March is National Women’s Month, or Women’s History Month, in the United States. For the month of March, we will showcase the incredible women of GoGuardian in our “Women in STEM” interview series. From engineers to product managers to researchers, these brilliant women share their journeys in education and science/technology, as well as advice to others who might follow a similar path.
Today’s interview is with Nikki Maxwell, a software engineer for GoGuardian Beacon™. Nikki studied Computer Science at Penn State.
What was your favorite subject in school (K-12)?
Math was always my favorite subject in school. The only math class I didn’t love in high school was geometry (I really just can’t think spatially). Calculus was easily my favorite—the types of problems we had to solve were always so interesting to me, and I found it very satisfying when I was able to figure out a tough problem. My love for math carried into college and was one of the reasons I pursued a degree in engineering.
Who is a teacher from your student days that made an impact on you, and why?
Ms. Weber, my calculus teacher. She was one of the reasons why I found the subject material so enjoyable. She always seemed to make class fun, and had a great understanding of how best to help her students succeed. We would often do group tests and quizzes, which created a great sense of collaboration and knowledge-sharing. Instead of competing for the highest grade, we were working together to find a solution we all agreed upon. This ability to work toward a common goal is a skill I am grateful to have developed so early, as it is crucial to becoming a successful engineer.
What drew you to become an expert in engineering?
My initial interest in engineering came from my enjoyment of math, puzzle solving, and critical thinking, but I stuck with it because I wanted a career where I would never be bored. No matter how skilled of an engineer you become, there are always new and interesting problems out there for you to solve. Technology is always changing, so there is always something new to learn. If you start to get tired of a specific language or framework, there is always more out there that you can start tinkering with. There really is no highest rank you can achieve in software engineering; we as engineers are always improving, getting better at one specific thing, or learning new complementary technologies. Software engineering is so wonderfully broad, and you can apply the same underlying logical thinking patterns to many different concepts, languages, hardwares, etc, until you find where exactly your passion lies.
What message do you have for young women who may be thinking about a career in EdTech?
EdTech is such a cool space to be in because it’s an uncharted industry. It hasn’t been around for long, so there are many interesting ideas just waiting to be discovered. It’s also a field where anyone can easily relate to the customers and products. We’ve all been students in some way, so you can draw from your own experiences for inspiration and ideas to improve the learning experience for students everywhere. Everyone learns differently, and the more diverse we are in EdTech, the better chance we have to impactfully reach the most amount of people.
What’s the best way for young women to seek out mentors in science and technology?
You don’t often have to look too hard. The best mentor you can get is someone who is passionate about science or tech, and people who are passionate are loud about it! Look around your science department, follow technologists on Twitter, go to tech meetups. The people who are having the most fun are usually the easiest to spot, and those are the people you want to have as mentors. When a mentor is passionate about their subject of expertise, they want to share it with the world. Don’t be afraid to approach a potential mentor! Think about your favorite sport or song or movie; don’t you want other people to experience it and love it too? It’s no different for experts in tech and science—they are excited to guide someone who is new and eager to learn. And remember, they had to start somewhere too, and probably didn’t get to where they are without help.
How do we foster the development of the next generation of women in science, engineering, and product?
By engaging them in unique ways and supporting their daydreams and ideas. Everyone learns and discovers differently. Some people are better suited for book learning, others are better suited for a more hands-on approach. Look at what people do in their free time, and apply that to STEM. Science and tech concepts are starting to be integrated into children's toys, games, and TV shows. As long as we continue to present these ideas to a diverse audience, we are creating a great foundation. The next step is making sure young girls and women have the support and encouragement to follow their dreams, whatever they may be. Having people rooting for you is a huge motivator, and seeing people believe in you helps you to believe in yourself in times of doubt.
What does personalized education mean to you?
It means understanding that everyone learns differently, and doing whatever you can to reach everyone. It’s not just about whether or not a type of teaching is effective, it is about what works best for different students. Educators need to be able to read a room and know the audience; it’s not hard to see when the eyes start to glaze over. When information is presented in a fun and engaging way, it might reach more students. History was always my worst subject in school. I hated memorizing dates and names and places, and I was constantly bored in class. Fast forward a couple of years to me listening to the Hamilton soundtrack non-stop, memorizing all the lyrics, and actually learning a ton of history in the process. What year was the Battle of Yorktown? 1781. I only know that because of Hamilton. History presented in song was much more effective for me than history presented in text.
To you, what’s the difference between learning and education?
To me, education is a lot more of an explicitly defined term. Education is what you get from school or books. It’s an often institutionalized and structured version of learning. Learning comes from everything and everyone we interact with; it’s much more abstract. Learning comes from experiences. Your education is one of those experiences, but learning applies to so much more than just education. You burned your mouth because you ate pizza before it cooled off? You learn from that. You slip on ice and fall in a snow pile on the way to class in front of a bunch of strangers because you decided to wear slippers out in a snowstorm? You learn from that too, and you get a good pair of boots. When our education is applied to real-life situations and experiences, that’s when the learning really happens. Seeing how math or science or history can relate to your everyday life is where understanding and interest come from.
What impact has your role had on the success of GoGuardian?
When I joined GoGuardian, I started working on the Beacon product at a very exciting time. We began development on the new 24/7 plan, which provides constant support from our safety specialists. At the beginning of development, there were a lot of intriguing engineering problems to work through, requiring many brainstorm sessions. It was in these meetings that I felt my impact. By bringing a fresh perspective to the table, I was able to voice opinions and concerns others had not considered, helping the team come to the best collaborative solutions.
Is there a particular individual in history who has inspired you? If so, why?
Katherine Johnson is a huge inspiration to me. A brilliant mathematician who was pivotal in many NASA projects and missions, she never let prejudices or doubt get in the way of her historical career. As not only a woman, but a black woman trying to make it in a predominantly male and predominantly white field, she had an extremely difficult path. Johnson took advantage of every opportunity that came her way, and when there was not a clear path, she created opportunity for herself. It can be very easy to get discouraged and quit when you feel like so many people are against you, but she persevered and blazed a path for future black and female mathematicians, engineers, and scientists. Her passion and profound skills are truly remarkable, and she is the type of person I aspire to be.
Check back next week for the final interview in our Women in STEM series!