Carnegie Mellon University

Alumni Profile: Dewanne Phillips

Why did you decide to pursue a career in tech? 

Growing up I had always done well in math and science, so it seemed natural for me to pursue a Bachelor of Science in mathematics, with a minor in computer science. In my first engineering job, I discovered that I really relished developing software, and with my background in mathematics and dabbling in algorithms, it was a natural progression in my career path to hone in on computer science. 

Your career was well established when you entered the MSIT-SEM program. Why did you decide to pursue a master’s degree? And then two years later a doctorate?

Education has always been very important to me; both my parents are retired school teachers and I have continued to learn and expand on my technical expertise throughout my career. Like many women, I had other priority obligations in my life which impacted my academic pursuits — relocating across the country to lead a development effort at work, twice; an active duty husband in the Air Force who traveled extensively; raising children — all while working full time and balancing work and life commitments. It was always a personal goal for me to further my formal education.

After 20 years as a full time Department of Defense Systems Engineering and Technical Assessment contractor, I became a Federally Funded Research and Development Center employee at the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) at Carnegie Mellon. I made that transition from a contractor position so that I could become more academically engaged. 

While I had always attempted to keep abreast of technological improvement efforts and continued to improve my software skills by occasionally taking technical and management training classes, reading technical periodicals, and participating in on-the-job training, joining the SEI staff in 2004 allowed me the opportunity to accelerate my academic and professional development.

After a lot of research into various master’s programs, I decided that the MSIT-SEM was a perfect match for me; it met my background, interests, and goals. The distance learning option gave me the flexibility of online classes, allowing me to participate in the program while continuing to work and meet my family needs. 

Although the MSIT-SEM program was rigorous, after a while I started to miss the academic advancement and research component of graduate work— in a way it whetted my appetite for a higher level of academic engagement — a PhD was the next logical step.

What do you enjoy the most about your current role?

The flexibility. At many companies there’s a one-size-fits-all mentality: this is your job, this is what you need to do to advance, you can only go upward on a very narrowly defined path. The Aerospace Corporation has locations nationwide, allowing employees to do the work they enjoy at various location. On top of that, employees are encouraged to move among the different departments every few years. This practice leads not only to cross pollination across the company but also gives employees a better understanding of the different aspects of the company, and the scope of work we do. We’d rather have someone stay within the company and give them that flexibility to explore than to have them leave. I truly value that flexibility. 

I also enjoy the ability to apply my research to my work engagements - my Ph.D. Dissertation and other papers I’ve written are very applicable to the body of work performed by The Aerospace Corporation. It has given me great satisfaction. So often when you work for a big company, you’re told what to do. It’s sort of restrictive. You must build something, or prototype something, and that’s what your job is. In my current position, meet the needs of the, but I can also conduct research on emerging technologies and explore possible future applications. I really like that. 

I also enjoy mentoring Aerospace employees above, parallel, and below my management/technical chain. I like cultivating and developing the next generation of technical talent. I have an open-door policy and provide coaching and advice to staff for both professional and personal issues. And mentoring and supporting other women, whether they’re in my report chain or outside my department. 

How has diversity in the field changed during your career? What trends have you seen?

I have witnessed notable ebbs and flows of female engineers in the work force during my career. When I first began my career, I would typically be the only female engineer in the room. In the early 2000’s, I began to see more women entering the field, but now I feel it’s swung back in the other direction. When the STEM program was started, the emphasis was on young women; they were underrepresented in math, science, and engineering workforce. Since that time, the number of young men going into math and science dropped. So now the program has become generic in gender; it’s now STEM for all. The pendulum has swung again for women, there are less entering the engineering field. Disparities occurring in engineering, computer science, and the physical sciences for women is an interest of mine.  I pay close attention to the stats on women in academia and the fields of science and technology, and unfortunately, I think women are still at a disadvantage. 

How could the tech industry be more inclusive?

Over the years I've seen an increase in the number of women entering STEM related programs at the university level. That’s great, but I think we need to be more observant of women as they enroll in school and strive to help them define a career path, to focus their education. One way to do that is by advising them on innovative and emerging technologies to and help them identify the coursework and training they need to keep abreast.

Once women graduate and enter the field, mentors can make sure that they don’t get lost in their career path. Mentors serve as a guide, ensuring that they continue a successful growth path; coaching them on how to expand their professional development can enhance the opportunities

In talking to my female counterparts in the industry, many women feel that there just aren’t many opportunities for them to advance within their field. At Aerospace, we designed a campaign to reverse those short falls, to find ways to support our women employees. For example, if they’re struggling to balance work with personal responsibilities, we can help with augmenting their hours, we can work with HR for benefits for daycare, or help identify resources. Another example of how we’re trying to support women is by helping them identify and select academically paths that may advance their careers. 

A lot can be accomplished with networking. I cannot stress enough how important networking is! If you really want to help enable positive outcomes in others’ careers, you need to introduce young women to the people who can provide guidance and opportunities for growth and advancement. 

Why is being a mentor important to you?

I appreciate the support I received throughout my education and career — my family, mentors, people in my Ph.D. fellowship program. Supporting young women in the technology and engineering fields, by trying to advance and grow their careers, is a way I can give back.  It is a way for me to show my appreciation.

By sharing the knowledge and skills I’ve learned — like the negotiation tactics from the Managing Technical People course when I was in the MSIT-SEM program — I can help other women. I think that women with established careers have a responsibility to support their younger colleagues, and to support one another.

One thing that I try to stress to the women I mentor is the importance of giving back when they’re in the position to do so. I want to keep it going. Seeing someone else’s success, their achievements, that’s what makes me happy. It’s an incredible feeling to see someone whom you’ve mentored achieve success in the field. 

Congratulations on being named a finalist for the 2019 Women in Technology Leadership Award. What did that honor mean to you?

It’s the gift that keeps on giving. 

I think It’s important for us to have our own awards ceremonies. By acknowledging those women who are successful, making them more visible, we show young women that they can have fulfilling careers in science and tech, that they can succeed and climb that career ladder. I do hope, however, that one day, it’s not Women in Technology but People in Technology. Why do we have to have special groups like Women in Defense? Why? Because the fields of science and tech are still primarily dominated by men. I hope that one day groups like Women in Technology, Women in Astronautics and Aeronautics, and Women in Defense won’t be necessary. I hope that one day gender parity will be the norm.

Why did you want to become a member of the MSE Alumni Advisory Board?

I felt that the skills I’ve developed over the years, and the insights I have into the industry could benefit the MSE programs. 

For instance, my experience in industry can help advise the MSE programs, to make sure that the curriculums remain relevant with respect to emerging technologies. And I can provide students with insights into the interview process and tips on networking. 

I also want to help increase diversity within the MSE programs, and to support and nurture women students. While I want to help everybody, I think it’s essential to focus on young women, to help them to understand some of the challenges I’ve faced, and hopefully they won’t have to experience them as well.