies and big initiatives to help them transform their business is the most rewarding and challenging part of my work. Also, helping others think about Ansys’ technology in a more strategic, big picture way — and articulate our value well to customer executives — is rewarding and challenging.

I also love supporting women and people from historically marginalized communities in advancing their sales and engineering careers at Ansys. I truly believe that a more diverse workforce will continue to enhance Ansys' already great culture, products, and customer partnerships.

Tan: The most rewarding part is that my participants benefit from the content I deliver. The challenging part is that our program contents evolve based on the feedback from the program alumni, which can be time consuming as the mother of a six-year-old daughter.

How have you benefited from the skills/experience you’ve gained in your career journey?

Parnell: Unquestionably, one of the greatest skills I’ve gained while at Ansys is my ability to manage large-scale projects, both face-to-face and virtually. My business acumen has improved, so I am realizing the value of the customer more and more. Whether the customer is an industrial giant, university dean, college student, or internal employee, their voice is so important at every stage of development and makes the project more successful when delivered. I have a lot more job satisfaction these days from my collaborative projects compared to my early individual investigations.

Sweeney: After almost four years at Ansys, I have learned so much. It has been invigorating, rewarding, frustrating, overwhelming, and fun. I am so glad I took the high-risk leap. The people at Ansys are brilliant, and the culture is supportive.

Tan: I never thought that one day I would be facilitating training in my second foreign language — but I did it! I am surprised about the amount of courage in me. In China, we have a saying: "speech is silver, silence is gold." Raised in this type of Asian culture, I used to be introverted and very nervous to speak up. However, my experience as a facilitator helped me open up and become more extroverted. Now, I am used to speaking in public places and even enjoy the feeling of connecting and resonating with participants during my facilitation.

What is your best piece of advice for other women who are thinking about making a career pivot?

Parnell: Don’t wait until you meet 100% of the job specification! Most men don’t, and you have no idea what else the hiring team is looking for. 

Sweeney: Do it! Push self doubt aside. Remind yourself that you are smart and adaptable. Even if it doesn't work out (which it most likely will work out), you will come out the other end with broader skills, more experience, and knowledge that you wouldn't have gained otherwise. Don't deprive yourself of the opportunity for something great.

And, if the pivot is to Ansys, have confidence that the culture here will provide you with plenty of people who will jump in to support, mentor, train, and encourage you.

Tan: Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do. Be yourself, be brave, and believe in your potential.



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