THE BLOG
06/17/2013 02:21 pm ET | Updated Aug 17, 2013

Building A Tech Career: The Questions Matter As Much As The Answers

Editor's Note: This post is part of our Girls in STEM mentorship program. Throughout the next few months, female engineers, researchers and scientists from AT&T will write about their experiences growing, learning and finding work in the fields of science and technology in order to encourage and empower young girls to do the same.

In science, technology, engineering and math fields, it is easy to become obsessed with finding answers -- answers to mathematical and scientific problems, answers that lead us to an empirical "yes" or "no," and answers in the form of equations or lines of code. But, when I look back on my career to date, I realize that it is the questions -- not the answers -- that have helped me most get to where I am today.

Unlikely as it might seem, my tech career started in a heavy truck dealership in Michigan, installing PCs and modems for a company my sister founded in the late 1980s. It was pretty unglamorous, and it was certainly an unorthodox introduction to a career in tech. It did, however, help fund my college tuition and lead to IT jobs at heavyweight companies: a large American car manufacturer and a major food and beverage company. While I have made more than enough to pay for college, I have not stopped working long enough to actually finish my degree. My jobs have become my education. And my insatiable curiosity has guided my career path.

For instance, while working for the food and beverage company, I worked on a project that involved reinventing multiple business processes. I was the liaison between the IT department, which ran the systems, and the employees all across the country who actually used the systems. As I got familiar with the software, I had a lot of questions about how it worked. Why couldn't it do X? Why didn't it integrate easily with Y? I went straight to the source -- the software maker -- to ask these questions and more. It led to some pretty in-depth discussions about some of the ways the software could be improved. Those exchanges showed me how to be proactive and drive meaningful change. They also led me to my next job, working for that very software maker.

By asking questions, I showed that I was willing to look beyond the status quo, to be creative and be an effective team-player. That start-up software company saw leadership potential. They hired me to help train developers in the underlying software code -- despite my total lack of coding experience. I often had to stay up all night figuring out how to code in order to teach developers the next day. There were always things I didn't know how to do and questions I couldn't answer. That was when I realized the true power of curiosity. By asking questions back to the developers, we were able to collaborate to figure out how to solve problems together. This approach still works for me today, both within my internal team as well as with external developers, partners, and customers. Asking "reflective" questions is a core part of my leadership style, as I strongly believe it gets to the heart of any challenge and helps generate solutions that make a real difference. As a small example, thanks to those questions and collaboration, I helped design a new capability that was actually included in one of the company's software products. Not bad for someone who didn't know how to code.

Later on in my career, at another tech start-up, questions continued to drive my team. We were consulting with potential customers for up to six months in the pre-sales process, which seemed lengthy at the time but it paid off. We expanded the customer base into new industry sectors and markets, and increased revenue five-fold. I realized that this was my strength -- asking smart questions to really get under the skin of a company's challenges and help figure out elegant technology solutions to their problems.

Now that I am at AT&T, leading a strategic effort to bring Application Programming Interface (API) solutions to large enterprises, I continue to rely on asking questions as a way to get to the heart of opportunities and challenges. How do you take some of the core elements of a company like AT&T - such as its network technology and security capabilities - and turn them into valuable platforms for enterprises to build upon? How can you help large, traditional businesses become platforms a la Facebook and Twitter? How can you use apps and technology to help businesses build stronger, more resilient relationships with their customers?

These are questions we ask every single day, and I will continue to ask questions to challenge the status quo. Because I know that above it all, it is the questions - not necessarily the answers - that drive our progress and reveal the real opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Now, any questions?