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Modern Day Rosies: Leave a little sparkle

March 25, 2021 New Classrooms

For Women’s History Month, the  Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion team at New Classrooms sought out Boeing engineer Shanequah Brison for an interview. Crystal Carter, our Deputy Director of Instructional Support, led the conversation on how Shanequah got her start, what her roles and responsibilities are, and what it’s like to be a woman working in the traditionally male-dominated STEM industry. Keep reading to learn how Shanequah adds a little sparkle wherever she goes.

CC: Thanks so much for taking some time to sit down and discuss your role as an engineer. I have so many questions, but to start, can you describe your role at Boeing?

SB: Thanks! I work at Boeing as a Systems Engineer. I write the requirements that ultimately go to our Software Engineers to be coded. I am also responsible for testing this software. Sometimes my role requires me to write and run test cases, analyze the data, alter the requirements, and present at various milestones for The United States Air Force. The operators of these aircraft, who are mostly men, are also present during these meetings.

CC: Wow! That sounds like a lot of responsibility and a number of moving parts. How did you ultimately get your start in this industry?

SB: When I first got out of college, like most college students, I needed a job, and my graduation gift money was running out. So I started working at Hertz as an information analyst, and then I moved onto a data analyst and, eventually, a fraud auditor. 

SB: After a few years, I saw that there was a Boeing where I lived, which surprised me. So I applied for a role and started as a Level One IT Engineer. I just decided to take the job and work my way up the ladder within the company.  

SB: After some time I was ready to do something different. I wanted to make more of an impact, and I felt that working on a platform or supporting an aircraft would help me to accomplish that. So that led to me working as a Systems Engineer on the B1 Aircraft, which has been a rewarding experience because I have the opportunity to see my work in living color every time I see that aircraft. All in all, I’ve been with Boeing for a little over eight years.

CC: It does seem rewarding to see such a strong connection between the work that you do and the final product. Can you speak to what type of background you needed to break into the engineering field?

SB: Sure. I did not go to school for engineering. No one in my immediate family works in the engineering world or within aerospace. My Bachelor’s degree is in computer science with a minor in math. That’s what opened the door for me. I also have a Master’s degree in information systems management. And that’s important because the coursework from my Master’s helped provide me a foundation in systems analysis and coding. 

SB: Now, not only do I know how to code, but I can also read the code from our Software Engineers. Sometimes that surprises them because they don’t expect a Systems Engineer to understand how to read their code. It’s always funny once they realize it. 

SB: But that’s just the education side of things. My previous work experience, prior to my time at Boeing also taught me how to be detail oriented in data analysis. I also credit my earlier work with providing me with additional communication tools, which came in handy because of the shift from working in a female-dominant role to one that is predominately male. 

CC: Thanks for sharing this aspect of your experience. You mentioned that you went from a female-dominated field to a male dominated field, and there’s an added layer of also being an African-American. How has that impacted your career?

SB: For me, I had to learn the different ways that people communicate and not to take it personally when their style differed from mine.  When I started at Boeing, I was paired with a mentor who happened to be a white male, and I learned a lot from him. I learned how to flow with the various communication styles but also to lead with confidence. 

SB: Oftentimes in meetings people are too intimidated to sit at the table in the conference room, but I’m not. I sit there, take my notes, answer the questions, and do my very best to be prepared and to lead with strength and confidence. There’s a saying that I have on one of my makeup bags. It says, “Leave a little sparkle wherever you go.” And that’s exactly what I aim to do with each day. 

CC: Sparkle…I love this! You mentioned having a mentor. Are there any additional heroes, sheroes, or inspirations that have helped you progress within your field?

SB: Yes, I had a family friend, Mr. Ron Keys. They had a computer at their house, so I would go play on their computer because I didn’t have one. I wanted to play Solitary and Tetris, but he kept talking about computers, computers, computers, and I didn’t wanna hear it because he was interrupting my game. (Laughs) So he just kind of instilled and further piqued my interest in computers, so much so that I remember creating a report and dressing up as a computer programmer in the fourth grade for our career fair. 

CC: That is perhaps the cutest story ever! I love it. We talked about mentors and personal influences. Are there any specific organizations that have really assisted you in your path to becoming the engineer that you are today?

SB: Around 2014, I joined the Society of Women Engineers. They have a lot of great resources that have helped me. I also had the opportunity to speak at one of their conferences. My presentation was titled, “I Can’t Hear You: Having the Confidence to Speak Up.” And when I gave that presentation, the entire audience was packed with other women engineers…standing room only. And I was the only Black person in the room, but after the presentation, these ladies found me. 

SB: Some of them found my email or telephone number and reached out for advice and encouragement about finding their voice and leading with confidence. And for me, that experience was even more empowering because it gave me the opportunity to help others and showed how valuable my experience was from a diversity and inclusion perspective. And I also like meeting new people, so it also provided me with an opportunity to do that.

CC: I can certainly see how valuable that workshop was for those women and understand why they would seek you out for advice. On the subject of advice, as a female engineer, what advice would you provide to other young women or young girls (or the families of these individuals) who are looking to get into this field? 

SB: For the parents, I would say, “Push your child.” A lot of times kids will say, “Oh, this is too hard; I can’t do it” because they’re not focused, and they have so many distractions around them. I would also encourage parents to sign their children up for STEM activities. There are so many virtual activities right now that are engaging and valuable. Have them try out a number of different types of STEM activities because you may not know what your child likes or dislikes. It’s just like when a parent is trying to figure out their child’s appetite. Their child may hate apples, but then they may like it once you add peanut butter. We look at that as simple, but that’s a form of innovation. 

SB: For students, I would tell them to be curious about the world around them. There are so many things in the world that require the help of STEM professionals—things that students use every day. Look at social media. There’s somebody behind those formats who wrote all of that code. Students should find out about that. On all of these social media pages, you can go to the very bottom and there is a careers tab. If you click on that tab you will see what type of jobs it takes to support these social media platforms. We have all these apps on our phone. Find a way to do some application coding. 

CC: That’s really solid advice. Shifting a bit, I’ll say that often when people think of engineers, they have a certain aesthetic in mind or even a certain idea of how they would behave. So I have a bit of a fun question. What is one thing about being an engineer that most people don’t know or wouldn’t assume?

SB: This is hilarious because I think when many people think about engineers, the image of a boring man with glasses, a pocket protector, and a buttoned down shirt comes to mind. But I would say that engineers like to have fun, and we are not a monolith. We don’t all share that aesthetic. I do wear glasses, but I also get crazy designs cut into my hair when I go to the barber, and like I said earlier, I like to leave a little sparkle.  As far as my coworkers, we laugh, joke, and have lots of fun while we are working. I think that because of our roles, people think we have to be stiff, and that’s just not the case. We have a lot of fun but handle business at the same time. I love being an engineer!

CC: Awesome! Well thank you so much Shanequah for sharing your story with us. This was a lot of fun.